Tithe

It’s that time of the semester again. Crackdown begins, and now that I have a senior thesis to worry myself with, there’s a good chance updates will become infrequent, like what happened this week. I had a bit of a do or die moment where I could’ve possibly failed one of my classes on the spot, but things are all better now and I’m going to try to get back on track. In the meantime, if I can’t, I’ll offer you all a sneak peek of the short story I’m writing for my senior thesis during its various stages of development. Please keep in mind that this is a (very) rough draft. Bigger and better ones will be coming as the seminar reaches its crescendo.

With that said, please enjoy the first draft of Tithe!

Tithe

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to be the only person on the planet who knows the world is about to end? My guess is you’d think it was a pretty terrifying responsibility. You though? You don’t have to guess. I know, and I’ll tell you, so shut up and listen before we all die. This is the story of how the world ends, and how I tried to warn you.

I really did try.

 

———-

 

There’s a few things about me you have to understand first before we begin. I’ve never exactly been “normal”. I never knew my father. I grew up an only child raised in a beatdown farmhouse by a young, high-strung, overworked single mother. Things were good for a few years. We had fresh food and not so fresh water, a place to sleep, and Mom made money (even if it wasn’t enough to pay off all of our debts). Then Mom started to get phone calls from her sister. My aunt.

My aunt was my mother’s identical twin sister, and their genes were right about where the similarities ended. Where my mom was kind and loving, my aunt was callous and cruel. Where my mom was patient and understanding, my aunt was capricious and mocking. She never loved anything, I think. That includes me, of course. So whenever my aunt came over to our house to babysit me, you just know I’d have a fun time.

A lot of the times she’d start by having me eat or drink a lot of something, usually something I liked like chocolate milk. It made it go down easier, and I was a stupid kid, so I didn’t ask questions. She’d wait and tell me I couldn’t go to the bathroom until she said so unless I wanted to get spanked, and then she’d sit there and watch me try to hold it until I had an accident all over the kitchen or the living room carpet. She scolded me like a dog and rubbed my face in it if I didn’t hold it for long enough, and the only times I ever got off easy was if I could hold it long enough for her to get bored and lose interest, which wasn’t often.

But we’re getting off track. You wanted to hear about me, not her. Which is why we’re gonna skip ahead a bit to the time my Mom bought me a telescope for my birthday. What does this have to do with the end of the world? Don’t worry, we’re getting there.

Where was I? The telescope, right. The Krieger-Smith Quantum Satellite Imaging Telescope. The first satellite telescope ever created using quantum computing. Bigger and badder than Hubble telescope without actually being any bigger or more expensive, they touted it as the invention that would allow us to see past the stars and smash through the barriers concealing the real mysteries of the universe, like gamma ray bursts and dark energy. But most importantly, it’d finally let see black holes. No longer did we have to guess and postulate by inference. We would finally be able to study them, and definitively prove their existence. It was all NASA could talk about for months, given that a good half of their annual budget went into constructing the damn thing. $2.2 billion dollars just sitting there in orbit, and for a few glorious days, it was all mine to play with.

Wait, I’m thinking of the wrong telescope right now, aren’t I? This part doesn’t come till later. Whatever, we’re continuing with this train of thought anyway.

The Krieger-Smith telescope. Eleven tons of steel, copper and silicon orbiting the Earth at seven point five kilometers per second. NASA’s second eye in the sky. It could see things we never could. Not in a million years could our eyes, or any other telescope made by human hands ever match it.

As an astronaut, the idea of it was tantalizingly dirty, like a secret mistress. My job is supposed to be exploring space and going where no man has gone before, but the Krieger-Smith could go so much farther. The temptation to sneak a peek is insurmountable to any aspiring spaceman, but it also ruins the outer limits for you forever. It spoils the surprise, and sometimes it shows you things you’d rather not have seen.

But I gave in. I knew I’d be opening the hidden Christmas presents and finding underwear, but I had to know. I had to look. So I begged them to have me stationed on the ISS during the Krieger-Smith’s launch.

Speaking of Christmas presents, I remembered what I was going to say about that telescope my mom got for me as a kid. It was my favorite gift of all time. My gateway to the universe. Mine. You could see Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, all sorts of stuff. It was what inspired me to be an astronaut, did I tell you that? I used to stare up at the night sky with that thing and draw stars. I made a game out of it, and gave myself a point every time I found something new. I loved the shit out of that telescope. For all of the seven and a half days I had it.

My mom left me in my aunt’s care after Christmas weekend. That was the thing about me and my mom. I loved her but she was hardly ever around. She was always working to support us after my dad left, so I was always at the mercy of my aunt. She hated seeing me so carefree and happy. I don’t know why. To this day I don’t know why. Why she hated me, or my mom, or everything else. But when she saw that telescope, she knew she had to get rid of it. So while I was away at school, she gave it away to Goodwill, then lied and told my mother I’d lost it. Who was going to believe me, my word against hers? I was six.

Of course it was only much later that I learned the truth. I had no aunt. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who occasionally had psychotic episodes where she would assume an alternate identity she called “Auntie Life”, and the she-monster I knew was just the way my brain had decided to compartmentalize and deal with a stressful situation during a very delicate and influential time in my life. I was only told after child services had taken me out of her custody. I don’t even remember my mother acting that way even after I was finished with my therapy. The denial is rooted that deep. I just have to take other people’s word for it.

That’s right, almost forgot there was a point to this, didn’t you? Don’t worry. We’re getting there. Almost there. I have to tell you my story before I can tell you my story.

I spent most of my childhood afterwards putting the pieces back together. I studied hard, got a scholarship and a free ride, and went to college and eventually graduate school, where I trained to apply for a job at NASA. The memory of my lost telescope was a source of inspiration for me back then. I liked to imagine that my degree was my telescope, because it would let me see the stars, and that made me even more determined not to let Auntie take it away from me again.

Maybe some things were for the better. Maybe Auntie was trying to protect me. Or maybe she just didn’t want me to see.

Eventually I found myself a house and a wife. The latter is dead, and the house is burned down now. I did it to make sure there was no going back. This note will be all that’s left. I know she wouldn’t be proud of me, but it’s what I had to do.

I’m… sorry, Bethany. I didn’t mean for things to end up this way. You, the kids, I just… oh god.

 

———-

 

Okay, okay. I took some deep breaths for a few minutes, and I’m okay now. It’s all good. Where were we again? Oh right, the wife and kids and house with a driveway that I burned down. And of course the successful, well-paying job that paid for all of those things. As it turns out, I got that job at NASA. They asked me some questions about my physical and mental health history, and put me through the usual slew of tests to determine whether or not I was physically able enough for space. I passed all that the first time around, surprisingly. Can’t help but feel maybe NASA should rethink the way they do those tests. After all, they let me in, and I just burned the house down! I’m surprised I kept my job for as long as I did!

Getting back on track, the job. Not much happened for the first ten years. I went up into space a couple times, did some maintenance work on Hubble and the ISS, but other than that, I can honestly say it was a happy sort of boring. NASA’s budget’s been cut so bad these last couple years that they barely send people up anymore, and forget that mission to Mars people keep telling you about. It’s never happening. Especially not after today. I’d be surprised if there even is a NASA a few weeks from today.

The Krieger-Smith is where it all went wrong. Like I said, I begged to be stationed on the ISS during its launch so I could be there for the historic moment and watch the camera feed from the Krieger-Smith live as it started bringing us new images from beyond the known borders of space. My request was granted, and so October 6th, 2016, I was ready and waiting in the ISS observation deck along with my fellow astronauts and cosmonauts. We were all huddled eagerly around the monitors while Ian and Gregorovic finished preparing the satellite uplink outside. We would be the first ones to see the images from the Krieger-Smith as it went live, even before mission control on the ground. No one was more excited than I was.

Looking back, maybe that’s why things happened the way they did.

Only seconds before activation, the ISS’s sensors detected a high-energy surge of cosmic radiation heading our way, inbound in T-minus three minutes. That’s the funny thing about radiation. It moves at the speed of light, as fast as or faster than our communications equipment can transmit. Once we got our warning, we would barely have any time to clear out the compartments in the immediate path of the surge before the worst of it hit us. With such a high-energy surge crossing the path of the ISS, anyone in the affected areas would be exposed to so much radiation that it would give you five different kinds of cancer if you were lucky, and cook your organs from the inside like a microwaved hot dog if you weren’t. No one wanted that obviously, so we scrambled to clear out the decks while our levels of exposure were still small. But that’s when I noticed something. Not only were we in the path of the oncoming burst, but so was the Krieger-Smith. And it had just gone online.

I knew I had to preserve what precious few images the satellite telescope would collect before the surge increased in intensity enough to fry its circuits, so I stayed behind in the observatory, convincing myself that somehow I’d be able to capture a few seconds of the images it transmitted to us and store them on a flash drive before the surge flash-fried the observatory and me along with it. It was a stupid thing to think I’d be able to do that, and I think I knew it too. But I needed to see. Needed it badly enough that I was willing to risk my own life just to preserve a few seconds of history before it was destroyed forever. So I closed the door behind me and made the men and women I was stationed with evacuate without me.

I stayed behind, and when the surge hit, it hit the Krieger-Smith first, just like I predicted. Checking my watch, I figured it had collected five seconds worth of images before it had gone offline, and so I frantically started checking the monitors until I found the images it had collected. At first I was confused. Then I was frightened.

Now, I wish the surge had killed me back then.

Though it spared me, it did its work on the Krieger-Smith. Not only was it rendered non-operational by the surge, but the navigational equipment became so screwed up that it actually course-corrected into a decaying orbit around Earth. Instead of staying afloat up there in space, the Krieger-Smith’s onboard computers had set it on a course back down to Earth. In a few hours, eleven tons of metal came crashing back down to Earth, killing dozens at the crash site and causing millions of dollars in property damage. You probably heard about it on the news by now. Like I said, the odds of them being around come next year aren’t looking good for NASA. As for me, well… I was still in the observatory when the worst of the surge hit.

I don’t remember it being painful. All I remember is feeling very, very warm before I passed out. When I came to, I was in a hospital bed back on Earth, covered in angry red burns and wired into god knows how many different machines, like some sort of fleshy adapter cable. That I do remember being painful.

I wasn’t able to talk for days, and it took me weeks to progress to the point where I could speak coherently without the aid of morphine. You ever try holding a conversation on morphine? It’s next to impossible. No one knows what you’re trying to say, not even you half the time. Anyway, I finally got my speaking privileges back, and I weighed my options, trying to decide what to say first. Should I apologize to my crewmates on the ISS for playing at being the martyr? Should I contact my family to let my wife and my little girls know I’m alright? No.

The first thing I decided I had to do was warn them.

The flash drive was scrambled in the surge, or maybe I never succeeded in uploading any of the images to it to begin with. But I remembered what I’d seen. In its five seconds of operational activity, the Krieger-Smith had collected a few dozen images of a rogue astral body. A hypervelocity black hole, a purely theoretical object up until then, and one of the few cosmic anomalies we’d been hoping to observe with the Krieger-Smith. Less than a few kilometers in diameter with a density greater than that of our sun, the wayward singularity is speeding towards our planet at over a million miles per hour as we speak, and without the Krieger-Smith, it may as well be goddamn invisible. We would’ve never seen it coming.

I tried to warn them. I went to my superiors first, then to the heads of NASA and the government. None of them believed me. The object that I claimed was coming right for us was dismissed as head trauma or delirium as a result of the intense levels of cosmic radiation I’d been exposed to up in space. Temporary insanity from cabin fever exacerbated by the extreme conditions aboard the ISS, or maybe mental illness, like my mother. They thought I was crazy and there was nothing I could do to convince them. The Krieger-Smith was in a million pieces soon to be a million lawsuits, and the drive contained no pictures whatsoever. No one else had been in the observatory when it began receiving images from the Krieger-Smith, so I was all alone with no one to support me.

Imagine it. You’re the only one who knows the world’s about to end, and no one is listening to you. You try to tell whoever you can that everyone they know and love is going to die unless they act, and they laugh you off as a loony. I know it’s a shot in the dark anyway, but someone’s got to do something. We can’t just sit back and wait to die… can we?

 

———-

 

For a while, it seemed as if my problems had ended with the Krieger-Smith. I began to wonder if maybe they were right. Maybe I was just delusional. I’d seen, heard and thought a lot of strange things under the effects of that morphine. Maybe I was just imagining it. Maybe it was my brain’s way of coping with what had been a very traumatic experience for me, as the shrink put it. But no. Catching a break there? That was a pipe dream.

I started hearing it three months after my release from the hospital as I was lying asleep in bed with Bethany. Its voice sounded just like my aunt’s, and every time it spoke it made me think of her, and made me remember the things she did. The voice called itself The Messenger, and it told me things. Things I never thought were possible. It told me about the black hole, how it was the black heart of a star millions of years old, caught between life and death, and it told me what was inside it. The body of a dead god, still sleeping. The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, Shub-Niggurath. As it passes Earth, it will tear away at the crust, and consume the souls of every living human on the planet. It told me my aunt had been an avid practitioner of black magic and a devout follower of this dead god, which I guess explains a lot. During her worst, my mother was going as crazy as I am now, chanting prayers to dead gods from outer space. At least that’s what I took it to mean. Maybe our whole family line is tainted with this madness, and the radiation that scrambled my brain just… activated it somehow. I don’t know. I’m tired of looking for the answers. Whoever finds this can pick apart my brain as much as they want once I’m done with what I’m trying to do. They’ll probably find a tumour the size of a grape fruit.

I pushed The Messenger away at first. I tried to go to my psychiatrist at NASA, told him I was hearing voices inside my head, things no one else could hear. He just prescribed me more medication. I’ve tried taking the medication, I’ve tried therapy, but nothing helps. Eventually, I stopped pushing The Messenger away, and I started to listen. I asked him questions. Questions like where he came from, and why this was happening. I thought it would give me some sense of closure. No one said I had to like the answers he had though. In as much detail as I can remember, I have transcribed some of our last conversation below:

Who are you?

I am The Messenger. A faceless god of a thousand forms who stalks and crawls amongst the stars, spreading chaos throughout the universe. My job is to inform and to be informed, to give and be given messages to the worshippers of my brothers and sisters, and my father, the blind idiot god. I spread news of the good word of nihility and the bliss of oblivion.

So you’re the Devil?

Some have called me that. Others call me the Black Pharaoh, the Haunter in the dark, the Black Man, the Bloated Woman, the Dark One, and many others. I have a multitude of names. None of them particularly please me. So I call myself what I am. I am The Messenger.

Why do you sound like my aunt?

My voice is merely a reflection of your voice, my form a reflection of your form. What you wish me to be, so I am.

Why would I wish you to be my aunt? I hated her.

Humans wish for many things. Money, wealth, power, and other means with which to destroy themselves. This is why they are the cleverest of the motes of dust that occupy this empty universe. They all wish for their own destruction. Wise.

Why are you doing this?

I do nothing. I am simply here.

Then why is this happening?

A funny question. Do you really think yourself special, human? Do you think of your struggles as significant, your achievements grandiose and meaningful? Then you operate under a false assumption. There are forces much greater than you at work in this universe. The blessed body of The Goat is a good example. To it, you are-

An ant?

No. You are a paramecium. Something that is stepped on and obliterated without acknowledgement or realization. That is the true nature of this universe. Uncaring, unfeeling, unrecognizing oblivion, and nihilism. You will die, and The Black Goat will not care. It will not even notice, or think anything of it. Everyone you know will also die. One day The Black Goat too will die its final death, and then after that, me. And the universe will not notice. It will not care. It will merely continue expanding until all matter and intelligence is dispersed into an equilibrium devoid of information or significance. One day we will all be nothing but heat energy amidst a universe spread so flat it too will one day die. And what then? Nothingness. That is the only meaning in existence. Nothingness.

What can I do about it?

You? Nothing. No one can stop it. If you wish to delay the death of this planet for a few more years, however, there may be one service I can offer you, Jon Stewart.

Anything. What is it?

You can make a sacrifice. If you pray to The Black Goat, give thanks and tithe, she may consider sparing your planet for a few more eons. I will deliver the message, as is my job.

Okay, what kind of sacrifice should I make?

Kill them.

What?

Kill them, Jon. Kill everyone that matters to you. Then kill your dreams. Erase your existence from this world, and perhaps The Black Goat will hear it, and you will be spared.

… I understand.

 

———-

 

I’m probably completely insane. No, I’m sure I am. But I know what I saw. And I know what I have to do. That’s why I’m leaving this, for you to find. So that someone will know there was a method to my madness. I’ve already killed my wife and kids. If I’m right, they were necessary sacrifices to save the whole of humanity. If I’m wrong, they would have died in five months anyway, along with the rest of the world. I won’t say I do what I’m about to with a clear conscience. Because as I’ve clearly shown in my irrational behavior these past few days, that would be a lie. But I do it knowing it is necessary, and with the hope that, wherever they are, my family will forgive me.

I’ve loaded up the backseat of my truck with guns and explosives, and I’m headed towards Cape Canaveral, where it all began. Hopefully, if I’m in luck, no one will be working late hours and I can set up a perimeter to ensure the greatest possible sacrifice to the black goat goddess. All I can say is Houston, we are ready for launch. Happy trails, and ia! Shub-Niggurath ia! This is Jon Stewart, former astronaut, child-murderer and soon-to-be office spree-killer, signing off.

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