It was getting late – or perhaps by this stage it was early.
“Enough of my sad and uninspired story,” Lotus said. “To death. We are not here for my whims, but your needs.”
“Alright,” Çrom said. “So, what are your conclusions? Ghååla, Fweig, Din, the Great Maze – all out. Jumping into the Liminal or trying to get the dread Ghåålus killed, possibilities but not particularly promising ones. Jumping forward in time to the last page and sneaking out with the rest of the crowd, pretty much a non-starter.”
“How long do you spend dead?” Lotus asked. “Each time, when you are killed and then … unkilled?”
Çrom shrugged. “It varies. Sometimes I come back almost immediately. That’s why the neck thing is good. The less time I spend dead, the better – you know, assuming I can’t spend the rest of eternity that way like a normal person, and not have to come back and remember it.”
“Because the flesh brain is not equipped to process its own nonexistence,” Lotus recited dutifully.
“You’re getting it. So yeah, sometimes it’s just a few seconds. Sometimes it’s a couple of minutes,” he frowned. “Is that important?”
“It might be. For example, you mentioned being clinically terminated and then revived.”
“Surely at some point you pass a no-return mark and are unkilled, rather than remaining dead awaiting resuscitation.”
“Well, exactly. And that hang point is kind of like stasis. I can sit there for a while, but then the curse decides I’ve been shut down long enough, and kicks me back into the mortal coil.”
“But it is a considerably shorter time,” Lotus said, “that you can spend clinically dead.”
Çrom nodded. “Stasis isn’t quite the same as clinical termination, so I get a bit more out of the deep sleep than I do out of being mostly-dead. With clinical death and resuscitation, I’d say there’s a window of a few minutes just like there is with cases of ordinary people. After that, there’s too much damage. They might be able to be brought back vegetative, but that’s apparently not an option for me.”
“Hmm,” Lotus studied him, her icy eyes narrowing. “But you can suffer massive bodily damage and survive…”
“Sure,” Çrom replied. “I haven’t really put a lot of effort into finding out how much, but certainly the odd limb here and there, some paralysis, and a lot of joint pain.”
“But damage to your brain that might allow you to spend a lifetime in unconsciousness-”
“Oh, don’t misunderstand me,” Çrom said. “Comas and such, they treat me pretty much like stasis does, just for a normal span of years rather than an extended one. I still die at the end, when my body just stops absorbing the nutrients. And it’s awful, and I get a nice additional gut-punch of … well, something like your life flashing in front of your eyes, only it’s a life of complete sensory deprivation in a coma, and it doesn’t so much flash in front of my eyes as just sort of sit in my brain like a lead weight.”
“Not something to relish.”
“Not even slightly. It’s just that … if I get to a point, as a clinically terminated patient, where I could be brought back – you know, organs all working, but brain gone – then I die and am unkilled instead. And I’m pretty sure it’s actually better that way,” he added, “seeing as how I’m going to die in either case.”
“Better to die with a few minutes of clinical death on your log, rather than years of brain-dead life,” Lotus summarised.
“Pretty much,” Çrom replied. “With the usual disclaimer about all of them still being deaths, and all of them being way out there on the far side of the unacceptability spectrum.”
“There is conscious, case-by-case will behind your fate,” Lotus said.
“Well, obviously,” Çrom said. “Ghåålus.”
“Indeed,” Lotus said. “He can minister to your punishment, even while imprisoned, on an almost personal level with the use of – quite literally – zero percent of His power.”
“Sure,” Çrom said. “Or, if you don’t like the idea of Him doing stuff even though He’s imprisoned, another way of saying it would be to say He pre-programmed every single incident in my eternal life, from a punch in the face to full body aacturisation, and placed a live-and-heal or die-and-reset condition on every single one of them, at the moment He put the curse in place, effortlessly, using His infinite power and knowledge of the future.”
“There are those who argue that not even the Ghååla can be all-knowing,” Lotus said.
“Most of those happy sons of bitches never tried to kick one in the nads,” Çrom replied curtly. “It might be possible that a Ghåålus doesn’t know everything. Certainly They can all hide shit from one another. But I’m pretty sure tracking every thought process and action a single human will make through the course of the entirety of the urverse’s existence is a pretty simple matter. We might have free will, but as far as an infinite mind is concerned we might as well be completely railroaded by predetermination.”
“Which means He will have foreseen you coming here for my help.”
“Sure,” Çrom said, “but once I start worrying about that, and start giving up on things without trying them, I really will be in a cage of my own devising.”
“You called it a cage of His devising,” Lotus said, an edge of frustration finally sharpening her voice, “and you’ve done nothing but shoot down my suggestions as non-starters and back pocket fallbacks since you arrived here.”
“I know, I can’t help it,” Çrom apologised. “Just … okay, back to the point. There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern to how long I stay dead, alright? Except for a few that seem to consistently lead to a quick reset, and a couple that consistently take a little longer to get me back into one piece.”
“You refer to dismemberment,” the Black Lotus recovered from her flash of annoyance, and gave him a smile, “and burying at crossroads, as you mentioned before.”
“You’d never keep me dead long enough to bury all the bits,” Çrom forecast. “I guess you could take off my arms and legs, surgically, and bury them … then with increasingly complex surgeries and replacement parts you could deconstruct the rest of my body and bury it … but sooner or later I’d reach that tripping point and die and now I’m wondering if it’s wise to be putting ideas like this in your head.”
“Those ideas were already there,” Lotus said casually.
“Oh yeah?” Çrom squinted. “Since when, Black Buttercup?”
“Since before you stepped through my door,” Lotus’s smile widened. “I told you I have thought much about this. What about vaporisation?” she added before Çrom could respond. “I would have thought, in terms of fast-and-painless-”
“Awful,” Çrom reiterated quickly. “Yes, it’s all over very quickly, but on reset it’s all there, like every atom of my body is burned to ash. Which, well, is exactly what most types of disintegration amount to. My brain is reassembled with a nasty problem in its most recent set of collated data.”
“Like the Bharriom dust,” the Black Lotus mused.
“Exactly,” Çrom pointed. “Nice way to die, horrible way to come back. And like I said, destroying the nervous system completely just leaves a blank spot. And not one of those fun blank spots where the brain just goes ‘heh, I’ve got nothing, that must have been a fun night’. A blank spot that the brain screams and shits itself into for a while, then builds a great big spiky wall of nightmares around to keep itself from ever looking in there again.”
“No nervous impulses to interpret,” Lotus said.
“And atomisation takes longer to return from than a broken neck?”
Çrom nodded. “Lending a little credence to the idea that I’m made of 100% recycled Çrom Skelliglyph,” he said. “Atomisation doesn’t get rid of the matter, after all. It’s still here in reality in some form or another – or bumped sideways into unreality in more extreme cases – and just needs to be reconstituted into me. I’ve transpersed myself to shooey and still been brought back. But I suppose it takes a little while to track down all the molecules.”
“But no method you have found is so thorough that it takes you more than a few minutes to return?”
“No,” Çrom shook his head. “At least as far as I’ve ever been able to tell. I obviously haven’t measured it every time, and I don’t get a running count while I’m in between. But I’m pretty sure. Even when I was in that imploding universe, I woke up while the crazy bastards on the observation craft were still cheering and hugging each other.”
“And you are truly ready to die,” Lotus said sadly. “You are ready to give up what another might consider a gift, because it has become a burden to you.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Çrom said patiently. “Are we just about ready? Fun though it’s been, it feels like we’ve been talking for two weeks.”