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The Soul Consortium
By Simon West-Bulford
Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 Simon West-Bulford
All right reserved.
Chapter One Salem Ben
––––Is this my first thought? ––––My first memory? ––––From evil dream to warm flesh, enfolding me. ––––From deepest darkness to rose light of womb. ––––Mother breathing, ––––Forever scorning, ––––The beckon of my tomb.
When I was a boy my smiling schoolteacher asked my class a very simple question: "What is the one thing in this world that we can all know as an undeniable certainty?"
The students looked at each other, smirking as they whispered their sarcastic remarks, but the grins soon fell when she spoke again. Not because she had brought her palm down hard on her desk when she revealed the answer. It was the tears in her eyes.
"One day every last one of you will die."
I was the only person still smiling after she said that. I used to worry that it was the sight of other students in shock that amused me, but now I think it was something else, as if I had some peculiarity in my soul, sensing that this simple statement about the irrefutability of death was not true for me.
Eighty-four quadrillion years on as the last existing human and I still need to decide if it is true.
In the same way I have done on a billion separate moments, I stand inside the Calibration Sphere, huddled within my long charcoal-colored robes, staring at nothing. I have seen more, learned more, felt more, known more than ought to be possible for any human being, and every lucid moment is a struggle with the decision whether to end it all. Why then do I concern myself with such trivial details as the fact that there is no chair in here? But this sphere was never intended for humans to visit. It's a cold place of ash-gray walls, harsh white light, and silence. At any one time the slowly revolving surfaces hold a billion digitally compressed souls—individual specks of remembered life—flickering as they undergo routine scans and maintenance.
There is only one empty slot left in the entire Soul Consortium—a lonely hollow amongst a host of souls—patiently waiting for my existence to end so it can be replaced with a blink of luminous data and categorized for insertion into a sphere beyond this one.
I can't do it.
I tell myself it's because everything will be wasted if there is nobody left, there is still more to be done, and life is too precious to discard, but those aren't the real reasons. I can't do it because I'm terrified. The thought of death has always filled me with such terrible dread that I can't bear to face it. Immortality is a curse—a wonderful curse—and I cannot stand to kiss the Reaper's hollow eye.
"Salem." A low female voice breaks the silence. "The stars await your pleasure."
I pause before answering, thinking about how many times I have heard that incorporeal voice, reminding me of how many millennia have passed without genuine company. Real flesh and blood to embrace. "Thank you."
"Would you like me to take you there?" Qod says.
"Because you think I'm lazy or because you think I'll miss something if I don't hurry?" She would never really see my smile. "No, I think I'll walk. I haven't taken a stroll for, oh, seventy-three years now." "As you wish, but please visit the genoplant before making your way to the Observation Sphere." "Something wrong?"
"Seventeen cells in your right lung have atrophied, and two cells in your cerebellum are showing early signs of degradation. Transplants have been prepared for you in the genoplant." "Joy."
Several lifetimes ago during one of my more sullen moments I asked Qod what would happen if I didn't comply, if I allowed my body to fail. It was a petulant question born from a naive desire to end my life without the burden of decision. But there has always been something about Qod that drives me on, and besides, I know exactly what would happen if I were to sit back and wait for my body to fail. Preconditioned survival genes would kick in, taking control of motor function and higher reasoning, forcing me to accept the necessary treatment to keep my mind and body alive. I could no more control that than I could will my heart to stop beating. Not that I couldn't override it, you understand—it was decided a long time ago, when the misery of perpetual living afflicted the human race with suicidal craving, that a human being could choose to die. With the simplicity of flicking a switch, one could end it all. And eventually everyone did.
Everyone except me.
The walk to the genoplant took twenty standard minutes, the process of gene infusion a little less than three, and my sauntering through gray corridors to the fifty-klik observation dome another twenty. I run a hand along the back of my favorite seat, ready to watch the cosmos perform. Like me, the universe will never die.
I sink into the body-molded chair, and the vast crystalline walls of the sphere surrounding me fade from view like melting ice. Beyond the invisible walls an eternity as fathomless, dark, and empty as my life is revealed. Although that emptiness threatens to swallow the small part of me that remains, I am still drawn by it, still awed by its patient beauty as it waits for the next phase of its eternal evolution. Perhaps it's because I think of the universe as my echo that I subject myself to this for the third time. I too keep hoping for something new, some sign that there is more to life than ... life.
A spark ignites in the distance like a glinting eye opening in the darkness. The big bang it was once called. An anarchy of dazzling particles warring with each other to bring poetry out of chaos. Gluons, photons, antiporyons, demi-praxons expanding in one glorious blink to fill the waiting void. I drink that moment in as if tasting a breath of mountain air after a decade of imprisonment in a Ceti-9 sewer. Cold adrenaline lifts me from my seat, and my eyes swell with the sudden sweet emotion of it all as I spread my arms. How could I want to leave this?
How could they?
But I know this euphoria is only a grain of sand in a desert of apathy. Just like the pearl of light at the gates of death, disappointment will follow.
I would smile at the irony of my thoughts if there was someone real to share the joke. I'm watching the universe on the brink of rebirth, and at such a monumental event ... I am restless. Irritated and dissatisfied, as if a maggot had infiltrated some hidden fold of my brain to squirm there unnoticed. But I'm not really all that different from those who came before me. They grew tired of continual existence too and chose to brave the final barrier—the one my teacher told me had to come eventually. But I am still not ready; I have to kknow there's something beyond "Let there be light!" Qod's voice fills the sphere like thunder.
After my initial shock, I sigh, irritated by the intrusion. "Most amusing. Next time would you mind adding some music?"
Before the birth of this third universe she made a similar comment. I watched the final days of the second cycle several trillion years ago. Most of the universe was cold by then, but I was privileged to see one of the few remaining areas collapse into a supermassive black hole. I fell to my knees, cowering at the incredible violence of it as energy and matter screamed its way to annihilation, and Qod quoted T.S. Eliot's final stanza of "The Hollow Men."
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Back then I was grateful for the remark; it pacified my terror. Today her attempt at humor grates me.
A passage opens in the darkness, inviting me to leave the Observation Sphere.
I walk slowly away from the light and head to the labyrinthine bowels of the Soul Consortium. Time for change.
Excerpted from The Soul Consortium by Simon West-Bulford Copyright © 2012 by Simon West-Bulford. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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