Strange Things on the Side of the Road

Joe Bell’s weary eighteen-wheeler trundled down a Montana backroad that had yet to be troubled by the New Deal, and so continued its leisurely slide back into nature unimpeded. Every few feet, a pothole would launch him a fraction of an inch off his seat.

Bell was in two minds about the potholes. On the one hand, they kept him awake like not even the bennies could. On the other, he was pretty sure all this jostling was grinding his spine away at both ends. To think he’d gone into trucking because of what the mines had done to his dad…

He hoped to God his cargo was faring alright. He didn’t want to think about how the trainees at Camp Corthins would react to a trailer full of broken radio parts and busted tires. He was even less eager to find out what the base’s men would do if he presented them with a crate of whiskey soaked glass shards. Not when they’d paid him half up front.

It wasn’t really smuggling, was it? It wasn’t like he was a fifth columnist, on his way to trade military intelligence to a U-boat captain in exchange for future control of Great Falls. Why shouldn’t the troops be able to enjoy a stiff drink while they guarded America against the Nazi menace? If anything, he was doing his patriotic duty.

He sipped his coffee, lukewarm and spiced with Marlboro ashes. The road lay long ahead of him, twilight spreading a pale blanket over the grass that lapped hungrily along the edges of the asphalt and the distant, tiny towns whose lights competed with the first stars. Through the radio, a crackly but luckier 1942 spilled into the smoky cabin. A 1942 where the biggest concern facing the people of Wistful Vista was Fibber McGee clearly being a compulsive liar1.

Joe didn’t begrudge them their fun. Someone had to have a good time out there. Otherwise, what was even the point of all this?

The world shook with a sound like the moon falling out of the sky. Joe slammed the truck’s brakes, the lurch sending the wheel into his solar plexus and knocking all the wind out of him.

Is it the Japs, he thought as he caught his breath. The Germans? This far inland?

Once he had recovered, Bell opened the door and jumped down from the cabin. He wasn’t sure whether or not it was wise, or even if he should stay on the road at all. But the idea of being blown up and not even knowing what had done it scared him more than the blowing up itself.

He found no bombers, zeppelins, or missiles up there in the evening sky. Did people even use zeppelins for that anymore?2 Joe didn’t know and didn’t care. What he did care about was the plume of smoke rising from under the horizon.

No, not smoke: a heat mirage, twisting and spiraling up into the air like vapourised glass. The winter stars behind it shone in colours Joe didn’t have names for, distorted and magnified like reflections in raindrops.

There was one star in particular that drew his eye. It was violet, and far larger than any of its sisters, a diminutive night-sun. It took Joe a few seconds to realize that it was getting bigger. And the ground was starting to vibrate beneath his feet…

The star screamed over his head, sending him ducking as it slammed into the field behind him, sending up earthen wings of dirt and bedrock.

It had come to rest by the time Bell dared take his face off the road. He could see it, whatever it was, glowing softly at the end of the channel it had cut into the earth: a hot coal spat from the hearth of Heaven.

His first thought was some new wonder-bomb. After that, he wasn’t so sure. If it was going to explode, it seemed to be taking its sweet time. And why would the Germans or whoever waste a wunderwaffe on an empty stretch of road? It wasn’t even the highway. Were they aiming at him? The absurd notion almost flattered him.

It then occurred to Joe Bell that, if that thing really was some cutting edge piece of enemy ordinance, it might net him a reward.   

He fished a flashlight out of the truck’s glove box—along with his revolver. Even if there hadn’t been a war on, it never hurt to be prepared on lonely country roads.

The first thing Bell noticed as he walked along the trench was the lack of heat coming off it. He didn’t know much about comets or the like, but he would have expected its impact zone to be red hot. For how cool this gash in the landscape was, it could have been made a million years earlier.

The ground was glassy, waves of multicoloured silica fading from red to purple to blue. Joe found himself recalling that broadcast of War of the Worlds four years past3.

He slowed as he approached the glow. He could almost make out a shape in it—lots of shapes, in fact—but whenever he tried looking directly at it, his head started throbbing.

The glow started to fade. Or maybe it started to take shape, resolving itself as it dimmed, taking a form he could almost see, almost recognize.

He raised his gun.

The glow died away completely, and he was left looking at a regal-featured young woman, bereft of all clothing, lying prone on the ground. The woman was also very, very pregnant, to the point where it looked like she wouldn’t be for very long.

Joe dropped the revolver. For the first time in his life, he felt the sense of awe that his Sunday school teachers had tried so earnestly to impart in him when he was a boy.

Breathing rapidly, the woman dug grooves into the hard, glossy ground with her finger. She stared pleadingly at the trucker with wet, purple eyes. Then she said words which shattered the air between them and sent shards of pain through Joe’s teeth. Words that were never meant to be heard by creatures with ears. They were in no language Joe had ever heard in his life, but that didn’t stop him from knowing exactly what they meant:

Help us.”

The goddess had approached the Milky Way slowly. She wasn’t in any rush—it had only been a few hundred millennia since she had left for the Great Filament. There, she had reacquainted herself with kin she had not spoken with since the universe was less than half its present size, sharing the songs and sorrows of a thousand civilizations both nascent and venerable.

She had done other things, too, both more and less comprehensible to lower toposophic beings.   

Centuries of moments passed as she felt the intergalactic void grow thick with hydrogen, dust, and lonely stars.

She was home, or on the fringes of it at least. She made a beeline for the nearest blue supergiant, lagging only slightly behind the light thrown off by her own titanic form. Even at those speeds, swimming through that layer of Creation, it still took her the better part of an age. She could have used any one of the loopholes in casualty her kind had opened at the beginning of all things, but time didn’t bother her much. She used the years to ponder all she had learned of at the gathering. A rogue star had been recaptured by the gravitational pull of its mother-galaxy. The species that had in the meantime evolved on one of its satellites underwent a centuries long nervous breakdown as the night sky slowly opened a hundred thousand accusing eyes. Another race had harnessed their newfound knowledge of genomics to rid themselves of self-awareness, their entire people slipping into an eternal, preconscious dream.

She wondered if there was a lesson in either story, but her attention was diverted back to the blue giant. She poured herself into the sun, until her substance was nigh impossible to separate from its plasma.

A moment later, two hundred light-years away, the goddess streamed from a blitzar like a ribbon of woven light.

Stars have long memories, stretching all the way back to when the whole cosmos could fit on a pinhead with space to spare. For the privileged few who know how to spark their reminscience, they become a superhighways of swollen, decrepit giants, branching off into the back roads of their younger, more vital siblings.

On a small, rocky world juggled between two points of light, drought plagued a dwindling, precarious tribe. They were a newly emerged mutant strain of their kind, blessed and cursed with that compound of fragility and hunger that most often gives rise to intelligence. They prayed in their pagan manner to the sky for rain.

The goddess idly stirred some molecules in their atmosphere, and the rain poured down.

She cultivated life the way a child throws starfish back into the sea. Crews of asteroid battered starships wondered at how their atmospheres didn’t evaporate out into open space. Scientists on dying planets awoke with strange, mad ideas in their heads. Organic molecules were gently coaxed into forming simple amino acid chains in the oceans of virgin worlds.

Eventually, she found herself in the domain of a typical enough yellow dwarf. Its one life-bearing world was faintly familiar. There was a name, from a cousin’s borrowed recollection.

Earth. Yes, that was it. The homeworld of an unremarkable oxygen-nitrogen breathing species known as man. Her relatives (as well as some less discriminating slavers) had spread them all around the Local Group of galaxies. She was mildly surprised that the original population had persisted so long.

She fell into a casual orbit over the planet. She noted the Gatehouse on its one moon, a green mote in Selene’s eye. Her grandfather had been so keen on that project. As a courtesy, she dumped a few million childhoods4 worth of data into its quiet, sullen computers. The Gatekeeper signalled his thanks.

Turning her gaze back to the planet below, the goddess took stock of what the Earthmen had gotten up to since her cousin checked in on them.

The human race had made a respectable go at civilization, all things considered. Her cousin’s memories spoke to a thinly-peopled race with only rudimentary stonework to their name, decimated by volcanic eruptions and the occasional mass abduction to other worlds. Now they numbered in the billions, and had settled virtually every habitable patch of land on their planet, while building up a material culture fuelled chiefly by the burning of ancient concentrations of life, with some early but determined experiments into the breakdown of matter.

There were all the usual vices of civilization—the tribalism, the short-sightedness, the hunger—no more or less than any other species the goddess knew of. She wished them the best, which coming from her had some weight.

She was about to pull away from the planet when she spotted something that shouldn’t have been there. All across the globe were scattered pockets of miracles. Men becoming comets, women channeling lightning and revenge itself; a young girl healing the sick and the lame.

This in and of itself was not unexpected. Like all inhabited worlds of a certain age, the Earth had its share of gods and other numinous beings. Except, she could see that many of the miracles were not their handiwork. Not even most of them.

They were hers.

It was undeniable. She could see herself in so many of them. Her hopes and nostalgia, her loves and heartbreaks, even passing fancies she’d thought when this sun was still forming in its stellar nursery.

For the first time since she and everything else was young, the goddess was afraid.

A spear lanced into her. Sour, unfamiliar notes of pain rang out across her entire being, hot and bright like a kugelblitz. Searching wildly for the source of the attack, she glimpsed the stars parting, a dark disk slipping out from between them. A lattice of spacetime tethered it to the spear.

Through layers of metal and flesh, she saw its pilot, and its intentions for her.  

The pain infiltrated her past and colonized all her futures. Through the haze of it, she wondered how the vessel could have escaped her perception. How long had it been following her?

The Gatehouse fired off a relativistic volley, striking the ship and sending it spinning down into the blue expanse spread out below them.

The spear tore out of the goddess. She saw moments of her life stream out of the wound. Weakly, she thanked the Gatekeeper for his aid, however late it was.

She made an attempt to escape the Earth’s gravity well, to bathe her wounds and burn away the poison spreading through her in the sun. It was no use. She knew that at best she would die in the abyss between worlds.

Her child would too.

She did her best to insulate the unborn godling from the blight, and let the Earth embrace her.

The goddess fell. For the first time in aeons, she felt the whisper of an atmosphere envelop her. She sifted through the history and present of the world rapidly rising to meet her, trying to figure out what visage would least provoke the natives. A native of one of their northerly continents, she decided. Male would have been ideal, but there was the Law of Similarity to consider. It would have been inconvenient in her present circumstances as well.

She hardly felt it when she smacked into the planet—not on top of everything else.

As soon as she had lungs, the goddess gasped. Time. She had never experienced it like this. A river driving her unceasingly downstream. The future—what little of it was left—was cut off completely, and the past existed only in memory. And the pain. Her new nerves felt it so keenly.

She felt her child move within her, and it brought her focus. The pain didn’t matter. She need only endure it for so long.

A native creature was towering over her, cloaked in shadow, starlight reflected in his eyes. The horror of it was paralyzing. All that consciousness sunken into one perversely centralized, fragile mass. How did it live, dependant on so many immutable, easily disrupted structures? What kind of life was she leaving her child, shackled to such a form?

Help us.”

The creature—a male, she noticed—flinched at the sound of the True Speech. Still, he knelt down by her side.

“…Jesus, lady,” he said, his voice rougher than any she could have produced even if she’d tried. “What even is help to you? I can get you to a doctor, I think.”   

She saw the lights playing behind his eyes. They were tinged amber by awe and that instinctive fear of things divine, but he did want to help her, she could see clear as anything.

With a grip that could have reduced corundum to dust, she took hold of the man’s hand. “No,” she said in his tongue. “Just stay here. Please.”

The man nodded mutely.

He held her hand through the entire birth, even as her grip almost crushed his hand. Naively, she realized, she had expected the experience to mirror her other children’s births. Those had been intellectual exercises more than anything else. This, though, was nothing but instinct, and pain, and blood. Every now and then, the man told her to push, as if she had any other choice. Strange little thing, he was.  

She heard her son’s cries as he tasted air for the first time. The man caught him before he hit the glassified soil. Not that it would have done him any harm if he had.

The man, wearing a smile beaten out of anxiety and relief, handed the goddess her son.

She studied the wet, wailing thing in her arms. Near as she could tell, the child’s vessel resembled a perfectly formed juvenile male of the species. Good, she thought. That would make things easier for him.

He was so warm.

With a fingernail, she cut his cord.

She let her head fall back. The sun had set completely by then, and the stars were out in force. The goddess had never seen them from this vantage point: their light bent and lensed by gravity, obscured by thousands of feet of oxygen and nitrogen. And yet, she was glad she had gotten to see them this way.

The river was washing her out into a dark, endless sea. She had held out hope that shunting off so much of herself might preserve her from the spear’s poison. That she could stay with her child. She had at least ensured that he could stay, though. She saw her place in the paradox, and decided to fulfill it. It was only polite. “I bequeath you…” She smiled tiredly. “…I bequeath you… me.”  

With the minutes she had left, she let herself savour the feel of her son’s breath breath against her skin as the lights above her started to dim.

She was aware of the man’s hand in hers. To her relief, touch was the last to go.  


1. A 1942 where all Amos Jones and Andy Brown had to worry about was people realizing they were both white.

2. As it happened, Joe Bell was born into one of the rare, blessed clusters of timelines where airships were a passing fad.

3. Despite the stories that would emerge later, nobody in Joe’s neighbourhood that he knew of had mistaken the program for a real news broadcast. Sometimes, he wished they had.

4. Unit of measurement commonly used among higher toposophic beings to refer to a sum of knowledge and experience equal to that acquired over the course of an average sophontic childhood.

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