The Duchy of the Toe Adam
Welcome to a planet where worshipping the wrong appendage can get you killed.
Part snarky space cult opera, part visionary body horror, and part parody of one particular pillar of science fiction, today's Terraform is in a bizarre and delightful league of its own. I've already said quite enough—let Lincoln Michel, writer, editor, and the author of Upright Beasts, take you on a far flung voyage to a planet where worshipping the wrong appendage can get you killed. -the ed
We were being taken to the duchy of the Toe Adam. We had been captured or, as the Toe Adamites saw it, saved from the clutches of the Nose Adam during the battle. There were many corpses strewn across the purple fields. The body parts of the soldiers had been scattered like asteroids across the dark expanse of dirt.
My first mate, Vivian, had two fingers on her left hand sliced off by laser fire. I’d lost an ear and had a bullet in my side. Aul-Wick, our piscine mechanic, had shouted curses in our comms, then piloted his aquatic globe into the smoke and disappeared.
“Fish-faced coward,” Vivian said, hacking up blood.
From the back of the truck, we watched the surviving Toe Adamites stroll somberly through the fields. They lifted the legs of the fallen and sliced off one toe from each. The toes were placed in a gold rimmed box.
“You’re lucky we found you. The Nose Adamites are monsters,” the Toe Adamite surgeon said as she slurped the bullet out of my torso with a silver hose.
“Is that so?” I grunted.
The surgeon was wearing bright red scrubs. Her eyes were wide and white above the mask. She nodded and her voice got low. “They say that Nose Adam and his followers eat the nostrils of newborn babes. They believe the flesh imbues them the power of God. That’s why their duchy is strewn with tiny bones that lodge in the feet of the faithful.”
“I don’t remember any fucking baby bones,” Vivian said from her surgical table.
“Well, that’s what they say,” the surgeon said dismissively. She slapped a patch on my side, burned it into place. Then she began working on my missing ear.
“Do you Toe Adamites eat the toes of babies?” I asked.
Both surgeons looked up, gasping.
My surgeon shook her scalpel in front of my face. “Don’t say such blasphemy when you meet the Toe Adam. He’s fair, but not forgiving.”
“Eating babies!” the other surgeon yipped. “Who do you take us for? Those swamp dwelling Spine Adamites!”
Coming to this planet had been Aul-Wick’s idea. He’d intercepted a distress call from a religious colony on the surface. They’d arrived centuries ago to create a holy utopia, but now were desperate for food, certain sacred herbs, and lots and lots of weapons. Since we were in debt to two gangsters and three galactic federations, I agreed.
I didn’t know if Aul-Wick was warned about the Toe Adamites and Nose Adamites. He didn’t have toes or noses, only gills and fins, so perhaps it meant nothing to him.
When we breached the atmosphere, our sales pitch was met with a surface to air missile.
The cell the Toe Adamites placed us in was comfortable enough. A small porthole looked out at the dragon vines crawling across the purple fields toward the undulating ocean. I had a bandage over my regrowing ear, and Vivian’s hand was wrapped in a glass medical glove.
“Fucking wankers,” Vivian said. She was hunched in the corner chewing on a nutrient strip. The veins in her cheeks glowed faintly blue with anger.
Vivian’s species had evolved a million light years away from Earth, yet she looked almost exactly human except for her glowing veins and ridged cheekbones. The universe was weird like that.
“Which?” I asked. “The Toe Adamites or the Nose Adamites?”
“All the goddamn Adams,” she said.
Our stress levels were dangerously high, and Vivian suggested we engage in meditative copulation. We humped against the doorway, which was engraved with the profile of the face of the Toe Adam. As far as I could tell, it was identical to the face we’d seen on the banners of the duchy of the Nose Adam.
A Toe Adamist priest in a long crimson robe guided us to the meal hall. He waved over a young boy who placed two bowls of pinkish hunks floating in tan liquid in front of us. There were hard black knobs sticking out of the hunks which I mistook for seeds.
“What’s this crap?” Vivian said.
“These are marinated mobbin toes, a delicacy of this planet. Or at least the closest thing this planet has to a delicacy.”
The toes were sour and surprisingly squishy. I gobbled them down to stop my stomach rumbling. Vivian asked for a second bowl.
“How long have you been living on this planet?” I asked.
“On the Purple After?” The priest fiddled with his engraved staff. “Many generations. Although our generations go by pretty quickly on this planet. It was a paradise when we landed, before the False Adams divided us.”
“What makes you sure your Adam is the right Adam?” Vivian said.
The priest was unperturbed. “The Purple After is the paradise we were promised, made physical by the cosmos. We are walking on sacred ground here. What is the part of man that touches the ground?”
“Depends how he walks,” Vivian said, belching and pulling the black curls of her hair behind her ear.
“The upright man,” the priest said, “walks on his feet. And what is the part of the body that digs into the lord’s dirt? The toe.”
“There’s no Heel Adam I guess?” Vivian said.
“Vivian, please,” I said.
“No,” the priest frowned. “There is only the Toe Adam and the False Adams. That is all there has ever been.”
The Toe Adamites permitted us to wander the compound. The tech was decades out of date. Centuries maybe.
“I want to find out what the hell started this war,” Vivian said. “Let’s find the oldest, gnarliest woman and ask her.”
I rubbed my newly regrown ear. The lobe constantly itched. “Okay, but please let’s try being polite.”
In the pews of the prayer room, we found a shriveled old woman with white hair down to her feet. Vivian knelt beside her, took one hand in hers.
“Grandmother, we are strangers from another land. Can you tell us what started the war between the Nose Adam and the Toe Adam?”
The old woman looked at her, grimaced. “Oh, all dem Adams have always been at war. Least as far as I can recall.”
“All the Adams?” I asked.
“Well, let’s see ‘ere,” the old woman said, counting with her remaining fingers. “Der’s Nose Adam and his bastards in the west. Them Skull Adamites are barricaded by the northern shore. Spine Adam as his duchy in the swamp. And der’s our pure and holy and good and true Adam, the Toe Adam. Right in this blessed duchy.”
“Wow,” I said. “Okay.”
The old lady gave us a weird grin. She leaned forward. Her eyes were wild beneath the wrinkled folds. “There used to be dem Finger Adamites in the hills. Thin and gangly as a pinky they were. We wiped ‘em out right quickly.” She licked her cracked lips and laughed. “Blew up their pod so dey ain’t ever coming back.”
The old lady was cackling uncontrollably now. She was almost falling out of the pew. Vivian and I headed quickly back into the hall.
Vivian’s yellow pupils disappeared, and her head flipped back almost ninety degrees. I ran to brace her. “It’s Aul-Wick,” she said in that gargling voice that still made my spine shiver. Aul-Wick’s telepathic possession was especially painful over long distances. “He wants to speak: Captain Baldwin, Vivian. Good evening. I spent a night hiding in the green river. Several tentacled fish attempted to eat me. The idiots. I zapped them good. The planet’s ground is harsh and sparse, but the rivers are like jungles of monsters. Also, did you see three moons? Pretty neat.” Vivian put her head straight, gagged. “Get. To. Point. Throat. Hurts.” Her head flipped back. Oh fine. Don’t tell us about your day, Aul-Wick. Don’t share common experiences to create a sense of bonding, Aul-Wick.”
“Aul-Wick!” I shouted.
“Fine. I made it back to the ship. Working on repairs. Be here in two days or I’m off this rock alone!”
“Now listen here,” I started, but Vivian’s head was back up straight.
“Ugh. Can’t that fish ever speak through you?” she said, rubbing her throat.
The Toe Adam floated above us on a plush levitating chair. He wore a long red cape that was clasped at the neck with a buckle shaped like intertwined feet. His ceremonial hat was a foot high and his feet were bound in golden sandals. There wasn’t much of his skin exposed, but what I could see was covered in bizarre growths that looked conspicuously like toes.
When he extended one foot, the priest elbowed me and coughed.
“Am I supposed to kiss it?” I said.
“As a heathen you are only permitted to stroke the toe,” the priest whispered loudly.
“Raw deal.” Vivian looked at me and rolled her eyes. She reached out a finger and tapped the nail of the toe of the Toe Adam’s left foot. “Oh wise Adam, thank you for letting me touch your holy hangnail,” she said.
I followed suit.
The Toe Adam regarded us. He was frowning, lips lined with tiny toes. He floated in the stale air of the throne room. “I’m told we saved you from the Nose Adam,” the Toe Adam said. “He would not have been as hospitable as we are.”
The wall of the room was lined with guards holding laser rifles. In the far corner, I saw a gigantic silver pod. It looked like an old-fashioned clone printer.
“What’s the beef you have against this nose guy anyway?” Vivian said.
“The Nose Adamanites are heretics!” the priest screamed.
The Toe Adam sighed, put up a hand for the priest. “The Nose Adam is a lost sheep. My brother, in a sense. I’m hoping I can save him. And I’m hoping that you can help me. My priest says you came here on a ship? Do you have weapons?”
“Oh yeah,” I lied. “Plenty.’
“A whole cargo bay of bombs and rifles,” Vivian chimed in.
The Toe Adam dropped his chair to the ground. He walked toward us, tapping his toe cane against the ground. “If you promise to donate your arms to our holy crusade, I will take you to your ship in the morning.”
“You got a deal,” I said. “Although how will weapons save the Nose Adam?”
The Toe Adam shrugged. The growths on his skin bounced. “He’ll be saved in the afterlife, as all sinners are.”
Vivian succeeded in hacking into the archives using her cybernetic hand. “Look at this Baldwin. These dorks were called the Church of the Purple After before they came here.”
She had the specs of the original mission vessel pulled up. I leaned over her shoulder, pointed at the hologram. “Interesting. They had five clone printers on the ship, for the five aspects of god.”
“Let me guess,” Vivian said. “The toe, the nose, the skull, the spine, and the finger.”
“No, this says the five aspects of god are the orb, the water, the belt, the mountain, and the vapor.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t know, but there is only one Adam listed on the manifest.”
“Son of a bitch!” Vivian said. She gagged. Her neck cracked backwards. “Ship is ready to rip. Come on over you two.”
I ran to hold Vivian in my arms. Lowered her gently to the floor. “Good, we need to get out of here. I think these fanatics murdered their original leader, the first Adam.” Vivian gurgled an agreement.
“Aul-Wick, the Toe Adam is taking us to the ship tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll meet you at the edge of the Frost Forest an hour after first light.”
“Roger. Do you think he’ll buy anything? We still got those spice crates.”
“He’s expecting weapons.”
“We’ve only got three blasters and a couple dozen sonic grenades. They won’t sell for shit!”
“We don’t have to sell them. We just have to shoot him."
We rode in the Toe Adam’s war tank. It was long and sleek, with turrets at the cuticles. Toe Adam sat at the top, hatch open, his hair swirling in the wind under his war helmet.
“Today, by the grace of indivisible God, we turn the purple planet red with the blood of the heretics!” he shouted. The guards around us cheered.
I was close enough to him now to see that the growths on his skin had tiny nails at the tips.
Our ship was a few hundred yards from the Frost Forest. I could see the branchless fungus trees, their trunks dotted with orange warts instead of leaves, emerging in the distance. The sky was clear and the day was warm. We rolled across the gas flower marshes, gigantic puffs of blue pollen filling the air.
“What the fuck is that thing,” Vivian said, pointing toward a fissure in the ground. At first, I didn’t see anything. But then a two-headed beast pulled itself out of the crack. It was massive, each head as a big a whole man. The creature stood on its hind legs and roared.
“Mawbear!” the driver shouted.
The Toe Adam’s face contorted grotesquely. He looked like he might weep. “No,” he said, weakly.
The creature was about the size of the tank, and looked just as strong. A carpet of brown fur flapped over its thick scales.
“Kill it!” Toe Adam screamed. “Slay the demon!”
“Lord help us,” the high priest muttered, holding his golden toe icon to his lips. “Not again.”
As the Toe Adamites ran toward the mawbear, blasters firing, Vivian wrangled a gun from the high priest’s robes. She told him to spill the beans or she’d spill his bean breakfast across the tank.
In the distance, the Toe Adam’s soldiers flew through the air in bloody arcs.
The Toe Adam was out on the ground, running in the other direction.
“Okay, okay,” the priest said. He finally told us the story.
Long ago, the Church of the Purple After had found a planet that fit the descriptions of the cosmic heaven in their scriptures. They departed on a mission ship, guided by their leader, Adam of the Orb.
Things had gone well, for a while. But after a couple winters the settlers were still having a hard time growing food, and divisions arose. When Adam lead a foraging party, he killed a small mawbear cub not realizing its mother was waiting in the trench.
When the five high priests, Adam of the Orb’s closest advisors, found the corpse of Adam strewn across the ground, each grabbed the closest hunk of their holy leader and sprinted back to their cloning pods. One grabbed a toe, one grabbed a finger, and so on.
Their religion said that each body had a soul, but that the soul could only enter one vessel. They only used their cloning pods on the recently dead. They believed that Adam’s soul would enter the first body cloned. But none of the five sects could agree on who was cloned first.
The Nose Adam, the Toe Adam, the Finger Adam, the Spine Adam, and the Skull Adam and their followers have waged war ever since. When they died, they were cloned to fight again. Each person on the planet had been killed countless times. Their heaven was an eternity of awaking, killing, dying, and awaking again.
This time, the Toe Adamites managed to murder the mawbear. It sunk to the purple fields with a tortured honk. The Toe Adam fired a blaster into the each of the mawbear’s skulls and then led the Toe Adamites in prayer.
Then they moaned.
From the west, the army of the Nose Adamites appeared. They rode on striped mobbins, galloping across the field.
“How did they know we were coming?” the high priest said, hat clenched to his chest. “We have truly been forsaken.”
The Toe Adamites and the Nose Adamites came together in a chorus of shouts, explosions, and screeches.
“Time for us to bolt,” Vivian said. She grabbed my hand and we sprinted toward the forest as the severed body parts fell around us in a macabre rain. Toes, fingers, noses, bones, and teeth splattered on the ground.
I grabbed the reins of a passing mobbin. Its rider had been reduced to two legs and a bloody stump of waist. I pulled off the lower half, and Vivian jumped on. I followed.
We galloped away from the battle. When I looked back, the soldiers had shrunk to the size of their names. Angry people the size of toes and noses, killing each other for a God that, if he existed, was orbiting some other star in some other distant galaxy in the great abyss of space.
When we hopped off the mobbin at the foot of the ship, I looked at Vivian and felt like my heart had been cloned inside my chest.
I kissed Vivian long and hard. She rubbed her hands through my greying hair. Her fingers had mostly grown back. Her cheek veins were pulsing bright red.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “Let’s give up this smuggling life. Buy a little house pod on a quiet planet with a white electric fence and a weathervane in the shape of comet spinning in the wind.”
Vivian looked away. “You sweet man,” she said. A smile curved up her face. “Shut the hell up. I’d rather face down space gangsters and gigantic bears than little children. Plus, we’re robbing the Ice Orbital next month, remember?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay. Never mind.”
The ship was in front of us, engines purring.
Aul-Wick greeted us on the ship’s ramp in his floating orb. His scaled face was puffed and nervous.
“This is a little awkward,” he said.
“What’s awkward, Fish Face?” Vivian said.
“Tell us later, Aul-Wick. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Little bubbles floated out of his gill slits. “I guess my telepathic messages went to all four of you,” he said.
“All four of who?” Vivian said.
But then I saw them. At the top of the ramp, stepping out of the darkness with guns drawn, the Ear Baldwin and the Finger Vivian emerged.