Aphelion Issue 249, Volume 24
April 2020
 
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The Beyond is the Beginning

by J. B. Toner




I am. In Judaic tradition, “I AM”--Jehovah--is the Name of God. At one point in history, you could be stoned for speaking it aloud; indeed, that’s happened to me quintillions of times. I’ve also been stoned for not saying it. I’ve been keelhauled, eviscerated, punched to death--shot with photon rifles, fed to monstrous buzzards from the fifteen moons of Earth. And, of course, I’ve also been the first to cast a rock. For every permutation of every event that can ever possibly occur, there’s a universe.

I am Charles Durance, and I am all of my possible selves. I began by studying the Way of the Polycosmic Fist: a comparatively innocuous discipline that enables the adept to merge his consciousness with that of a parallel self in a reality where he wins his fight. The problem with this art is that, no matter how your fight turns out, you’re perpetually cognizant of neighboring versions of you who fail, surrender, turn traitor--and yet more versions who are fighting on the wrong side. It’s discouraging to an extent that has been described as hyper-existential. Under this onus, my faith in the Church of Gnosis was disintegrating.

Then I met Bartholomew. A perennial barfly in Dill’s Tavern, deep in the moribund entrails of Enoch City, he was a huge, loud, portly drunk who turned out to be the most powerful adept of the Polycosmic arts I had ever encountered. Through his tutelage, I reached the state of Ultima Thule: total connection with all Charles Durances across the entirety of the multiverse. And I learned a ghastly thing.

Omnipotence is impotence.

I’m everywhere, everywhen. I know all. I have selves who pioneered radical new technologies to prevent natural disasters, end sickness, furnish clean energy and feed humankind. It means nothing. Everyone I’ve saved, I’ve murdered in the universe next door. Before my Ascension to Ultima Thule, I knew this intellectually; now, I experienced it viscerally.

So, I sat in Dill’s bar. And one smoggy afternoon in our guttering neon metropolis, as I quietly nursed my quadruple bourbon, Chrysanthemum McFadden walked in. Still lovely and tough, still incongruous in this squalid watering hole, she wore a grey corporate blouse, an immaculate white pencil skirt, and a merry smile.

“Charles, you brute, you never called. Here I am, a lovely girl in the prime of her life, just sitting by the phone--wondering if I said the wrong thing, shot the wrong person--”

“You know, there are sextillions of alternate worlds in which we’re already an item. It kind of takes the fun out of flirting.”

“Did you really just say ‘sextillions’?”

“What do you want, McFadden?”

“So lugubrious! I’m here on my employer’s behalf.”

McFadden worked for a man called Nathaniel Telos: founder and CEO of the megalithic Telos Corporation. He’d been the principal opponent of my Church for years, but I’d only recently discovered that he was a Folder, a practitioner of Polycosmic combat. I had also discovered that he and Bartholomew were brothers.

“Lemme guess.”

“It’s come to Mr. Telos’ attention that his sole sibling, with whom he’s not spoken in decades, has been training you in the ways of Folding. It’s dreadfully sad, isn’t it, when families are estranged? He hopes you might arrange a cease-fire so that he and Bartholomew can talk.”

“Barkeep!” I shouted. “Pint of Nolo for the lady.”

“Oh my, no. Never touch the stuff. I’d love a glass of Pinot, if you’re buying.”

“You know what’s in it.”

“Nolo?” She shrugged. “It’s a titch above my pay grade, but I gather the effects are comparable to opium. I also know it’s been independently tested, and contains nothing illegal.”

“Only Bartholomew knew what to look for. It’s got pieces of the Void in it. The ultimate black hole at the center of Creation. Or you could just call it Hell.”

Briefly, her cheery demeanor faltered. “I don’t believe that.”

I banged a fist on the counter. “Get Telos down here, then. Let him lie to my face.”

“Charles, for goodness’ sake, the man is reticent. You’ve met him.”

Ornery and drunk, I suddenly felt like a fight. “How about one of his pet Folders, then? We know he’s got some on staff.”

“Just as you like. Perhaps you’ll listen to fellow warriors. Be warned, my dear, our people have abilities for which your Church has not prepared you.”

“Bring it on.”

She tapped her lapel. The air shimmered. Two black-clad figures appeared.

Quantum tunneling, I thought clinically, as the other patrons scattered in dismay. Impressive. Before Bartholomew, I would have been entirely out of countenance. After his teaching, however, I saw this materialization for the parlor entertainment it was.

Pulling my omniscience into focus, I knew them better than they’d ever know themselves. “Paula Frore,” I nodded to the woman. “Emerson Hallow,” I nodded to the man. Discomfiture ensued.

Frore recovered first. “And you’re Charles Durance. Nice to see we’re all friends here.”

“Oh, we’re not friends, Paula.” Slowly, I got to my feet. McFadden took a step back, and the two Folders took a martial stance.

“We can still parley,” Hallow said, with the magnanimity of a man certain of his superiority. “Nobody has to get hurt.”

“Agreed. And, as servants of the Void, you are nobody.”

“Have it your way, Chuck.” He threw a punch, and I went metaphysical.

Time works like this: what we call past and future are not points on a line, but parallel universes in their own right. Just as there is a reality to your “left” in which you are (say) a rock ’n’ roll star, there’s one to your “right” in which you are the “you” you know, but ten seconds ago. What we perceive as the spear of time is not an external movement, but the locomotion of our minds through successive manifestations of possibility, with our own transcendent Will acting as the rudder that determines which possible world we enter from one moment-universe to the next.

For most of us, the “forward” iteration through time is an autonomic function, like pulse and respiration; but, just as a martial artist learns to regulate breathing and even heartbeat, an Ascended Folder learns to control the speed and direction of his temporal experience. And so, as those henching knuckles traversed the endless if-realms that led to my jaw, I glided “down” through time and watched the inimical fist approaching in extreme slow motion.

My recently acquired power of Will-sight revealed Hallow scrolling through alternate worlds in search of one where his punch landed. Sadly for him, I had no need to peruse the multiverse; I was already conscious of all of it. He Thule-shuffled with mounting desperation as it grew clearer that no possible reality contained his victory in this fight.

With a technique I’d learned from Bartholomew, I marshaled a few of my selves from the very recent past and positioned them around my opponent, such that in the present, they had already been surrounding him all along. Before he could form the most rudimentary conjecture about what was going on, they seized him and dragged him down through time. Down and down and down.

The time it takes for a beam of light to travel the width of two hydrogen atoms is called an attosecond. This duration is to one second as one second is to about 32 billion years. I brought Emerson Hallow to a timeflow in which he would experience individual attoseconds, and there I took my leave. He’d have a good long while to think about what he’d done.

Next, Paula Frore came sailing across the room with a spectacular flying back-spin kick. Like her comrade, she fanned out through the possibilities of being as she approached, seeking a victorious cosmos. Like him, she found nothing. Returning from her fruitless Thule-trip, she landed eight feet to my left.

“That’s impossible,” she stammered. “There are infinite worlds where I beat you.”

Though I didn’t bother explaining, she was wrong. As I had paid a heavy price to learn, the multiverse is not unbounded. We tend to rest in the concept of infinity--as though we’ve reached a stopping point--but, through mind-rippingly huge finities, reality keeps on going. That’s why an Ascended Folder, one who has stood in the sphere of the Creators, can indeed break multiverse theory and deny existence to a specific event. (Although weeding out the towering uncountabilities of worlds in which I’d committed every conceivable atrocity was far beyond my skills.)

“Tell me, Frore. How do you enjoy the crisp, hoppy taste of Nolo?”

“I’ll enjoy the taste of your blood.”

Witchlike, she jabbed her fingertips at me, but conjured neither lightning nor flame. On the contrary, I felt a gentle warmth in my chest that emanated softly up to my mind and down to the pit of my stomach. A bizarre happiness came over me, and I blurted out:

“With elasticity and bliss
The free vicissitudes of life,
Like pyrotechnic fires in hec-
tic gyres of ecstasy and strife,
Project in dire and reckless choirs
The fecund hieroglyphics rife
With lissome glee, duplicity,
And brisk esprit of drum and fife!”


Then a pleasant lassitude stole into my limbs. I relaxed--half-slumped--caught myself at the brink of sitting down.

But I’m not that weak. I’ve encountered the Apophasis before, and I know their signature. Infinitesimal progeny of the Void, they lend their powers of banality and entropy to the Polycosmic artists called Dark Folders. The nascent science of Biophilology was predicated on the belief that the Apophasis nest in the human subconscious and symbiotically catalyze our capacity for language. Bartholomew, however, had taught me that basically the opposite was true: that they awaken our highest linguistic potential in order to feed on it, leaving raw formlessness behind. As he put it, “Mediocrity is their excreta.” This attack, this attempt to reduce me to a lotus-eating husk, was fouler than any mere death threat. Shaking off the apathy with a howl of wrath, I seized the enemy Folder and fully Ascended.

Out through Creation’s roof, into the Creators’ dwelling-Place. Here, only a Prime could move freely: a person with transcendental control over all possible if-selves. Innumerable evil Durances, goatee and all, would rejoice to wield the power of the gods; but I’m the Durance who brought all Durances together. My Will guided and fused us, and my Will--the Will of Durance Prime--now governs. And my primary task was putting an end to this conflict.

Mathematicians (and we all have selves who ply that trade) speak glibly of values like TREE(3) and Rayo’s Number: quantities so obscenely vast that if you stacked a trillion universes and stuffed them all with zeroes the size of a proton, you couldn’t even come close to writing these figures down. But math-folk weave their calculations from the sheltering womb of a single mortal cosmos, where they can never be called upon to face the shattering actuality of such numbers. In god-space, however, there is no abstraction. If we can imagine something, it exists there--or, more accurately, if it didn’t exist there, we wouldn’t be able to imagine it.

So, with Frore in tow, I traveled instantaneously to a spot a few paltry Googolplexians of miles deep in the True Wasteland, of which all deserts and forsaken places are but shadows. Then I dumped her unceremoniously to the salted earth and traveled away without him. Not being an Ascended Folder, she lacked the power of thought-travel, which meant she had an awfully long walk ahead of her.


*****



Remember being born? I do. Confusion, terror, awe. Ascension is like that, but exponentially greater. What could be more bewildering than to behold all being at once?

From the Height above dimensions, I brooded on the grimpen of continuums below. Teeming with wickedness, barren of meaning. I thought of the terrible hole at the heart--thought of that man who so willingly propagated its emptiness.

Without intending to, I thought-traveled.

Nathaniel Telos: here in the heavens. An Ascended Folder, just like his brother. A man of massive proportions, with biceps and pectorals seemingly ready to split at the seams. He was suspended in the air, locked in some weird meditation. Suspended directly above the Void.

You’ll hear people say, now and then, that “size doesn’t matter in a fight.” They might as well add that speed and skill don’t matter. Anything could be the deciding factor, not excluding luck. Size matters, not least for psychological reasons. Take it from me, the sight of a three-hundred-pound muscle-ogre floating above an infinite abyss can be intimidating even to a seasoned fighter.

But, we do what we have to. I thought-traveled out into that dreadful expanse of empty air, the last vestigial something over the gape-jaws of Nothing. Immediately, I began to fall toward the Void; so I counter-balanced by continuously teleporting a few inches upward. It was more like treading water than levitating.

“Charles Durance,” said my foe.

“Nathaniel Telos.”

“Here to kill me?”

“Yeah.” Kill a Folder in Ascended form and you destroy all his manifestations for good.

“No point talking.”

True enough.

Focusing the strength of my every self into one incomprehensible blow, I materialized directly in front of him and punched him in the chest. Telos hurtled backward through god-space, crossing unthinkable gulfs at transrelativistic velocities, until I appeared behind him and smashed another multiversal punch into his spine, flinging him back towards the Void. In a brutal game of ping-pong, I chased and bashed him back and forth a dozen times across the Making-Place. Finally, I paused for assessment.

Telos coasted to a midair halt and hovered there, calmly holding my glare. Raised one hand, brushed off his shirtfront, and examined his fingernails. Then he said, “Seen better.”

And backhanded me.

I’d never witnessed that kind of speed, nor been hit so hard, in all my lives. For a split second, everything went black--then I shook my head and smelled the rich loam of the True Forest beneath my face. It was Ultimate Autumn, and the soaring trees wore gold and crimson; a perfect orange leaf, stirred by my passage through the boughs, came floating with quiet purpose toward the grass. It landed right in front of me, and the boot of Nathaniel Telos descended on it with a crunch.

I rose to my feet, spitting out blood and teeth. I needed more power--and in this place, power came from Will. My mom was alive and well, but there were cascading multitudes of realities in which Telos had viciously murdered her. In the flick of an instant, the home universe of Durance Prime became the one in which she’d been tortured to death before my eyes. By him.

“You bastard,” I snarled, and my next attack was fueled by a skyrocketing Will for revenge.

His celerity was maddening. A twitch of his chin denied my right cross, and the momentum-accelerated spinning hook-kick that followed it was likewise stymied by a casual duck of his head. My left heel crashed through the oak-trunk behind him, and that majestic tree swept down to shudder the earth with its fall. Miss after miss, I pursued my enemy as tears of rage and anguish spilled from my scalding memories of Mama’s death.

“Faster,” he remarked. “Still too slow.”

On the last syllable, I drilled him with an uppercut that blasted him through the luminescent clouds above. I appeared at the zenith of his arc, ready for another round of ping-pong, but he caught my next punch neatly in his palm.

“Stronger, too,” he said approvingly. Like the closet-dweller in a nightmare, he cracked a smile; and then his fists came up.

I blocked his first swing (almost shattering my forearms), but the follow-up blow slammed into my solar plexus. Trailing a long, rank vomit-stream, I flew thousands of miles over the sparkling waves of the god-sphere’s Shoreless Sea.

More power. More power!

I found darker and darker realities. There were if-worlds in which Telos had slaughtered everyone I ever loved. I made them my own as I plummeted toward the sunlit foam of that primeval ocean, as I burst through the waters and plunged to icy, forgotten depths filled with eyeless monsters. I suffered the agony of all that loss, and I forged it into mightiness.

Reborn in the deep, I gathered my anger and threw my greatest punch yet: a punch that boiled the currents of those fathomless canyons and drove tsunamis to the surface. And, the tiniest possible fraction of a moment before my arm reached full extension, I thought-traveled to a spot exactly arm’s reach away from my adversary.

This time, when the blow connected, Telos gave a yelp of genuine surprise. But not a pained or angry yelp: rather, it was one of pure delight.

Once again, he was hurled across the heavens, and a billowing column of white smoke, fifty stories tall, exploded from his impact on the awesome grandeur of the Final Peak: the Platonic Form of all mountains. When I landed on those Olympian slopes a second later, he was rolling on his back in the snow, kicking his feet and laughing like a child. For half an instant, I almost liked him--till the ghastly memories of all he’d done rushed into my heart and drowned any feeling but fury.

“Stronger yet!” he crowed. “The more we fight, the stronger you get!” He got to his feet, beaming. “Oh, Durance, I haven’t had a challenge in so long. Not since Bart left.”

“This isn’t a game, gods damn you.”

“Come, then.”

We battled now in earnest on the mountaintop. Pillars of steam detonated, towered, and toppled around us. The force of our strikes bred avalanches, churned the clouds to cyclones, and slashed Eternity with cataclysmic lightning. I heard myself scream, “I hate you!”

Nathaniel cackled back, “I love you!”

Snatched up in ecstasies of combat--transported, transcendent--we dueled through Paradise. My strength kept growing with my hatred; but Telos was a titan of Will, indomitable. I could sense that he was still holding back for the joy of the challenge--but, of course, the more he had to hold back, the less of a challenge he was getting. Eventually the balance would tip, and he’d start to get bored. I had to dig deeper.

He was orders of magnitude beyond me. Trying to surpass him by tacking fresh offenses to his list of atrocities was like reaching for the infinite by picking a number and adding ones. Greater sacrifice was called for. I stretched past every limit my intellect encompassed, outside the very multiverse, foraging through broken worlds, through failed and half-formed shadow-realms, seeking yet more power. And out beyond all things, in a graveyard of possibilities, I found a warped and ugly timeline where some iteration of Charles Durance had been present at the Big Bang.

Shifting my whole consciousness there, to the fizzling dawn of that reality, I threw a punch. A punch that began in the inaugural Planck-time conflagration of Creation and shot forward through the history of that twisted if-world, gathering momentum. Like a time-traveler investing a single penny in his great-grandfather’s bank, I wove my fist into the fabric of a whole misshapen universe and launched it toward my opponent. Unlike that time-hopping financier, whose interest would accrue on its own, I couldn’t skip the intervening aeons: I had to experience them all. I lived through the birth, senescence, and demise of galaxies while that one desperate, incalculable blow sped onward, growing ever stronger--stronger. By the time it connected, it was charged with the energy of a universe.

It knocked Nathaniel Telos on his ass.

There was a long silence. As if a boxer’s bell had rung. He sat frowning in the crater we’d made, blood running down his chin. I stood, wreathed in smoke, slowly coming back from my journey. Above us, at the crater’s edge, powdery flakes drifted in a cold wind.

Finally, Telos got to his feet. The manic glee had left his face, replaced by a profound respect. He nodded. “Good fight.”

“It ain’t over.”

“It is.”

He raised his arms, and the earth began to shake. The skies trembled overhead, and the seas below us turned to maelstrom. In my Ascended peripherals, I glimpsed the Polycosmos, all Creation, quaking--and I realized that all the storms and floods and supernovas in which I’d ever died originated here and now.

In my Will-sight, Telos grew dark, occluded, anti-visible. His outline was blackness, the ever-Pit, annihilating light. Void-force filled him to the brim.

Gathering the embers of my strength, I lunged forward and hammered away at his anti-form with attacks that would have pulverized continents; but my strikes were swallowed up without a tremor. I couldn’t even feel the shock of impact: it was like punching the wind.

And then, the apocalyptic haymaker. I’d hit Telos with the life-force of a universe; he hit me with the death of a multiverse. I fell and did not rise.

“So.” He hunkered down beside me as I sprawled in the bitter dust. “What have we learned, you and I?”

A rending groan: “Go to hell.”

He flapped one hand dismissively. “We’re both omniscient, Durance. I know you’ve conjured up realities full of my misdeeds. But you know they’re not me. Not Telos Prime. Apart from cutting corners in the stock market, I’ve done no wrong to speak of.”

Putting forth a supreme effort, I pulled my eyes into focus. “N--no wrong? What about your Void-beer, Nolo? You’re poisoning the souls of innocent people!”

“Point to the universe where you’re me.”

“...Huh?”

“Innumerable worlds exist in which we’re mortal enemies. Others in which we’re best of friends, and still others in which we’ve never met. Show me a single one in which we’re interchangeable.”

I hesitated, glowering.

“Don’t be foolish. Even if falsehood were possible in this place, why would I bother with it? You’re clearly no threat to me.”

Well jeez, that stung a bit. “All right, fine, I’ll play. There’s no reality where I’m you, or vice versa. What’s it got to do with your abomination in a bottle?”

“Simple. In all this Polychaos, there remains such a thing as a distinct, individual person. Some irreducible core identity makes you you and me me, despite the clutter of if-worlds and shadow-realms these idiot deities have made.”

This was unusually verbose. He suddenly reminded me of his brother, and it made me want to like him again. And, to be fair, his point about Telos Prime was absolutely true: the self who had achieved Ascension, who had brought all his possible selves into unity--whom, in short, I had really been fighting all this time--had never done me or my family any harm. With an involuntary sigh of relief, I allowed the memories of Durance Prime to regain ascendancy. Mom was in wonderful health, and I was having tea with her next week. My radical hatred of Nathaniel faded.

However--

“It doesn’t make sense, Telos. If you value individuality so much, then why help the Void to suck it away?”

He shrugged. “You’ve tasted Nolo. How did you break free?”

“I... I chose. I didn’t let myself sink.”

“Non-Folders can choose likewise. When people encounter Nolo, only the best versions of them survive. By mass-producing it, I’m exfoliating defective cells from the multiversal organism that is each consumer.”

Silence.

“I know,” he said. “You grew up in the Church of Gnosis. Enemy of the Telos Corporation. Hard for you to trust me.”

“Hard to trust anyone. I wish Bartholomew were here.”

A new voice in the dialogue: “Granted.”

“Sensei!” Finding new fortitude, I scrambled to my feet. There he was, radiant in the aura of Ascension: the man who broke my limits. Rotund as Nathaniel was robust, garrulous as Nathaniel was taciturn. He wore a grey, hooded cloak, a fat Gandalf in the slow-returning sunlight. “Where the hell’ve you been?”

“I didn’t know there was a battle.”

“What? What happened to being all-knowing?”

“That, precisely, is the question that brings me. I’ve become aware of unprecedented realities, and that can only mean portentous doings in the god-sphere.”

“Bart,” said his brother.

He nodded. “Nate.”

“Long time.”

“Twenty-two years. It was a good fight.”

“Maybe now we can talk.”

“Typically not your bailiwick.”

“People can change, brother. If you hit them hard enough.”

“You knew about the Nolo. It’s been my greatest fear.”

“Um--” I raised a hand “--sorry to interject, but he actually does have a reason for that. I haven’t decided if I agree with it, but--”

“I heard. I admit it’s relieving that a motive exists besides sheer nihilism, but good intentions can exculpate only so much. We all know where they lead.”

“Everywhere,” Nathaniel retorted. “Nowhere. You were right. There’s no point doing anything in such a zoo.”

“No!” Bartholomew suddenly roared. “No, damn it, you were right. It’s better to do something, whatever it is, than to serve the Nothingness.”

“I don’t serve Nothing.”

“A felicitous double negative, but I dissent.”

“You used to be a writer, Bart, remember? You were a master craftsman because you were ruthless with yourself. Any line, any word, that didn’t contribute to the whole story got the axe--however fond of them you might be. ‘Murder your darlings,’ you always said.”

Bartholomew’s face contained more emotions than I had names for. “I remember.”

“These gods you serve, they won’t self-edit. They lack the integrity to choose a path and chance the consequence. The multiverse is a coward’s Creation.”

“It’s a beleaguered Creation. How can it be perfected when it’s perpetually gnawed?”

“Bollocks. The gods are a pencil. The Void’s an eraser. Either by itself is a one-bladed scissor.”

Bartholomew gazed unreadably at his brother. “You raise points, Nate. But no matter the motive, the Void-brew ploy is execrable. You can’t waylay people into freedom.”

Nathaniel matched his inscrutability. “Maybe. Maybe you’re right.”

“I generally am.”

“You just said I’m the one who was right.”

“On one occasion. With your incessant chatter, you’re bound to stumble into the odd rectitude.”

“So--” raising my hand again “--are we, like, friends now?”

The brothers exchanged a glance. “I think perhaps we’ve achieved a détente,” Bartholomew said.

“We should probably rescue Hallow and Frore, then. I stuck ’em both a few billion years deep.”

“A bit harsh, Charles.”

“I was in a bad mood.”

“Ah. In that case, it’s fine.”

“HQ?” Nathaniel requested. “Appreciate it.”

“No problem. By the way--” I covered my right fist with my left palm and bowed. “Good fight.”

He bowed back.

Stepping “diagonally” through what we perceive as the timestream, I plucked the Dark Folders from their respective purgatories and tossed them into the lobby of Nathaniel’s corporate headquarters, only a few subjective hours after their immurement. When I returned to god-space, the Brothers Telos were sitting on the ultimate mountaintop and filling three glasses from an amber bottle.

I knew that aroma. I’d never smelled it before, but my soul recognized it, embraced it, as the drink for which I’d always yearned without remembering. This was the Platonic Form of all whiskies: The One True Scotch.

Snapping an icicle-tip from a rocky overhang, Bartholomew dropped it in a glass. “Charles?”

“A universe of Yes.” I accepted the glass, and we three clinked and drank. That Scotch can never be described, for it is the standard whereby all Scotches are understood; suffice it to say, it was very good.

“Mr. Durance,” Nathaniel said, once we’d savored for awhile. “My earlier question: what have we learned?”

“From our fight, you mean? Let’s see.” Reflectively, I sipped the Perfect Whiskey. “I definitely learned the strength of the Void.”

“And I was reminded of the power of Will. That last punch of yours--” He glanced at Bartholomew. “You chose your pupil wisely.”

“No great shock there.”

“Okay,” I said, “so what’s the takeaway? Beating you was my only reason for getting stronger in the first place.”

He shook his head. “Not me. You wanted to beat the Void itself.”

“I guess. Bartholomew told me at the outset that we can’t win that battle, but we can at least defeat the Apophasis.”

“A rearguard. The real quest is to harness both the Void-force and the divine Creative Will. To bring them into unity and move toward a single perfect universe, not to broadcast a flurry of melees across an ever-widening anarchy of echo-realities.”

“You think big, Telos, I’ll give you that.”

Bartholomew grimaced. “The idea of using the Nothing--allowing that corruption into my being--I don’t cherish it, brother mine.”

“Nor I, but it wasn’t always corrupt. It’s out of balance. In clinging to their Polycosmos, hoarding every ‘if’ like taxidermists, the gods have denied the Void its proper function. It’s been building up all this time, a cleansing flow behind a dam of folly. Inevitably, there’s foulness collecting in the eddies.”

“Your proposal is to turn it loose? Wipe out ninety-nine percent of existence?”

“Fake existences. How many trillions of your selves are thieves and rapists and dictators? What’s needed is a world in which every Tom, Dick, and Harry is Tom, Dick, and Harry Prime. The best possible version of every person, place, and thing.”

“That does sound nice,” I admitted. “Why haven’t you done it?”

“Two reasons. First, I fear that if suddenly released from its pent-up state, the Void would drown Creation and destroy us all. Second, I don’t know how.”

“...Huh.”

My corpulent teacher finished his drink and got up. “Come. Let’s gaze into the Abyss.”


*****



Many of I had been mystics and visionaries; others, drug fiends and madmen. As I stood peering into absolute negation’s gulping maw, it came to me that every vision of damnation I’d ever endured was a ripple in my soul from this moment. For all my omniscience, I’d never known dread till now.

“It is horrible,” Bartholomew said quietly.

“We’re beings,” Nathaniel replied. “Non-being, anti-being, is quintessentially repulsive to us. So is the doctor’s bone-saw. But when there’s gangrene--”

“I understand.”

After swallowing hard and clearing my throat twice, I found my voice again. “Folding. Whenever we Fold, we’re basically collapsing two timelines into one. We never worried about it, because we figured there were infinite timelines.”

“And, as with any new science, the benefits were pursued without a thought for environmental effects.”

“That’s a way to put it. Point is, if we want to eliminate extraneous universes in a controlled way, we can do it by Folding.”

“Charles, if we Folded one universe every second for a hundred and fifty billion millennia, the scratch on the surface would be minuscule.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get that. But what if there’s some way to use the Void to Fold lots of realities at once?”

They glanced at each other. “Clever,” said Nathaniel.

“Conceivable,” Bartholomew conceded. “How, exactly?”

“Dunno. I’m spitballing. It’s not all gonna be gold.”

Nathaniel gave a grim smile. “It’s easier than you’d think to tap the force of the Void. Trapped water rushes to any conduit.”

His brother’s teeth ground audibly. “All right. Show us.”

Slowly, Nathaniel stretched out his hands toward the Nothingness. The air grew colder, and the clay quivered beneath our feet. Tiny black lines, like cracks in existence, spread from his navel, up his torso, down his legs. They showed right through his clothes like bright neon--but they were anti-light, a living darkness. Bartholomew shuddered, and I repressed the urge to mount another cosmos-crushing assault.

Then he lowered his arms, and the shadow passed. I let out my breath, realizing only then that I’d been holding it.

“Tricky,” he said. “Folding takes Will. Void-force is anti-Will, a blind drive to uncreate. Perfect for a fist-fight. But using it to fuel a Fold is bringing a sledgehammer to surgery.”

“It would have to be ruddered by an equivalent Creative power,” Bartholomew ruminated.

“One would need the might of the gods.”

“So it seems.”

It must have been like this when they first discovered the Thule State, I thought: two brilliant boys swinging space-time by the tail, heedless of repercussion, pushed by nothing but curiosity and the love of a challenge. “Guys,” I said. “Can we stop and think about what we’re discussing here? I’m still pledged to the gods’ service. Helping them perfect their Creation is one thing; plotting to steal their power is something else entirely.”

“No, it’s not,” Nathaniel said.

“What’re you, in third grade? Yes, it is!”

“Think, Durance. If the gods and the Void are equal and opposed, there could be no cosmos. Every speck would be no sooner made than unmade. There is a higher Sovereignty, surpassing the transcendent itself. Beyond the Beyond. Whatever, Whoever, that may be, there alone lies Divinity. It’s neither blasphemy nor treason to demand an accounting from the True Maker’s wayward lieutenants.”

I hesitated. This was, after all, the teaching of my own Church: that the Creator had left Creation in the hands of stewards, called Archons, who had egregiously botched their charge. When I’d made my first Ascent and beheld the denizens of this celestial plane, their majesty and splendor had convinced me there could be no higher realm. But after the many shocks and lunacies of this long, long day, a greater shock awaited me--the realization that I had stumbled into heresy, and none other than Nathaniel Telos was recalling me to orthodoxy.

“Don’t squander your agonies, my friend,” Bartholomew said. “‘Ought we’ is moot if we can’t answer ‘can we.’”

“Well... I actually have an idea about that.”

“ENOUGH.”

There, behind us. A solar effulgence. Bedrock of actuality, wellspring of life. A likeness as the appearance of a man--perfect in form, afire with Purpose.

“So,” Nathaniel said grimly. “You face me at last.”

“TO INTERFERE IS NOT OUR WAY. TO MORTALS, EVERY PATH HAS BEEN KEPT OPEN. BUT YOU TRANSGRESS TOO FAR. YOUR COLLUSIONS WITH THE PIT SHALL CEASE.”

Stepping forward, Bartholomew bowed. “Sir. You know that for long years, I’ve been in contention with my brother. But could he not be correct? It’s a torment to see this multiplicity robbing our people of real choice, hence of true freedom. It’s time for something new.”

“NO. NOT YET.”

I heard myself say, “Is it true? You’re nothing but Archons?”

“WE ARE THE KEEPERS. THE TRUE CREATOR WAITS BEYOND ETERNITY.”

“Waits for what?”

The god--no, the Archon--did not reply.

“Idiots,” Nathaniel said flatly. “You have no idea. Why don’t you slink aside and let the mortals tidy up your mess?”

“NO! YOUR DEPREDATIONS END HERE.”

The Archon reached out to smite him, and Bartholomew reacted. Attacked his own master. And I--by the same instinct, I joined the assault.

Once, when I was three, I tried to intimidate my mother by saying with my gruffest voice and fiercest scowl, “I’m feewing gwumpy!” She smiled fondly, patted me on the head, and went about her day. The disparity wasn’t just in our physical abilities, I eventually perceived; even if I could have somehow defeated a healthy adult--what then? I couldn’t drive a car. I couldn’t buy food. My only useful allies were Mom’s own family and friends. I didn’t even know enough to comprehend how little I knew.

As I unloaded my strongest attacks on this radiant being of pure Will, I sensed immediately that the gap in strength and knowledge between us was vastly wider than the one between three-year-old me and Mom. Even against the toughest grown-up, a flailing toddler might puncture the enemy’s eyeball by chance or stratagem; this battle was more analogous to fighting an inferno by flinging lit matches at it. Only anti-Will could possibly hinder this entity.

But that was a Catch-22. As Nathaniel was drawing the Void-force into himself, the Archon flicked me and Bartholomew aside like protozoa. Long before he could power up enough to defend himself, the demi-deity appeared at his side and swatted him down hard enough to embed his body in the clay.

Sometimes the choices that end up defining us are made so quickly that, paradoxically, it’s almost more accurate to say we spend a lifetime making them. When there’s no opportunity for deliberation, you simply do what you are. Socrates taught that self-knowledge is a necessary (though not sufficient) element in the attainment of wisdom; and when I became an Ascended Folder, it was by embracing that who I am, at my core, is a fighter. That was the banner under which all my selves united and fused. So when I saw my new comrade hit the ground, my next move was instantly decided by the sum of my decisions.

A nanosecond later, I was over the Nothing--and falling.

Faintly, far above, Bartholomew’s voice: “Charles, no!” Already lost in the silence.

No wind as I fell. Soon, no sensation of falling. Just the dark, the dark, forever.

can’t

remember

light

always led here--fought the Void my whole life--one place I never wanted to go--here I am

not

here, only dark

only nothing

nothing

nothing

Hello, Charles.

moving on the face of the deep

orange tongues

...mama?

Oh, my love. You’ve lost yourself in the fight. What is it that you’re fighting for?

I

I don’t remember

The Polycosmos is a womb, dear one. You mustn’t fear these labor pains.

Then it’s true? The Perfect Universe is coming?

Of course it is. But not without a midwife. Not without you.

Me? Why?

Because of everything. Every choice by every soul since the Great Conception. Yours, not least.

What do I do?

orange flame growing--distant light

wind in my hair--not falling--rising--

What do I do?!

You’re seeking the best of all possible worlds. Don’t neglect the impossible ones.

plummeting up

earth and heaven pivot sickly

Thud.

Dazed and winded, I lay still for some unknown quantity of time. A warm breeze blew. Gradually, I recognized the sound of surf; gradually, I became aware of sand beneath my body. At last, I opened my eyes.

Silver sand and purple waves. A beautiful green sun, tranquilly stooping to the undulant horizon of the sea. Overhead in the alien twilight, iridescent stars began to gleam.

“Impossible worlds,” I whispered.

I was still in Thule State, still Ascended, but none of I recognized this place. None of I had a guess at where I was.

I’d gone down so far I went up. Passing through the Void like the center of the Earth, I’d arrived at some weird antipodes.

A memory stirred of my old master, Peter Grey. “The worlds we see in Thule are like the waves of the visible light spectrum,” he once told me. “On either side, beyond what we perceive, are fathomless depths of possibility.”

My gods--my God--I was still a child. I’d just barely, barely, gotten wise enough to know how much I didn’t know. (And Socrates said that too: the wisest man in Athens was the only one able to comprehend his own ignorance.) I was finally peeking into the shades of mystery beyond the iceberg’s tip. Why did we assume that all realities followed the same laws as ours? There could be worlds afire with sorcery and glamours of unimaginable potency.

We needed more information.

My powers were still awake. I raised my arms and Willed myself back into the ether, back towards the god-sphere. The darkness closed in around me once again, but now it felt familiar and safe. And as I was eclipsed, enveloped, engulfed, I opened myself entirely to the Void-force: not reeling it in from a safe distance, but suffusing my being from within its core, becoming utterly one with it.

And rose from the chasm at the same instant I had fallen--no longer “treading water” through teleportation, but truly flying. The Archon stooped above Nathaniel, gathering its Will to smite him once and for all. I swooped through the air, a falcon of Uncreation, and smashed my knee into the Archon’s luminous face.

An Armageddon of impact rocked existence. Space and time sprang catastrophic leaks. The super-dimensional ripples from that blow became the anti-thing we now call Entropy.

Seven more shining forms--the Archon pantheon--manifested on the battlefield. If the gods were indeed equivalent in power to the Pit, I thought, then each of them had one-eighth of my strength. It was just a matter of tactics now, finding a way to take them on a few at a time. Everything was forgotten in the fray, the anti-Will, the yearning to destroy.

A gentle voice: “Charles, my friend.”

I paused. “Bart, I can beat them. I can take their power.”

“They know. You now bargain from advantage. Let’s give parley another try.”

“Want to fight.”

“There will be other fights. But not if you do this. You’ll unmake everything if you go on. Recollect yourself, Charles Durance. Who are you?”

A servant of Creation.

“WE WOULD SPEAK OF PEACE.”

So be it.

With an exhalation of disappointment and relief, I let the Void-force go. The pounding red haze in my head receded, and my fists unclenched. I could see the Archons clearly once more--flawed indeed, but beautiful and good. Fellow servants--comrades in arms.

“WHAT YOU HAVE DONE, WE CANNOT. WHAT DID YOU SEE WITHIN THE VOID?”

Tired. Felt my shoulders sag.

“More worlds,” I said, listless. “Beyond what’s possible.”

Bart was helping Nathaniel to his feet. They swapped a glance that spoke fraternal tomes. “Describe them, please?”

“I didn’t stick around, Nate. Had to get back here and save your ass. What I know is, the multiverse is the start. Not the finish.”

“Suspected as much.”

“WE MUST ALL PLACE OUR HOPE IN THOSE WORLDS. FOR BEHOLD WHAT YOU HAVE WROUGHT.”

Sweeping the Polycosmos with my Will-sight, I saw the ramifying cracks from my flying knee assault. As they spread--as they widened--matter and spirit began to drift apart. Time and space decayed. I had caused the exact malady I set out to repair. Dully, I muttered, “Sorry. I’m sorry.” What was left to say?

“This is good,” Nate declared. “Now you Archons have no choice. You’ll finally have to take a risk.”

Bart nodded slowly. “My brother’s right. This is galaxies away from how I envisioned our quest proceeding, but nonetheless. We can afford complacency no longer; the day of fate’s mad gamble is upon us. We shall find the One True Universe or die.”

Brief silence, then: “WE CONCUR.” An eighth figure joined the pantheon, the one I’d popped in the demigodly skull. “BECAUSE YOU VANQUISHED ME, MY STRENGTH SHALL BE YOURS. BUT YOU SHALL TAKE ALSO ONE EIGHTH-PART OF THE VOID, LEST WE BE OVERMATCHED IN YOUR ABSENCE. WE WILL KEEP THE BALANCE, AS WE HAVE STRUGGLED TO DO SINCE THE GREAT BEGINNING, WHILE YOU COMPLETE THIS QUEST.”

I knew. Somehow, I knew. What to do, and how. This had always been the purpose for which my every sinew was woven and designed. Did the splash of this moment iterate backwards, infusing my earliest womb-self with destiny? Perhaps.

Stretching forth my right hand to the Archon, my left hand to the Void, I became the conductor of Eternity. Their energy and anti-energy swirled and mixed in me, raw power reconciled by the discipline of Will.

“Events are moving very rapidly,” my sensei murmured, with a hint of unease.

Too late. Unlike before, when I was merely channeling the Void-force, it was now a permanent part of my body and soul--as was the god-Will. I closed my eyes, becoming.

I was Archon, steward of the Maker. I was Death, the shatterer of worlds. I was Man, the mediator. I was something new.

“Charles?” said Bart. “Are you all right?”

My eyes came open. “I am.”



THE END


© 2020 J. B. Toner

Bio: J.B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College and holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu. He has published two novels, Whisper Music and The Shoreless Sea, and has great plans for Charles Durance and friends. Toner lives in Massachusetts with his lovely wife and their daughters Sonya Magdalena and Rebecca Eowyn.

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