Author’s Note: Not all missions go as planned. But the unexpected failure of some have far greater implications than anyone involved in planning or executing them could ever imagine.
The young scientist knelt down for the third time in half an hour, his lungs madly grasping for purchase on the thinning air about him. The climb was as torturous for his internal organs as it was for his tall, waifishly thin body. He felt like a fish out of water in more ways than one, and, for the thousandth time, mentally cursed his foul luck in having drawn such a punishing assignment.
The other climbers moved on ahead, barely pausing in their tireless march along the trail to glance contemptuously back at his struggles. He had been a terrible encumbrance since they’d gotten above two thousand feet and the others’ patience had long since fizzled away in the pressure of their severely restricted timetable.
“Any day now, Johnson!” he heard one of them yell as they rounded the bend up ahead that would lead them shortly to the next vertical face to be scaled.
He had a very specific and cutting response to hurl back at the offender, if only he had breath enough to hurl it.
Then Kelly was at his side — again. She was the one person in the group that still had compassion enough to offer him a helping hand.
“You know,” she said, with a playful smile on her lips, “you really aren’t cut out for this.”
From any of the others’ mouths, the remark would have been acidic. But Kelly was of a different temperament. From her the remark was a genuinely playful jibe meant to break the tension that had grown up between him and the others.
“No . . .” he gasped, his breath returning to him just enough to sputter the words, “. . . shit.”
The effort of speaking had set his head swimming, but he managed to make the surrounding forest stop spinning in a moment or two, caught what he could of his breath, and looked up at her.
She looked down at him with genuine concern behind her deep green eyes.
“You should really go back, Tristan,” she said. “I could go with you as far as the last checkpoint. I think you’d be fine after that.” She paused for a moment. “I’d go the whole way down if I could,” she continued, “but I’ve got to . . .”
Tristan raised his hand to stop her.
“I’m fine,” he wheezed, his breath a little more even with the rest of kneeling down. “You don’t have to take me back.”
He stopped to take a deep, unsatisfying gulp of air before he continued.
“But you’re right. I’ll never make it — and you guys can’t wait for me any longer.”
He had more to say, but couldn’t risk getting dizzy again, so he cut his comments off there. Kelly smiled sweetly down on him, the concern still lingering behind her eyes as she tried to affect a cheerful demeanor.
“Okay,” she said at last, “I’ll let you go alone — but only if you promise to be careful . . . and take it very slow.”
It was Tristan’s turn to smile. Her motherly attitude was charming in its own way, even to him.
He’d seen the leering way in which the other male students so often gazed at Kelly. Her pale skin, deep auburn hair, and emerald eyes were intoxicating — or so he’d heard them say many times, and in many ways. As a physical specimen, she was greatly admired — and, at least objectively speaking, Tristan could certainly appreciate her in that respect.
Beyond that, though, she did nothing for Tristan himself. She couldn’t help that, of course, not that he thought she would help it if she could. He was, he knew, just a lost puppy in her eyes. Something to care for. Something that she’d never known to leer at her or whisper, however appreciatively, behind her back. She actually liked him more, he thought, for his lack of interest.
It was complicated when he stopped to think about it. Too complicated to ponder while he still knelt, fighting for every breath.
Kelly gave him one last encouraging smile, turned and quick-stepped up the path to catch up with the others, then she gave him a final wave as she rounded the bend and disappeared behind the trees.
When Kelly had finally slipped out of sight, Tristan rallied his strength and pushed himself slowly up to his full, lanky height. He was just shy of seven feet tall and little more than skin and bones. His friends — associates, rather — were constantly trying to get him to eat, to fatten up, to put on weight before he blew away or disappeared or fell apart like a pile of pick-up sticks or whatever other quaint little euphemism they could conjure up. But he just had no appetite. He hadn’t eaten a proper meal since he’d been given this assignment. The native food just didn’t agree with him at all.
And this gravity, Tristan thought to himself as he turned and took his first laborious step back along the path. How could anyone stand this ridiculous gravity for an entire lifetime!
He decided that it was fortunate he couldn’t stand to eat more than was absolutely necessary as he trudged slowly back toward the top of the rock face they’d scaled only a half hour or so earlier. If he managed to gain any more weight than he already carried on his erector-set frame, he’d never be able to stand up.
He trudged very slowly back up the trail to conserve energy and breath, but impatience to get back down to more breathable air threatened to quicken his steps and leave him gasping once again. To distract himself from the rising instinct to run in a vain struggle to cast off the drowning feeling, Tristan turned his attention to his surroundings. He rolled his eyes left to right and slowly pivoted his head back and forth, taking in the full panorama of the vast wilderness that lay all around him.
Ancient conifer forest rolled away in all directions, broken here and there by jagged outcroppings of naked stone or the occasional scree pile at the base of a cliff. The forest seemed to go on forever, only tapering away in deference to the uninhabitable, mountaintop regions of perpetual snow and ice. The pattern repeated again and again on the towering peaks that seemed to wash away in every direction, like strange, jagged whitecap waves.
He’d heard the others raving about the incredible untouched beauty of the place, the raw power of nature, the call of the wild. Kelly had looked around on more than one occasion and declared it all to be absolutely breathtaking.
Tristan thought they were all idiots. His current situation notwithstanding, there was nothing breathtaking about the filthy wasteland that he’d been so unceremoniously plopped down into. He loathed the unpredictable, unmastered, and unsanitary vastness from the tiniest grain of hoof-pawed, worm-eaten, bird-shitted dirt to the very last needle of the tallest, fungus-infested, bug-chewed tree.
The distraction of mentally ridiculing his surroundings accomplished its intended objective — in what seemed a fraction of the time it had taken him to get from their last point of ascent to where he had finally given up and turned back, he had arrived back at the top of the cliff. It was always that way, he had noticed. Return trips never seemed to take as long. Perhaps it was the allure of home, the satisfaction of knowing that in short order one was to be among the places and things and people that were most comfortable and familiar. That particular subconscious drive didn’t really apply to him at present, but the prospects of being able to properly breathe and move around again were powerful motivators. There was nothing like the comfort and familiarity of lungs filled with adequately oxygenated air.
But first he had to get down the cliff in one piece. He was anything but a mountaineer, but he’d had enough on-the-job training and practice with the ropes, harnesses, and techniques of climbing on this little adventure to feel confident. Besides, going down was always easier than going up — just strap in and let the overzealous gravity do something useful for once.
Tristan knelt down and grabbed the nearest rope, intending to clip it to his harness in preparation for his descent, but he knelt too quickly. Even that small over-exertion was enough to dizzy him. He leaned forward to brace himself with his free hand, clutching the rope in the other. The heel and palm of his free hand planted on the edge of the cliff with nothing but air beneath his outstretched fingertips. He gasped in surprise — he hadn’t realized how close he was to the edge — but he maintained his awkward position for the several seconds it took him to recover from the combination of the dizziness and the terrifying free-fall scenarios that spun unbidden through his mind as he contemplated what another inch or two would have meant for him.
Finally, he regained his bearings and his peace of mind. He was slowly and carefully shifting his weight onto the heel of his planted hand in order to push himself back onto his haunches when the treacherous hand skidded out from under him and sent him toppling headfirst over the cliff.
Tristan gasped again and tightened his grip on the rope in his other hand as his body tumbled over itself. He slammed hard against the unforgiving granite face of the cliff, blasting what meager breath remained in his lungs out of him with the force of the impact. The death-grip he’d locked onto the rope slipped away with his breath, and he fell.
It was a drop of only a hundred feet or so — moderate, at best, by local standards — but it was enough, in that gravity, and with the collusion of some unfortunately placed boulders at the base of the cliff, to shatter his frail body.
The eventuality of an untimely demise was, of course, one that had been foreseen — and even encountered and dealt with on rare occasions before.
An instant after the impact, the agent’s biorhythms naturally ceased. In less than an instant after that, the toaster-sized monitor and relay drone that zipped undetected in agent-synchronous orbit just beyond the uppermost layers of the atmosphere determined the nature of the sudden end of incoming data. It then locked onto the biomass surrounding the indestructible transponder unit that had been implanted in the agent before dispatch and atomized it, transponder and all. Its own mission having terminated with the agent, the drone gathered the agent’s atom matrix for later reassembly and analysis, broke orbit, and returned automatically to the System Science Vessel that hovered conveniently out of detectable range on the other side of the little planet’s moon.
Tristan’s own experience in the moments that followed his bone-crunching impact was of a far less proscribed nature.
As the relay drone was affirming his demise, Tristan had the sensation that his fall continued briefly beyond the stopping point of his corporeal body. For the briefest moment he was an integral part, or an integrated one at least, of the filth-strewn granite that had disembodied him. Then, as if he had reached the maximum downward extension of a trampoline, he stopped falling and, with an elastic-feeling tug, was bounced back up through the granite, the filth and even his shattered body. He landed, so to speak, with his feet planted on thin air some two feet above the ground.
The sensation of standing on nothing as if he were on solid ground was disconcerting. Tristan looked around just quickly enough to see the swirling disintegration of his body as it was atomized and retrieved. Then he forgot the strangeness of floating in the air as a stranger realization dawned on him. The bright sunlight that had failed so miserably to impart any heat to the perpetual chill of the mountain air up to that point was changing. It suddenly seemed to be getting warmer — and brighter.
Tristan turned his head and looked up into something that was definitely not the sun. From some indistinct place in the sky above — from nowhere and everywhere, all at once — a vortex of swirling light slithered down toward him. It was blindingly bright, though there was no discomfort in looking at it, and it radiated a warmth, an almost living heat, that was sublime.
A moment later, there was nothing left of the mountains or trees, nothing of the rocks or dirt, and nothing more of the murderously thin air. There was suddenly nothing left but the dancing light of the vortex and a feeling about him, outside him, alien yet enticing, of utter peace and tranquility. He could feel that feeling trying to seep into him, to become part of him, to gather him into itself.
But Tristan was not at peace.
He knew he had died. He knew he was going to as soon as he had rebounded off the cliff face and felt the rope slip out of his hand. He knew beyond a doubt when he’d seen the misty dispersal and retrieval of his atomized body, because he knew the protocol for such a situation. He never would have been retrieved if he was still alive — that just wasn’t part of the mission. Even in sickness and injury, valuable information could be, was required to be, gathered.
So, he was dead.
Yet nothing that was happening was what was supposed to be happening. He was no theologian, but Tristan knew enough of the Faith to know that a windless tornado of blinding, swirling light had no place in the afterlife. So he was far from being at peace, and the puzzlement and strangeness of his present experiences kept his mind sufficiently engaged to repel the insistent feeling of tranquility that, contrary to its nature, continued to try to force its way into his being.
Then the swirling light of the vortex dissipated, and Tristan found himself standing in what he somehow knew was a great hall, though he could see nothing of walls, ceiling, or even floor. Everything around him was a uniform and featureless white. There were no shadows, no variations in the intensity of the color, so there seemed to be nothing there at all. Nothing, that is, except for the impression of an invisible crowd created by the muted sounds of bustle that engulfed him as completely as the shapeless whiteness — and, of course, the robed figure that stood before him, staring him directly in the eyes with an expression of quiet understanding, patience, and benignity beaming from his, or her, utterly androgynous face.
“Who are you?” Tristan asked pointedly.
“I believe what I am is more to the point,” the robed figure replied, “and what I am is an extension of the One. As such I haven’t an individual name . . . but you may call me Aerin, if it makes you more comfortable.”
“An extension of what one?”
“The One,” Aerin said, sounding like it was arching its brow, though there was no change in its placid expression. “The Creator of the world from which you have departed and the galaxy in which it exists.”
“The Creator of the world and the galaxy . . .” Tristan mused. “Is that all?”
Aerin’s blandly benign countenance remained, though Tristan caught a sort of audible sneer in its retort.
“I should think that would be enough. It is no small task to create a galaxy.”
“Pardon me, please,” Tristan resumed with a respectful nod of his head. The last thing he wanted was to cause offense to the creature before him — whatever it was. His training as a scientist and an observer had taught him to tread lightly in unknown circumstances and among unquantified cultures. This certainly qualified as the former, if not the latter. His training and experience, though, also caused his mind to seize on what he thought might be an important point.
“I meant no disrespect. It’s just that I’m not from this galaxy.”
Aerin’s head ticked slightly back, as if a sudden thought had registered. Though its face still showed no change in emotion, its reply was tinged with a note of perplexion.
“I see . . .” Aerin said. Then, after a thoughtful pause. “That would certainly explain your coming before me.”
“My purpose is to address those expirations that are somehow outside the normal course of things,” Aerin explained. “Your demise, though unremarkable with regard to the how or why, presents problems with regard to the where it happened.”
It was Tristan’s turn to sound perplexed.
“I died on the rocks at the base of a cliff,” he said, “how is the where a problem?”
“I refer to a broader sense of where,” Aerin continued patiently. “You died in the galaxy created by the One. As such, your soul falls under the jurisdiction of the One and is bound by the laws of spiritual governance created by the One.”
Tristan shook his head in a vain attempt to joggle this information into comprehensibility.
“In dying in the galaxy of the One, your soul has entered the afterlife of the Creation of the One. Your soul is — you are — now subject to the laws and requirements of that afterlife.”
Tristan was stunned. He was possessed by the paralyzing feeling that there was something he had to say. At the same time, the enormity of the situation was also beginning to break upon him.
“You . . . you mean,” Tristan stumbled, “there is more than one . . . afterlife? More than one Creator?”
“Of course,” Aerin replied, as if that were all that needed to be said on the subject.
An uncomfortable silence later, Tristan’s bewildered look compelled Aerin to elaborate.
“As I said,” he explained, “it is no small task to create a galaxy — or even a world, for that matter. The number of beings that ascend to such power constitute an infinitesimal percentage of all sentient existence, yet even that unimaginably small percentage amounts to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of beings.
“Indeed, the number of Creators isn’t even definitively known. Those who create are generally so absorbed in their own Creations that they are barely aware of the others — even those whose Creations abut their own. And, of course, new Creators evolve all the time, and the universe is always expanding, so it is quite impossible to keep up.”
To judge by Tristan’s expression, none of this explanation was helping, but it was indeed sinking in. Tristan was astonished that a fall of a mere hundred feet on a tiny, over-gravitized world in the relative backwater of a neighboring galaxy could have had such a profound effect on his understanding of the universe. Yet everything that he had ever known was being torn asunder by the sexless, expressionless informant that stood before him.
He wondered in passing how many souls had passed into the afterlife of how many different Creations the universe over without ever knowing, living or dead, what was now being explained to him so matter-of-factly. Quadrillions? Pentillions? Sextillions? Was there even a number big enough?
What, after all, would be the advantage of dispelling the myths of those souls that fell under the “jurisdiction” of any given Creator? What could the Creators possibly gain by exposing the charade of universal unity, of ultimate oneness?
“You apparently fail to understand,” Aerin continued, “so I will simplify the matter at hand for your benefit.
“You were created by a Creator other than the One. As such, you should rightly have lived and died within that Creation. In the inevitable inter-Creation crossover of sentient beings, however, you expired within the Creation of the One. As I said, by the implicit law of the Creators, that means that your soul is subject to the governance and existence of the Creation of the One.
“Which means, in short, that you will reside here with us, in the afterlife created by the One, for all eternity.”
Tristan had managed to gather himself sufficiently to feel a pang of indignation at Aerin’s arrogant appraisal of his understanding, but his indignation disappeared with the final three words of Aerin’s dumbed-down explanation.
“For all eternity?”
“But,” Tristan protested, “I don’t belong here. This is not my world. It’s not my galaxy. It’s not even my existence.”
“I’m afraid it is now.”
Tristan paused, a look of firm determination overspreading his features.
“Excuse me?” Aerin replied, perplexion again tinting its voice.
“I said no,” Tristan said with an uncharacteristic lack of diplomacy. “I do not belong here. If this is not my Creation, then I should not — I will not — be held hostage by it.
“If I died in the wrong jurisdiction, and if I belong in another Creation, then there must be some way of returning me to where I belong. There must be some protocol for … for …” he struggled to find the right word, his determined look faltering somewhat, his confidence slipping slightly. Then he had it.
* * * * *
Though its stone-chiseled expression remained as unchanged as ever, Aerin sighed audibly again, almost as loudly as it had when Tristan had seized on the concept of extradition. It was clear that Aerin wanted no part of the situation. It had become clear to Tristan, in fact, that Aerin had hoped at the time that Tristan would simply accept his alleged eternal fate — that he wouldn’t be smart, or brave, or foolish enough to challenge it.
“You understand that you are rejecting residence in the afterlife of the One?” Aerin asked for the third time.
“Yes,” Tristan replied.
“And you do so of sound mind, without coercion or influence by any third party or parties?”
“And you understand that the One and your Creator do not, at present, have a protocol for spiritual extradition in place?”
“Yes, damn it!” The bureaucracy of this afterlife was enough to drive him crazy. And he was annoyed, to say the least, at what he was being forced to do. He wanted nothing more than to just get on with it.
“Very well,” Aerin said, with no attempt to mask his irritation.
“Since you have refused to reside here, and there is no other place for your spirit to await the establishment of a mutually agreeable extradition protocol, your soul will be assigned to a suitably insignificant human existence — or series of existences, as the progress of the negotiations dictate. You will, of course, be summoned if and when an agreement has been reached, at which time you will be transported to the afterlife of your own Creation.”
As he dictated the terms of Tristan’s foreseeable future, Aerin’s voice took on what had become an all-too-familiar coldness. It was the noncommittal, detached tone of near apathy that, as far as Tristan could tell, was common to all bureaucratic entities.
Then Tristan’s diplomatic instincts got the better of him.
“Thank you, Aerin,” he said suddenly.
“You’re welcome,” Aerin replied after a pause, the icy edge in his voice thawing somewhat.
“I guess I’ll be seeing you.”
With that, Tristan looked up at the vortex of swirling light that was slithering down toward him from some indistinct place in the featureless whiteness above. As it engulfed him, he had time for a final, fleeting hope that he would die a very young child.