I fingered the piece of vellum in my hand. Golden numbers were illuminated against the heavy cream of the material: coordinates to a specific point in space. The meeting place of the gods. Closing my eyes, I imprinted them upon my mind, bound them to my spirit, and shifted. When I opened my eyes again, I stood in infinite darkness. Not a single star blinked against the velvet dark. My breath caught in my chest, ice crystals forming in my lungs before I remembered to stop breathing. I exhaled out what air remained, wincing a bit at the pain. I’d have cursed a bit to relieve the agony, but I didn’t want to give whoever was watching the satisfaction of knowing I’d done such a stupid thing. Silence spooled out, endless and daunting. There was a heavy, crystalline quality to the lack of sound in space, a mute reminder of how very small we all were, even us who claimed to be gods. I waited. It wouldn’t be a proper initiation without some hazing. And it wouldn’t be a proper hazing if they didn’t at least let me cool my heels for a little while. “So. You are the new one.” A male voice, deep and resonant. A star winked into existence right in front of me, its pale golden light blinding after the absolute absence of light. He didn’t even bother to turn down the luminescence a bit, knowing that I would have been waiting in the dark. Just goes to show how much of a tool this god was going to be. “Yes.” I blinked away the dancing lights in my vision and stared at him. Tall, blond, blue-eyed, and built like a brick outhouse — he had Zeus’ style down to perfection. He arched a brow. “Dainty little thing, aren’t you?” His tone made it clear that it wasn’t a compliment. I raised my brows right back at him. “We can’t all have something to compensate for.” Azure eyes narrowed, thick blond brows beetling for a moment before his expression cleared. “Here to represent that quaint little backwater planet about to be wiped, is that it?” “Yes. Whereas you’re playing doorman and escort, so why don’t you hop to it instead of wasting everyone’s time?” I hid my shock, taking refuge in arrogance. The last I heard, it was still in debate, not a settled fact. Ice settled around my heart and curled about my spine. I thought I was here to argue Earth’s case, but it seemed that I had been summarily summoned here to hear the verdict instead. A thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “When your planet is no more, I wonder if you’ll still be as sassy as you are now.” He flicked a glance over me, surveying, cataloging, and dismissing within the span of milliseconds. “A little old lady with a big mouth — there’s no market for that. Now, if you were a pretty young thing, I could consider giving you a spot at my feet, but…” I blinked at him and said in my most courteous tone. “If you’re quite done with your delusions of grandeur, perhaps we could proceed?” “Don’t say I was not benevolent, little goddess. Soon, you will regret your insolence and beg for my mercy.” I drew a circle in the air with my hand and tapped my foot. His smile grew. “I will enjoy breaking you when the time comes. I shall count the seconds, never you fear.” A chime sounded, a haunting note that hung in the air between us. “Ah, it seems that the bean counter grows impatient. Very well. On you go then.” He waved his hand and a corridor of light opened before us. “Till we meet again, little goddess.” I ignored his mocking bow and stepped forward into the light. The weight of light pressing against my eyelids lessened. I opened my eyes, to a pastoral view unlike any I’d seen before. The grass covering the hill I stood upon was deepest indigo, the sky spring green with clouds of palest lavender. A bird with a wingspan taller than I was soared over me, shrieking its defiance. The scent of sun-warmed grass rose in the air, mingling with the scent of something else. Something masculine. I turned. He stood there, quiet permeating every inch of him, so still I could barely see the rise and fall of his chest. His naked chest. He wore only a linen kilt, belted at his waist with a golden cord. His feet, slender and fine-boned, were bare as well. Eyes the color of storm-tossed seas regarded me steadily from under inky lashes. His arms were crossed, veins cording under honeyed skin. Not so calm as he wanted to portray then. I placed my right hand between my breasts and inclined my head. “Amarantha.” He shifted to cross his arms over his chest with his palms to his shoulders, and bent his head. “Raphael.” “I see that there is to be no meeting after all.” Discomfort flashed across his eyes, darkening them further and his lips tightened. “No.” “So there is a verdict I have yet to hear.” “Yes. Your planet will be reset in twelve of your solar days.” The ice wrapped around my heart spread to my stomach and contracted. I fought to keep my voice even. “Reset? Such a clean word for such a bloody reality.” “It is the rule. Your planet has not ascended and yet it is on the verge of discovering faster than light travel.” “That is the rule. However, isn’t destroying the technology an option? Why so quick to jump to what should be a last resort? And without even giving us a chance to fight for the future of our people?” His face turned cold. He waved a hand at the sky, which immediately darkened to night. The stars appeared, more than I’d seen on Earth in recent cycles, and in a more regular pattern than our constellations. Raphael snapped his fingers and the stars came into focus and I saw they weren’t stars at all. Tiny, delicate script flowed across the sky and endless numbers scrolled alongside. “According to your Watchers’ reports, your people have not evolved in the last two hundred or so years. In fact, one could argue that they have chosen to descend instead. It is only a matter of time before your planet achieves true space travel. The collective consciousness has been wakened to the possibilities and it will be difficult, if not impossible to contain the technology. The gods have left their post and the people do not listen. What would be the point of giving your planet another year, perhaps two?” I closed my eyes, his every word a whip against my heart. “You will still be gods. Why slow the inevitable?” My eyes snapped open as fury rose to choke me. “You think that is what bothers me?” He gazed back at me, his eyes steady and cold. “The numbers do not lie, goddess. You and your people have abandoned each other to mutual destruction.” Where to even begin? It wasn’t that we’d abandoned our people. It was simply that we’d used most of our powers in the last great Cataclysm and henceforth made the pact that we would not, could not, reveal ourselves directly to the people any longer. I stared at the night sky, trying desperately to think of an argument that would support my case without having to admit to the truth. Then a number caught my eye, blazing bright against the dark before it disappeared. “Your numbers aren’t right.” “I beg your pardon.” His tone was frosty. “They are numbers submitted by your very own Watchers. I assure you they are correct.” I shook my head. “No. The numbers you have for the last few decades are absolutely incorrect. If the evolutionary coefficient was truly that low for the past few generations, considering the level of tech on the planet, we should be on World War Four right now. Your numbers do not bear out.” “It may simply be pure luck on your part.” No help for it. I had to admit to at least this one secret. “We have a pact with Gaia. Should the evolutionary coefficient dip below a certain number, she will commence cleansing as she sees fit. The number we have is significantly higher than the numbers you have on your report. This pact should have been entered into the universal consciousness in the Archive Halls under the code Sigma Jia Kaph Qop Tet Isaz.” The contract scrolled across the horizon even before I’d finished speaking. He stared at the writing for long moments, expressionless. I remained silent, knowing the look of a frustrated male with a bruised ego. “I will look into it.” He disappeared between one breath and the next, the stars winking out into oblivion with his departure.