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Raised in the temple by servants and trained daily in sacred technology, the godlings lead a fiercely competitive but pampered lifestyle.
Those who are fast, precise, and aloof are worthy of the GODs' continued attention. Those who fail mysteriously disappear. When an aging GOD-Node must be retired, everything changes.
Thrust into close quarters with members of the opposite sex for the first time in their lives, Julee and Staphan's un-GODlike desires may set them up for failure.
Or maybe it will free them to reap rewards beyond their wildest dreams.
GOD-Node 103 looked out at the changes they’d made that day—and it was good.
But Node 60 was aging. More and more conflicts were occurring in the code, conflicts that took time and precious resources to correct for—conflicts that could cause catastrophic loss of human life. Such a thing was inconceivable. Inexcusable. The Node would soon need replaced. It was time to begin the search in earnest.
Julee sat at her terminal, clutching her hands in her lap to keep her trembling a secret. All the time the GODs deliberated, separating the worthy young godlings from the unworthy and mediocre based on the results of their latest testing.
So far, each testing cycle had confirmed her as worthy of their continued attention, but what if she wasn’t? Would she be cast out of the temple school, a fallen godling among the human inhabitants of the planet?
Would she stay on in the temple, a humble servant to those who had proven themselves worthy? No one knew for certain where the temple servants came from, and it would be terribly rude to ask such a question.
No one knew where the unworthy godlings disappeared to so quickly after being dismissed. Again, it would be rude to ask.
Rude and beneath notice of my kind. So speaks the Benevolent Ones and the Great Book. Godlings have not the concerns of lesser beings. Or those of GODs.
The screen came to life and the message appeared.
Proceed to Masters’ Class, most worthy godling. Your cubicle assignment is M-2.
Around her, other worthy got to their feet, and she rushed to join them. Neither of the godlings who’d bordered her terminal moved.
Julee tried to ignore their pallor and the tang of fear in the air. She was still worthy of the GODs’ attention, and it would be frowned upon if she concerned herself with the unworthy. That was the concern of the GODs and not her own. It would be presumptuous to think of herself in terms of doing the same things the GODs did.
The classroom was eerily quiet. It was always like this when the young were tested. No one cheered. No one sobbed, worthy or not. Even the unworthy had their pride and discipline.
Julee let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding as she eased through the doors that had opened into the Masters’ classroom. Her heart stuttered as they closed behind her. She pasted on a look of disinterest and took the next open terminal in line, bypassing the godlings still taking time to evaluate what was undoubtedly an identical but smaller classroom to the many others they’d seen.
She tested the key function on her terminal, then the logic circuits, and finally the randomizer. Relieved that all were in working order, she glanced around to take a head count of the advancing class. Julee swallowed hard at the truth.
“It’s a much smaller group,” the girl to her left noted. There was a slight quiver in her voice that everyone would pretend not to notice.
I will pretend not to notice. Perhaps the others truly do not; maybe I am unworthy and hiding it.
Julee pushed that thought away and did the mental math on the test results. The group was much smaller. The early testing had only eliminated two to five percent of the group at every cycle. This last had taken a full seventy percent, leaving only a half dozen worthy godlings, three male and three female.
But it wouldn’t do to show more than a mild interest in that information. “They were unworthy,” Julee dismissed the comment.
It was undeniably true. She’d seen many godlings fall from grace in the eight years they’d been actively tested for ascension. The ten before that had been spent in preparation for the testing to prove their worth. If a godling had faulted in taking in the sacred learning to move forward, he or she could blame no one but the unworthy self. So said the Great Book.
A snide male voice brought her head around. “Let me guess. You want to be a GOD.”
“Of course,” she replied simply. “Doesn’t everyone here?” It was every godling’s fondest wish. Become a GOD and return to the source of all. Leave the temple and ascend on high.
The girl who’d spoken to her shifted as if discomfited, then went rigid. She feigned interest in her terminal, performing the same checks Julee already had. So she did pretend to be unaffected, just as Julee did. That was a relief.
The boy one seat farther left, the one who’d spoken, scowled.
“Well, don’t you?” Julee asked.
“The chosen worthy don’t become GODs.” He said it with a conviction that confused her.
“Of course they do.”
He didn’t reply.
She took a calming breath and motioned a screen between them with her hands. “Very well then. I will construct a game-zone. What do you think happens to them?”
“Maybe they’re sacrifices to the GODs and only the fastest and smartest are deemed worthy to be food of the GODs.”
Julee’s stomach rebelled at the thought of it. “That’s revolting. Sacrifices were outlawed more than twenty thousand years ago.”
“You don’t think they’d tell the ones to be sacrificed, do you?” There was a glitter in his eyes and something about his smile that made Julee distinctly nervous.
“Leave her alone, Caecee,” another boy ordered. “The instructors and Father have already hinted that your blasphemy is unworthy of a godling.”
The first boy darkened a notch and looked toward his terminal. Julee turned to the other, meeting his bright blue gaze. At a loss to find the words to thank him without seeming concerned, she tipped her head to him silently.
He looked back to his own terminal without a word or motion in return, and Julee wondered at the sense of loss that flooded her.
“Welcome, worthy godlings,” the Master instructor greeted them as all their former ones had.
Julee focused on him fully, blocking out her mind’s wandering to the boy who’d spoken in defense of her. To remain worthy, she had to receive, process, and apply everything the various instructors said. There could be no distractions if she wished to insure the GODs’ continued interest in her.
Staphan rechecked his code, wincing at the error halfway through. Speed was important, but accuracy was prized.
He corrected the error, then coded the transfer to the instructor. The typical praise of his work or suggestions for improvement didn’t come. Instead, a split screen appeared.
On one side was his work. On the other, there was a complementary program. Scanning them, he noted conflicts that would occur when the two were run together. He positioned the cursor to work the other program into compliance with his. Before he could begin typing, his own code started to change, bringing him to an abrupt halt.
His move to correct the changes ended, just as suddenly, with his fingers hovering over the home keys. In the moment he’d tarried, the other person working the code had corrected the first conflict, without compromising his program.
His heart hammered in excitement. Perhaps he was being offered additional instruction. Such a thing would be very useful in the next testing cycle.
He went on to the next conflict, tweaking first his own and then the other program to correct for it. The other paused for a moment, then moved on to a third conflict.
Sweat coated Staphan’s brow and lip. He engrossed himself in the interaction—the give and take of this new form of programming. His mind was fully engaged in the process and he was only vaguely aware of the godlings around him.
A strange noise rose to a cacophony, cutting through the haze the instruction had put him into. Other sounds followed—sharp, disjointed sounds that had no place in the temple. His heart stammering, Staphan looked around in search of an explanation.
It is a distraction!
Something primal told him not to ignore this distraction.
Caecee was on his feet, using a broken screen to beat the keyboard before him. Shards of sacred technology flew in all directions. The instructor for this lesson shouted for order.
The girl beside Caecee dove for the floor with a scream of pain, blood coursing down her cheek. The doors through which they’d entered opened. The injured girl and one of the other female godlings in the class rushed for it, colliding with the servants heading in through the opening.
Caecee let out a howl the likes of which one might expect from a wild beast. He raised the screen over his head.
Seeing the larger boy’s intent, Staphan grasped the girl still seated between them and dragged her to the floor with him. The weapon passed over their heads, shattering her screen, then Staphan’s. Caecee went to work on the keyboards, and Staphan pulled the girl’s face to his chest and buried his own in the wealth of her dark hair.
The crashing and splintering stopped, and voices rose. Despite the situation, the servants’ voices were calming. It seemed Caecee had no intention of being calmed. His shouts and curses intensified. Staphan didn’t doubt the lessening of sound marked the servants dragging Caecee away and not the godling regaining control.
As the ruckus waned, Staphan realized he was holding tightly to the girl, both of them trembling wildly. He backed away, staring at her.
Her dark eyes were wide in fear and tears glistened on her cheeks. Staphan used the wide cuff of his tunic to dry the tracks of tears. It wouldn’t do to have anyone see her engaging in un-GODlike behavior.
Why do I care? He did, though, odd as it was.
She opened her mouth as if to speak, closed it, then nodded.
The thick braid of her hair was disheveled, mussed by their dive to safety and likely his grip on her in the midst of the attack. He wondered if he looked as disreputable as she.
“Julee!” one of the female servants exclaimed.
The godling in his arms stiffened. Staphan wondered at the reason for the reaction. His move to question her was interrupted by hands cupping his face and moving as if in search of wounds.
Staphan released her and glanced around in surprise at the crowd of servants encircling them, females on Julee’s side and males on his. They’d appeared while he’d been lost in thought.
Voices overlapped, making his head spin.
“No injuries, I think.”
“Julee, look at me.”
“Staphan? Here, Staphan!”
He focused on Father, trying to attend to what the elder was saying.
“Are you well, Staphan?”
Well? He nodded, at a loss for a more appropriate answer.
His house father sighed in seeming relief, then pulled Staphan to his feet. A group of three male servants guided him toward the far door, offering support Staphan was certain he needed, though he would never have admitted such a frailty aloud.
Staphan shot a glance back, meeting godling Julee’s gaze for one heart-stopping moment. She averted her eyes, then nodded to some question her house mother asked.
“Staphan?” one of his servants prodded him.
He took another step away from her, giving himself up to the care of the servants. “Of course.”