These are the things I know about Jonathan: he is a white man. Scotch-Irish on his father’s side, and Danish on his mother’s. He is American, born and raised in Dayton, Ohio with one younger brother and three cats. He speaks standard English with a Midwestern accent. He is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 154 pounds, the anatomical standard for men. This is no coincidence, because Jonathan created the world in his image. He was 81 years old when he passed away, but since he died and became my god, he looks 22. And he is directly responsible for my death.
I died on the bathroom floor while my son Bryce pounded on the door and begged me to open it. I gagged on the vomit and told him not to worry, to go back to bed, as blood swelled my abdomen and my fingers turned ice-cold, and that deep, deep pain tugged at my insides while I held in the screams. True visceral pain paralyzes you, unravels you at the seams. It’s the kind of pain you remember even when you yourself are a god and beyond things like blood and bone.
I cannot forgive Jonathan for that pain, just as I cannot forgive him for Bryce’s fists drumming on the door while I died. No one should lose their mother at Bryce’s age, not like that. Later, when I glanced back into Jonathan’s world to see how Bryce fared in my absence, my anger only grew stronger.
All because Jonathan is a shitty god who made a world where such things could happen.
No one welcomed me when I arrived in Jonathan’s heaven: a crowded hotel lobby with tacky glowing abstract art pulsating on the walls, upbeat synth music, and plastic chairs with neon piping everywhere. Most of them were filled with cats.
Jonathan’s heaven has many, many cats. Calicos and abyssinians, siamese and shorthairs, ragged one-eyed toms and manxes with bunny tails. More cats than people, even, though people were there too, sipping bourbon on the rocks at the bar, holding up boredom like paper masks. I couldn’t fathom why. Maybe cats went to heaven like people did. I dislodged a mewling grey tabby from a shabby indigo armchair and sat. The cat chirruped, settled over my lap, and I stroked it mechanically until it thrummed. All at once the numbness inside me unclenched, and I sobbed.
As it turns out, sobbing attracts attention in heaven. A hissing cat chorus announced a man in a pink wedding dress stamping through the feline mass. I gawped at his outfit: vintage 1920s, high neckline, long lace sleeves, keyhole back. A fishnet fascinator covered his shiny black updo, and his elaborately braided beard reached his chest. “You’ve got to stop that. They’ll notice you’re new.” His painted fingernails flashed like little seagulls. He shook out his dress train, sent a black tuxedo cat flying. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Ruby,” I managed through my hitching breath. “I think I’m dead.” I steadied my gaze on a poster of a big-haired woman—Madonna, maybe—and wiped my eyes. Even now, Bryce must be finding my body. I choked out another sob. “Oh God. I need to get back.”
“Stop that,” said the man in the wedding dress. He turned my chin so our eyes met. “Ruby, I’m Karisma. I wish we could talk, but I need you to trust me. They’re starting to notice.”
A newcomer cut a trough through the reluctant cats. A cop, I thought. Something about the set of his jaw, a look in his eye like he expected to be obeyed. I’d met people with that look before, people with uniforms and guns and suspicion in their eyes.
“Quick, let’s go!” Karisma plowed straight through angered cats. We darted down the hall and made a sharp left into a hotel bedroom. Karisma hauled at the window sash, but it wouldn’t budge. “Damn you, Jonathan! Fake windows? Really?” He spun on the spot, dress twirling tight around his knees. “Okay. Stairwell.”
At the door, the cop blocked us in, face flushed. “Let her go. I saw her first.”
“Nuh uh. Not going to happen. Back off.” Karisma strong-armed his way through, towing me in his wake.
“What’s he promised you?” the cop shouted. “I can offer you a better heaven!”
We fled through the fire escape and up a spiral stairwell packed with cats, and the cop floundered, struggling against the furry tide. Up forty stories, then another crash bar into a hallway exactly like the one we’d just left. Same tacky hotel lobby, same Madonna poster, everything arranged exactly as before.
“You’ve got to stop doing that.” Karisma waved a hand in my face, breaking my gaze.
“Staring at stuff. That’s how everyone figures out you’re new.”
“But it’s just like downstairs!”
“Jonathan’s heaven is even less interesting than his world. He just clones more floors as the newbies arrive. Same old 80s channel, same old 80s Jonathan. You know he’s been playing that Complete 80s mix tape on repeat for three billion years now? He’s oblivious. That’s why gods come here to scalp the newbies for their own heavens.”
Everything clicked into place. “You’re trying to take me, too.” I backed toward the hallway.
Karisma sighed. “No, it’s not like that. I mean, yes, I’m taking you to my heaven, but it’s for your own protection. Without your own heaven to ground you—”
Behind my eyes Bryce was pounding on the door, but the feeling was getting fainter, buried beneath an avalanche of cats. “Shut up. I don’t have time for this. I don’t belong here.”
Karisma shook his head. “You can’t go back to Jonathan’s world, honey. Not the way you want to. Only Jonathan can do that.” His eyes were chocolate brown, like Bryce’s. Through the shock, my anger boiled up.
“Then I want to see Jonathan. Now.”
“Honey, everyone does. It won’t do any good, though.” He reached for me again, and I swatted off his touch.
“Get away from me.” I had my back against the door now. My head swam. I needed to get away, and back to Bryce somehow. The doorknob squeaked as I turned it. Get me out, I thought.
Karisma’s eyes widened. “No—don’t do that—”
There was no hotel room behind the door; just endless white snow, sucking and pulling at my t-shirt. I slipped through and the door slammed behind me.
Behind the door, snow fell down and down on dead pines under a flat grey sky. My jaw chattered. It was bitter cold, like long winters in our little trailer. Back in life, I’d turned bill-paying into an art form. Always pay for heat in the winter. Always. When money for heat ran out, I found ways to make a game of it. When Bryce was little, we built blanket forts in the living room, and I’d tell him ghost stories with a flashlight under my chin. When he got older, he slept over with friends when it got too cold. I found excuses to get out of the house too, which is how I got involved with Tony.
This place, though. Some of the snow on my sleeves didn’t melt. I picked at it—ash. The pines leaned helter-skelter, broken against one another. Dead.
The door had vanished. I stumbled on some brambles beneath the filthy snow and fell hard on my hands. Blood welled from crosshatched scratches on my palms. If this was godhood, I wasn’t terribly impressed so far. Not much better than the cloned floors of the 80s hotel. Not terribly imaginative, I thought.
Which gave me an idea.
“I just want to be warm,” I said, and I was. I rubbed my palms together. The pain vanished.
I reached into the air and thought doorknob, and felt it, cool and round and brassy beneath my fingertips.
Time stretched out and then contracted. I flung open the door and fell into lava. I screamed, and inhaled fire, and when I didn’t die I forced myself to think. I commanded my body cool, and floundered to the surface of a slow, steady magma flow crawling down the mountainside. Far below, people swarmed ant-like, shoving away from the flow, bottlenecking at a pass.
“Hey!” The shout echoed down the mountainside above me. It was the cop from Jonathan’s heaven, skating down the surface of the lava on boots that rippled with flame. His teeth gleamed when our eyes met. “I thought I’d find you here.” He skidded to a stop and closed his hand over my wrist. “Let’s go.” With a free finger he sketched a door in the air and pushed it open with his palm. Oppressive heat pulsed through the door, like an oven.
“Wait.” I didn’t trust him. Something about that grip, that self-assured, authoritative look in his eye.
He jutted his chin toward the lava, which had already started to claim its victims. The crowd cascaded into a stampede. Those who weren’t getting licked by fire were crushing each other to death at the bottleneck. “You want to stay here? Stranded on the world-chain without a guide?”
A distant scream went up, and I thought I smelled burning hair. My stomach tumbled. “Can’t we help them?”
“People die every day. That’s life on the best of worlds. But anyway, you can’t interfere if it’s not your world,” he said. “You ready to go?”
I didn’t see an alternative. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Ian. That’s my heaven through there.”
I didn’t trust him, but it was the best lead I had.
Ian’s heaven was hot and tropical, with a big swimming pool beside a bungalow house, and the sky shone bright and bronze. Summery, but with a harsh quality to it, like salt on chapped lips. “Thanks for helping me. That place was awful.” I followed Ian around the pool to a bar tended by a woman in a red bikini. She sketched two tall glasses in the air over the bar, setting the large silver bangles on her wrists ringing.
“It’s one of my worlds.” He passed me one of the iced drinks.
“Oh. Sorry. No offence meant.” I didn’t know the etiquette for talking to gods about their worlds. I wafted my collar for circulation, and sipped the drink. Lime and tequila. It had been a long, long time since I could afford anything like it.
“I like to keep my worlds warm, like my heaven.” His eyes were hard and bright.
“I wasn’t criticizing. I’m sure you’re a better god than Jonathan.”
Ian downed his drink and waved for another. The bartender’s bangles jingled in time with her work. “You think Jonathan was shitty? Well, guess what: a lot of gods are. But we can get back at them. We can make better worlds. Worlds where we call the shots, where we can send our makers to the hell they sentenced us to.”
I considered that. Bryce’s fists drummed behind my eyes. What kind of hell would suit a sorry god like Jonathan? “The place with the snow. That was a hell, wasn’t it?”
That hard look again. “No. That’s what passed for a world for sentients in my god’s sorry imagination. But I got her in the end. I’m sure she’s enjoying her stay in that volcano.”
I shrugged off the alcohol’s effect and sat up straight. “You’re keeping someone trapped in there?”
Ian waved me off. “She deserved it. She’ll only be there until that world winds down. But by then, I’ll have something new planned for her.”
“That’s terrible,” I snapped.
“Listen up, kid.” His eyes narrowed to snake-like slits. “Everyone I loved died in the ice because our god decided it would be fun to screw with physics, never mind the sentients who had to live with her decisions. They never get punished, no matter how bad we had it, no matter how many died. They get away with it.”
I felt again that deep, visceral pain as I bled to death—a bad pregnancy gone hellish because the world was made for someone like Jonathan, someone who would never have to face such things, but who consigned someone else to it anyway. I could make a hell for Jonathan. I could make a world where he and his ilk bore all the risks and costs, and received no pity when they came crying to me and mine for mercy.
“What do you want me to do about it?”
Ian seized my wrist, his fingers handcuff-tight. “Punish him. Make a new world, make it hell for him, and I’ll show you how to imprison your maker there.”
They were wickedly vivid, the ideas dancing through my imagination, so real and close, and I knew I could make it happen if I learned how to reach out and sketch it. Jonathan, frozen and roasting at the same time in a world where that could happen. Jonathan’s body, riddled with disease and wracked by pain within walking distance of a hospital that would not treat him. Jonathan, understanding what it means to feed your kid the last of the peanut butter while you go hungry, knowing tomorrow you won’t have anything at all.
Ian’s grip was uncomfortably tight. “Can I get another drink?” He dropped my wrist and I leaned on the bar.
The bartender sketched another glass for me. Her bangles glanced against my skin when she passed it. The touch burned like an exposed wire. Our eyes met. Her pupils contracted into sharp points. Her gaze dropped to her wrists.
They weren’t bangles at all.
I recalled the smell of burning hair. You can’t interfere if it’s not your world, he’d said. But that place had been his world.
“Bryce. I need to see Bryce,” I said, high and sharp. “I can’t leave him alone in that awful place Jonathan made.” I raised a hand and thought doorknob, but nothing happened.
Ian’s lip curled, this time into a real smile, and the whole world pulsed hot and contracted around us, all the colour running to red, like the sky. The bartender’s bangles became wheels of fire.
“You can’t just walk out of my heaven, you know. Not without my permission.” He reached for me with hands that had become fire-rings themselves. My new chains.
The bartender threw a drink in his face. “Run, quick!” she shouted, and I bolted across the pool, skipping on water lightly like sand.
Help, I thought. It was almost a prayer, except who would hear me, in a cosmos filled with gods like myself?
The molten red sky tore like burning paper, and through the rift burst a sailboat whose masts were knotted ropes pulled by a flock of seagulls. Rain splattered down on my upturned face. At the vessel’s helm stood a man in a pink wedding dress.
“Ruby!” Karisma flung a rope at me. I caught it. Ian rounded the poolside, doubling in size with each step. Karisma turned the wheel, the seagulls swung starboard, and the whole flying ship shot through the rift, towing me into the dark beyond. The rift snicked closed behind me.
Gentle snow fell all around us as we flew over flowerbeds spun from crystalline ice. Karisma hauled me up the rope. “Sorry for bringing you through without asking, but I thought I’d better get you out of that place before it was too late. It was a bugbear finding you, honey. You went pretty far down the revenge-world chain, further than I’d guessed.”
The sailboat settled on an indigo-blue surface more like sky than water, studded with golden flecks deep inside. As it touched down, the seagulls disintegrated into snowflakes.
“What is this place?” I asked.
He swept his hands and curtsied. “Welcome to my heaven! It’s not much, but it’s home.” The flowers in the ice-gardens trembled as the snow piled on.
“Where are all the people?” Karisma didn’t strike me as a loner.
“Oh, there’s a few around. But I’m between worlds right now. Most of my child-gods have already moved on. I’m spending a few world-cycles mentoring newbies.” The hull shattered through frozen flowers, which rang with faint music. “Trying to stay ahead of Ian. I’ve got him on the ropes, I think.”
“He had someone in manacles. A woman. She couldn’t leave,” I said.
“Revenge worlds, honey. People’s anger holds them there. Ian just keeps them from realizing the alternatives. But when they decide to punish their creators, the spiral can go pretty deep because of all the collateral damage. Gods born from revenge worlds usually want revenge themselves, understandably. It’s especially hard for new gods. Without a heaven to ground you, people like Ian can trap you in their own. Which is why he hangs out at Jonathan’s.”
I shuddered, remembering Ian’s heaven. “So now you’ve claimed me.”
Karisma shook his head. “I recruit gods for another reason.”
Snow whirled around the masts and became seagulls again, which caught the ropes and pulled us through the garden until we came to a place like a rocky shore made of white skipping stones. Instead of an ocean, blackness dotted with light washed the beach.
“The Void,” said Karisma. “We shape new worlds and toss them out into the darkness. And when those mortals become gods, they eventually return and do the same.”
“Who’s at the top?”
Karisma shrugged. “No one knows. There was a break somewhere Higher Up, beyond Jonathan. A maker shut off their heaven entirely. Now we’re orphaned in the cosmos. Some still believe in a God, way up at the top of creation. Some think, if you trace your way up through all the created worlds, you’ll find the first, the one that set the rules for us all, and at the heart of it, a final answer. Others believe there isn’t anything at all.”
“What do you believe?”
“That the answer lies forward.”
Karisma hitched his dress to his knees and stepped right out into the Void, hopping from world to world across the great sea of created things until we stood at the edge of all unmaking. Emptiness sucked and pulled at me like cold fingers. Beneath my curling toes, the world that was my stepping-stone warmed me against the Void. Within its glittering heart I felt the pulse of embryonic gods-to-be as they lived and loved and died inside their vast, closed universe.
Beyond, in the unmaking, I saw the barest hint of a glow. “There’s something out there.”
“You see it, then.”
“What is it?”
Karisma shrugged. “Maybe the first world. Maybe something entirely new. Maybe our final end. No one knows. That’s why we’re building our way toward it, all of us together. The only problem is getting other gods to cooperate. So we’re trying some new things, seeing what works. I’ll show you.”
Karisma fanned out worlds like tarot cards, pulling me between them through sailboat-sized rifts.
A god named Dave—descended from Jonathan’s heaven, several rungs down—constructed a pangaea where linked continents clustered in a large tropical zone. The residents lingered late over conversation and coffee, their two highest art forms. Claire, a daughter-god sprung from his world, experimented with the fourth dimension, interlinking points in history so the past and future could cross over to each other.
“Some of us think the best approach is to cultivate mutual understanding,” Karisma explained.
Another world unfolded, this one with sentients far older than the other worlds, spread across whole galaxies traversed by pigeon-like steel ships.
“This god thinks we should extend a civilization’s potential to maximize the number of gods born. More gods, more worlds, longer bridge. He increased the average IQ by twenty points, which made space travel possible.”
Another made everything in her world completely round, where spherical sentients tumbled down circular slopes through mists and gentle rain.
“This,” said Karisma, “is something entirely new, to my knowledge. It’s so hard to make sentients different from yourself, and even harder to get the conditions right for it to happen. We tend to replicate ourselves, to make more of what we know instead of imagining what could be. If you want people to incorporate your ideas so they’re replicated in all worlds down the chain, you have to treat them right. They might want to learn from you, agree to join the cause. No more of this scattered nonsense—build worlds as humane as they are beautiful, and all who come after will throw themselves toward a single point, until it converges.”
“You’ve done a lot of work,” I said, impressed. The world-bridge extended even beyond what I had seen.
“I wasn’t the one who started this. I came from a shitty world myself.” Karisma’s eyes darkened.
“People aren’t too kind toward cross-dressers where I come from, either,” I said gently, touching his lacy sleeve.
“Huh?” He looked at me in confusion, and then gradually, comprehension dawned. “Oh, Ruby. Jonathan really did a number on you. I’m not cross-dressing. Your world’s not very normal, I’m afraid.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, because Jonathan’s name had brought it all back, including Bryce. “Karisma, is there nothing I can do about Jonathan’s world?”
“You could ask Jonathan, but it won’t do any good. Even if you could convince him to intervene, the line’s too long. He’s not very well liked, you see. Everyone you know will be long gone by the time you ask.”
The weight on me lessened a little at the thought. “Bryce will be in Jonathan’s heaven too.”
Karisma nodded. “It would take a lot of time to find him in a crowd so big. But we’re gods. We have the time.”
The line to meet my maker snaked through the 400,000 floors of Jonathan’s hotel, out onto an endless continent-sized green lawn, all the way back to sighting distance of the Void. For a heaven, Jonathan’s place was terribly bland, especially after Karisma’s. Just a really big house surrounded by grass under a cloudless summer sky. It was a nice house, and a nice sky, but there wasn’t anything else to it. Just legions of cats sunning themselves on the endless green.
I took my place at the end of the line and waited a long, long time. But eventually, everyone makes it to Jonathan’s door.
I found him slumped into his arms at a mahogany desk, paisley tie flopped over the shoulder of his pastel suit, mouse-brown hair frizzled with the remnant of a perm.
He mumbled something into his elbow.
“Excuse me?” I worked my way through the cats, which were especially thick here. The whole room thrummed with their purring.
He sat up quite suddenly, and the cats scattered as he removed his huge shades. He had blue, puffy eyes and a young face rough with stubble, and just a touch of lip gloss. It was a nice face, but a tired one. “I said get it over with.” He looked exhausted. I didn’t know you could look so terrible in the afterlife. But Jonathan’s heaven was as Jonathan imagined it.
“Why did you give me such an awful life?” I asked him. “Why was everything so hard? Why did some people have everything handed to them, while I had to beg and suffer for everything I ever got? Why did I have to die that way?” I gathered steam and heat. “Did you even think of me? Did you love me at all?”
Jonathan sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Look. I honestly didn’t think about you. I didn’t plan your life. I never even knew people like you would exist. I mainly focused on what I liked about my life, and made sure that stuff would be there, and let everything else just… fill itself in.”
My throat clenched up so tight I almost couldn’t answer him. I waited so long, damn it. “That’s not good enough. You say you didn’t plan any of it? Well, I’m here. You made me. You owe me an explanation.”
He growled low in his throat like an angry tomcat. “Why does everyone focus on the bad? I tried to make a nice world, and I think it was pretty nice, on the balance. You’d think someone would thank me for the cats, at least!”
“What about them?” A kitten batted at my leg. I took a hard look at it. It looked perfectly ordinary to me.
“They were my idea. I invented them. Nobody thought about domesticating lions, but I tried it, and it worked. Everyone uses them in their worlds now, but nobody thanks me for them. They just want to chew me out for stuff I didn’t even do on purpose. It’s not fair.” Jonathan buried his head in his hands again.
Karisma said we shouldn’t hate our creators, that I should be grateful Jonathan made me sentient at all. Forgiveness, I think, is slow to come, but all finite crimes eventually find a pardon. Maybe it was all an accident his world produced people like me. Maybe it happened in spite of him, not because of him. Maybe that was enough. Maybe it had to be enough, or else you ended up replicating hell on Earth for the next generation.
Poor Jonathan. Poor, pathetic Jonathan, alone with his cats as all his creation paraded through to condemn him.
“You made the world better for yourself, Jonathan. You made it in your image, and that shut out the rest of us,” I told him. “But sure. Thanks for the cats.”
Back in Karisma’s heaven, new people were arriving. He’d invented a world in my absence. I could tell the people were new by their awe and wonder as they wandered through their god’s ice-gardens in the falling snow, across the indigo sky. They did not look angry or broken, and the men were beautiful in their dresses.
I still needed to find Bryce, wherever he was, but first I needed a heaven to anchor myself.
I reached the stony shoreline of the Void and selected a smooth, flat rock. Far away, Jonathan sat in his office, dreading the knock of his children at the door as they came to him one by one, and only the cats to love him. And I reached beyond him, into the other worlds where the rules had changed. Ian’s world, ruled by anger and revenge. Dave’s world, ruled by compassion and coffee. Those slow, sleeping places where no god would ever live or die at all.
A god is not omniscient. Before she knows anything, she has to learn it. And there were so many worlds to visit before I knew enough to make my own. The best way to prevent a death like mine was to know who you were creating before you decided what their lives should look like. When I did make a world, though, I would wait eagerly in my heaven for them to come back to me, and tell me what they thought. Maybe they could help me do better the next time.
Men should get pregnant too, I decided. That much was certain. And I’ll have cats. The cats were a good idea.
Story copyright © 2017 by Rachael K. Jones
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Random Dreaming
Rachael K. Jones is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in Athens, Georgia. Her work has appeared in dozens of venues, including Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Shimmer. She is a SFWA member, an editor, and a secret android. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
Random Dreaming is an illustrator, photographer, and art director based in Poland. A graduate of Fotoacademie Rotterdam, he combines studio and location photography with photomanipulation in order to seek out new undiscovered realities. His work has been exhibited in galleries in the Netherlands and Poland, printed in the prestigious GUPNew Yearbook, and nominated for the Dutch Photo Academy Award. He currently makes up part of the Treslettres Collective.