It might have been otherwise:

In a high place Colleen shivers against the cold, hungry, starving, pinioned by desire. She dreams of food, warmth, egg whites, whiskey. In the flame of her lighter comes an angel dancing.

“Colleen,” xie says; voice of flutes and scorpions. “We have seen you. You are seen.”

“Where were you,” quotha Colleen, “five years ago? Where were you then?”

Angel speaks, in tongues of flame: “Watching, always watching. We turned on ourselves as you turned, cut as you cut, burned as you burned. We bruised as you bruised. Do not think—”

Colleen snaps the lighter closed, fingers burnt. She sucks at the sear, mouth full and watering against the savor of meat, cooked flesh rich and velvet on her tongue.

Not By Bread Alone

There’s a trick to it.

Nickel, steel, resin, and a sharp point. Keratin, cotton, hair oil, and perfume. Grave dust, copper, blood. The hunger has come back, and worse than ever before. Colleen is a wild fire, drinking bleach, eating hair, swallowing soap, choking down chalk. Live frogs and pool balls. Her jaws crack and fracture around the succulence of a jade plant, crassula ovata, plant, roots, pot and all, the thick well-practiced muscles of her throat shattering it, tamping it down.

She dreams of food without desire. Takes her sheets apart and slurps them in, cotton, linen, skin flakes, sweat, blood, unguent and jism, a fragrant revelation of six months of laundry and strangers. The hammer of the sun has pounded all color from the walls, from the paintings, from the carpet. She knows to the second how long that takes, inescapably.

Her broken jaws and shredded tongue are canny, canny. Sensitive as fingers, wise as knives they dissect, distend, break apart; she boils it all to atoms in her acid and counts the neutrons.

There’s a trick to it, or so the devil told her: to never think of it. Colleen, alas, thinks of nothing else, and her traitor hands lift something new to her infidel lips.

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.