Day 6. 66 pages, 31,179 words.
“Of course I went. I had to know,” Çrom said sadly. “I wanted to know everything there was to know about the Third Dominion – how it ended, how it began, as much as I could stomach of every atrocity and torment in between … all of it. Anything that might help me. Don’t mistake my refusal to beg Nnal for death with a failure to exhaust all the other possibilities,” he told her. “I just recognise futility when I see it.”
“I never doubted,” Lotus replied in a mild voice. “You also never gave up looking for a way out, despite your recognition of futility. That’s why you came to me.”
“I suppose,” Çrom said, then went on lightly. “I’d also suggest not confusing being indestructible with being indomitable, though. Just because I didn’t have the option of giving up, doesn’t mean I’m determined or anything.”
“And what did you find?” Lotus asked. “On Strangle’s world?”
“You tell me,” Çrom challenged.
Lotus shook her head. “I never went there,” she said. “Cycleis is a bit extreme, even for me.”
“But you knew I’d been there.”
“It seemed a reasonable guess.”
“And you knew about her,” Çrom pressed, “no matter how thoroughly her story has been scrubbed from the books.”
“Immortality is my field, and I am far more indomitable than I am invincible,” Lotus smiled. “Part of the reason I never dared to go to Cycleis.”
Çrom chuckled in acknowledgement. “Do you want something to eat?” he asked. “It’s been a while since we shared that delicious stew of yours.”
“What do you have?” Lotus asked.
Çrom pushed himself up out of the sling. “Galley is built into the aft compartment,” he said. “The smell of cow is stronger, but there’s also a basic autochef and a drawer full of random snacks.”
The drawer turned out to be empty except for a packet of Golden Spazzlers that were almost ten years past their prime, but Lotus opened them and crunched on one and declared it edible even though hoco-nut and Áean panashta flavour was a bit fiery for her tastes. Çrom was forced to admit that was why the packet had been left there for so long in the first place.
The autochef was very basic, but produced a pleasant range of veg-protein meals. A couple of crumbled-up Spazzlers sprinkled on top made them damn near culinary.
“Did you know,” Çrom said while they ate, “that letting the dread Ghåålus out of His prison is a Category One crime? Doing it elevates you permanently to the status of Class One criminal.”
“I didn’t know that,” Lotus admitted, “although it doesn’t surprise me.”
“It’s also, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the only Category One crime – possibly the only crime of any official grade – that has no actual punishment attached to it,” he went on. “Attempting to free Nnal is a lower category and has a whole book of different punishments laid out, but actually succeeding…” he shook his head. “Punishments are meant to be a deterrent, and the idea that any criminal set on freeing Nnal would be put off by a deterrent is…”
“Ridiculous,” Lotus said. Çrom nodded. “Mind you, punishing an attempt at a crime and not punishing the crime itself is really only encouragement not to fuck it up.”
“That’s true,” Çrom conceded. “All in all it’s pretty much a unique one. And it doesn’t overlap with rationality at very many points.”
“So Ramae is a Class One criminal?” she asked. “That’s very impressive.”
“It sounds more impressive than it is, especially when you start throwing around all the fancy Class One designations they use across the Corporation,” Çrom waved his slice of fibrous veg-patty ostentatiously, scattering Spazzler crumbs. “Archdaemon. Higher Devil. Malefactor Ascendant. Urfelon.”
“A little overblown, perhaps,” Lotus noted.
“Sabata Ramae is just a person,” he munched moodily on his patty for a moment. “I actually went to Cycleis to find a time traveller,” he continued. “Never intended to go to Sabata’s world. I got sent there.”
“By the time traveller?”
“In a sense,” he replied, then raised a warning hand. “But if you’re exasperated by my inability to give you straight answers about my immortality or the provenance of The Happy Bumfuck, I’d strongly advise against attempting to engage me on the subject of time travel.”
“Anyway, as we discussed before, cheating my way to the end of the urverse and walking out just as the Ghååla were closing the doors turned out to not be the solution I might have hoped for,” Çrom said. “Cycleis was a dark, deadly, confusing mess of a Dimension, and Sabata’s world was the only place that made sense. And that was only in contrast.”
“How long did you spend on Strangle’s – Sabata’s world?” Lotus asked.
“Almost two years,” Çrom said quietly. “I was there almost a year before … it … happened, and then I stayed for another year to confirm it happened again,” he waited for her to ask, and when she didn’t he wondered if it was because she already knew.
“Were the two of you…?” she asked instead, surprising him with the diffidence of her tone.
Çrom shook his head, then reconsidered, and shrugged. “We were close,” he said, “even though we weren’t what you’d call biologically compatible. A human – at least back when I went there – could pass for one of Sabata’s species with a few minor cosmetic alterations, but that was just on the outside.”
Lotus nodded. “I never went through with it, but apparently it would have required some skin grafts and bone extensions these days,” she said, and shuddered visibly. “Not the worst thing I would have had to do for a visitor’s permit, but definitely uncomfortable. Especially since the whole trip was unsanctioned and the only surgeon willing to perform the procedure was this half-mad Mega Tritzoid with a bunch of swapped-out Halarak parts, who’d been exiled from the Macrocosm for conducting experiments even they thought were a bit off-colour.”
Çrom grunted in sympathy. “Tritzoids make my skin crawl,” he confided. “A lot of the dumber things I did when I visited Cycleis, I did because I wanted to stay out of their clutches. They never would have let me go.”
“So you didn’t need anything extensive done?” Lotus asked, sounding amused. “I would have liked to see what you looked like.”
“I’m sure you would have been charmed. But no, I didn’t need any bone extensions when I went,” Çrom said, “but then I didn’t exactly fool any of them that I was a local, either. Just … enough to not freak them out. Strangle and I were friends, that’s all. I suppose you could say we had an intellectual bond. She was eager to learn about the urverse,” he grunted again. “Until she did.”
Çrom and Lotus sat for a while, finishing their food and washing it down with tinny condenser-unit water.
“What did she tell you?” Lotus asked. “Anything?”
“She didn’t tell me anything that helped,” Çrom said. “She couldn’t.”
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.