IN JUPITER’S GRACE
by Matthew Mutshnick
Her father tapped a fingernail against the gleaming altar and smiled as the amplified sound rumbled over the ship like thunder. He was only following protocol — a routine test to ensure all of the altar’s electronic branches were properly connected — but the white-haired priest reveled in it. He lived for ritual. His close-lipped smile did not waver as he washed his hands in the ivory basin, continuing to prepare for the sacrifice.
Jien Ren sat cross-legged on the temple floor. Her ears had gone numb in the cold, so she covered them with her hands, careful not to upset the delicate shells fused to the cartilage. She made certain that her eyes remained fixed on her father.
She tried, as always, to discern which of David Ren’s actions were vital to the ship’s performance, and which were just for show, superfluous bits of worship. Surely the long, mumbled appeal to Jupiter, God of the Sky, for a safe and blessed journey was inessential. But what of the brown dust he sprinkled onto the altar?
She vowed that some day, as a priestess responsible for her own ship, there would be time for experimentation.
“Help me with him,” her father said, easing out one of the two remaining litters housed within the icy temple walls.
Looking down at the young man — slightly blue, naked, unconscious — Jien recalled their last passenger’s refusal to enter this holy chamber. He had named them butchers, the temple their slaughterhouse.
A few keystrokes at the closest terminal momentarily reduced gravity. The man felt like an empty sack as they lifted him onto the altar. Without needing to be asked, Jien set to work waking various dormant monitors while her father attached sensors to the man’s head and chest. Satisfied that everything was in place, David Ren accessed a compartment at the altar’s base. He removed from it a black serrated dagger.
“Father, wait,” Jien said. The man’s eyes had fluttered open. She dashed across the big, circular room to a keypad at the door. The first digits she input soundproofed the temple; the second set of digits summoned a powerful orchestra to her ears.
The music played for her father too. Hearing the initial rollicking strands of the ancient piece, the priest laughed heartily and plunged his dagger into the sacrifice’s arm.
His nerves had been deadened to the pain. And he would have always been aware that fate might deliver him to this moment. Yet the sight of the thick ebon blood oozing from his wound onto the purring altar broke something inside the living sacrifice. The Saturnite descendant’s lips peeled back in a great unheard scream.
The music softened when David Ren spoke, his words resonating within Jien’s ears. “I won’t need you again for a few hours now. Be a good hostess. See to our guest.”
Beneath them all, the ship’s Jovian engine churned.
He could walk the length of the world, from one end to the other, in under two hours.
Turnus made the trek each day, preferring this physical activity to the fixed bikes and weights and tumble mats, though he liked those exercises too. But the gymnasium could grow crowded, and his brothers and sisters talked. Alone on foot inside the silvery halls, he could better commune with his god.
Before he could set out that morning, one of his Mothers snared him. “There won’t be time for that today. Come, Turnus. Sit with me.”
He obeyed without irritation, as she was his favorite. All of his Mothers wore the carmine vestments, but their priorities differed. Hers most closely aligned with his own. Such was their kinship and her trust in him that she almost always selected him to make the offerings. Once she had even allowed him to lead the group’s evening prayer.
“Do you worry, Turnus?”
They sat on a marble bench inside the atrium, under an expanse of inky sky. A statue of Rael Simone, father of the Jupiterian Independence, most recent son of their awakened deity, regarded them from the room’s front. Another of the H-shaped wolf stations passed silently overhead, ignored by them both. At a younger age, Turnus had wondered whether those self-contained worlds were the same as his own on the inside. It no longer seemed important.
“No, Mother. Is there cause?”
She smoothed her skirt. “Of course not. The others become so agitated during festivals. But you never grow upset. In a way it makes me proud.”
It was on festival days that they learned about the progress of their twins. Many of his siblings treated it as a competition. Early on Turnus had realized that although they had been separated all their lives, and would someday be divided further by their divergent fates, he and his twin were not rivals. In spirit they were one.
So he did not anger to read that his twin received the higher marks in physics, math, and engineering. Nor did he especially strive to improve in those subjects, though in everything he tried his hardest. He hoped the other Turnus did not fret to see his own better scores in devotion, physicality, and poetry (on the rare instances that was rated). It made a kind of sense to him that their skills should be halved while they were apart.
Certainly Turnus never looked upon the photographs and video clips of his identical number with anything less than love and good wishes.
“Does nothing upset you, Turnus?”
He smiled at his Mother. She seemed to seek some sign of his frailty. Above them, the runt satellite of Erinome swam into view. “It troubles me to be so far from Him. I worry that we cannot be forgiven at such a remove.”
Patting his hand, she said, “A year more, only. Then you will be closer to Him. One way, or the other.”
Without looking up from his game of solitaire, Dek Mupedi informed Jien that he was a scientist from Mexico. To her polite inquiry about the weather in Mexico, the man snorted and told her that he was, in fact, from India. “You know so little about Earth. I could tell you I hail from smoldering China, and you’d believe it.”
Jien nodded, and asked after the weather in India.
Several years of playing hostess on her father’s ship had inured Jien to the rudeness of their passengers. Common wisdom back home warned that the boorish Earthman could be counted on to ridicule Jupiterian beliefs; decry as savagery the treatment of Saturnites; and curse the bloodless revolution that won Jupiter its independence from Earth. Her frequent exposure to individuals from Earth had served to confirm and harden the worst stereotypes.
She had also begun to suspect that all Earthmen harbored an intense jealousy of Jupiterian scientific advances. They’ll just never admit it.
They’d collected Dek Mupedi from the Earth’s Moon. While her father had negotiated terms, Jien had checked the ship’s new inventory against the manifest.
Several generations had unspooled on Jupiter’s various bases. Yet still their people hungered for products from the ancestral homeland. Much of the cargo was informational, knowledge stored on metal wafers. This Jien could understand. They were a data-driven people.
Other items confounded the girl. Within one crate she found four bright, floral patterned shirts. In another, a potted, encapsulated cactus.
She had not allowed her bewilderment to slow her work. She wished to be away from that base as soon as possible. Since her last visit, Diana worship had proliferated. The golden deer could be seen on signs in store windows, on chains hung round necks. In the hangar, a friendly foreman urged caution: the upstart Cult of the Moon took a special pride in harassing ‘non-believers.’
Even though Jien suffered an uneasy relationship with Jupiter, God of the Stars, and often felt riddled by doubts, the business with Diana had put a bad taste in her mouth. It seemed like nothing more than a trendy club, the latest fad. Not at all a legitimate set of beliefs.
She reminded Mupedi now that if he wanted to order movies or music for the trip, he needed to do so soon, before their link with the Moon severed.
“The cards suffice. They soothe the nerves.”
“I didn’t realize you were nervous,” Jien said, her voice thick with feigned concern. “Will you require a sedative? There is no shame in sleeping through the voyage.”
With a wave of his hand he dismissed the offer. Mupedi abruptly swept the cards from the round table into a pile. As he reshuffled, he said, “If I desired to rest my eyes, I would have hired a standard drive ship and slumbered for years. The truth of it is that my people are fascinated by the tremendous speed of Jovian ships. I am here not just to travel, but also to learn.”
Mupedi dealt himself another game, while Jien hovered around the room, adjusting anything with knobs, buttons, dials, or switches. She raised the local temperature by two degrees, then fiddled with the humidity. At her touch, a painting of a buck frozen outside a nighttime forest faded, surrendering to Jien’s favorite — a soft watercolor portrait of Europa, beautiful and pale. Someday we will colonize that moon. Honest, solid ground beneath our feet…
She punched in an order for a few random movies, just in case, before glancing into the adjoining bedroom. A familiar wave of annoyance washed over her at the sight of the guest’s bed, so much larger than her own. A small luggage cube rested on the mattress. Mupedi had brought no other belongings. She thought it curious. To the back of his shaven head, she asked, “How long are you to stay at Jupiter?”
He took his time before answering, showing more respect to his playing cards than to his hostess. “As long as my country wants me to stay. It is for them to decide.”
Jien bit her lip. Authority over guest visits belonged to Jupiter’s consuls alone, not to this man’s country — whatever its name!
Each year, the government granted a number of temporary visas to Earth, a token of good will to the planet of its people’s origin. An effort to reconnect the estranged communities. Although Jupiter did not place occupational restrictions on the visas, without fail Earth sent its scientists, hoping to learn.
Jien had always felt the arrangement foolish. Jupiterians had been forbidden from setting foot on the green planet since their subjugation of the Saturnites. Until that ban was lifted, why provide charity? The consuls promised that Jupiter’s most vital advances, especially in the fields of reproduction and transportation, remained guarded. Still, it seemed to Jien a mistake, providing sustenance to a potential enemy.
Mupedi shifted in his chair to face her, causing his thin blue robe to become taut. The fabric, sheer for an instant, revealed well-muscled shoulders and back. “Is there no way to tell if we are moving? Are there no portholes on this ship?”
She shook her head. “Our speed is too great for anything like that. Monitors in the temple chart our progress. If you will make an offering to Jupiter, I can show you.”
Mupedi’s face screwed into a grimace. Before he could give voice to invective, Jien added, “The heifers are synthetic. You would need not sacrifice a living animal.”
The man relaxed, his expression blanking. “Tell me, girl. Would this ship operate without human sacrifice?”
The response required no active thought. Her tongue knew well the taste of these words. “It is by Jupiter’s grace that we achieve flight. It is a small price the Lord of Thunder demands for the ability to sprint among the stars.”
He wagged his finger at her. “Meaningless rhetoric. I seek an honest answer.”
She took a breath, her father’s directive sounding in her head: Be a good hostess.
“It has been attempted in emergencies. The ships have capable standard drives, of course. But the Jovian engine will not operate without Saturnite blood.”
“Interesting,” he murmured, running a hand over the back of his skull. “The blood on the altar must be akin to the turning key in an automobile. Given time, a skilled engineer should be able to bypass such a requirement…”
Jien recognized her own skepticism in Mupedi’s words, yet couldn’t help feeling angered. What right did this outsider have to question her god’s powers? In her agitation, she found herself parroting the very points she herself had often railed against.
“The sacrifices are no gimmick, Mr. Mupedi. Jupiter is very real. How else to explain my people’s many scientific breakthroughs and technological advances? This, despite our small numbers and limited resources. Our presence at His planet awakened Him. He rewards us for our faith. Your planet hasn’t fared nearly as well, praying to your Christian gods.”
Mupedi smiled, his teeth bright and infuriating. “I am Hindu by birth, and atheistic by dint of logic. But I do not seek theological argument. Look to history, girl. The outposts at Saturn were composed of Earth’s best scientists. The first Jupiterian settlement derived its population from that group, with further supplements from Earth’s remaining scientific community.”
Jien felt her face grow hot. She turned from Mupedi, busying herself with the video console.
“Our brightest and most innovative minds abandoned our planet for space. In order to free themselves from the burdens of conventional thought and stifling regulations. From the stresses of constant war. A catastrophic, planet-wide brain drain. That is why your people enjoy enlightenment, while Earth suffers through a scientific dark age.
“The barbaric ceremonies, the silly worship of Zeus… these things contribute nothing to your successes.”
Thousands of years ago, from His swirling red sanctuary in deepest space, Jupiter had reached out across the stars to touch the earliest astronomers with knowledge of His preferred name, so that His planet might be properly marked. To call Him Zeus went against the god’s wishes.
Even secular Jupiterians who didn’t believe any of the stories took offense at usage of the Greek nomenclature.
It was no surprise then that Dek Mupedi wielded the name as a weapon.
At the video console, Jien locked in a schedule. In ten minutes, an exhaustive film on Jupiterian culture and religion would begin to play. It would play to completion. She had had enough of their guest.
“If you have need of something, you may find me.”
A sheet of white paper was slid beneath every door. Upon each was printed one of two names.
Turnus received the name he had long expected. It could not have been otherwise. He went in search of his most cherished Mother at once, to share the blessed tidings, but could find no sign of her. Although normally a constant presence in the halls and public rooms, the priestesses had disappeared.
Most of his siblings had lived under a cloud of anxiety this past year. Of those who had favored one fate over the other — which was, to say, most of them — it proved a simple thing now to distinguish the satisfied from the disappointed.
Laughter echoed through the main hall. One of his brothers kissed Turnus before skipping away. Yet passing through a housing unit, Turnus could also hear wailing from behind doors that remained shut.
The depths of their anguish troubled Turnus. He understood that his less devoted siblings preferred to build than to sacrifice. He could accept that. Still, he had hoped that everyone would accept their fates with equanimity. Did not both paths lead to Jupiter?
Midway through a final trek across the station, Turnus discovered the gate to the center bridge stood open. In all his days this had never before happened. He approached the aperture with a mixture of fear and excitement. Their Mothers were believed to live within this forbidden section. But he found the space deserted, the doors inside locked.
Turnus peeked his head out the other end of the corridor. On the immediate wall hung the exact painting that adorned the side he had entered through. Peering down the hallway, at all of the doors and decorations, Turnus grinned. It seemed the area containing their twins was itself identical to his own habitat.
He found his way to his twin’s cabin without difficulty, passing through familiar halls, by familiar faces. He noted that many of the individuals who had secluded themselves in sorrow on his side of the station here celebrated in the open, and vice versa.
Standing at the cabin’s threshold, Turnus watched in silence as his twin packed his possessions into a box. He felt no surprise at seeing his duplicate up close. They of course wore the same sandals and white tunics. What superficial differences did exist — he had the more defined physique; he wore his hair long — had been tracked through years of festivals. In a very real sense, they had grown up together.
He felt only happiness that he might physically be in his twin’s presence once before everything changed.
“Turnus,” he finally said. His twin noticed him then. In the little room they embraced. With a laugh he asked, “Or should it be Romulus?”
“And you Remus? But no. Let us remain Turnus, no matter what the papers say.” The twin returned to his bed, where neat piles of clothes awaited the box. “We leave for Ganymede Base shortly. And you?”
Turnus smiled. “There’s no need for me to pack anything.” He had received no instructions. Certainly no box. All he needed to do was wait.
He recognized melancholy in that mirrored face, and shook his head at it. He watched the sadness dissipate, replaced by something like understanding.
“When you’re through here,” Turnus said to his twin, “would you join me on a walk? The timing is inopportune, but… The world seems to have doubled in size.”
Jien Ren couldn’t sleep.
She flipped again through the paperback on Roman Mythology, her heart pounding, the sensation of reading words on a page still new to her. Had she purchased an electronic version of the text, the work’s title would have appeared on the ship’s manifest, earning her father’s ire. By ordering a physical copy from an antiques dealer on the Moon, she ensured that the item was listed only as ‘relic.’ Given that scant description, David Ren could have no idea of what his daughter had acquired.
She knew he would disapprove. Society frowned upon attempts to use the ancient myths as a predictive tool. The daughter of a Jupiterian priest engaging in such activity would be considered scandalous. But why shouldn’t she look to the tales for guidance? Hadn’t Rael Simone done the same?
She located that particular story in the book, the tale that had long ago helped set everything in motion. She scanned through the familiar words describing how the paranoid god Saturn had eaten his children. How just one ingenious son, the god Jupiter, had used his cunning to escape this cruel fate.
Improbable. Fantastic. Yet it was said that knowledge of this fable had first sparked in their founder his lifelong mistrust of the Saturnite establishment. With his suspicions aroused by the myth, Rael Simone dedicated himself to years of dogged investigations into his enemy. Investigations that ultimately uncovered legitimate acts of treachery.
The Saturnites had petitioned Earth to slash funding to the Jupiterians. They demanded scientists and equipment be returned to them. They weaponized their ships in secret, crafting plans to destroy Jupiter’s colonies.
Rael Simon’s foresight and follow-through allowed Jupiter to strike first.
Afterwards, when it came time to decide the fate of the many Saturnite prisoners, the Jupiterians again found inspiration in the myths — specifically the account of Rome’s founding. Jien flipped the pages of her illicit book to that important origin story.
Abandoned by their parents, the two legendary founders of Rome were said to have been raised by a wolf. Young Romulus built the holy city. Then he sacrificed his twin brother Remus in order to gain Jupiter’s favor.
So it would be for the Saturnites. They would live in the colonies without oppression, working side-by-side with Jupiterians, contributing to a burgeoning civilization. But integration must have its price. Whosoever carried Saturnite blood would bear as their first offspring a set of twins, to be raised by the state. Upon coming of age, one would be returned to the colonies, to build and to thrive.
The other would serve as an offering to the King of the Gods.
Rubbing her eyes, Jien dropped the paperback to her lap. So many names. So many impossible stories. She had started to feel overwhelmed, and not a little sick that her people’s destiny could be shaped by the acts of ancient, likely fictitious figures.
The shells at her ears began to pulse, emitting both heat and sound impossible to ignore. Emergency alert. Jien leapt from her bed. As she left her room and hurried toward the temple, the alarm remained insistent. She did not believe this to be a drill.
In that moment she remembered her first voyage. She had been unable to sleep then too. It had been fear that troubled that younger girl’s dreams. The ship was a fireball, a bolt of angry thunder searing a path through space. It was not safe.
She had banged at the temple door until her father pulled it open a quarter of the way, peeking out his head, white hair matted to his brow with sweat. In a small voice Jien asked, “Can I come inside with you?”
“Your mother says you’re too young to watch me work.”
“Mother’s not here…”
He smiled. “I agree with your mother.”
“We’re going too fast. The ship is going to come apart.”
Stepping out of the temple to hug his daughter, David Ren said, “I’ve made this trip many times before, Jien. Nothing bad is going to happen. I promise. Jupiter would not let us come to harm in His ship.”
The lie had held for so long.
Through the open temple door Jien could see that the altar stood bare. Entering the chamber, she found the two bodies on the floor: the Saturnite in a pool of his enhanced black blood, her father in a growing puddle of red. The room felt shockingly warm.
Knelt at her father’s side, she noticed sudden movement from the corner of her eye, a hard object aimed at her head. Jien flinched, but too late.
He shivered and woke.
A dark-skinned man in a blue robe hammered the keys of a nearby terminal, muttering to himself. His face, lined with frustration and damp with sweat, was unfamiliar to Turnus. A groggy confusion filled him. He had been certain that the next person he met would be a servant of the faith.
The man noticed he’d awakened. Stepping around an altar that was empty of sacrifice, he plucked a ceremonial dagger from his path and tossed it onto the altar’s surface. He offered his hand to Turnus, helping him to his feet.
It made no sense, but Turnus asked anyway. “Are you a priest?”
Turnus touched the back of his head and blinked. “I don’t understand.”
Returning to the terminal, the man said, “I’ve turned the ship, and initiated the standard drive. But the Jovian engine refuses to re-start.”
Turnus’s mind had begun to sharpen. On the other side of the altar he glimpsed the limp bodies of a priest and priestess, both bloodied.
“I’ve released a beacon. It may be a time, but my people will come for us. You’ll be free once we arrive at Earth. Free to live how you want.”
Turnus grabbed the man by the throat.
The man somehow reached the dagger he had so carelessly discarded. He stabbed it into Turnus’ chest. Black blood seeped from his skin, yet he felt nothing.
“You would keep me from my god?”
With a strength terrible and righteous, Turnus squeezed.
“Mother. Mother, please.”
Jien blinked open her eyes. A nude Saturnite cradled her head. She winced at the light, then remembered her father, and struggled to her feet. “Help me.”
Together they lifted David Ren to the altar, where Jien applied a healing agent to the wounds on his head and belly. She dabbed a little of the agent on her own head too, though the injury did not seem as bad. Then, having restored the temple’s frosty climate, they moved her father’s body to a litter and pushed it into the wall.
“He will stabilize there.” She wished she felt as confident as she sounded.
Jien attended the various terminals, beginning the process of fixing the ship’s settings that Dek Mupedi had disrupted. She recalled his beacon, but worried that the signal had already served its purpose.
As she worked, the Saturnite regarded her in silence. The manner in which he’d roused her to consciousness gnawed at Jien. She told him, “I am only a novice.”
“But you wear the red. Someday you will be a priestess.”
She nodded with reluctance. The Saturnite’s face brightened.
He asked, “Why did he do this?”
“He wanted the ship. Earth hungers for the secret of our speed.”
“A thief of fire,” he said, almost to himself.
Jien looked to the corner, where the crumpled bodies of both the villainous Dek Mupedi as well as their last sacrifice had been shoved. That Saturnite no longer lived. Did it matter? Did enough of his precious blood remain to power the ship?
“What is your name?”
She shook her head. That was not what she meant. “Bring that Saturnite to the altar. Perhaps there is enough left in him to ignite the engine.”
Remus did not move. “That one is spent. He cannot be offered.”
She frowned. “If we are stuck using standard drive, it will be years before we’re home. The ship might be intercepted.”
“Do not be afraid,” he said, sitting upon the altar’s edge. She had patched his wound, but neither of them had bothered to clean his bare chest, which was smeared black. “I still live.”
Jien covered her face with her hands, exasperated. “Yes, you still live, Remus. And I intend to keep it so. You saved my father and me. This ship. If we make it home, I will petition for your pardon.”
Tears filled his eyes. He pulled his feet onto the altar, and laid back his head. “If you value my actions, Mother, you will not deny me this,” he said. “Give my blood unto Jupiter. Let me know His forgiveness. Let me serve.”
Sighing, Jien lifted the ceremonial dagger. She had rarely before touched the tool, and was surprised by its heft. She looked to the Saturnite, the Remus, lying supine, his features relaxed in a beatific expression as he awaited his fate at the edge of this blade. Even with her father removed from the equation, forces continued to push her in unwanted directions.
If this is Jupiter’s will, it is an awful thing, Jien thought, and set to work.