This movie scene suddenly popped into my head at a department meeting today as we were discussing the completion of a long-term project “finally approaching”. And it made me wonder why I had never made the comparison before.
This movie scene suddenly popped into my head at a department meeting today as we were discussing the completion of a long-term project “finally approaching”. And it made me wonder why I had never made the comparison before.
“What would you say is the best way to die?” Lotus asked. “The least pain, the shortest duration, the easiest of memories on your return to life?”
“Well,” Çrom said, “I know it’ll sound like an unhelpful answer, but none of them are easy. That’s the simple truth. I know,” he raised his hands before she could protest, “you said best, and there has to be a spectrum, right?”
Lotus expectantly twirled a gnarled hand. “Well?”
“Yes and no,” Çrom said. “There’s a spectrum, but its entirety falls at the extreme end of a larger spectrum of human experience, beyond the line that separates bearable from unbearable sensation. So yes, there are better and worse options. For example, being brutally tortured for days leading up to being dismembered to death – worse.”
“A shame, but I will make a note of it,” Lotus said. They both chuckled, but it was a chuckle full of awareness of how un-chuckleworthy the topic was.
“The best and cleanest and swiftest and most painless possible death is still a death,” Çrom went on seriously, “and as such accounts for … practically one hundred percent of the unpleasantness of it. Any peripheral stuff comes in at a very, very distant second place. I just want to make that as clear as I possibly can.”
“Interesting,” Lotus said. “Do you think that this … unpleasantness, which seems an insufficient word…”
“You’ve got that right.”
“Do you think that it is purely a function of the human brain not being able to process its own death? Or do you think the dread Ghåålus added an intentional barb to the curse, making the death itself into a tortuous ordeal?”
“I think maybe it doesn’t really matter which is the case,” Çrom said, “but I have done a bit of pondering about it, over the years. And it’s true, He very well might have dialled up the nastiness of it. But the simple fact is, I don’t think He needed to. Death is bad enough without any amplification. It’s just fine for almost every mortal who ever lived, because they don’t need to actually process the data back into a living and operational nervous system.”
“But if you want to talk about the spectrum within a spectrum…” Çrom thought about it some more. “The easy answer, something along the lines of ‘passing away peacefully of exhaustion or heart failure in bed with a small group of sexual partners of your choice’, sounds ideal but like I was saying, it’s really just another death. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be worth trying another eight or nine times, just to be sure,” he joked feebly, “but don’t hold it against me if I wimp out in the middle of the afterglow and sneak away somewhere to get my breath back. Dying is still not worth it no matter how happy my inner monkey is when it happens.”
He shivered, for once not really noticing the bright inquisitive look Lotus was still directing at him. The feeling of your nervous system shutting down, your consciousness retracting to a single aactur and winking away into whatever comes next – Limbo or the afterlife or blessed, blessed nothingness – and then being unwinked back into reality and blown back up into the same old body to just carry on … no, the human mind was not adequately equipped for that. Çrom had come to suspect that even the Firstmades, who had been doing the same shit on purpose since the dawn of time, weren’t actually equipped for it. That was why they were all sociopathic lunatics with severe substance abuse issues.
“So, the best possible end of that spectrum within a spectrum,” Lotus pressed. “If you had to choose.”
“If I had to choose…” Çrom shrugged. “Just a straight-up severed spine is about the best I can hope for. There’s a certain amount of lingering consciousness but at least it’s centred in the brain – the rest of the body’s signals don’t get through. It’s better than decapitation though, if you do it right, because decapitation usually reads like … like all the signals trying to go through at once. Don’t ask me why they’re different, but they are. I think it’s a shock thing. Maybe with a crushed vertebra I’m still getting some sort of signal saying that the rest of my body is fine and the only damage is the spine and there’s no real need for a lot of impulses that are only going to make my brain unhappy. Cutting the head off allows the whole ‘massive cutting trauma across neck’ message to go through, and that translates into ‘let’s say the whole body has been mangled to a pulp to save time’. But destroying the brain itself,” he raised a finger. “Worse, not better. Because that’s when the real no-fucking-idea comes out to play and I wake up with a hideous nightmarish nothing-spot. No shock, no gentle loss of signal, just straight to the raw death.”
“What of the famed sleeping killers?” Lotus asked. “Sedation and overdose? Drowning? Hypothermia?”
Çrom shook his head. “No, no and no,” he said. “All awful. The people who say those things are like falling asleep all have one obvious thing going for them – they don’t actually die. Oh, maybe they do, clinically … but if they do it’s not for long, not for keeps, and they are revived into the same body and the same brain. With the added benefit of a bit of oxygen deprivation or some other trauma to pack wool around the whole thing. Lucky bastards,” he shook his head. “The consciousness defends itself by wiping out the real sensations retroactively, and substituting a gentle going-away feeling that you could swear you really experienced at the time. The brain fools itself. We’ve bred for that, selectively, over the millennia.”
“And you have been dragged along with the flotilla,” Lotus smiled.
Çrom laughed shortly. “Exactly. I don’t get that thoughtful little retcon action when I get killed. Trust me when I tell you,” he concluded. “I’ve been clinically dead and then resuscitated, and it’s entirely different to being properly killed and then unkilled.”
“That brings us back to the question of the unkill – the reset itself,” the Black Lotus leaned forward eagerly. “When you are injured or sedated to the point of clinical death, and revived, your consciousness fades as your nervous system shuts down, your soul – according to current theories – retracts to unreality … but then your flesh is resupplied with the necessary substances, the damage is repaired, your nervous system resumes activity and the connection – not actually broken, so much as thinned to a thread – is brought back to fullness. You are the same, occupying the same flesh, and you continue.”
Çrom nodded. “Sounds clinical enough.”
“Yet you are saying that this does not occur,” the Black Lotus pressed, “when you are killed and then unkilled by your curse.”
“You die completely, the connection severed. And then it is forcibly reforged, and you are placed in a new housing of flesh, practically identical to the one you wore before.”
“Right,” Çrom said again. “Except for the cause of death being edited out – you know, the physical damage repaired – and maybe a tiny evolutionary change written in to be going along with.”
“But not the same flesh.”
“Not the same,” Çrom said, and frowned, “I guess.”
“What, then, happens to the flesh that died?”
“No idea,” Çrom said. “I’ve never woken up beside a carcass of myself, except in those cloning exercises we talked about earlier. I think it’s recycled. I mean, the matter is basically exactly what the universe needs in order to build a new Çrom Skelliglyph, give or take a few molecules here and there. The most efficient way to rebuild me, really, is to reuse the material I was made out of originally. So you could say it’s the same matter, but not the same meat. It’s completely scrubbed, like a stolen starship.”
“And has this recycling been studied in action?”
“Of course,” Çrom said. “Nothing very conclusive was ever found, though.”
“And why is that?”
“Because medical instruments and magically enhanced senses are no better equipped to deal with a carcass turning back into a person than the brain inside that carcass is,” Çrom said. “You know, if I had to guess. They don’t seem to find it as awful as I do, but they’re still basically left at a complete loss. How close are we to my death now?”
“Closer than ever before.”
“That doesn’t mean much. It just means time is unidirectional,” Çrom sighed. “Tell me something, Lotus,” she raised an eyebrow. “Tell me why you really study immortality.”
“Ah,” she said, her smile bitter. “Have you not guessed the answer to so paltry a mystery, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph?”
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.
My day went to abrupt meltdown-level shit so although I have a part ready to post, I’m going to leave it until tomorrow so I have a chance to unpack and get my head back together again.
Instead, I adapted one of my blog comments into a relevant aki’Pedia page on the subject of omnicide. Enjoy. Again. I guess.
– Posted from my meh
“Ah,” the Black Lotus said. “So you concede that, as dire as your eternal punishment is, it is not as bad as it could be.”
“That was never a matter for debate,” Çrom protested. “I was made this way by an Infinite. If you think there aren’t infinite ways it can be made worse, you haven’t been paying attention,” he scowled at her. “And you have been paying attention,” he concluded accusingly. Lotus responded with a slow, reptilian blink. “So what’s with the line of questioning?”
“I endeavour to ask the questions nobody else has,” Lotus replied simply. “And if I cannot do that, then at least I will ask the questions that have not been asked by me. Because I will ask them better.”
“That makes no – what – wait, is that … are you quoting Müllick at me now?”
“The man was a pompous buffoon, but his only real mistake was in believing any other species could hope to operate on the Molran level,” Lotus said.
“That, and collaborating with the Kikelore Think Tank.”
Lotus acknowledged this with a brief grimace. “Those who are granted immortality should consider not only the brief mortals who would trade places with them in a heartbeat, but also the eternally suffering who would do the same,” she rallied.
“I suppose it depends on the type of immortality you’re given,” Çrom admitted, feeling helplessly ungrateful and churlish in the light of Lotus’s fervour.
“And the fact remains that there are good and bad forms of immortality,” Lotus pressed her advantage, “and the immortality you have been given is among the better forms one might hope for – despite having come from the dread Ghåålus Himself,” she pointed a crooked, grimy-nailed finger at him. “Is it not?”
“I guess,” Çrom allowed, after a few more moments’ dubious scowling. “The dread Ghåålus wasn’t all that interested in tormenting me with one of the bottom-shelf varieties.”
“There were already plenty of those to provide amusement,” Lotus suggested. “In the various Hells.”
“Right. Not much point in making it actively nasty. Just living will do enough, after a certain point,” Çrom shrugged. “Always room to downgrade me if I misbehave or get too boring.”
“You are not concerned that this will constitute misbehaviour?”
“Not overly. But you know, no stone unturned and all that,” Çrom spread his hands. “I suppose the dread Ghåålus did go all out to give me the deluxe package.”
“Deluxe, but not Din deluxe,” Lotus said with a smile.
“Well, there’s always something better, isn’t there?” Çrom philosophised. “Maybe the immortality I was saddled with wasn’t as good as an immortality that allowed me to live happy and undamaged without dying and experiencing the horror of that death on a semi-regular basis … did my esteemed associate in the Greater ‘Urbs seem happy?”
“Extremely,” Lotus said. “His mansion was grotesquely well-stocked. I imagine that Judgement Day is going to come far too soon and be a distinct disappointment to him.”
“Maybe I should drop by and make friends,” Çrom remarked.
Lotus blinked. “You haven’t acquainted yourself with other eternals?”
“God no,” Çrom shuddered at the thought. “It’s – the idea’s like – well, have you made friends with any of the other Danes who’ve migrated to this area?”
Lotus shook her head. “I moved to get away from the big drunk bastards.”
Çrom pointed. “Exactly.”
Lotus laughed and shook her head again. “Still,” she went on, “this leads us to a quite obvious solution to your little eternity issue.”
“What?” Çrom blurted.
“Your punishment ends on Judgement Day,” Lotus pointed out. “Why not simply … get there faster? It seems that even though stasis is fatal, before your inevitable death you do still manage to skip through a few centuries, yes?”
Çrom didn’t mention his strong suspicion at this point, which was that any attempt to cheat his way to the finish line would probably result in dreadful consequences. Consequences he didn’t even want to think about, but quite possibly involving some of those bottom-shelf varieties of immortality they’d been circling around. At least trying and failing to permanently kill himself would only result in another death for him to endure. If you could say only of something like that.
“I’ve thought about jumping through time in a series of stasis chambers,” he said truthfully. “Minimise the number of deaths I have to go through before the end. Sorry to say, it just doesn’t work out logistically. Stasis is generally unpleasant for human physiology, for one thing, and for another … dying after six hundred years on ice starts with a nice recap of six hundred years of nightmarish pain, condensed into however long it takes my death to fit itself into my memory.”
“But a successful stretch in stasis, followed by revival, then killing yourself before starting a new stretch…” Lotus suggested, then shook her head. “Convoluted.”
“Very. Not impossible, but also not really sustainable,” Çrom agreed. “Hard to find a place where I can put an entire-urverse’s-history’s-worth of stasis devices where they’ll last long enough, for that matter. And sooner or later I wind up being dug out of a dead city’s potato cellar by a bunch of enthusiastic archaeologists in the middle of a stasis technology drought.”
“So you have considered it,” Lotus said, “but not actually followed through.”
“Tried it,” Çrom said, “but am yet to find a way of taking it further. Not bad for the occasional shortcut,” he added encouragingly. “Not a final solution. And I’ve tried the Time Destroyers, and even a couple of actual time travellers of various stripes,” he went on before Lotus could respond, “just to save on stasis chamber spare parts and storage rental, which … even if you pay for long-term, gets really prohibitive around the trillion-year mark.”
“None of them wanted to annoy Limbo or the dread Ghåålus,” Lotus guessed.
“Very well, then,” she said, and leaned forward. Çrom felt his pulse give a silly little jitter. “Now,” she went on in a low purr, “to the matter of your death.”
“Wasn’t that the matter we’ve been talking about for the past couple of hours?” Çrom chuckled uncertainly.
“Of course,” the Black Lotus said, and smiled again. “Only now, I know much more than I did when we started out. And your death is much closer at hand.”
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark.
They looped back around to the concept of soul damage.
“Is it possible,” the Black Lotus mused, “for you to fall afoul of a practitioner of outlawed soul magics? You said you were unable to soul-journey, but it is also possible for such renegade sorcerers to capture a soul directly from its housing of flesh.”
“I suppose it’s possible,” Çrom said. “Sooner or later, though, damage to the soul shuts the whole thing off and kills the body. That’s where it all ends for most people but starts over for me. Any attempt to remove the soul for experimentation just resets me, like possession. Messing around with the soul while it’s still in my body is basically a different kind of torture. And I know for a fact that a good torturer can keep me alive more or less indefinitely, with the added bonus that if they mess up, they get a fresh new victim to play with. At that point it just becomes a question of how much damage a body or a soul can take before dying.”
“I do not think interference with your soul is the answer,” the Black Lotus said, much to Çrom ‘s relief. “We already know a lot about the mechanics there, from your undeath and possession experiences.”
“If you say so,” Çrom replied. “Are you in a position to do any soul-messing anyway?”
“Absolutely not,” the Black Lotus said with another weird-cute smirk. “That would be against the law despite the waivers you have signed.”
“Understood,” Çrom said with a solemn wink.
“Are you aware of the case of Quintox Lelhbron?”
“Wasn’t she revealed as a fraud?” Çrom asked.
“She was revealed to not actually belong to the Lelhbron line,” Lotus clarified, “and much of her credibility and all of her mystic and commercial patronage was lost. But her work was creditable.”
“Afraid I haven’t really looked into it,” Çrom admitted.
“It is unlikely to have a bearing on your situation,” Lotus admitted, “except I suspect that her final proof was – by complete coincidce – a crude mortal attempt to replicate your precise form of immortality.”
“Quintox had perfected an anatomical fabrication method that was said to have been stolen from the near-mortal Firstmades when they made their own new incarnations,” Lotus said. “It was not quite so specialized or high-quality, but she was able to create operational Molran bodies and nervous systems into which she could soul-travel at will.”
“Creating a line of incarnations for herself,” Çrom said.
“Yes. She managed to extend her life almost thirty thousand years in this manner,” Lotus said, “well beyond the destruction of her original flesh. The official story was that she died when her original body did, due to some mystic connection that Firstmades understand but we mere mortals do not. Her experiments caused a lot of outrage among the Brotherhoods.”
“But you have the unofficial story?”
“The truth was, she went into hiding and eventually succumbed to … simple exhaustion, really,” Lotus said. “The majority of her existence was dedicated to the process of generating and perfecting her next body, since she never really got the fabrication working smoothly due to interference on numerous levels. That, and the soul-journeying concentration required to remain linked to her new body, it was not as solid a connection as the body one is born in. At some point she must have weighed up the benefit of living if all she could do with that life was to prepare the required materials for prolonging it … and she decided it was no longer worth pursuing. Her journals also spoke of a profound psychological weariness due to extreme age.”
“You had her journals?”
“I studied her secret writings, the continuation of her work after her supposed death,” Lotus said. “Most of her experiments took place when the Elder Accords were in their infancy, before the Corporation was fully forged. There are more constraints on such things, now. But I believe that your case is similar – you are moved to a fresh body, the only difference being that the mechanism for producing the flesh is not centralised into a machine the way hers was. And that her soul and mind continued to age and change and grow weary, while yours seems to replenish as completely as your flesh does.”
“Not quite so completely,” Çrom said. “I still get weary … I just don’t get to opt out of reincarnation the way Quintox did.”
The Black Lotus nodded. “That, too, may explain why you retain memories up to a point, but not a perfect record that could not possibly fit into a human brain. I know the story of another famous Lelhbron.”
“You know a lot about immortals,” Çrom joked. “Know your enemy, I suppose.”
“In a sense,” Lotus said, although she avoided his eyes. “As a healer must study injuries and disease, so must a killer study the undying.”
“Did this other Lelhbron spend thirty thousand years brewing up clone after clone to possess?” Çrom asked, although he already suspected what Lotus was going to say.
“No. This one was attempting some higher and absolutely forbidden magic, and his soul was torn in half,” she replied.
“I’ve heard this one,” Çrom said. “He became unable to die, and unable to feel emotions. Or something like that. So he messed with Ghåålus-level stuff, and wound up with an even crappier version of immortality than I got.”
“‘Crappier’?” she repeated in amusement.
“I suppose it’s always possible that the dread Ghåålus left room for me to mess around trying to find a way out of this, and wind up punishing myself by making my eternity so much more unbearable,” Çrom conceded. “But I have a strong suspicion that any change I make to my own circumstances would be temporary. And the punishment sufficiently dreadful that I would never even think about doing it again.”
Lotus tilted her head. “You have not wondered if perhaps, if you must endure until the end of days, that an eternal existence without fear or hatred, boredom or love, joy or pain … would be preferable to one with all of these emotions?”
Çrom didn’t even hesitate.
“Not once,” he said.
– Posted from my Huawei mobile phone while sitting in the carpark after hours.
“I was contracted to kill another true eternal once,” she told him. “You are aware, of course, of the many different kinds of immortality that may be bestowed upon an organism.”
“Sure,” Çrom said easily. “All the various kinds of undeath, all the way up to deification – and all the shitty ways Ghååla and Gods and sorcerers and scientists can force a piece of meat to go on being fresh in between.”
The Black Lotus looked uncomfortable, and Çrom wondered if he had once again stumbled into some sort of professional slight, or uncovered a wound she had been hiding. Perhaps in her quest to become the Corporation’s most renowned yet unsung killer, she’d consorted – or perhaps even cavorted – with killers of entirely darker and stranger orders.
He tried to dismiss the mental image of the Black Lotus cavorting, and found it remarkably difficult.
“This was a human who had been granted everlasting life by the Din,” the Black Lotus said. “It was … the most perfect immortality I have seen in a being of flesh. And that includes you, Sorry Çrom Skelliglyph. I am sorry if this bruises your ego,” she added, with another little lopsided smile.
“My poor ego,” Çrom said vaguely. “I think I know the guy you mean. Has a great big ghastly mansion in the Greater ‘Urbs? Very hard to reach without an appointment, basically impossible to actually get an appointment?”
The Black Lotus nodded. “Have you sought the Din?” she asked.
“Of course I have,” Çrom said, then blinked, and pointed – at himself, then at her, in mounting amusement. “Wait, were They your fourth option?”
“Oh,” he cast about for a way to salvage her feelings, but it didn’t seem necessary. This was just another opening, another avenue to explore, a launching pad for more ideas. She had, he was suddenly certain, already known he’d sought out the Din. It stood to reason, since there were few legends more famously based around all-powerful Entities capable of defying even the laws of the Infinites. And Çrom had investigated every one of these legends – those with the merest scrap of credibility, and those without. “Um, well, yes. I went looking. But the Din – while there is certainly evidence of Their existence, and of Their power – are even more of a dead end than the Fweig.”
Yes, Çrom was aware of the story of the Din. How could he not be?
Some centuries previously, the Din had appeared out of absolute flat-balls nowhere. They’d granted wishes – any wishes, to anyone fortunate enough to encounter one of Them – in seemingly total disregard of the rule of the Infinites and the integrity of space and time. And then, as suddenly as They’d appeared, They had vanished again.
They’d left behind an urverse that was pretty much the same as it had been before … but then, given that many of the wishes had apparently had and it was always this way baked into them, how would anyone know? Maybe the urverse had been a bunch of glittering motes suspended in a glass of zolo before. Maybe there had only been three Infinites. Maybe reality and unreality had been identical except everyone in unreality had beards. Nobody knew. For the most part, the obvious changes that had been wrought were along the lines of a petty thief who suddenly owned a Fhaste original spacecraft, or a homeless beggar who suddenly had a bowl of stew that never ran out … or a disreputable human vagabond who suddenly had eternal life and a mansion in the most exclusive residential area in Capital Mind.
Fortunately, it seemed as though most of the wishes had been offered to people who weren’t particularly bright or imaginative, and so – the inability to ever really know for sure notwithstanding – their impact on the aforementioned integrity of space and time had been minimal. And most of the poor bastards had been murdered and their things taken off them within hours of the Din vanishing. That was The Centre for you. But it had been a Phenomenon worthy of proper noun status, and had found its way into Capital Mind folklore before the mangled bodies of the mugged and robbed wish-recipients had found their way into the city’s morgues.
Of course, it was said that Limbo had ended Them. Formed an accord with Them. Wished Them into captivity. Take your pick. And Çrom had investigated every rumour, chased down every thread.
He’d missed the Din, when They had come to The Centre. At the time, it had seemed obvious that he would. Nnal would never allow him to wish himself mortal again. That would be … stupid.
“Most of the academic work dealing with the Din in any serious way insist that They must have actually been some manifestation of Fweig,” the Black Lotus said. “Singular or plural.”
Çrom nodded. “That, or Infinites-plus-one from the wild deeps of the Elsewhere beyond the urverse,” he said with a portentous waggling of his fingers.
“The majority of the stories place Their prison somewhere on the Dark Paths, or in the Imp’s domain at the centre of the Dark Paths,” Çrom went on. “So – basically the Seven Hells, which is one of the most dangerous places Beyond the Walls. Which is already plenty dangerous.”
“Yes,” the Black Lotus agreed.
“Not the sort of place you just wander around, looking for lamps to rub or rings to turn thrice on your finger,” he added. Then he tilted his head, not realising he was mimicking Lotus’s mannerism until it was done. “Did you kill him?” he asked. “My embarrassingly financially successful immortal associate?”
“No,” the Black Lotus smiled. “I do not believe I was permitted to. Reality rewrote itself to uphold the wish and preserve his life, perhaps. The commission was withdrawn, and I opted not to risk my perfect record by pursuing the contract on a freelance basis.”
“Freelance,” Çrom chortled. “Well, I’m sorry to inform you that the Din aren’t the answer we’re looking for here.”
The Black Lotus’s smile widened yellowly. “Never mind,” she said. “That just means our search continues – and that we must dig deeper, you and I.”
Çrom watched her as she pondered what she had learned so far. He answered her questions untiringly – and unhesitatingly – when she continued to quiz him in relentless succession about the specifics of his many deaths, his vague and disjointed memories of long-gone lifetimes, and the studies that had taken place regarding his physiology. He watched her, and worry – no, not worry; fear – began to worm its way coldly up through his intestines.
He was beginning to realise that it had been a terrible mistake to come here … but not for the reasons he’d originally considered.
No. He was beginning to think that maybe this was a woman he wouldn’t mind dying for. And not because he thought it would stick. Not for the data it might provide. Not for the possibility it might bring them one step closer to his final death. Not for any of that.
He’d do it, he realised, just for that look of bright blue curiosity in her eyes.
For the overwhelming majority of the history of the urverse, Nnal had been imprisoned like any self-respecting Dark God myth demanded. For brief periods – the Dominions – He had walked free, and these had typically not been happy times for anyone involved. With the possible exception of Nnal Himself … but only possibly.
The Firstmades generally remembered it best, although they preferred not to. Most mortal species of sufficient seniority had subsumed their memories of the Dominions entirely – not just on the scale of history and myth and legend, but on a level approaching genetic knowledge … or in this case genetic ignorance. Only the Elder Races and some other notable exceptions, or extraordinarily educated or inquisitive members of lesser species, even suspected the dread Ghåålus existed. The majority of the urverse’s life-forms, mortal and immortal alike, actively pursued a state of blissful obliviousness – and they achieved it.
Until the day came when He emerged from His captivity and subjugated reality all over again, bending and twisting creation itself to His whims in the most dark and horrific ways. Visiting vengeance and destruction on His foes that only an infinite mind could encompass, and which made mortal minds devour themselves in sheer revulsion.
Ludicrously overblown hyperbole was the only way to even attempt to do justice to the foul deeds of Nnal.
And His foes were everywhere. Even those civilisations – including the self-styled Master Races of Damorak, Time Destroyer, Deathmite and Dark Realmer and assorted others – who attempted to ally themselves with the dread Ghåålus found that it was no protection. He wrought His will upon them no less disgracefully, rewarding their loyalty with defilement and pain. Oh, some He raised up, like the Lapgods and other fortunate worshippers … but it ultimately made no difference. You don’t strike bargains with the burning fire. You don’t worship the gathering dark. Enemy or friend, Nnal trampled them all into the dirt.
And yet, despite this, He continued to have adherents. The allure of becoming one of those favoured few, to escape His Dominion unscathed and even enriched by the calamity, proved too great to resist. And the fear of the punishments awaiting open enemies to the dread Ghåålus and the Lapgods … that fear was the death of reason.
That was the thing about being an Infinite. It didn’t matter if every finite being in the Corporation stood with You or against You. They still basically added up to a zero on either side of the equation.
The little folk knowledge that remained about Nnal seemed to agree that this time around, He was imprisoned somewhere in the deep cold bowels of the Basements of Castle Void. Not far from where Çrom and the Black Lotus currently sat, indeed, on Earth above. At least in physical terms it was the same universe, just a few billion light-years away … the ideological and logistical gaps were significantly greater.
The only problem – well, one of the problems – was that Nnal wasn’t actually imprisoned in the Void.
Nnal had been relegated to Castle Void at the end of His last Dominion, much to the horror of the Firstmades who lived there. But at some point, He had been relocated. If this relocation had been precipitated by an escape, it had been a very brief one and no Dominion had accompanied it. Now, Nnal’s prison was rumoured to be somewhere out near the Boundary of the Corporation. Çrom didn’t know where and he didn’t care to know. He suspected that was the point of the relocation, anyway. Because sooner or later there would be a mad Time Destroyer or a fanatical Damorak or a Lapgod wannabe bent on freeing their vile saviour.
“You’re suggesting I approach the dread Ghåålus and try to get His help,” Çrom said. “Do you mean help with killing Him, or help accelerating my training and takeover of His role, or just His help with lifting His own curse and letting me die?”
“Such sarcasm,” the Black Lotus murmured.
“You have to admit it’s warranted.”
She shrugged again. “Free Him. Make yourself useful to Him. Offer Him something He cannot have, in return for your mortality.”
“I already told you, you don’t understand Him,” Çrom had to work to harshen his voice. “That wouldn’t even work for a Lapgod, like Leviathan or Karl. Let alone Him.”
“And yet you have not tried.”
“No, I haven’t,” Çrom shook his head. “Logic. There is nothing I, a finite being, can offer to the dread Ghåålus that He can’t provide for Himself,” he said. “I can’t offer Him any power to mutilate or unmake the urverse that He doesn’t already possess. I can’t destroy or imprison the other nine Ghååla for Him. I certainly can’t free Him from His prison – and I wouldn’t if I could,” he went on, “because there are more people in the Corporation than just me, and I hardly think I’m being heroic and noble by saying that one man’s eternity of sequential mortality is a small price to pay to protect all those quintillions of innocent beings from another Dominion.”
“It seems quite noble, if you’ll not take offence at my saying so,” the Black Lotus said, still with a little smile curling her lips. “More importantly, it suggests to me that the extremity of your desperation has not quite taken you to this point yet.”
“Oh, the extremity of my desperation has taken me further than this,” Çrom said. “If trying to unravel the entire urverse were enough to grant me the rank of Ghåålus, I’d be there already.”
“Oh yes?” the Black Lotus tipped her head. “And what happened to the quintillions of innocent beings on the scales while you were making this grand attempt at omnicide?”
“Nonexistence is preferable to Dominion,” Çrom mumbled. “And I told you I wasn’t noble.”
“But your attempt failed.”
“Well, of course it did,” Çrom laughed. “I’m just a human being. I can’t destroy the urverse. It’s an urverse, Lotus.”
“And yet that, you tried,” the Black Lotus seemed insistent on this point, her eyes wide and fixed on his face. “You tried, and without a care for all things that would be unmade with you.”
“You’re damn right I did,” Çrom snapped. “I’ve stood in a Dimension that ceased to exist – may have ceased ever to have existed – when I could probably have stopped the experiment that brought the Vultures down for their final feast. At least,” he faltered, “sometimes when I wake up in the night, it’s from a confused dream where there was something I could have done, to save that universe. A universe, Lotus!” he reached towards her briefly, helplessly yearning.
She simply watched him, inscrutable within her nest of rags and junk. “But you didn’t save it.”
“But I didn’t,” Çrom agreed wretchedly. “Because I wanted to see if that would kill me.”
“And it didn’t,” she said, her voice softened with awe. “Not even the Relth have the power to end you.”
“I woke up on an observation craft in the white,” Çrom bitterly recounted. “One of the main reasons I suspect simply flinging myself into the Liminal won’t work, by the way, even though it’s a slightly different prospect. The Relth are only an extension of the will of Limbo, after all – and finite at that, if not exactly mere mortals anymore. And Limbo already refused to help me.”
“Have you considered what a boon it might be,” she asked, “to have nothing to fear from the Vultures?”
“Nothing to fear from them?” Çrom laughed. “No, I’m sure there are plenty of ways they could punish me – more than they probably could to a being only capable of dying once, actually. On this particular occasion, there was simply less effort and more benefit in maintaining the eternal punishment already in effect, and letting me resume my journey with the knowledge that even the death of the universe in which I stood wouldn’t free me. If I went around trying to mess too much with the laws of reality and unreality, I’m sure they’d come up with something to make me regret it for a very long time. And that’s what ultimately convinced me not to bother trying to erase creation.”
“Logical,” the Black Lotus allowed.
Çrom laughed again. “I’m a logical guy,” he raised a hand solemnly. “No more destroying the urverse,” the Black Lotus laughed too, and Çrom was warmed by it. “My desperation has always been tempered with some degree of logic,” he continued, “to my lasting regret. Maybe it’s a failing of my rebooting meat brain. I’ve never quite gone mad. Not the sort of mad where I get to stay that way, and be happy. I always get dragged back to clarity whether I want to be there or not.”
“Some would argue that attempting to unmake the urverse is a kind of madness,” the Black Lotus ventured.
“Yes, well,” Çrom muttered, “I’d like to see some psychiatric credentials from those people before I go listening to their high and mighty judgements,” Lotus laughed again, but Çrom went on in as serious a tone as he could muster. “The simple truth is, even approaching the dread Ghåålus would provide Him with all the validation and entertainment He requires,” he said heavily. “That is all I can offer Him. To reveal that I have exhausted every other option and am now flinging myself on the mercy of the very Being Who conceived and executed my punishment – mercy that I know He will not show me.”
The Black Lotus nodded slowly.
There was silence in the hovel. It was warm, Çrom noticed, despite the gathering chill that he knew was just metres away outside. Warm, and pleasant-smelling in a musty barnyard sort of way.
“There was a fourth method,” she said suddenly, “for lifting the curse. Potentially. Aside from Ghåålus, Fweig or Maze.”
“I did not mention it before now, but it may be worth pursuing.”
“Alright,” Çrom said, “might as well hear it.”