An extract from Neon Yang’s debut novel, The Genesis of Misery, published by Tor Books on 27 September 2022.
Misery’s pad for the night is an anchorex’s cell, a tight little thing in the honeycombed borders of Church headquarters. Walls of holy jade enclose a bed, a simple access panel, a desk, and a hygiene box. A single porthole opens onto the star-freckled void, a scoop of the infinite for the anchorex to season their prayer and contemplation with. Misery has no interest in contemplation or holy writing. She lies flat and hyperawake on the reactive glass of the bed, which has molded to her shape but provides exactly none comfort. In between the Archbishop and this cell Misery was sent through the doctors and then fed, so her body has been healed and fortified. Broken things fixed. But rest won’t come and the ghost of an ache haunts her being. She’s made a game of her mother’s amulet, tossing it and catching it before it hits her between the eyes. She moves slower each time, testing how much risk she can take in the station’s weak gravity. Each thunk in her hand, which spares the bones of her face, is a balm.
This amulet has always been Misery’s. Mother found it on her last tour, loose in the broken rock of an ancient, airless moon. The crew had discovered a new holy site—another holy mural! A whole seraph untouched, ripe for the armies of the Faithful!— and this sliver of unknown holystone, soil-shade and unremarkable, would have slipped past radar in the excitement. But Amaranth, acting on unknown instinct, dug in the scree until she found the thing, looped on a string. “I was guided,” she used to say. “The Forge showed me.” By her accounting she was pregnant with Misery by then, but it would take a month before she knew for sure. Mother should have turned over all finds to the duchex who commissioned the trip, but she secretly kept the amulet for her unborn child. It was Misery’s even before Misery was Misery.
On a final descent she catches the amulet between her fingers, holding it hostage against the gibbous backdrop of the ceiling lights. She imagines that its edges are glowing. When she shuts her eyes, an image of the Tear of Assan haunts her, the pale shadow of her mother’s amulet. Her amulet. Misery tightens her grip on the stone until its edge cuts into her palm.
Misery clings to the good memories she has of Amaranth Nomaki. The shining bits holding up the roof and floors of her childhood. Her mother, brown and crow-eyed and wiry, fastidious in her presentation. Putting scented oils in her hair and fastening bits of metal and glass to it, no matter her state of mind. Amaranth could be stone when she was lucid. When she wasn’t, she was a storm, blowing through logic and mundane reality with ease. Refusing their strictures. Misery would hide in the folds of her robes, too young to talk, blowing raspberries at her angry brother while Mother stood between them with her fists on her hips. After she learned words, Misery endlessly clambered over Mother’s shoulders and asked for stories.
And oh, the stories Mother had. Stories for days, stories for the long ropy journeys between gate portals, stories to fill the spongy imagination of a preternaturally-bored child. Stories about stonehunting, stories about the assholes she’d met, stories about the close shaves she’d had. Stories about far-flung wonders, like the cave in Delphin IV that was all holy opal, glittering like a sodium flame. The absurd geometries of Carmine Angus, built on ruins not made for humans to walk upon, six and a half storeys in each fluted stone cubby, odd curves that the eye kept sliding off. And that sacred site they’d found, a singular and holy revelation: the mural of an archangel leading battle, the seraph cloistered in its stone hollow. The vacuum-sealed sanctity that pervaded every atom of the place.
But Misery’s favorite story was the one about the angel that came to Amaranth bearing a message from the Demiurge, on the night Misery was born. The multi-voiced, multi-hued creature that told her: Your child has been chosen for destiny greater than the mortal life zie will be born into. When it comes of age, we will return to reveal the true purpose for which zie was born.
At five Misery recited some version of this story to anyone who would listen. Crem, furious, dragged her behind the reef to thrash her. “You’re making her delusions worse!” he’d snap. “You’re no saint, stop telling everyone you are.” By then ordained and processing up the rungs of church hierarchy, Crem kept a fierce grip on his voidmad mother, who he would prefer locked within church walls and salved into silent obedience. He didn’t need a mouthy sibling repeating delusional lies. He saw his mother’s madness slowly taking his baby sister. A madness that had to be stamped out by any means necessary.
Mother died when Misery was eight. The nullvoid came through her and split her, peeling back her skin like burned film, ropes of crawling particulate erupting from the paste of blood and bone. The void claims your mind, and then it takes your body. Misery was there when it happened. She saw things no human should have to see, things she’s had to push into the dark folds of her mind in order to keep going. She knows what lives inside her, a festering tumor growing fat on her bad emotions, and one day it’ll burst through her veins and shred her to wet ribbons too. The smell of it haunts her dreams.
Still she kept on living, and by ten she was a stiff disbeliever. The bitter seed of Crem’s discipline birthed thick vines of resentment towards the Church, and after Mother’s death she swore off everything they had to offer. It’s bullshit on both sides. The Larex Forge doesn’t love humanity and the war with the Heretics isn’t some righteous fight against the nullvoid, just something the jerks in charge want. Misery isn’t special to the Demiurge and her abilities draw from the same well that fed Mother’s instability and eventually killed her. The people of the cloth are schmucks who bully their flock into obedience via threats and chemical sedation. It’s all fake, all cartons of popshit. By fifteen she’d split the world into two camps: people she can do business with, and people who are her enemies. Things are simpler that way.
Misery closes her eyes and lets her hand, amulet and all, come to rest upon her ribs. She shivers, reminded of the Tear’s song in her bones and in her blood. She woke the sacred artefact, the Archbishop said. Exactly as the Prophet said. Was Mother right? Is she really destined for some holy purpose?
It can’t be. She knows the reality of what she saw. She knows the truth of the sickness that bides its time within her. She’s hooked to the nullvoid and nothing can change her fate. That’s what the Tear of Assan was reacting to. She didn’t pass the test; the stone was simply giving the Archbishop a warning. They just didn’t realize.
In any case, she’s locked onto this path now, madness and all, lies and all. She has to keep it up if she wants to survive. For how long, she doesn’t know. But she’s lived this long, she might as well live a little longer.
The Duke of Apis chooses that moment to make his entrance, jeweled and loud against the architecture of holy contemplation. Misery sits up, scowling, praying that her eyes aren’t as reddened as they feel. Duke Argan has his hands on his hips and irritation writ large across his face. Is he here to kvetch about something? “What now?”
“Well, what do you think?” When Misery’s scowl only deepens he gives up and goes in: “Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused? How much danger you’ve put people in—not just yourself, but me, and my staff… maybe you’re not aware of the precariousness of the duchy’s position in the greater hierarchy. That’s fine. I didn’t expect you to. But surely common sense would have told you what you did was really, fucking, stupid. Attempting a runner like that… what did you think would happen? You thought you could give us the slip? Nevermind that the Capital is the most airtight installation in all of Faithful space, no, sure, I’m just going to break loose and escape the grasp of the entire Throne. That’s going to work out. You’re brilliant and blessed, you’re better than anyone.”
Misery stopped listening about three sentences in. When the Duke pauses to catch his breath she tucks her feet under her knees. “Feel better now?”
The Duke inhales, and Misery girds for another tirade. But the man exhales every molecule in a huge gust and flaps a defeated hand, turning away from her. She lets the awkward silence swell. Without her usual insight into the clocking of his mind, Misery has taken the tack of waiting and watching how each interaction plays out. She usually lets Duke Argan speak first, an arrangement that suits him very well. He so loves the sound of his voice.
When the Duke has gathered his wits and composure, he says, “Well. I came by to see how you were doing. Make sure you’re fed. Not wanting for anything. I’m still nominally your ducal authority, after all. It’s good. Your interview with Imogen went very well. They’re pleased.”
“Glowing, practically. I don’t know what you said to them, or what went on, but you fully convinced them that you are, in fact, the Black Hole Messiah. So it’s real. It’s happening.”
“I see,” Misery says. She’s overcome with emotion: half excitement, half dread. It’s happening. That’s the best news. That’s the worst news. “What’s happening? What are the next steps?”
A great sigh escapes him. “They want you to make a public appeal.”
“A public appeal?” She knows what that is. Every month the Emperor holds an audience where any scrub from anywhere in the Empire can petition them for anything. That was in The Ninth Messiah too. “Is that a real thing?”
“Oh, it’s very real.” The Duke paces the length of the cell. “Unfortunately, the next audience is happening the day after tomorrow. Not a lot of time to prepare! At least we’ve found someone willing to offer their penitent’s slot in service of the Demiurge’s will.”
Surely there was no coercion or bribery involved in that exchange. Of course the penitent gave up their slot to the Archbishop of Remus out of the pure goodness of hir heart. “So we have one day to prepare.”
“Very astute of you. Not the most ideal, but least we have that much. The Archbishop will brief you tomorrow. We’ll have time for a bit of rehearsal.”
“What are we rehearsing?”
Great. Misery pops bubbles in her knuckles. Why does she get the sense that there’s no real plan here?
What feels like nervous energy escapes the Duke in machine bursts of laughter. “You know, I had my doubts. I definitely had my doubts. You weren’t anything like I expected. I expected someone, you know, perhaps more beatific. Some kind of shining beacon of morality.” Another laugh. Misery’s skin itches; a hot prickle runs from her jaw to her shoulders. “But you know Scripture: the Forge walks unchartable paths. In my hubris, I thought I knew better.” He bows, suddenly and swiftly enough to be offputting. “Forgive my trangression, dear Misery. I was judged and found wanting.”
Why are the religious always such weirdos? Good thing she has a lifetime’s experience dealing with them. “No judgment here,” she says, and nudges it into Scripture: “The eye of the Larex Forge alone shall bestow judgement, for who among us truly understands the workings of another’s heart?” If she’s going to do this Messiah thing, she might as well go full crazy.
“Of course.” The Duke straightens up. He looks delighted, like a child. “But it’s good, you know, to be reminded of one’s smallness, every now and then. Humility is a virtue so often in short supply.”
“So it is indeed,” Misery says, carefully keeping out the traces of irony.