Day 9. 65 pages, 30,229 words.
“What do you mean?” Lotus asked, although Çrom still got the impression she knew more than she was letting on. This, he reflected philosophically, was probably worth keeping in mind with most of the things Lotus talked about.
“She resets,” he explained. “Every year is the first year of her eternity. I wasn’t sure whether to envy her or pity her,” this, at least, he was certain Lotus recognised for the lie it was … and yet he held out hope she didn’t think less of him for it.
“She loses her memory?” Lotus frowned. “Or begins a new … sequential mortal life like yours?”
“A bit different,” Çrom said, “but essentially, yes. She has what you might call a very high-shelf variety of immortality, with regular total replacement of all parts. Unlike me, that also included certain selected memories and experiences and knowledge. Like me, though, with Sabata there was a certain amount of continuity. Some things went on even though she was renewed. And not just her. Her entire world was a part of it – to a certain extent.”
“Part of it?”
“Every year, she slowly realises the ramifications of her actions,” Çrom said, “and realises how long it’s been. Sometimes she realises it more quickly, if there’s an outsider there to help her,” he added bitterly. “And she can’t die. She doesn’t remember dying and being reconstructed the way I do, although it still happens to her – she doesn’t get that layer of torture, at least. But there are other more fundamental differences.
“That was the deal she made,” Çrom continued. “Her world, for the universe. For the urverse, she didn’t care. Not at the time, and ‘at the time’ is basically where her main annual reset takes her. Now, of course, Nnal is gone and the rest of the urverse is fine, but Strangle’s deal still holds in Cycleis – in the area immediately surrounding her world, and in the general corruption of the whole place. There are pockets – Labyrinthia, a few other places with exemptions – where sanity has been carved out and the denizens cling to it with desperate fingers. But even those exceptions are questionable. Tainted. Hidden and separated, quarantined by force from the rest of the universe. And then you have places like the Macrocosm, that have just flung themselves into the chaos.”
“So she does remember,” Lotus said. “She remembers everything she did, and why. And how.”
“For what little good it will do anyone,” Çrom said. “It’s not like Nnal’s imprisonment is the same each time. Helping Him escape once isn’t going to provide the method for it happening every other time. But yes, she told me the story,” Lotus tilted her head, and Çrom sighed inaudibly. “Strangle – Sabata – was a normal person,” he went on. “A daydreamer, little more than a child. She had big ambitions, and lots of silly ideas and fantasies. One day, she began to conduct experiments. Dark science, I guess you could call it.
“Whether it was all her own idea, or whether one of the sentinel stones was whispering in her mind, I don’t know,” Çrom continued. “Everything was her own doing, every act performed of her own volition. Mortals have a freedom from symbolism and destiny, a license to carve their own paths, that the Gods envy despite all Their great advantages.”
“I imagine They console Themselves somehow,” Lotus noted.
“Oh yes. And Polettemy Strangle is a perfect example,” Çrom said. “Every decision was conscious, however hopelessly she may have been led to it. The freedom of choice, the free will of mortal beings was a strong running theme in the Second Age. And the prices we paid for those choices,” he added with a short laugh. “That’s how the Gods console Themselves.”
“Arguably your choices were morally better than hers,” Lotus said in her own weird version of supportiveness. “Although perhaps equally ill-advised.”
“Fair to say,” Çrom plucked a Spazzler from the packet and crunched it. “She thought she was delving into deep unphysics, uncovering a gateway to admit a higher energy-form into the material universe,” he said, “and I guess that’s exactly what she was doing … only she didn’t know exactly how bad it would be. Or how-” he finally gasped and picked up his glass of water. Lotus grinned as he drank in a futile attempt to quench the burn of the spices. “Or how unlucky it was that her world happened to hold the prison of an Infinite,” he eventually concluded, “and how lucky she was, if you can call it that, that things ended up the way they did.”
“She made a deal. A deal with what she thought was the Devil, or her culture’s equivalent. Or her conception of her culture’s equivalent, that she assumed her culture had been wrong about all these years. Well, whatever. She thought she was summoning a demonic spirit to do her bidding. Harnessing a force of nature that had hitherto been unknown to her species’ science. Call it what you like. She knew exactly what she was doing, and she was utterly ignorant, at the same time.”
“She offered Nnal His freedom in exchange for His service?” Lotus said in disbelief.
Çrom nodded. “Nobody knew what Nnal was,” he explained. “Especially not these poor dumblers from the backwoods of Cycleis,” he climbed to his feet and poured himself another glass of water. “She didn’t demand His service, as such. She tapped into a reservoir of functionally infinite power, while knowing on a theoretical level that infinite energy was by necessity sentient.”
“Althus of Worlds.”
“Right. Knowing that, but not realising just what form that sentience took and that It had been trapped in the reservoir absolutely intentionally. She set conditions around her access to the power, codifying it into a bargain. The main condition was that she would be permitted to utilise the power with full autonomy on her own world. And that the rest of the urverse – the universe, as she understood it in her limited scope – was an irrelevance that the power could reshape or burn as It wished.”
“Which is exactly what Nnal did,” Lotus said softly.
Çrom nodded, sipped his drink, and sat down again heavily. “She freed Nnal, or at least changed the conditions surrounding His prison in such a way that He was able to play His mythical trick on the Mediator and switch places with the other Ghåålus. And for once, Nnal upheld His side of the bargain.”
“Because it was crueller that way.”
Çrom raised his glass, and pointed at her grimly with his index finger. “Because it was crueller that way.”
“So Strangle actually got to wield infinite power on her homeworld?” Lotus asked.
Çrom laughed again. “Hardly,” he said. “A mortal wouldn’t know what to do with infinite power. No, Nnal just left her a trickle, barely even Godlike, to do all the sordid and sad little things she wanted to do to her fellow creatures. It was more than enough. Organisms are simple things.
“Nnal took the rest of Cycleis, and turned it into a senseless nightmare. Then He took the rest of the Corporation. And Sabata Ramae took her tiny, insignificant little world. She took it and she ruled it and she had her pleasure of it. She still rules it, even now. For what it’s worth. And it was untouched by the Third Dominion, for whatever that’s worth. It was preserved, at peace, free and unharmed. Well, unharmed … the civilisation is grotesquely stunted – how can it not be? – and the population profoundly enslaved and subjugated even though it’s barely aware of the fact … but Strangle’s world thrives, in its own way.”
“They forget as well,” Lotus guessed.
Çrom tilted his hand back and forth, and shook his head. “That’s not it,” he said, “not exactly. The population aren’t immortal, and they’re not sequential. They live and die, they work and play, they go on like any normal bunch of mortal dumblers. They just do it at the pleasure of Polettemy Strangle, and on her whims they live and die, serving with absolute unquestioning faith and adoration. And she in return treats them … about as well as you can expect, really. It helps that she doesn’t get more than a year in a row – in her perception – to get bored or creative … but if Nnal imposed His will on the urverse and allowed it to serve Him in the same way Strangle does, I think He’d have a lot fewer enemies.”
“She rules her world, and once a year she resets to the first days of her rule?” Lotus said in puzzlement. “But millennia have passed – hundreds of millennia, thousands – and the population has completely changed, she must have completely changed, the way you have…”
Çrom nodded. “I know,” he said, “it doesn’t seem sustainable, but – well, it’s the work of an Infinite. Like I said, it’s not exactly a complete reset. The world goes on, and adjusts to whatever Strangle demands of it. She remains aware that things have changed, but also convinced that she is living in the world as she had known it in the times of her descent into dark science. Her desires and fantasies and grudges are transferred to a new assortment of hapless mortals, and she goes on enjoying the absolute power she believes she discovered and harnessed. Her immortality is like a growth cap, squeezing the entire civilisation, that whole world’s biome, into a certain shape and not letting it grow any further.
“Even now, with Nnal imprisoned once again, she wields that pathetic ribbon of power that allows her to rule. I don’t know where it comes from. For all I know, Nnal assigned one of His Lapgods to keep her hooked up. Or maybe it’s just an insignificant echo of His power itself. Only now, I imagine that power is even more limited … still, her subjects don’t rise up or defy her, and so she scarcely needs to use it in any case. ‘Oppression is as often self-inflicted as it is imposed from without’, you know.”
“I thought our relationship had moved past the need for us to quote Müllick at each other,” Lotus said in amusement.
“I’m sorry,” Çrom replied insincerely. “Do we have a relationship now?”
“You’re taking me on a romantic trip in a private step-hopper,” Lotus pointed out, “that only smells faintly of cow.”
“Oh no, it smells quite strongly of cow,” Çrom disagreed. “You’ve just been immersed in it so long that you don’t notice it anymore, and now I’m saying it out loud it really does sound like a relationship, doesn’t it.”
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.