I’ve been working on a new batch of short stories for a second collection book to be released next year, and with Halloween just around the corner, it seems like the perfect time to unveil the first offering.
This story tries to look into the existence of Death.
The hulk twisted through the unending nothing of deep space. Occasionally there was a flash of an isolated light to signify that the pulse reactors deep in the heart of the once mighty ship were still producing flickers of power, but there was no consistent drive and it was clear to anyone who would have happened to look in the direction of the ‘Laputa’ that this ship was already as good as dead.
The black clad figure stood on the outer surface of the ship, in line with what would have been the largest loading bay if it had still been intact, and just gazed out longingly at the emptiness of the universe and the few far off stars that were visible.
For the so very many years that Death had travelled all existence, carrying out the ultimate task of reaping the life from every being there had ever been, she’d never ever considered what beauty there was all around her. She clasped tightly to the shaft of the implement that had gone with her all of these years she’d travelled, her skeletal fingers creaking more than the scythe despite the lack of atmosphere. Over the ages, she’d used so very many different versions of this tool to claim the lives of everything she’d come across. Guns of all manner of design, all possible kind of bladed weapon and even as far as constructs of other living creatures to fit within a given food chain, but at this point she felt, and didn’t really understand why, that the scythe, the classic implement, was the way to go.
She was brought crashing from the considerations of her mind when the ship lurched under her feet.
Peering over the ruined edge of the blast crater that had been the loading bay, she saw what she had been drawn here for.
The tiniest flare of fire blossomed deep within the ship, behind one of the many sealed emergency doors which had slammed shut when the original accident had taken place, but even that barest push had been enough. Decades of exposure to space had taken its toll on the ‘Laputa’ and that gentle nudge had been enough to blow out the pressure seal of the door and expel what small volume of trapped gases there had been behind.
That in turn had been enough to dislodge some mangled debris and send it floating free of the ship along with a handful of other crates and boxes, and crucially, the very last functioning cryo-chamber on the ship, containing the very last human in the universe.
Death strode out into the nothing as if walking on a smooth, rigid surface and made her way to intercept the chamber.
She began wondering about the details of what she was going to do and let her mind wander around the specifics. ‘Why was she here now?’ ‘The chamber was leaving the hulk behind as it floated free but there was nothing about her that was likely to destroy it, and therefore the creature inside so it was odd she’d been drawn here’. ‘Pre-emptive strike?’
She arrived next to the chamber and just stared at it trying to work it out but didn’t have to wait long. One of the other crates from the ship was nudged ever so slightly from the cloud of debris and just grazed the chamber before heading off on its own way to oblivion. That graze had been enough to hit just the right pads on the chamber and Death could see the outcome clearly.
First there had been a flash of golden light and then an expulsion of gases and finally, the chamber cracked in half as it opened.
Onboard any ship, when this process had taken place, there had been an atmosphere surrounding the contents of the chamber as it was released. Out here now, there was nothing so the result was going to be clear.
The man inside wasn’t even conscious.
It had been a miracle that life had remained for so long despite all of the horrors which had befallen the others on the ship. A miracle that the power had remained for this long. A miracle that the chamber hadn’t been destroyed before now. A miracle that the ship was just floating derelict with this one survivor for all these years.
But time had run out for this poor man.
Death reverted to her role.
With a mighty backswing, although not strictly required, she felt this lonely person deserved the full treatment from her, she whipped her scythe through him from head to toe, traversing a path directly through all of his body. The stroke left no physical clues as to its passing, it never did, but as Death held up the blade to inspect it, glinting within, producing a light source of its own, was the very life energy of the man. But he wasn’t alone. There was also the bacteria which had been in his gut, what looked like some kind of fungus and something she could only assume was some kind of virus. Add to that some other things that she’d never really taken the time to understand and it was clear that all of the life that had been within the cryo-chamber was now gone.
The man just looked the same. He was still sleeping.
Stopping her momentum, she just stood in the emptiness and watched the open chamber drift away from her.
“I wonder if I should just follow him as he falls through space?” she spoke aloud.
“That won’t be necessary,” said a deep male voice from behind her.
It’s fair to say that Death hadn’t been expecting a response so she felt her reply of screeching a dry cry and whirling with the scythe towards the voice was perfectly justified.
The owner of the voice didn’t react in the slightest as the mighty blade slashed through him. Not past him, through him in the same way that it had for the man in the chamber. This time, though, there was no further movement and no light was taken from the person to build within the blade. If Death had had features she would have been frowning. No-one had ever been immune to the power of her scythe.
She quickly re-gathered her composure, but still held herself ready for the unexpected.
The other figure was robed in exactly the same way as she was and carried with him, a scythe just like hers, though she could see clearly that the blade on the scythe was pristine to the point of having never been used.
He nodded slowly in what could have been a greeting before speaking.
“I give you my most humble salutation, Death. I have waited so very long to meet you.”
“And you are?” Death didn’t stand on ceremony at the best of times so having someone jump out on her wasn’t going to change her way of doing something.
“I am Death,” said the hooded man and gripped the wooden shaft of his scythe with a skeletal hand that, despite being the same as hers, made her feel slightly on edge.
“You can’t be Death, I am. I am, and always have been, the reaper of the life of all things in this universe. So who are you really?”
“If you are Death, my lady, then I am Death, too.”
His voice was hypnotic and despite the confusion that his presence was causing, she was feeling more comfortable with each second.
There was a second Death.
“And you’re here to help me in my task of taking the lives?”
Death too took a stride closer to Death before answering.
“No, my lady.”
“So you do the same but we’ve never met before? I find that hard to believe.”
“We do indeed do the same thing, my lady and it is indeed true that we have never met before.” Again his voice was just so calming.
Death considered this.
“So were you meant to reap that man and all of the other life in him? Did I beat you to it?”
“Oh no, my lady. The task of claiming the contents of that, container,” he beckoned to the cryo-chamber as it continued away from them. “You were always meant to be here to claim that which you did.”
“OK,” said Death and felt confused.
“So are you supposed to be claiming more life from the ship? Is there other life you have to reap?”
“No the ship is quite devoid of anything resembling life. I am here for you, my lady.”
“You’re here for me? What does that mean? You said that you weren’t here to help me?” This was ridiculous.
Death too dropped back his hood to reveal the same skull head as Death but this time, Death felt terror coming from that bone visage. Death too was causing her to feel terror.
“If you’re not here to help me, are you replacing me? Do I get to put my burden down after all these years?”
Death too dropped his head very slightly, as if looking at the ground that wasn’t beneath their feet.
“No, my lady,” he began while still looking down. “You have completed the work you had been charged with.”
Death didn’t understand.
“With the action of claiming the contents of that chamber, you have reaped the final examples of any form of life in the universe. There is now nothing left that is alive, so there will never be anything that dies. As such, Death is no longer needed in this universe, so I am here to claim the life that is you.”
Death swung the scythe again, and again it passed harmlessly through the robes of Death too, having no more effect than if it had been passing through a cloud of smoke. Death too remained still as Death swiped again and again, each time hoping for a different reaction.
Eventually, Death stopped swinging. Breathlessly, despite the utter lack of so many of the things needed to breathe, she spoke.
“I am Death. I cannot die. I am eternal through all of the ages that are and shall be. What makes you think that I will allow you to try to claim me?”
Death too raised his gaze from the floor and fixed it on Death.
“Firstly my lady, if you have nothing more to reap as all life is gone, what are you for? What should you do now?” Death listened on, preparing to respond. “Secondly, how can you feel such fear from simply being gazed upon by me? You are eternal and unending yet you grip to the fear of what your own death would represent in the same way as some of the creatures you have claimed. Death should elicit no fear in those who cannot die.” Death didn’t like the soothing tone anymore. “But thirdly, it is what I am here to do.”
They both stopped at those words.
“Since you existed,” Death too continued, “have you ever known a time before doing what you do now? Have you a memory of a time before you were Death?”
Silence in response.
“Can you recall when it was that you were asked to complete the task of Death? Did you take up the reaping because you saw it as virtuous or needed?”
Death opened her skinless, lipless mouth to answer but no words came. She couldn’t.
“In the same way that you’ve always been, always followed the same path, as have I. I ‘know’ that my task is to claim Death as that is all I’ve known since the very beginning of me. If you’ve continued with your work for as long as you have because you knew you had to, doesn’t that mean that I have the same level of conviction to my ‘known’?”
Death stepped back but wasn’t feeling like giving up just yet.
“But if I had such conviction to complete what I have to, why would I just drop my guard to anyone. You’re not the first person who said they were going to end Death you know?”
Death too seemed to smile.
“But I am the first to say that, not only with the power to do it but also the knowledge of life, or indeed the lack thereof, in the universe. You’re finished. Your life’s work is complete. With the action behind you,” he gestured again at the man in the cryo-chamber, “you have reaped the final life anywhere, thereby making your role in the tapestry of existence, superfluous.”
Death considered his words and attempted to construct a response but there was nothing to say.
“But life could reappear, couldn’t it?” She stood taller and made an unconscious step forwards, almost as a challenge. “I can feel the absence of life, likely in the same way you can, but I also recognise the fact that abiogenesis could happen at any time. Life springing from non-life has happened before, you know that, so why wouldn’t it happen again? And if it could, surely there would still be the need for Death to oversee the growth of that life?” She felt triumphant and could hold close to her chest the relative certainty that she’d undone all of the twine Death too had been wrapping around her.
In response to the clear defeat, Death too just maintained a fixed focus on her, looking into her eyes and driving a fear into her that she’d been doing her best to push aside but that resisted every effort.
As he spoke, his voice sounded sad.
“It may indeed. Life is an agile quarry and as such it’s one that we’ve all got to be vigilant for, but without life in the universe, you represent an imbalance between the forces of life and death. It still holds that if there is nothing which is alive, how can there be a need for Death? Until a time that there is life, Death is nothing more than an empty threat. Could you reap a star? Would you appear to claim the life force of a rock? Could our scythe claim the life of space?”
He looked back at where the floor should have been.
Death ground her teeth as she did her best to build a response but no matter what she tried, there wasn’t one. She’d thought that she’d be able to see a way out but she just couldn’t.
Now her voice was sad.
“So death is gone from the universe, reaped by you,” she sighed with a resolution. “So, to me, there are two questions that come from that. If I’m gone and life returns to the universe, who will reap that life? The other is, if you claim me, doesn’t that mean that you then have no purpose? Wouldn’t that mean that you would need to be reaped, and then so on for eternity?”
Death too stood still and, deep within the nothingness that was the farthest reaches of deep space from anywhere, seemed to consider the questions. There wasn’t the ready response which had been in place for the other questions, instead, he just considered the words.
After a silence which lasted for an age, he responded.
“Do you recognise the passage of time?”
Well that made no sense.
Death, again despite the lack of a mobile face, frowned.
Death too continued.
“Do you comprehend the grip that time has on all things? I ask because the time we’ve spent here discussing this point has been slightly more than it would have appeared had we been just linear beings.”
Death snorted but looked around her and only now noticed that the ‘Laputa’ was gone from behind Death too. Looking around quickly she could make out a very different star field surrounding her and there was no sign at all of any proof that the ship had ever been near her. Death too noticed the apparent confusion.
“We are beings that are controlled by the nature of the passing of time, are we not? Indeed, it could be argued that we are the very servants of time, tolling the bell that signals the end for all life, but without that life, as you can see,” he didn’t move but his voice just drew her eye-line around the darkness, “we are cut loose of the effects of the universe, with no way to anchor ourselves. Ultimately, the reaping becomes a mercy to the creature who would be lost to the whims of time itself.”
Death examined the stars around her and panic enveloped her. She could see that there had been millions of years pass by as the two of them had spoken. Stars had been born and others had died, all within the scope of a conversation. Was he telling the truth? She had reaped the final life but would that mean that she too, needed to die?
Death too continued.
“Death is a response to the arrival of life and as such is a creation that comes from the universe itself. With no life to control, there is no need for Death. Should Life appear, so too will Death. The universe will create the balance as it always has and should Life appear, our position will be fulfilled but without life, there needs to be a ‘without Death’.”
Death released her grip on the wooden shaft of her scythe and, rather than falling to the same floor she and Death too were standing on, it instead drifted away from them and into the darkness of the void.
Death too walked closer to Death until they were skeletal face to skeletal face, and took her in an embrace which gave a feeling of utter calm and warmth.
“My lady. I have existed only since you took the final life in the universe. Before that moment, you were all that there was but the universe has created that need for balance. The universe needs there to be equilibrium in all things. In a universe with no life but only Death, life will never appear. Life could never overcome the force that is Death so I am the need of the universe to restore that balance.
Death hugged in closer and there was an oddly comforting warmth coming from Death too. The embrace that they were both enfolded within wasn’t one of darkness and fear. It was of a welcoming release that made it clear that there was nothing left to do.
“My lady,” Death too spoke in hushed whispers, just above her head. “I am here to maintain the balance but that means that I have to reap both of us. I came to be for that singular purpose, nothing more. I need to bring a balance to what the universe is.”
He lifted her face to his and, in those unmoving and cold features, conveyed more love and understanding than Death had ever seen in all of time.
“I just wish I could have seen beyond just this one life of yours. You must have seen so very much more. Until the next time my lady.”
When his scythe swung, there was no hint of missing. Instead the life of those two creatures vanished and there was no trace of them left for anyone to find. Death had left the universe.
And on some far off planet, amino acids lined up in just the correct way to welcome life again.
And far off in the emptiness of the void, a newly formed skeletal hand reached out for the shaft of a falling scythe.