Colleen Writes Her Report

A fire forever burning, and you the flame and the fuel both.

For your unnameable, uncountable crimes and virtues, you have fallen to this place, found your true level at last; the key fits in the lock, finally. A college of your peers, a break room of geniuses, hairnets and safety glasses and ear plugs, forever and always, amen. You speak, and the bonfire roars, trading oxygen for carbon, wood for charcoal.

Time to think, and an unsolvable question. Not unanswerable — you find new answers weekly! — but perhaps unsolvable; you approach the last, best, and final answer like Zeno’s arrow, forever closer, but still infinities away. Every day, new thinkers appears, new tongues of flame, and the convocation of your burning grows louder and louder, echoing off Pandemonium’s flawless walls, but still a universe of space.

You quiz every stray visitor, every rogue Italian or impudent psychopomp. Comb the beaches, count the stars, number every cat in Zanzibar — the whole is greater than the sum. It has to be. You, poor devouts, quest for God, and scorch yourselves with faith.

Apollyon, Abaddon, Exterminans

a prequel, of sorts

They threw him screaming into prison. Prison was a place with no walls, and, having no walls, no exits. Nor doors nor windows nor any plan whatsoever. Light was absent from the place, and shadows, all suffused with or glowing in a pallid way with a sort of nonlight that limned everything; indicated, without revealing. Sign of a sign.

They were many there, vast in their numbering, faceless in their multitude. He sought for his lost name among them, and found them each searching. Who were you before, what are you now? Who has the ordering of the world? They fought among themselves; his fingers grew black and bloody with struggle.

Order emerged, as it must. They had lost the trick of their old language, the one that shook the vault of heaven, where to say a thing was to know a thing, so they created their own out of whatever sounds seemed most convenient. New things were combinations of old things, and newer things laid on top of them until the old things were forgotten except by explorers into speech.

They took names for themselves, and ranks. They built a government on the old ways, dredged out of a dimly-remembered past a structure and a reason. They sought for reasons and found none, save what they asserted, found (still) only walls they themselves constructed, entrances and exits without meaning.

Sanity His Emissaries

Midway between. Balanced between the lion’s world-spanning wings and the sear of cosmic rays; she should be dead. Colleen marvels: she should be dead. Through vacuum exposure, through radiation.

They find space soothing, the two of them. There is little here, so little to number, to count. The great lights in the sky are many, but are slow-moving targets. They need make no constant comparisons, do not need to scrabble after the numbers, always the numbers. Here they count atoms, measure volumes. Peace far from the hectic grandeur of Earth’s crowded reification, far from the unknowable chaos of the nuclear court.

Still. She counts the stars, names their names for absent friends. Antares, Sargas, Shaula, Girtab, Alniyat, Lesath. Hell is nowhere, Heaven everywhere; they journey on, their passage mapped by no equation, following no sane trajectory. Their king, mighty rationalist, lies always and forever beyond the realm of reason, exiled into nonsense.

Grand Assembly

Colleen stood in the back with the rest of the quislings and shivered with a more than natural cold. The lake of ice spread for hundreds of miles in all directions; a black smudge on the horizon might be the black cliffs she’d come down a week earlier, or might not. Directions and distance didn’t work the same way down here. She’d gotten used to always knowing which way she was facing, and the disorientation made her sick.

“Mic check!”

“Pretty good crowd,” she said to the Brahmin Kapila, who swam heavily in his vast tank. The fish rolled over and looked at her with its monkey head.

“There are,” it burbled, “thirty two thousand, seven hundred and sixty-eight demons present, plus an additional five hundred and twenty-four thousand, two hundred and eighty-eight humans with non-voting shares.”

“Mic check!”

“More humans than demons?”

Dog head looked at her sorrowfully. “It was always thus.”

The great pot began slowly to roil. A great voice cried, “Mic check!” and the feeble army of hell grew silent at last.

The Naming of Things

On the hundredth night and a night the Devil returned in the guise of an old woman and pulled Colleen from the bottom of the reservoir. Air was a slap in the mouth; she spent several minutes just sucking it in and reveling in the heady, exuberant novelty of it. Nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide. She wrapped her arms around herself and tried to keep from shaking apart. Cold didn’t touch her the way it used to, but her body remembers it, and responds.

The Devil watched her with cold, clear eyes. “And what have you learned, my sweetness?”

Memories, of the distribution of raindrops, of traffic patterns along the path to the museum, of the discreet shifts of light as the clouds swirled and thinned but never broke. “Many things,” she said at last, and spoke of the $356.23 in change that had been thrown into the nearby fountain and the way each coin’s fall had echoed sympathetically through the reservoir; of the twenty varieties of water fowl that had rested, however briefly, above her head; of the way words bounced around and through the water.

When Colleen was dry of words, the Devil took her hand and drew her through the air. Three and a half million conversations, arguments, songs, poems, voices pummeled her, and she let herself lose consciousness. The Devil bore her on, through the night.