Somewhere in Alaska, USA – Wednesday, the 14th of July 1999. 06:06 PM.
On his last day as an ignorant child, the boy met a woman whose hands rubbed his face very gently. The memory of that touch would soon fade into oblivion along with his childhood, but he did remember that she had kind eyes. The wrinkles around them deepened as she smiled down at him.
She said that he was a very special boy, and that many people had been waiting for him. She said that he would deliver them from their sins and prevent the world from ending. She was sure of it. The leader of her church had received a vision that guided her to him. He understood the words she spoke, but he did not understand the meaning behind them.
She examined the birth marks on his hands and found them to be ‘true’. That statement meant nothing to the boy. He’d had those marks since birth and had never given them much thought.
She spoke to someone he used to remember; a woman with dark hair and a voice that bellowed harshly when the boy did something wrong. Something passed into her eager hands, then the kind-eyed woman gripped the boy’s shoulder and led him towards a car. They climbed into it and drove away.
They traveled for a seemingly infinite stretch of time, and then the boy was introduced to the people who had been waiting for him. There were many of them, and they called him Messiah.
Then, they started hurting him. It was only the knowledge that he was saving the world by delivering it from sin that kept him alive for a very long time.
An unknown location in Canada – Wednesday, the 24th of February 2010. 10:30 PM.
Ten minutes before the event that would be named the Pulse, Penance was dangling a few inches above the basement floor that was stained with his blood. The chains that suspended his useless limbs had become a part of him as much as the constant flow of pain that coursed through his body.
Penance’s bones had been broken so many times that he needed the chains to keep himself upright. Their support allowed him to keep his eyes focused on the wall-mounted screen that lit up the darkness of his chamber. That screen was his only window to the world. It had been installed to let him witness the sins of the world, and he needed to understand, to absorb that knowledge to keep himself rooted in reality on bad days.
Penance’s eyes and ears were the only parts of his body that had been left intact, and he was grateful for them.
Most days, the program consisted of news reports from a variety of channels. Penance had no influence over what was shown on screen; his faithful followers determined what he needed to witness.
Penance could tell from the solemn newscaster faces that today wasn’t going to be a good day. One report blamed drug cartels for thousands of deaths in Latin America – many of which had never been made public – and accused governments of passivity and corruption. The war in Afghanistan was ongoing, and a new offensive plan sparked renewed media interest in the area.
A grim-faced reporter relayed the story of a woman who lost her baby during the desperate flight from her hometown. The woman was exhibited on screen with the full details of her suffering, face buried in her hands, shoulders shaking. Soldiers took advantage of her instead of helping her, she said between sobs, prompting the news reporter to feign concern over her well-being. Penance knew he was lying. People didn’t care about strangers in faraway places.
The news never changed. One war ended, another two began somewhere else. The same stories of terror and abuse flickered across the screen time and time again. The names and locations changed, but the world went on as it always had.
Penance took solace from the fact that he was divine, different from other men. He squeezed his eyes shut to absorb the woman’s suffering into himself, and a single tear rolled across the scarred tissue of his cheek. He relished the warmth and wetness of it. It was something to let him know that he was still alive and fulfilling his role.
I deliver the soldiers from their sins.
He let the thought resonate in his mind, comforted in knowing that despite the horrific crimes he witnessed almost daily, the world wasn’t going to end. He was the Messiah, and he had brought to death’s doorstep more times than he could count to ensure its continued existence.
Penance could rely on his faithful flock to not let him die.
In the beginning, when his body had been smaller and his mind consumed by fear, he’d begged them for death. The memory of his younger, weaker self was disgusting to him now. He still passed out occasionally, but he’d accepted his role and no longer longed for release. The ebb and flow of pain was as much part of his existence as the air that filled his lungs.
A faint, crackling sound distracted Penance from the images on the screen and sent his attention skittering about the dark chamber that was his home. He didn’t discover anything out of the ordinary, though. Nothing moved across the stained stone walls that protected him from the outside world. The heavy wooden door that sealed the room was still closed. No sound came from that direction, but he watched the door for a moment anyway, half expecting it to swing open and admit the Priest to his chamber. It had been some time since the Priest’s last visit, and according to the news on screen, mankind had sinned plenty since the last deliverance.
It was time to bleed for the sake of their souls. Again.
Penance wasn’t afraid of the Priest anymore. Apart from Lillian, the woman who visited once a day to feed him and gently wash him with a sponge, the Priest was his only social contact. He enjoyed the prayers they murmured together before the deliverance began.
But the door never opened. Instead, the screen – the only light source in the small chamber – went dark, and Penance was consumed by absolute darkness. The abruptness of the change made his heart clench with fear for the first time in what seemed like eons. His chains clattered, and the burning soreness that shot through his wrists and ankles made him realize he’d pulled on them in despair.
Moments of trepidation passed. Then, reality folded over on itself. The darkness peeled away to let him catch a glimpse of what was beyond the physical boundaries of his chamber. He heard voices, and the things he learned from those voices shattered everything he had known and believed in.
Penance understood that he had been abandoned, failed, and abused in more ways than he could have imagined. He wasn’t the Messiah, he was a victim.
The world forgot the most important part of this worldwide phenomenon, but the broken young man remembered. He’d been named by the voices beyond the veil of darkness, and the name he had been given was neither Messiah nor Penance. It was a secret he didn’t even dare think about. The implications threatened to overwhelm his dazed mind.
Penance was the name he’d given himself. It was something familiar, comforting to hold on to.
He had changed, as well. He couldn’t tell what exactly the change was or how it affected him, but he could feel it pulse in his veins, and he understood that it allowed him to form a union with others. He, who had been abandoned and locked away from the world, could use this ability to learn and understand and make others share his understanding.
It was a gift, a blessing. But it couldn’t fill the void the revelation had left in him.
When the screen flickered back to life, its glow found the broken young man hanging in his chains, choked by sobs that racked his entire body. He didn’t feel the pain his movements caused him, the broken beliefs cut deeper than anything else. Those beliefs had carried him and kept him alive for more than a decade.
He wasn’t ready to discard them. The role of the Messiah had so much more appeal than that of a helpless victim. And who would care if anything had changed? He knew what the world was like – the screen on the wall reminded him every day – and there was nothing out there for him. Nothing but faithless sinners who wouldn’t care for his divinity.
As time passed and the world on the screen went on, the whole experience – and the transformation it brought about – seemed less and less real. No one else remembered. According to the news, everyone else had experienced a mysterious and inexplicable worldwide power outage, nothing more.
When the Priest entered his chamber to help him absolve the sinners of the world, the broken young didn’t mention his secret. Instead, he did what he’d always done.
A few days passed without any surprises before the world’s first changed human was reported on the screen. Over in Turkey, a teenage boy was revered as a miracle worker with the ability to speak every known language and dialect. Renowned Muslim scholars performed tests on the boy, the world was in uproar, and the broken young man remembered.
The news were wrong for once. The Turkish boy wasn’t the first; he was the third. The first two had been named together, and the broken one was one of them.
The memory threatened to shatter his beliefs all over again. He cried out in anguish and twisted in his chains until some of his more recent, still healing wounds opened to fill him up with a more physical kind of pain. That was something familiar he knew how to deal with. It defined his place in the world and kept him from coming apart at the seams.
My name is Penance, he decided. That other name was still too overwhelming to accept, so he pushed it down into oblivion, where it could keep the little boy from Once Upon a Time company.
More time passed. The images continued to flicker across the screen, and more people changed. Penance watched as a keen-eyed Brazilian man with curly dark hair appeared in the news. He introduced himself as Antonio Varras and claimed to remember the Pulse, as Penance did. But this man hadn’t been changed. If he had, he wasn’t admitting to it.
Penance shifted his weight to watch the screen from the most advantageous angle, ignoring the searing pain the shift of position caused in his useless limbs. He wanted to absorb every fragment of information, to understand if that man truly remembered. Others had made that claim and sprouted nonsense, but Penance still wanted to believe someone else out there was like him. That someone knew.
The interviewer on screen didn’t seem to share that belief. “Mr. Varras,” the man said in a politely condescending tone, “If I understand correctly, you claim to know that Pulse marks God’s departure from the world. That Evolved powers are the only remnants of divinity left to us?”
“That’s correct,” the curly-haired man stated. “I have reason to believe I was chosen to remember the event. To spread the word, so those willing to listen get a chance make the right decisions. We have faced numerous trials throughout world history, you see. The bible documents some of them. This trial is the greatest yet, but keep in mind that we retain our free will and the right to choose.”
“And what would you recommend we do, then? I personally would prefer not to burn in hell,” the interviewer stated. In spite of the solemn look on his face, he sounded amused.
“Hell. I dislike that term,” Antonio Varras said with a sour look on his face. “Man is now separated from God, so ‘Anathema’ would be more fitting, I believe. What should concern you is the hell some of us endure as in their everyday lives. Now that we are on our own, there are no demons or devils we can blame for our lack of responsibility for one another. The right decision, as you call it, would be to stand up for those who are suffering. But people are selfish, you see, and that is the very reason God departed from our world.”
“What of Satan?” the interviewer asked, lips twitching with barely contained amusement. “Did the lord of hell flutter off as well?”
Antonio Varras met the interviewer’s eyes with a firm and composed face. “If you’re looking for a Satan,” he said, speaking very slowly, “go find the person who has suffered more than anyone else, and pray they didn’t gain powers that would wipe that smirk off your face. The Godkin won’t be passive, you know. And this is their world now.”
He almost remembers, but not like I do.
Penance watched and listened with growing disappointment, though he could relate to the statement regarding the darker aspects of human nature. Penance had witnessed the worst of mankind for nearly as long as he could remember. He could appreciate the man’s understanding of what Penance already knew – that the world was a cesspool of sin.
That Preacher man is changed as well.
Penance wasn’t sure how he knew, but he did. Now that he focused his senses on the man on screen, he could sense the man’s powers like a coin on his tongue, a faint bitterness that was only noticeable if he tasted it. The screen and the distance made it hard to determine the exact nature of the man’s potential, but he suspected that understanding was a part of it. Not knowing the truth, but sensing an approximation of it.
That approximation was good enough to give Penance a new sense of purpose, a new reason for him to exist in the world. He wasn’t the Messiah, but the fact that he had been among the first to be named had to mean something.
He was divine after all.
The on-screen interview was replaced by a story about the Haiti earthquake aftermath, and Penance swung back and forth in his chains, savoring the varied flavors of pain they caused him as he waited.
He was waiting for Lillian, and keeping his eyes closed helped him focus his hearing. His female caretaker always descended the stairs to his chambers with cautious footsteps that distinguished her from the Priest’s heavy, trudging gait. Finally, the floorboards outside Penance’s chamber squeaked, betraying her approach long before the door swung open.
The creaking door was Penance’s cue to open his eyes and look at her. She was wearing the same clean, belted robe as always, and her hands gripped the wooden spoon and bowl with the vegetable mash she prepared to feed him every day.
“Messiah,” she said, stepping in front of him. “Allow me to nourish you.” Without waiting for an answer, she dipped the spoon into the bowl to scoop up some mash and raise it to his lips.
Penance’s eyes swiveled from the spoon to her smooth-skinned, round face, and he decided to speak for the first time in months. I deliver you from sin, he said.
He realized he hadn’t said the words aloud when the spoon slipped from her fingers and clattered to the stained stone floor. Her now empty hand cupped over her mouth.
Before she could move away, Penance jerked his own hand towards her. The chain didn’t allow for more than a few inches of wiggle room, but the tip of his middle touched her elbow. His previously dormant power flared on contact with her skin. It coursed through his mind and body like a jolt of lightning, drawn to the proximity of another human.
The union filled him with a sense of union and satisfaction unlike anything else he had ever experienced. Lillian’s mind opened up to him, and her body poured into him to merge with his own, infusing him with a surge of health and knowledge. As her empty clothes dropped to the ground, any doubt regarding Penance’s divinity dissolved along with her physical form.
It felt so incredibly right.
The chains fell away from Penance as his flesh and knowledge reformed. Without their support to keep him upright, he sank to the cold floor, still listening to Lillian’s desperate screams in his mind. She shared in his memories and experiences as much as he did in hers, and she didn’t cope well.
Penance ignored her screams for the time being. Her mind had been riper than his, and trying to absorb the churning flood of information left him dazed and momentarily blind to the world. He learned that the number of his flock had begun to dwindle with the appearance of Evolved humans. He learned of Lillian’s continued belief in him as the Messiah, even though other members of his church had voiced doubts of late. He got to know her family as she had experienced them, and he gained a general understanding of the vastness of the world around him.
That was the most terrifying experience of all; no amount of television-transmitted disaster reports or abuse stories could have prepared him for this sudden and profound understanding of how unwelcome he truly was. Most of the world had little respect for the Divine. It was ruled by money and influence, two things he lacked equally. And even though Lillian had revered him, she perceived his body as a pitiful, broken and gruesomely mutilated thing.
The sight of Penance would be horrifying to most people.
Elsewhere in his mind, Lillian cried out in despair. Even she, who shared his mind and body, was horrified by him. The realization of how their closeness brought her to the brink of insanity left Penance with a feeling of betrayal.
Shhhh, he tried, reaching out to her. I’m Godkin, and you can still serve me.
That didn’t stop her mewling. Penance had to admit she was regrettably weak-willed, and pushed her down into a quiet place where she would be allowed to rest and stop distracting him.
Then he tested the limits of his body and began to crawl towards the open door. He had a vague memory of what it had been like to walk, a long time ago, but for the moment he felt more comfortable inching his way across the floor.
Thanks to merging with Lillian, he had an understanding of the small house whose basement had been modified to keep him. It had been chosen for its secluded location in the forest, and no one was living in it.
By the time Penance had reached the top of the stairs, the blood that seeped from his reopening wounds had left a very visible trail of red behind him. Lillian’s experience warned him about the danger of blood loss. He was Godkin, but until he found a way to grow in power, he was very vulnerable.
He intuitively understood that if he wanted to survive, he had to take advantage of the health he’d absorbed into his body. It was untapped potential that coursed through him the way his godly power did. He couldn’t use it to restore his crippled limbs, though. That integrity still belonged to her.
Penance allowed Lillian to surface. Walk, he commanded her.
She didn’t, but his power reacted to his wish, and his body transformed Bones straightened. Wounds closed. Scarred tissue softened and took on a darker skin tone, and Penancecould feel how his body twitched and straightened as it changed to a different shape that was female.
The wave of pain that accompanied the transformation was nothing to Penance. He gasped, but he unlike the woman who was writhing in agony at the dark edges of his consciousness, he didn’t scream.
Getting to his feet for the first time in many years was a slow, laborious process that challenged his sense of balance and sent a wave of nausea through him. He heaved himself up to his knees first, then gradually straightened his transformed body, hands pressing down against his knees for support. Once the nausea ebbed and his passenger dropped into silence, Penance gradually remembered how to walk.
The snow and cold didn’t affect him. When he stumbled out of the house, he barely felt the change in temperature.
The early morning sun found him leaned against a tree at edge of the forest, eyes on the decrepit stone building he’d crawled out of. Large sections of the walls were overgrown with moss, and while the rust brown shingle roof and the dirt-stained windows looked intact, the house clearly hadn’t been inhabited in some time. Apart from squirrels, Lillian’s white car on the dirt road out front, and the warbling birds in the surrounding forest, Penance was alone.
They stopped believing in me
Now that he understood and could smelled the fresh scent of the wide world around him, the sight of the house filled him with unease. Civilization itself was a repelling concept. The world was beautiful. It was the people who polluted it. And even though Penance didn’t quite feel ready to fulfill his role as a God yet, he knew everything about them.
The sound of another car roared up the dirt road, Penance withdrew into the forest, intent on figuring out how to prepare himself for Godhood.
The forests surrounding Grand Maronnier, Canada – Saturday, the 3rd of July 2010. 09:07 AM.
Come to me.
Penance reached out with his mind and formed a connection to the small plover bird that perched on a tree branch above him. It listened, as they always did, then spread its wings and sailed through the air to land on his outstretched forearm.
Penance had discovered the calling aspect of his power when hunger had weakened him to the point where he couldn’t move anymore. As far as he understood, it wasn’t limited to birds. He’d had no desire to call people, however. Not after the pair of hikers who’d seen his true body when he had been sleeping beneath a weeping willow tree.
First, they had insisted on calling an ambulance. Then they’d heard the sound of his two voices speaking in unison, and that discovery had put an end to their feigned benevolence. Penance had absorbed them into himself, giving them the chance to truly get to know him.
He absolved them both of their sin, and the man’s shoes and clothes fit him nicely.
Penance broke the bird’s neck with a quick motion of his hand. He knew he’d need to call another to fill his stomach later in the day, but for the moment, it was enough to keep him going.
He didn’t know where he was headed. The forest was guiding him east towards a purpose that would eventually be revealed to him, that much he had gathered from Lillian’s learned collection of biblical stories. Visions and revelations were the way saints learned to fulfill their roles. For now, he kept walking, avoiding the corruption of civilization.
He experienced his first revelation while eating the bird. Someone was nearby, and unlike Lillian or the two forest hikers, that someone had a scent and taste to them. It was different from the way he had perceived the curly-haired man on the news. This person’s scent was stronger and much more refined.
They’re nearby, Penance realized as he lowered the half-eaten bird to suck the forest air into his lungs. He could tell from the scent that the other one was changed like he was, different from the flawed existence of most humans. He tasted the powers, and he understood.
Penance quickly devoured the rest of his meal, then wiped his mouth and rose to the male hiker’s healthy feet to walk in the direction of the scent. He considered calling the other one to him, but somehow, that idea seemed wrong. Both of them were divine Godkin. They would meet each other with mutual respect rather than manipulation.
Penance never learned to move quietly, and the other – a dark-haired young man in a colorful shirt and summer shorts who was wearing glasses – lowered the binoculars he’d been looking through to observe the newcomer’s approach instead. To Penance’s disappointment, there was no hint of recognition. The dark-haired man’s young face showed nothing but open curiosity.
“I found you,” Penance’s four voices said in unison, and the stranger finally saw him for who he was.
“I still don’t understand,” Penance said as they sat by the shore of the quiet forest lake, watching the ripples the wind made on the water. “Why are you hiding out here in the forest?”
It had been more than a week since Penance found Roy, who’d named himself the Historian, and this particular question had come up in their conversation before. Roy had made the decision to live a secluded cabin in the forest together with his girlfriend, shunning the society he’d once embraced. Penance might have been able to relate to that choice of lifestyle if his new friend had been a spiritual person, someone who understood people the way he did.
But Roy didn’t believe in anything; not even himself. He didn’t acknowledge his status as Godkin. To Penance, this was both puzzling and frustrating.
“If you had my power, you’d understand,” Roy said, picking up a small stone to toss it into the lake. “These forests here are ancient. The tribes who inhabited them were small and lived relatively peaceful lives. Their history isn’t nearly as depressing or overwhelming as the flashbacks I experienced down south.”
“But you received the blessing for a reason,” Penance said, arguing with the fervor of someone who remembered. Sometimes it was hard to accept that Roy didn’t share his knowledge of the Pulse. “You’re supposed to do something with it. If you don’t know what it is, you have to go looking.”
Roy flashed him a frustratingly unconcerned smile. “Are you sure you never met Preacher? He uses similar arguments. I like to believe my life is still mine, though.”
Preacher. Penance had learned of Antonio Varras’ alternate identity by now, and even though he still couldn’t relate to everything that had been said during that interview, Penance respected the man’s partial wisdom nonetheless.
“I remember.” Penance realized that his friend was most likely a hopeless case and wouldn’t be convinced, but he said it anyway.
“Preacher says the same thing,” Roy replied.
“That’s a lie. He’s wrong about some things.”
Roy didn’t disagree with that. The two of them sat in shared silence for a couple of minutes, gazing out over the lake and the sunlight that reflected from it.
Penance appreciated the young Godkin’s company, even though their talks had revealed numerous disagreements. Roy had seen his true form and not been repelled by it. For the first time in what might have been forever, Penance felt like he had a friend.
His powerless passengers didn’t count. While most of them had remained coherent and sane fora while, the constant exposure to his memories eventually broke them all. One had gone completely silent; the others still filled his mind with screams and, occasionally, incoherent ramblings.
They didn’t make for interesting conversation partners, at any rate.
Roy broke the silence first. He glanced over, wearing that deep, thoughtful frown that crossed his features whenever he considered some kind of historical puzzle. “You said you were one of the first two Evolved.”
“Yes,” Penance replied, too content and relaxed on his bed of moss to elaborate.
“That must mean something, right? Neither one of you has told the world that you exist. What if your other half is as lost and confused as you are? Trying to find you, perhaps?”
Penance tasted the idea on the back of his tongue the way he tasted Godkin abilities, and found it appealing. “Maybe,” he replied.
“What’s their power like? Do you know?”
Penance closed his eyes, smiling at the memory. “Perfection,” he said.
Roy replied with his characteristic, lighthearted chuckle. “That’s quite something. Maybe you two are meant to guide the rest of us, teach us how to be perfect. Go find them, I say.”
A gust of wind rustled the treetops, sending more ripples across the lake, and Penance finally understood something new. Two things, in fact.
He had been first for a reason: to learn, to unite, and share his understanding. And he had to find the Other. Weak and damaged as he was, Perfection would make him whole.
This realization filled him with purpose. He sat up, energized, and looked at his friend with newfound determination. “Come with me,” he said to Roy. “I need you.”
Roy’s lips curled into a rueful smile. “I wish, but I can’t. Jennifer actually means something to me. I’d never find someone like her if I just up and left.”
Penance shook his head, struggling against the feeling of betrayal that rose like bile in his throat. He had cautiously avoided any contact with Jennifer Leung. She was just a person. Not divine, and definitely of no significance to this immense revelation Penance had just received. “I’ll wait if you want to think about it,” he said. “You’ll understand, like I did.”
Roy’s response was frustratingly gentle. “You are my friend, and I’m glad to have you here. But I can’t leave. You were the first, weren’t you? You’ll manage on your own.”
Roy said nothing else about the matter. Penance agonized over his response for several long minutes, struggling to keep his emotions from spilling out. The world out there – the cities, in particular – were still a dreadful concept to him, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to muster up the required willpower without Roy’s support and encouragement. Then he realized something else.
“Thank you for being my friend, Roy,” Penance said, reaching out to gently brush his fingers along the Historian’s arm. “We’re going to do this together.”
Absorbing a fellow Godkin didn’t remotely compare to the sense of union Penance had experienced the last three times he’d activated that aspect of his powers. It was more in every way. More knowledge, more connectedness, more potential. The Historian had been documenting and observing history for months, and the wealth of experience that now flowed into Penance left him blind to the world .
He saw history unfold as a stream of events before his mind’s eye. He experienced the lives and daily struggles of the early Aboriginal settlers. He witnessed wars, disasters, and territorial conflicts as if he was part of them.
Once he had learned all there was to learn at a given location, Penance moved on. When he used this absorbed power to experience something new, it filled him with an intoxicating fulfillment.
But most importantly – as he travelled, he began to understand. He didn’t just see those events. He could tell why wars began, why they ended, and how events in one location influenced another.
As the months passed, Penance understood one thing in particular.
People. Never. Learned.
No amount of absolution or deliverance would ever make them into better persons.
A forest somewhere in Canada – Tuesday, the 27th of March 2012. 03:24 PM.
A voice drifted through the forest, interrupting Penance’s trip into local history with a certain word that sent a shiver of anticipation through him. It pulled him back to the here and now as surely as if his own name had been called, and he suppressed the flashbacks to figure out where the voice was coming from.
As he slowly crept closer, he noticed that he had accidentally moved closer to civilization, and that the voice was drifting through the open window of a nearby cabin.
“…Shanti, whose classification has now been confirmed as truly unique. While no official statement has been made, we can assume that she will remain in India for the time being. Considering its population of one point two billion, there is much work to be done for the Healer.”
Penance stopped, sucking in the air and the voice that permeated it. The taste was faint, almost insubstantial, but he would have recognized it among any number of others. It was as unique as the speaker made it out to be. The name they had falsely attached to it didn’t do it credit.
We were first, you and me.
Something was different, though. The Other’s first incarnation hadn’t been a she.
Penance pulled back into the thicket before he risked being discovered. Thanks to the knowledge he’d gained from his passengers, he had a decent idea of where India was. He just didn’t have the faintest clue how to reach it. He couldn’t swim, he had no money, and he lacked the power required to enforce passage across the ocean. He was still weak and vulnerable.
With that in mind, Penance decided to finally abandon the forest and turn south. Civilization still disgusted and intimidated him, but he had learned so much from history that the Canadian forest didn’t hold anything new for him to absorb. And he had to assume his responsibility as the First and guide the lesser, more ignorant Godkin.
The Other would heal him and make him whole. The world had forgotten the true name that defined her Godkin potential, but Penance remembered.
Eden. Her role is Eden.