Darkness. Time seemed to stand still. Lucien couldn't tell if it seemed that way for a few seconds or more like a minute. Probably because time was standing still at the time. But most likely just a few seconds. But then, isn't time merely an invention of the sentient mind, anyway?
No. It was dark for a few seconds.
Chaos! An entire new Universe being born, or an old one being reborn, phoenix-like. It exploded, and swirled around and past him faster than he could perceive. He was passingly aware of both darkness and light. At one point an ocean seemed to pass around him. He was deep under the ocean, though he could see the bright sunlight above the water, illuminating the fishes and everything, all so brightly colored, but it only took a moment before it was all gone. He barely had time to think about how amazing it all was, before it was over. Somewhere, out there, the Universe was still expanding, and its expansion was slowing, and would continue for many billions of years.
But now he was standing... on solid ground. Green grass. There was a small patch of raspberry bushes a few feet away. He turned. There were a few trees there. Mostly it looked like an open field, a couple acres of... lawn. And woods at the edges of the lawn. It was morning, the sun shining brightly. He thought he should build a sundial.
As he began to walk around to explore, he realized he hadn't been standing on the device. He wondered how that could be. He started to look for it, and found it a couple of yards beyond the trees that had been right behind him when he first found himself here. He was going to step back onto it, but hesitated. He knew it couldn't possibly do anything again for untold eons, but nevertheless he was afraid. It had saved his life, alone among the immense population of the Universe, and he was afraid of it. He turned and walked in the other direction, out past the raspberries. He was afraid to try them, but figured he would have to, eventually. He hoped they would taste as good in this Universe as they had in the previous one.
Then he saw her. A woman... no, a girl. She was facing away from him, looking up at the sun. He approached her cautiously, not knowing where she came from, what to expect. She turned to face him, smiling.
"It never starts at midnight, you know," she said. "Always midmorning. I think this time, I shall have to make sure that-" and she stopped, suddenly frowning, but only for a moment. Her grin returned as she hurriedly exclaimed, "I call God!"
Lucien was dumbfounded. It took him a few moments before he could speak. "What?" he said.
"God. I call dibs. Ha!"
"What on whatever planet this is are you talking about?"
She sighed, and explained, slowly, "I call dibs on being God."
"Um... can you do that?"
"Usually do. Now, as I was saying, this time I intend to make sure that days start at the proper time. Officially. Do you have any idea how aggravating it is to have everyone consider the day as starting at the wrong hour? Every day for millions upon millions of years? Gah, I can't even tell you! ...I really wish she'd had a watch, but I suppose it would just say it was a few minutes after 5pm, which clearly it's not. Unless it would've been set... well, to... hmmm. Come to think of it, since she did so much traveling, I suppose it made sense she didn't wear a watch. Unless it was one of those expensive ones that automatically interfaced with the local atomic clocks wherever she went, and she surely didn't seem like she could afford such a thing. Let alone a normal watch. A runaway, you know."
Lucien was trying to follow the things the girl was saying, but he was having a great deal of trouble. Plus he was distracted by this odd feeling that it wasn't a girl talking to him. She certainly looked like a girl, and sounded like a girl, but there was something that seemed... he didn't want to say masculine, per se, more like androgynous, but definitely not feminine. But that was just in his head. He couldn't pin down anything that made him think that. He shook his head a few moments after she stopped talking, and said, "Who?"
"Her, of course," she replied, indicating herself. "...Oh, sorry. I can understand your confusion. You're new at this, of course. This isn't actually my body. Or rather, it wasn't. Now it's mine for as long as I like. It's become immortal, at least as long as I'm inhabiting it. As have your body and mind. It's part of the whole deal, of standing on the Template."
"The... you mean the device?"
"'The device.' Yes, the device! Is that all you people called it? How many knew about it, anyway? It clearly was never made public knowledge, or I would have heard of it."
"It... I don't know. Not many. Maybe a few dozen of the top people in the S.C. and the... How the hell did you know about it?"
"Me? Oh, I've been using it since the first Universe."
Lucien was again speechless. He was trying to absorb this. His head cleared when he thought to himself, I never used speechwriters. He reminded himself that he was the President of the Universe, and collected his confidence. "And how do you know yours was the first?"
The girl sighed again. "Do you have any idea how long a Universe lasts? What a civilization is capable of learning in that time, when pointed in the right directions? Or do you suppose everything's random? Weren't you listening when I said I wanted to set midmorning as the start of the day? I can do whatever I want. If I want to know how many Universes there have been, I can steer the development of scientific research to tackle that question. And I did so, once. Mine was the first, all right."
"How do I know I can believe you?"
"You don't have to believe anything I tell you. Anything I say could be a lie. Or I could be wrong. Who cares about scientific evidence? Science can be wrong. It usually is. A hundred years ago no one knew... well, that there were only a hundred years left. So who cares if I devoted the collective scientific resources of a hundred thousand worlds spread throughout thousands of galaxies over five million years to figuring something like that out? If even one person on one planet on one day forgot to carry the one on just one of his calculations, then I could be completely wrong. And that's just one of the countless projects I've subtly nudged into creation."
"And how many Universes have there been, assuming I choose to believe anything you say?"
She grinned and said, "A lady never reveals her true age."
Which reminded him... "Whose body is it, then?"
"What, this? Just some girl. Her name isn't important. Nothing about her is important, really. I just needed to inhabit a body, so I could cross over. A disembodied consciousness can hardly be expected to stand on the Template, after all."
"And how long have you been disembodied?"
"Most recently, several thousand years. I could take a body at any time I like, of course. I've had so many, in my life. I can barely even remember the one I was born in. It was male, if that's what you're wondering, but it hardly matters. I've been lots of different genders since then, some of which never even existed on any world in your Universe. I kept my original body for the first few million years of the second Universe, but that was such a long time ago. Not nearly the longest kept body I've ever had. But once I left it, it soon died."
"Is that what would happen to this girl, if you left her body?"
"You said she became immortal. And so did I. Why didn't your own body?"
"I said, 'as long as I'm inhabiting it.' Yes, the Template makes both mind and body immortal, but while a mind can survive without a body, a body cannot survive without a mind."
"But... you said leaving the body wouldn't kill her."
She sighed again. "It has a mind. Hers." She held up a hand. "Now, before you protest, or ask any more stupid questions, or whatever you were going to do, let me explain. She is not conscious on any level. She isn't even sleeping. There are no dreams. She is utterly unaware of what's happening to her, or around her, or even of the passage of time. If I left, her consciousness would regain... consciousness. The last thing it would remember was the moment before I took her. It would seem to her as if she had just stepped off a transmat, without remembering ever having gotten on one. Now, this is what would happen if I left her body at any point within her species' natural life span. At that point, it would begin to age normally. This is because her mind was subdued at the time of her body's change, and therefore not immortal, only her body- but, only when inhabited by an immortal mind. If, on the other hand, I left at some point well beyond her natural life span, she would die instantly, and her soul would escape. Even I don't know what happens to souls when they die, because I have never died. I don't intend to, either. I like to think they go on to some higher plane of existence. But maybe not." She shrugged, as if unable to think what else to say on the subject. "Meanwhile, as long as I'm here, her mind remains intact, in a sort of suspended animation. I don't think she'll mind. She never cared too much about her life, anyway."
"So you can read minds?"
"Oh yes, I don't even have to inhabit someone to do that. Every mind broadcasts on its own wavelength, you just need to know how to tune in to the proper frequency. It's a trick I picked up several Universes ago. Some people are born with the ability. Others use devices, like radios..."
"I've met telepaths. I understand the biochemistry."
"Sure you do. If-" it seemed she was about to say something else on the matter, but then reconsidered. "It doesn't matter. But when you really understand it, you don't need technology or biology."
"Do you intend to ever leave her?"
"Aww, are you already lonely for companionship with someone from your own Universe? It's only been a couple hours since you said goodbye to your family, I bet. You think you're lonely now, wait till you try to make friends with the monkeys. Aside from me, my friend, it'll be one hell of a long time before you have anyone to talk to."
This was perhaps the single most frightening concept that had ever entered Lucien's mind. But he just said, "No doubt you'll at least prove an unending source of interesting conversation."
"No doubt. In any event, I shall leave her one day. Not whilst anywhere near you, of course. I'll have to make sure her body is safe from any harm, or interference. And I'll keep a mind lock on her at all times, so I'll be aware of what she's up to. That is, until there's actually someone else worth inhabiting. I'd hate to have to wait for evolution to do its thing. But then there will be a long time where I can't leave her body, unless I want to remain disembodied for a damn long time, so I'll try to get my astral explorations done early on. Also, I know a few tricks for speeding up evolution, but it's still quite a wait. Not as much for me as for you, of course. I'm used to long stretches of time. I'm afraid the first few million years of your first new Universe is always the most boring time of your life. I don't envy you your current position. But don't worry, you'll get used to it, eventually."
"What if I decide to end it?"
"What, your life? Sorry, suicide is no longer an option for you. At least, not for a long time to come. If you like, I could teach you to leave your body. But an immortal mind can only be killed by... Ah, but perhaps I shouldn't say."
Lucien made an educated guess. "By not being on the de- the Template, at the end of the Universe."
"Okay, I guess that wasn't so hard a thing to figure out."
"And perhaps I should see to it you're not, next time."
She snorted a laugh. "Well, we'll see. I've had rivals before, you know. Sometimes they cross over with me. Whether or not they do, many of them have had their little victories, here and there... or more accurately, stalemates. But in the end, they always lose. Some of them aren't even that challenging. I do hope you'll prove fun. And what fun is a Devil who hasn't even the remotest chance of beating God?"
"Why do you call me Devil?"
"Well duh, I already called God. Remember? By process of elimination, that obviously makes you the Devil. Better luck next time, kid."
"But that's not how it works. You can't just call yourself a god if you aren't."
"Don't you presume to tell me 'how it works.' Compared to the other creatures on this world? Yeah, I'd say I'm a god. I'm the only one besides you who's immortal. I'm sure as hell a damn sight smarter than anyone here will ever be, though as I've indicated, I will need their help from time to time in learning new things."
"Speaking of this world, do you mean to say we're stuck on this planet? Shouldn't gods be able to go to anywhere they want, on any world?"
"Not without transmats, they can't. Which is obviously something I'll have to work on getting people to develop. But there are other things that come first. Like rocket ships. Airplanes. Automobiles. Steam engines. Carriages, etc. But I think you'll find it'll be a few millennia before your new monkey friends will even grasp the concept of the wheel. Then again, some species catch on quicker than others. I don't even know if they'll be monkeys, though the immediate surroundings look enough like the sort of planet on which the dominate race would evolve from such creatures, even if this is entirely the wrong climate zone for them. You're lucky. I once ended up on a world where I had nothing to do but sit around stirring soup for a few million years before there was so much as an amoeba to liven things up. Damn glad that wasn't my first new Universe, I'd probably have gone mad. ...Say, have you ever been mad? You'll have to try it sometime, and no doubt shall. Luckily, the condition tends to clear up on its own, after awhile, as long as the locals don't pump you full of chemicals. Which they did to me in one of my mad phases. Luckily, I had an escape plan worked out beforehand, which only took 20 years to go into effect. The blink of an eye is an eternity, next to 20 years! There isn't even a phrase to describe how brief a time that is. But you'll understand. Once you've lived through a few Universes. Which you probably won't."
"What if I refuse to play the Devil? What if I choose to be God? Or if I choose not to play your ridiculous games at all?"
"First of all, you need to get this simple concept through your head: There's nothing else to do. If you don't play... man, I don't even know how to finish that sentence. Nothing quite fits. Unless you spend your life in a cave somewhere never interacting with anyone, you'll be playing the game. If you don't show up at the Template in the end, you lose, whether it's because I beat you or you just forfeit. Secondly, if you're going to play a game, there have to be rules. And since I invented the game, I made up the rules a long time ago. Some of my rivals have tried making up their own rules, but it never works out as they hope. At least not in the long run. Now, if you want to pretend to be God, that's perfectly allowable. There can be only one true one, of course, and all others are guilty of the most heinous blasphemy. Your idea of the Devil tried it, didn't he? Look what happened to him."
"My... the theology I'm familiar with, or any of those I've ever heard of, are they all based on your game?"
"Mostly." She shrugged. "But sentient beings are endlessly inventive. I don't always need to inspire them for them to come up with inspired ideas. Which just makes it all the more entertaining. The little surprises that pop up along the way, from time to time."
"And supposing there is a higher plane? And a real God? What do you think he must think of your game?"
"Honestly? I've never seen any indication of such a being's existence. Once I thought I did, but it turned out to be a surprise I'd left for myself a few billion years earlier, and forgotten about. That was a hoot and a half! It's not often I manage to forget things, you know. And fyi, none of the civilizations of the first Universe ever even had any concept of gods or devils. That's something some folks in the second Universe thought up, after they met me. The notion intrigued me, and that's when I started making up my game. It's about the only thing that's kept me sane, during the times I've chosen to be sane. Which is most of the time."
"And I suppose you've reintroduced the concept in each new Universe?"
"Nah, don't always have to. Some things, big enough things like religion, become at least vaguely part of racial memory, which passes from Universe to Universe. It's all stored in the Template. Everything. Things get rearranged each time, but the memory of everything that's ever happened in every Universe remains. And some things cross over. Not just the same, but still. There'll always be religion, from now on. And other things too numerous to mention. Though most of them take a long time to resurface when the gameboard resets. Anyway... look, I'm getting bored of this conversation. I'm sure there's much more to tell you, and for you to learn on your own, but it's a beautiful day, and we've all eternity. I'm gonna head out. Be seeing you, Lucien..." And she turned and started to walk toward the raspberry bushes.
He shouted after her, "I'm the President of the Universe, I don't think you should be so familiar."
She replied over her shoulder, "You were the President. But you've been cast out of Heaven, my friend. Count your blessings you're only in Eden, and not some Pit."
"Well, if you're going to insist on playing your infernal game, could you at least tell me your name?"
With a sigh, she turned to face him again. "I told you, it's not important. But maybe you'll talk to her sometime, if I-"
"No, I mean your name. The one your parents gave you, if you can remember that far back."
She grinned and turned away again. Lucien looked at the bushes, and saw a glint of light. "What's that?" he asked.
She continued walking in the direction he was looking, toward the back of the cluster of bushes, then stopped, stooped, and picked something up. Holding it out before her, Lucien could see that it was a bottle. A familiar looking bottle.
"Just something I picked up in your office this afternoon. I stashed it there when we landed," she said, nodding at the spot from whence she'd just picked it up.
"You... you mean, we can take things through with us?"
"You may have noticed neither of us is naked." Lucien hadn't given it any thought. He just took clothes for granted. He would have noticed their absence, but not their presence. The girl could tell this, and nodded. "I see." Lucien got a nervous look. "No, I can't read your mind. That's another part of the Template's deal. You can only broadcast your thoughts consciously, if you want to. It's no longer autonomic. You're locked up tight as Uncle Scrooge's purse strings. But I have learned to rather accurately guess what people are thinking, some of the time. In any event, we can take little things. Whatever fits within the perimeter of the Template."
"Why didn't I know that when I stood on it? And speaking of that, why wasn't I on the Template when I... landed here?"
"The amount of information the Template shares about itself comes in stages. If you've only lived in a single Universe, the information is minimal, just what you need to know to get to the next Universe. Each time you cross over, you get to learn a little something new. Anyway, you were on the Template when we landed. But the transition, not to mention your own transformation, can be disorienting. I'm used to the transition, and braced for it. Plus, the change only happens the first time. After that, your immortality just naturally crosses over with you, no change is necessary. The point is, you wouldn't be aware of it when I kicked off at just the right moment, and the recoil knocked you in the other direction. The Template tries to hold onto us both, but near the end its gravitational forces are weakened. It still works as a safety net, so we can't go more than a few yards away. It really would be annoying if an involuntary phantom muscle spasm knocked us into outer space, wouldn't it? It'd take forever to find a planet, and who knows if it'd be suitable for mortal life? So-"
"What do you mean, 'phantom'?"
"We don't have bodies until we land, or just a moment before. The rebirth of the Universe doesn't take more than a few minutes, and we may vaguely perceive it during that time, but not with any actual senses. But our minds still expect our bodies to be there. Well, yours does, anyway. Mine's used to a lack of a body."
"Why did you jump?"
"What? Oh, just for the fun of it. I like to do that, from time to time, to sharpen my powers of concentration. Also, when someone crosses over with me, I don't want to land right next to them. I want to give myself a little space, maybe a minute to absorb the local atmosphere before I have to deal with anything or anyone else."
Lucien needed a drink. Nodding at the bottle in the girl's hand, he said, "That's mine. Give it back."
"Finders keepers, losers weepers. But I'm sure you know how to make your own alcohol." Hefting the bottled she added, "Not as good as this, of course, but something that'll help pass your nights, anyway. Or days. I'd get to work on that still right away, if I were you."
"Yeah... right after my sundial."
"Capital idea. Now, like I said... be seeing you. Few months, few centuries, whenever. Take care, Lucien."
She walked away, and this time Lucien couldn't think of anything to say to stop her. He just stood there, staring after her. After a few minutes, when she'd disappeared into the woods, he sighed and said to himself, "Damn, I wish I'd brought Dean's bottle with me."
vol. 2, part two
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