Day 10. 64 pages, 30,252 words. Still editing and cutting.
“What if the population were encouraged to rise up?” Lotus grew serious once more. “Throw off their invisible shackles, fling the eternal dictator in a prison of her own?”
“That’s happened,” Çrom said. “Several times. I believe she has even been thrown into the remains of the prison from which she freed Nnal, and even though the Infinites and the sentinel stones are gone, the physical place remains a home of nightmares. Not a fun place to spend time. But it never sticks. It’s just another facet of the punishment, if you want to look at it that way. Things circle back and Strangle continues to live, continues to rule.”
“And are these uprisings always externally imposed?” Lotus asked.
“Frequently,” Çrom replied, “but not always. Although that might give you the idea I know about more of them than I do.”
Every now and then, a mad researcher or renegade historian would find Strangle’s world, and she would learn the truth. Or even worse, a refugee would come screaming out of the emptiness of greater Cycleis and fall into Strangle’s domain. And she would discover that the rest of her universe was still burning. That monsters walked among the people of worlds she would never see, ruled empires so distant they would never touch the observable Corporate urverse. That broken and driven creatures burrowed and built, obsessive and mad, striving to create a place of perfect order and baffling complexity that even an Infinite mind could not pick apart. Long since the return of the dread Ghåålus to His imprisonment, the bargain Strangle had struck continued to inflict its punishment on the universe she had sold.
And she would learn that it had been hundreds of millennia and more.
“Sometimes she lets herself be overthrown,” Çrom said. “Leads her own uprising. When she finds out the full extent of what she’s responsible for, and when suicide fails, she,” he shrugged, “she’s tried everything. Same as me.”
“You could have stayed with her,” Lotus said. “Helped her.”
“I tried,” Çrom replied. “I failed.”
“Did she forget you?” Lotus asked. “When she … reset?”
“Sort of,” Çrom said, aware that this inadequate and misleading. “After she figures out what happened because of her bargain, she lives in torment for as much of the year as remains. Unable to take her life, unable to leave her world through the horrors that float just beyond the reach of its light. It gets steadily worse and worse. And then … she wakes up, remembering basically nothing, thinking that it’s the first day of the rest of her life. The first day of her conquest of a world she wished for so badly she was willing to subjugate the entirety of creation in order to have it.”
“Did you try to take her off-world?”
“Hell no,” Çrom replied. “Look, I may have given you the impression that Sabata Ramae was in some way an object of pity or sympathy. And it’s true, we had some things in common that let me understand her a little more than anyone else. Plus, I wasn’t her ecstatically bewitched slave like basically everyone else in the world, so there was that. But no. My sympathy for her is about on the level of DeColt,” he declared, “except the damage she did was greater.”
“There are those who say she was simply the first victim of the Third Dominion,” Lotus said. “That it was inevitable that Nnal would have gotten free in time. That there were too many plans afoot, that the prison was doomed to fail, and that what befell Cycleis was His punishment for daring to be the universe that held His prison. And Strangle, and her world, was just another little variation on the punishments the dread Ghåålus is famed for. A highlight, for Nnal to enjoy as the aeons go by.”
“You could be right,” Çrom conceded. “Either way, she didn’t help me to understand a damn thing about my own condition. And seeing her wake up those two first mornings…” he shivered, trying to suppress the memory and succeeding only in sharpening it. “The hatred I felt, the envy – it was more than I could bear.”
“Seeing her wake up happy?” Lotus asked softly, her eyes understanding all.
Çrom nodded. “If Polettemy Strangle is suffering a punishment for being foolish enough to treat with the dread Ghåålus, even in ignorance, that’s just fine with me. She’s doing what she wants with her world and when you’ve seen enough of that, you realise that even if she didn’t know just what she was unleashing, she probably wouldn’t have cared if she had. She knew what she wanted and she agreed to the price it would take to get it.
“And if she and her entire world are simply aspects of another of His innumerable hilarious torments, well,” he finished, “they’re better off than a lot of others.”
“And now we’re heading into a similar place,” Lotus said.
She pointed at the floor. “Castle Void was home to the dread Ghåålus’ prison for a time,” she said, “after the Third Dominion. Before it was relocated. Yes?”
“I suppose,” Çrom said. “It’s not exactly as severe as Cycleis, but it’s bad enough in its own way. Whatever was left untouched by Nnal has been thoroughly corrupted by the Darking Church. Although that’s a bit of an oversimplification, since they built the place.”
The hopper carried them through the sky along traffic lanes that were sometimes crowded, sometimes deserted. They arrived at the Holy Forest Rift Question Station little over three hours later.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.