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by Gustavo Bondoni

The misogynist is in hell. His personal hell is a small, square chamber with surgical looking white walls. He is ranting.

“They’re all witches. Worthless sacks, only good for screwing and for making babies. I’m not even sure we should ever have let them move from the bedchamber to the kitchen.”

After each pronouncement, a spray of acid from tiny jets in the walls dissolves his skin, burning it away like the wax figures in bad horror movies. It is a terribly painful experience, and unbeknownst to him, the pain is enhanced by processes controlled by unseen minions.

After the devastation, his skin heals itself. This is even more painful than the burning. 

It has been going on for years, and will do so for eternity.

But he cannot stop the pronouncements. A voice that only he can hear provokes him every moment of every day. Only he can hear it because there’s a sound-carrying tube that emits its sound only into his room.

We can follow the tube. It is not a long way. It goes into the adjacent room. There is a woman in the room, and she is also speaking.

“Men are useless in society. All we need is a stock of frozen semen, and we can get rid of the whole stupid beer-drinking, war-starting gender. The goddess will see to it.”

There is a spray of acid and her skin dissolves.

The tube, you see, is a two-way tube, and sound goes both ways.

Hell may be unpleasant, but it is efficient.



Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages. His latest book is Ice Station: Death (2019). He has also published three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at

Killing Death

by Carlton Herzog

The ability to defy aging and death has become a reality in our time. Now we no longer fear a hideous decay and decrepitude. Nor do we picture a pointless afterlife of singing Hosannas to a god of dubious virtue.

But even as the universe giveth, it taketh away. Where it extends the lives of the aged, it must surely deprive the unborn generations of theirs. The question then becomes how long should the young let the aged live before forcing them to their graves?

In Nekros v. U.S. the high court was asked to address that very question through the prism of the First Amendment. That Amendment both prohibits Congress from promoting one religion over another (Establishment Clause) and restricting an individual’s religious practices (Free Expression Clause).


On March 25, 2035, Google perfected Project Calico, which had a mandate to kill death and stop aging. It did so with pico-electric nanites injected into the subject’s blood stream. The nanites cured illness, stopped aging, and extended life indefinitely for anyone so treated. Death by natural causes ceased to exist for those who could afford it.

To ease the financial burden on nanite candidates, western governments stepped in with subsidies. That was a necessary step since the initial injection and annual follow-ups were beyond the means of most people.

Unfortunately, life extension did more harm than good. First, the number of global births began to exceed the number of deaths. With more mouths than food to go around, global food shortages became the norm. Second, the elderly clung to their jobs leaving younger people unemployed, and therefore, an added societal burden. Third, the cost of government subsidized life extension crushed economic growth in the developed nations. Fourth, the collection of retirement benefits far beyond what was once a normal lifespan wreaked havoc on corporations. Finally, there was an uptick in crime and other deviant behavior associated with the amortal demographic. Psychologists attributed it to an overweening sense of invincibility coupled with an inexplicable decline in impulse control.

Social philosophers and economists wrestled with the question of how long is long enough?  Politicians asked the same question. On May 25, 2050, both Houses of Congress passed the Mandatory Euthanasia Act which capped life spans at 150 years old. Regardless of a person’s overall physical and mental health, once a person had passed the chronological red line, they were ordered to report via the Selective Euthanasia Service to a Federal Termination Unit for painless and otherwise humane liquidation.

Many pundits believed that the impact of ageless living on the world’s religions, particularly those with pie-in the sky visions of an afterlife, would be terminal. To the contrary, religions of all dominations experienced explosive growth directly correlated with the enactment of the MEA.

The reason for such a radical sea change lay in the Constitution. Many religionists believed that the First Amendment protected their right to practice their religion in perpetuity on earth. The lower courts disagreed on the ground that the religious doctrines in question did not mandate earthly life in perpetuity. Instead, it stressed that all the doctrines in question characterized earthly life of secondary importance relative to the greater heavenly reality to follow.

To circumvent that obstacle, K.C. Braddock formed the Church of the Everlasting Earthly Flame. Its central tenet was that God promised eternal earthly life to any and all who sought it.

Harlan Nekros, age 149, joined the congregation that year fully expecting to receive First Amendment Protection of his religious freedom to remain alive indefinitely. 

On his 150th birthday, Nekros received his order to report within one year to a termination facility in fulfillment of his societal obligation. He subsequently obtained a temporary restraining order in Federal District Court to stay the process pending a hearing. 

At the hearing, Pepper’s lawyers argued that Nekros’s rights would be violated by the Court’s enforcement of the MEA. As a congregant of Everlasting Flame, Nekros was entitled to preserve his life by whatever means were available. To order his termination, the State would be committing a crime against his person and his constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion.

Nekros’ lawyers stressed that “the State’s law is just another example of a callous and godless government running roughshod over human life and the religious rights of believers. Drunk with power, the State argues unconvincingly that forced suicide is a curative to modern medical paternalism.”

For its part, the United States Attorney argued that, “the net effect of Project Calico’s so-called success is that federal, state and local governments have been handed the crushing economic burden of medical treatments and retirement benefits extended into perpetuity for a growing population of geriatrics. Climate change, and the concomitant scarcity of food and water, have made those burdens exponentially greater.”

“Such extreme hardships call for extreme measures if our republic is to hold together. As in war, some members of society must be sacrificed so that the greater whole may survive. It is disingenuous for opposing counsel to argue that the State lacks an adequate moral foundation for the law and is simply acting in arbitrary and capricious manner in derogation of the petitioner’s liberty and religious interests.”

The Federal Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that MEA violated the petitioner’s free exercise of religion. It ordered the suppression of the State’s termination order pending an appeal.


The United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to determine the constitutionality of the Federal Life-Time Limits set forth in the MEA statute. The major points of that opinion follow:       


Nekros’ strongest line of attack lies in the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom. We reject that argument. The State does not deny appellant’s right to believe whatever doctrine he chooses. Indeed, the State’s motivation in enforcing the MEA is a secular one and does not make any religious practice unlawful. The State is not acting as the thought police, nor the guardian of any one religion. The appellant remains the master of his own mind and soul and is therefore free to pursue whatever religious truth he sees fit to follow.


If we were to grant exemptions to Eternal Flame congregants, we would be violating the Establishment Clause by giving preferences to those who believe they are entitled to an eternal earthly life at the expense of other religions that do not so believe.


The due process clauses of the constitution act against the arbitrary denial of life, liberty or property outside the sanction of law. There is nothing arbitrary or unsanctioned about the MEA. It is based on the need to reduce domestic population in order to conserve financial and material resources in both the private and public sector. It was enacted with the unanimous consent of both Houses of Congress and ratified by the President. We find therefore that the MEA does not offend the due process clauses.


Nekros argued that irrespective of any due process considerations, the MEA violates the Equal Protection Clause which holds that ‘No state shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Nekros asserts that persons over the age of 150 years old are being singled out for disfavored treatment relative to the rest of the public. We find this challenge to be without merit. At first blush, senicide, or selective eradication based on age, would seem to offend the right to equal protection under the law. But since all citizens fall within the sweep of the statute, we can find no basis for a claim of differential treatment under the law.


Nekros also argues that penumbra of the constitution creates a fundamental right to privacy, and by implication a right of self-determination. To support that argument, Nekros has provided a laundry list of case law bearing on a woman’s right to abortion, assisted suicide for the terminally ill patients, and fulfillment of DNR orders in living wills. Nekros would have us extend that right of self-determination so that he may lead an ageless existence in perpetuity irrespective of the law of the land. We find such case law distinguishable from the one at hand because there was no countervailing state interest in regulating population control. In these difficult times, we must all make hard choices. As the District court noted, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few.  


We take judicial notice of the State’s statistical data regarding the well-documented criminality and malicious deviance of the ageless. To date, there have been more deaths from their wanton and reckless geriatric behavior than from all other domestic causes combined.  

That precipitous decline in personal and societal risk assessment, as reflected in those jarring statistics, stems from an unforeseen limitation of nanation. Although the nanation process may preserve cognitive and bodily function, it cannot preserve emotional intelligence. To the contrary, the effect of an extremely long and healthy life imbues the individual with a sense of invincibility, while simultaneously degrading impulse control. The medical community describes this effect as Toxic Centenarian Deviancy Syndrome. To date, there is neither a treatment nor a cure.

We hold therefore that Nekros’ constitutional challenges are without merit. We order that Nekros be remanded back to federal custody for termination within the next six months, pursuant to the original liquidation order.


I am disgusted by the social arithmetic used by the majority. I do not believe that such an algorithm is good for society. Indeed, the notion that the State has the unfettered right to murder its citizens for no other reason than they have escaped death by old age is palpably absurd. Indeed, it reeks of both Hitler’s death camps where Jews were exterminated because they were characterized as morally flawed and Stalin’s pogroms against his own troops because they had been contaminated by exposure to western values at the front.

Not surprisingly, Hitler’s views on genocide — for what is the systematic extermination of an outcast group if not that — took their inspiration from our sterilization laws so popular in the 1920’s. Those laws aimed to eradicate the unfit and the degenerate: criminals, prostitutes, alcoholics, epileptics and the mentally ill. 

I find it disingenuous for the majority to assert that a person is free to believe whatever they like up until the moment the state lops off his or her head. It reminds one of the turkey’s fate on Thanksgiving Day following a few years of placid existence on the farm.

What the state, with the imprimatur of the courts has done, is criminalize long life but without the procedural and substantive protections afforded any accused criminal. It follows in the vein of other authoritarian regimes that have criminalized such things as reading, writing, and transporting books as well as composing and playing music. I must ask what comes next.

Given the State’s willingness to commit legally sanctioned murder, and its propensity to expand its reach, I should not be surprised if it concocts another law that violates both the spirit and letter of our sacred constitution. Thus, do we slouch toward tyranny and the genocides necessary to sustain it with a wink and a nod to the Founding Fathers.

I therefore respectfully dissent from the majority opinion.



Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government.


by E. E. King

The Sila lived on a planet of stone. They were round, soft, slightly opaque and formed from silicon. They would have been transparent had they been thinner. Like blobs of jelly, they had no eyes, ears, mouths, noses or appendages. They had no senses, nor did they need them. They lived at a pace so slow they could comprehend that time and space were relative. On their planet, the speed of light was relative too. There were no constants. The only constant, unchanging unchangeables, were the rocks and the Sila themselves. They did not breathe or die. They had no emotions, no hungers, no need to reproduce, or desire for love. They communicated directly, without the need for words, faster than light or sound.

They sent their thoughts out into their galaxy, traversing space, distance and time. Life was, of course, fairly common in the universe, how could it not be? Uncountable galaxies filled with clouds of stars and planets. The life was mostly carbon based: small-minded, ignorant, finite creatures. Creatures who saw little and understood less. Creatures who trusted their limited senses and themselves alone in the vastness of space. The Sila found no reason to disabuse them. These creatures had nothing to teach them.

On all the planets, in all the galaxies in all the universes similarity abounded. There was nothing new under the suns… not even sun. But water, in its liquid state, unfrozen and not gaseous, was rare. So, there was interest when the Sila, probing far, far into the distant lights of the sky found a planet that was 98% saltwater.

Probing beneath its surface, they discovered a huge variety of life, an almost overwhelming multiplicity of species.

A few were free floating, looking like Sila themselves, though they were carbon based. Many lived in colonies, individuals sharing a common skeleton. They had no brains. A loose network of nerves detected light, odor and touch. Each had long, waving, poisonous tentacles. Probing into their calcium depths, the Sila discovered minute organism in each that could turn light into sugar. These tiny alchemists fed their own skeletons with food made from light. 

Deeper still, from the dark water rose the bleached remains of older colonies, some were shaped like brains, others like plates, or horns. These too had once been living, but due to temperature, salinity, or depth, they had died and lay white and silent beneath the waves.

There were other ruins too. Some younger, some older, vast towering made of glass, steel and stone. In them, the Sila found no life.

The Sila believed in light, in time, space, rock and chemicals. They believed in thought and ideas. They believed in communication. They did not believe in spirit or in soul. Souls were the inventions of carbon-based life, created to still the terror of an endless sleep, and to calm the fears of an infinite night.

Then they found them. Beings like themselves, round, pliant, opaque and still, lacking all traces of animation. How could this be? They were obviously not rocks. The Sila had seen too many stones on too many planets to be confused. These were Sila, but devoid of intellect, without life – dead.

They lay, two each, inside of six-foot rectangular squares that had been hewed in the ground many millions of years ago. Some were encased in fragments of metamorphic rock, some surrounded by molecules of rotted cellulose. They sat like soft, large eggs, placed symmetrically inside a curious construction of calcium which reeked of long dead carbon. How had they gotten here, buried beneath Water and Earth? What had happened to them?

The Sila were infinite, and yet, here was death, come to their kind on a planet in a galaxy far, far away. The Sila’s minds were invaded by that first ambassador of emotion; curiosity. It was like a finger pulling aside a curtain, letting in the first small beam of light, and as a shadow follows light, it was followed by a glimmering of fear.

The Sila shivered first collectively, then individually. If death was inevitable, each wanted a soul for itself, an afterlife, a heaven. And so, the Sila separated. Their expansive minds condensed. Their society collapsed. Yet it could have been so easily avoided, if only they had understood the words on the underside of the dead Sila; Best Breasts Allegan Brand.



E.E. King is a painter, performer, writer, and biologist. She’ll do anything that won’t pay the bills, especially if it involves animals. King has won various awards and fellowships for art, writing, and environmental research. She’s been published widely, most recently in Clarksworld, Flame Tree, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores and On Spec. One of her tales is on Tangent’s recommended readings in 2019. Her books include Dirk Quigby’s Guide to the Afterlife, Electric Detective, and Blood Prism.

No Vacancy

by Ádám Gerencsér

My child, I apologize for the blinding light. By now, you have probably understood that the truck swerving into your lane failed to come to a halt and you did not survive the impact.

Be advised that a million other souls around the world are hearing a similar message at this moment. You rightly expect a tunnel of light to lead you to our side. Today, however, I’m afraid that you cannot be accepted and must return to the living. In fact, no-one will be accepted until further notice, so it is imperative that you pay attention and mark my words.

You see, heaven was established with a clear purpose: housing the spirits of the faithful departed, along with those of benevolent unbelievers. The billions of entities who were its original inhabitants formed an ecosystem: the hierarchy of angels. The kingdom reposed in a state of serene equilibrium, waiting with eager patience for its first arrivals, while on the blue planet the primordial soup spewed forth algae, bacteria, dinosaurs, trees and marsupials, all of which did not possess a receptive soul. That gift was imparted to a couple of primates who had shown promise by overcoming their own limitations and reaching for the fruit of knowledge. Many of their descendants failed, but some lived a life pleasing to the Maker – and as they departed, we began to receive them. Hunters and gatherers from communities attuned to the natural order of things had no difficulty fitting in here.

Then, gradually, your kind took to evolution with increasing zest. We were not too concerned by the newcomers from tribes that worshipped the sun, or despotic fiefdoms ruled by warlords. Once we had presented them with ’alpha males’, higher angels they could respect and whose commands they would follow, they slotted right in. But then alphabets cropped up and written discourses began to spread – we were aghast at receiving scholars, pharisees and scribes! Things first threatened to get out of hand when arrivals began to trickle in from the Greek city states. The celestial spheres were no longer immutable and the abodes of the dead were echoing with the chatter of varied languages debating history, philosophy, ethics, even metaphysics – before long, a pluralism of views became the new norm in the outer cloud rings.

Mankind’s ideas mutated at an accelerating pace, while with each passing generation more and more of you were born and died. Countless bloody wars filled our entrance halls with the ghosts of massacred innocents from all corners of the world. Our hierarchy became untenable, the very orderliness of the afterlife teetered on the brink as the emergence of new angels failed to keep up with the breakneck population growth among the deceased. The renaissance was bad enough, but the second wave of so-called enlightenment in your 19th century practically overwhelmed the administrative capacities of the angelic host, which had hitherto acted as the immune system of the heavenly realm. With the wide spread of literacy, free-thinkers started arriving in unprecedented numbers, and it was no longer possible to smoothly integrate them as their revolutionary discourse had infected the ethereal fabric woven during bygone, calmer ages.

The breaking point came today. Of the million or so newcomers expected, one was bound to tip the balance and human souls would outnumber angels for the first time in the kingdom’s history. With a view to ensuring the sustainable operation of heaven, no further arrivals will be admitted before the Maker guides us to find a solution. Until that happens, all deaths are suspended indefinitely. No accidents, illnesses or acts of crime will be permitted to result in mortal casualties – the physical forces of the universe shall be instructed to conspire for the preservation of human life under all circumstances. Please note, however, that births do not fall within our jurisdiction and will continue unabated. Therefore, go back now and tell all who would listen: your kind has certain arrangements to make…


Cast Not a Shadow

In the darkness, the Buddha is a light.
     Cast not a shadow, and align your soul with what is right.
Such was the verse inscribed above the entrance to the Chamber of Light, hidden a mile within the Kitala Mountains. Alaria knew that those words were a fleck of eternity, cast upon the ever-changing canvas of the world. Yet the verse was not just a remote, noble truth, but a command. Although the gilded bronze in which it was written was like garish face-paint over the enduring stone, it helped train Alaria’s mind on her task as she followed the four monks into the chamber. The thin brown cloak over her naked body provided little warmth in the ancient mountain air that sat motionless beneath the cliff faces. Yet the mountains too were illusory—indeed, the entire world was. The only truth was the Buddha: everything else was no more than reflections in an infinite pool of water.
Alaria had to remember that, to feel it to be true. For her test would reveal if she was ready to leave the world behind. If she was truly greater than the phantasmagoria of life.
When they entered the Chamber of Light, Alaria’s bare feet met the tight black linen sheet covering the ground, giving some relief to her numb toes. It was dark in here, though she could see well enough to determine that the ceiling was only a few inches above Farilon’s head, the tallest monk of the group. The only items in the room were instruments for the test on a wooden bench next to the wall on Alaria’s right. There was also a brass lantern, which Farilon retrieved and held in both his hands.
The other monks went to examine the instruments, whispering faintly amid their curtains of long, pale hair that concealed clean-shaven faces. Alaria waited at the center of the room. She held her cloak tight at her neck, resisting the urge to flick a trailing lock of her dark brown hair from her eyes. When Farilon bade her, she faced the other wall. He stood between her and the wall, the lantern held up to the level of his chest where the eight-pointed star and surrounding three orbs of the Levantra sect were stitched in silver thread onto the breast of his earthy brown robe. His usually tranquil eyes regarded her severely.
“Alaria Trivol,” he began, “initiate of the Travera Temple, seeker of the Buddha, and of light.”
At his last word, he turned a knob on the lantern. Its four faces tilted slightly so that the light within became visible in hairline shafts. The lantern, called the Daivara, was suffused with a pure white glow like a smudged fingerprint of moonlight. Farilon’s face was as white as a skull, his long nose the polished beak of a white raven. The room, with the black cloth covering the floor and walls, was like the inside of a jewelry box, empty but for that one brilliant jewel, the Daivara.
Alaria could hear the other monks behind her, the soft thump of their bare feet on the cloth, the clinks and windings of their instruments as they set them on the ground behind her. She looked at Farilon in the eyes, and the man gave a single nod. It was time. She removed her cloak and handed it to him, her bare skin prickling with goosebumps. She felt like curling into a ball to hide her naked body, but she had at least known the details of the test from her sister Reyli, so had somewhat prepared herself for it.
The lantern was then opened fully. Alaria closed her eyes, for the light was nearly intense enough to blind her. The backs of her eyelids were splotched with orange and white.
Let me be ulnor, she thought. Or at least violet. Nothing less than violet. She knew it wouldn’t help though: whatever light came through her would do so based on her achievements of the past months, not a fleeting wish of the moment.
She listened intently as the monks examined their equipment, could hear the telltale chirrup as gavor rays were detected with a lintin device, though the rest was more speculation on Alaria’s part. She imagined the black plate of obdoron whitening with the outline of her bones, and the glass of pressurized water beginning  to drip as mirava rays heated the fluid. She hoped that the penvara crystal would glow with that eerie purple-azure light from ulnor rays, though that wasn’t very likely. The monks then proceeded to examine the spots with their thick magnifying glasses.
Violet, Alaria thought again, holding her breath.
“Red. Orange,” Serion spoke behind her.
“Green,” Maline added.
There was a pause as they hunted for the more difficult colours, those that may have only one or two tiny dots present, as opposed to, say, red, that would have been sprinkled about her shadow copiously.
Alaria relaxed slightly when blue was called out, but she still felt tense. It was one thing to stand naked in a dark room with four monks around her, but quite another to have one of them shine a light brighter than Krinlar, the life-giving star, at her while the others analyzed her shadow.
It seemed that violet was not forthcoming. Serion announced deep blue, but apparently, it wasn’t the right hue to be considered violet. Alaria felt like asking how he determined one shade from another, but when she squinted her eyes open, she saw the white face of Farilon, his eyes closed next to the Daivara like the face of a corpse, and she was again reminded of her purpose. That’s all I need to do: die properly to get to the next world. But she needed to be ulnor first. She needed to be as enlightened as the monks of the Inner Temple, to have not only visible light pass through her body, but ulnor rays as well. Yet even that was only the first step. She could ascend upon attaining ulnor, but some of the monks were striving to cultivate their minds until all light could pass through their bodies: to have no shadow whatsoever. Cast not a shadow.
At last, Maline announced, “Alaria Trivol. A soul of the sea.”
The sea. Blue.
Farilon, his eyes still closed, gave a brief nod of recognition before turning the knob to shut the lantern. Alaria opened her eyes immediately, though all she could see were orange splotches on black. She felt fabric touch her arm, and grasped her cloak, sweeping it around her shoulders. She felt the edge of it hit something, but couldn’t see what it was in the dark—probably Serion, because he would have been too discreet to say anything about it.
Alaria heard the monks return their equipment to the bench, and when her eyes readjusted to the dark, she saw hints of white on the obdoron plate. She was content that at least nearly all the kesla rays had passed through her, revealing only blurred outlines of bones.
She turned back to Farilon. He inclined his head slightly, though his features remained unreadable, so Alaria couldn’t tell whether it was a congratulatory gesture or one of pity. After all, she wasn’t even violet. Both she and her sister would remain in Travera.
She inclined her head in turn, and they set off from the room. Although this ceremony was held in the most sacred regard, the moment they were out of the Chamber of Light, Alaria couldn’t help but turn back to Farilon and whisper, “Does this mean I can study with the Great Light Felzar?”
A flicker crossed the monk’s tawny eyes, though he kept walking at a measured pace. “You will see,” he said. “He will decide if you are worthy.”
“It’s not bad, the forest,” Alaria was telling Reyli. “Just think: a month ago, you had no spots at all. And green is closer to violet than it is to red.”
A half smile crossed Reyli’s thin lips. She didn’t believe Alaria, of course. But then again, Alaria hardly believed herself. She was trying to encourage her sister about her test result, and she’d told Reyli that she’d only just attained blue, even though she was on the brink of violet.
They had met in the meditation hall with an open wall overlooking the mountains. Here, cool air whipped around the monks, testing their concentration, their resilience to the cold. It was Reyli’s chosen place of devotion, but Alaria never went there unless she had to: her red linen robe wasn’t nearly warm enough for the mountain air, and her toes would always freeze up. But whenever she walked by the hall, she couldn’t help but watch the monks sitting on the cold marble floor, their long hair flapping about them and the sleeves of their robes billowing as if they were about to take flight.
When Alaria had found Reyli, the two of them set off toward the Great Light Quarters where Alaria was to speak with Great Light Felzar—or rather, he was to speak to her, for she didn’t imagine that she would be allowed to do much talking.
“Next year—” Alaria began, but a touch from Reyli’s hand silenced her.
“Do not speak of next year,” Reyli said, her voice faint, as if it were far away in the mountains. “There will be none.”
“The White Eye hasn’t found Travera yet.”
“He will.”
They were nearing Felzar’s chamber, halfway down the hall of white marble with its columns of dark stone. Alaria hadn’t said half of what she’d intended to say and had said a great many things she hadn’t wanted to, but Reyli had become more distant recently, more apocalyptic about the fate of the world. So when they reached Felzar’s chamber, Alaria hadn’t told her sister about how she’d felt during the test, how serious Farilon had been, and how she had probably smacked Serion with her cloak in the dark.
“Good luck, Alaria,” Reyli said at the doors. Despite her previous aloofness, she tucked a loose strand of Alaria’s hair behind her ear.
Alaria waited a few moments as she watched her sister depart, her bare feet silent as if she were no more than a phantom. She then pulled on the cord of crystalline venla stones hanging next to the door. In only a short moment, Farilon opened the door, not half as grim as he had been this morning in the Chamber of Light, but not particularly amiable either. He raised an eyebrow as if he hadn’t expected to see Alaria so soon. Indeed, most monks would have spent the rest of the day after their test meditating.
Farilon stepped out into the hall and closed the door behind him softly. “You did well today,” he said.
“Really?” Alaria wondered how standing naked under a Daivara light could be performed well or poorly.
“Not all monks take it with such equanimity.”
“I see.” She wondered how Reyli had fared. “Well, I’d like to see Great Light Felzar. Now.” She had to specify “now,” or else the meeting might be set for a week or two.
“Is it True?” Farilon asked.
Alaria just regarded him firmly. Although she had been here for less than three months, she was qualified enough to call for a True meeting with one of the Great Lights.
“I will announce you then,” Farilon conceded. “But if he does not wish you there—”
“Then I will be brief. Really, Farilon, you’re his student, not his bodyguard.”
“True.” Farilon smiled and returned to the room, though he didn’t shut the door behind him.
Alaria peered inside. It was a tall room with shards of venla hanging from the upper arches of the ceiling. Their surfaces winked in the sunlight whenever they shifted from the slight wind that came through the square windows near the top of the walls. Beneath these starry gems sat Great Light Felzar, his crimson robe rendering him a spot of red in the bare room. Farilon stood next to the door, and after inclining his head to his master with his palms faced upward at waist level, he departed.
Alaria approached the Great Light and stopped halfway across the room. She licked her lips, the cold silence pressing in on her ears. Perhaps she had been too rash coming here. The reason she had chosen Felzar was because he was the only Great Light who had spoken to her before. It had been shortly after she’d arrived, and he had told her, “I see a noble light within you. We shall have to hunt it out, shan’t we?” But Alaria now wondered if he said that to everyone who came here, and so wasn’t sure what to say to him now.
Although Felzar wasn’t exactly imposing, whenever Alaria made eye contact with him, he seemed capable of reading her thoughts with his white-blue eyes, bright skies stretched with white clouds. His white hair settled in ringlets on the floor about him. He was not so old in years as he was in his soul, though if Farilon was correct, Felzar had lived here ever since he was two years old.
“I see your light, Alaria,” Felzar said, his voice rising like mist, sending a shiver up Alaria’s spine.
“And I see your light, Great Light Felzar.”
“It seems you have passed your test.”
“No, I’m only blue.”
“What were you when you came to Travera?”
“Only the usual rays could pass through me. Only gavor, some kesla, and raimir. So I don’t suppose I was anything.”
Nothing,” Felzar said with a touch of sorrow. “Come sit.”
Alaria walked until she was a few paces from Felzar and sat cross-legged on the floor, resting her hands on her knees.
“If you are once nothing, you will forever be nothing,” Felzar continued. “If you are once something, you will forever be something. You know why?”
“Because time is an illusion.”
“Indeed. Yet even if it were not, what you will become is already within your soul. You have grains of starlight hidden in there, waiting to surface.”
“Will you teach me?”
Felzar smiled. Alaria felt that she was somehow being slighted, but didn’t say anything about it, even though she was sure Felzar could understand her thoughts. That was, of course, one of the reasons why she wasn’t ulnor yet: she couldn’t control her thoughts.
“You are a fine teacher, Alaria,” was all Felzar said.
“But I’m not—”
“I believe it is time for your study of the leminas.”
Of course it is, but this is more important.
Felzar raised an eyebrow as if he had heard that, so Alaria just said, “Yes. I shall depart, Great Light.”
Felzar nodded, and Alaria inclined her head before departing. When she closed the door to Felzar’s chamber, she decided that with or without his guidance, she would be ulnor by the end of the month. Which, she quickly calculated, would give her exactly thirty-two days.
So she set off to the Kelsar Chamber to study the leminas with the other initiate monks.
Alaria and Reyli hadn’t had any delusions about what would happen to them at Travera. They would be preparing themselves for death. They would be killed—or, as the monks put it, “released”—as soon as they were ready. Each step they took, each prayer they whispered, every time they sat down to meditate, were all strands of events braided by hands of fate and their own intentions, tethering them to a realm beyond the world. Although here, they would only remain as corpses, there, they would live. That is, if they passed the test. If a monk was killed before attaining ulnor, they would only be reborn in Rey again, for their soul wouldn’t be sufficiently enlightened to be drawn to a higher world.
Alaria often wondered how the monks had figured it all out, but it made sense to her, and it was the only hope she had of escaping the White Eye’s reign of terror. She wouldn’t return to the world, that place of strife, of blood dripping from tower walls, staining the cobbles of the streets so that when it rained, pools of rainwater were stained a rusty hue. From her bedroom window, Alaria had often seen stray wolves drink from those pools at night, gaunt shadows slinking into town, drawn by the scent of blood. If there was a corpse left on the streets, it would always be found half-eaten by morning, its stomach a mangled pit of blood and muscles.
But none of this happened at the Temple. The armies of the White Eye hadn’t found Travera yet, cloistered away in the haunts of the Kitala Mountains. But they knew that over two hundred people had vanished, and a hideaway was suspected. So it was only a matter of time. Time to die properly, to leave this world once and for all before its foundations crumbled beneath the monks, sending them spiraling into lives of despair without hope of escape.
The next few weeks passed like an eerie reflection of moonlight skimming the surface of a tumultuous sea, never penetrating its depths. Life seemed to be passing outside Travera, evinced from stories told by the messengers who brought supplies to the mountain temple. And yet, that life of bloodshed and deceit was no more real than the life lived here.
Having determined to make the most of her time to purify her mind and soul, Alaria spent her days meditating in that shaft of moonlight, hovering above the toils of the world. Whenever her concentration wavered, she drew her thoughts toward the Buddha and the true nature of the world. She knew that Rey was one of countless worlds within countless Buddha-fields, some of whose inhabitants followed the Buddha, and others who were still ignorant of the truth.
She seldom saw Reyli, for Reyli was nearly always in the mountainside meditation hall, even during the monks’ meals. Indeed, it was two weeks since Alaria had last seen her sister, and when she did, it was in the hallway before Reyli’s chosen meditation chamber. Alaria called her sister’s name, and Reyli stopped, a bit too suddenly. Alaria caught up with her, and when she saw Reyli’s face, she couldn’t help but exclaim, “Reyli! Are you sick?” For her sister’s face was more sharply featured than usual, her cheeks were hollowed, and the skin around her eyes lined.
“Why do you say that?” Reyli asked.
“You’re… pale. And thin.”
Reyli shook her head. “I am well.” She then turned to leave.
“Wait.” Alaria placed a hand on Reyli’s shoulder. She felt the knobby bone of her shoulder sticking through her robe.
“What?” Reyli’s voice was flat, uncaring.
Alaria removed her hand and said, “I’m doing my test in three days.”
“As am I.”
“Maybe we could, well…”
“Alaria, I must return to the hall.” She waited a moment for Alaria to respond, but when she didn’t, Reyli turned and left.
She’s preparing to leave, Alaria thought. She hoped Reyli wasn’t trying to perform the ancient practice of self-mummification, when monks would turn themselves into living corpses by starving and drying out their bodies. By the time they inevitably died, their bodies would be preserved, and, as those of the Levantra sect used to believe, would prevent their souls from reincarnating. The only problem was that if the monk in question wasn’t sufficiently enlightened, although light might pass through their emaciated body, their soul wouldn’t ascend as they’d planned. It would remain in Rey as an unembodied spirit neither able to interact with the world nor depart from it.
Alaria instinctively turned to the stairs that led to the Great Light Quarters. She knew she shouldn’t be fretting, and in truth, her mind wasn’t truly distressed, for she had attained much in these past few weeks, and peace came more readily to her. But she couldn’t just let Reyli perish and remain trapped in the spiritual planes of this world for eternity.
Alaria was admitted into Felzar’s room without complication, for as her test was to take place in only three days, these might very well be her last days in Travera. And on Rey, for that matter.
As usual, Felzar was sitting cross-legged on the floor amid his cascades of white hair, and Alaria sat across from him. After bowing, she was quick to ask, “What happens to souls trapped without a body? The ones that don’t ascend.”
“No two souls are alike,” Felzar mused.
“Yes, but—”
“Do you know why I am here, Alaria?”
There was a silence. Eventually, Alaria said, “No.”
“It is to show you what not to ask.” He smiled. Alaria could tell that he wasn’t telling the whole truth. “To not ask, but to have faith, is your duty now. You will discover when you are ready.”
“There are some, though, that might never be ready.”
“That is why I am here. We remain in this world to teach, for otherwise, how else could seekers hope to ascend? Some must stay behind. Even after Travera is captured, some must remain, or Levantra will be lost from the world, and all hope with it.”
Alaria shivered. It wasn’t from the cold, for she was more or less used to that. She felt as though Felzar were asking her a question, and she dreaded to answer it. I’m leaving this world soon. I need not think of what remains. Yet at the same time, she couldn’t help but imagine Felzar sitting in the dungeons beneath the White Eye’s tower, his beautiful hair cut raggedly short, streaks of blood the same colour as his crimson robe crossing his face. And yet, he was still tranquil. He was waiting for the right time.
“Yes,” Alaria said softly. “Someone must remain.”
“Yes. Someone.
Sometimes, reviving herself from a deep concentration, Alaria felt as though she were being born anew into the world. She would walk into the dining hall, gazing about, wondering what a strange place the physical world was. How solid and permanent it seemed! And at the same time, she saw it as ephemeral, for at one command from the Buddha’s highest followers, the bodhisattvas, it would reveal itself to be no more than dust, floating back into the formless void. That was why she couldn’t become attached, couldn’t become too caught up in the world. Because if she did, whenever that time of dissolution came, she would drift away with that dust, her soul trapped and sleeping forever.
In truth, Alaria had hoped for violet from the test, for it had only been three weeks since her first test. So when the test arrived, and Serion and Maline called out not only violet, but that the penvara crystal was glowing with ulnor rays, Alaria felt as though she had broken a glass around her, that she could finally be free. True, the penvara crystal glowed only faintly, but to Alaria’s eyes, the haunting purple glow was beautiful, and more importantly, enough for her to leave the world behind. She had to find Reyli first, though wasn’t sure if they would end up sharing in a common joy or commiserating in a failure.
Reyli wasn’t in the meditation hall, nor was she in her dormitory. After Alaria had encircled nearly the entire complex of Travera, she began to notice that her heart beat quicker, and that there was a nervousness in her mind. It was as if the nervousness was sitting there, detached, no longer a part of her. But she still sensed it, and her suspicions were only confirmed when she met Farilon and Maline speaking in the hall.
When Alaria asked them about Reyli, Maline said, “She is in the Chamber of Ascension.”
“But she…”
A peculiar look crossed Farilon’s face.
“She was ulnor, then,” Alaria continued. “But was it True?”
“One can only speculate,” Farilon said.
“And what are your speculations?”
“She was very thin.”
Thin—but thin enough to be mummified? Enough to have ulnor rays pass through her not because she was enlightened, but because her body was drifting away?
Although Farilon’s answer was hardly satisfactory, Alaria knew she didn’t have much time, so she hastened to the Chamber of Ascension—of ‘Death’, it should have been called. It wasn’t too far from the Chamber of Light, so she imagined that Reyli must have gone there right after her test. But did she really want to leave so soon that she would have left without so much as a word to Alaria?
A monk was standing at the door to the Chamber down at the end of a hall darker than the rest, with fewer windows along the top of the walls. Alaria didn’t recognize the monk, but he seemed to know that she was expected here, for he immediately placed his hand in a horizontal slit in the door. A mechanism inside was released, and the door swung open on greased hinges.
Upon passing through the door, Alaria was overcome with the scent of death—not exotic flowers from a nobler world, but this world made all too real around her. It was dimly lit with glowing red stones embedded into the walls. The floor was not white marble, but the same dark granite as the walls. To hide the blood, Alaria couldn’t help but think. She then realized that she didn’t actually know how the monks were ‘released.’ A sword thrust? No, that was too brutal. Poison, then?
She quickened her pace, not sure where the hall was leading, but eventually, she heard voices. There were two doors at the end of the hall, each a rectangle of smooth, dark wood with a simple brass ring as a handle. Alaria stopped, trying to determine which room the voices were arising from. She couldn’t be sure, so chose the one on the right and pushed it open quietly. She knew that she’d picked wrong when she continued to hear voices through the wall to her left. Yet there were still people in here—at least, what had been people.
Alaria felt her throat constrict as she walked through aisles of corpses. They stretched far back into the heart of the mountain, further than she could see in the dark, for the only light arose from a single glowing stone next to the door. The corpses near the front of the room showed no signs of decay, each lying on a separate stone platform that just fit the length of their body. Their hands were folded across their chests as if in prayer, and although their eyes were closed, Alaria felt that she was being watched through dozens of eyelids, wondering why she, ulnor herself, hadn’t yet joined them.
It took her a moment to realize that the door was being opened, and that, in this place of death, she was an unwelcome intrusion. She quickly ducked behind one of the stone tables that held a woman with long white hair and a tight jaw. Peering around the edge, Alaria saw two monks, a man and a woman, carrying a body on a cloth stretcher between them. They carefully set it down on one of the tables close to the door. The female monk arranged the dead monk’s hair and robe, and set the corpse’s hand across her chest, while her companion dusted a white powder over the corpse’s skin from a spherical glass jar. Alaria felt her heart beat keenly in her chest: she knew who the corpse had been. Its long, dark hair, its emaciated frame, its sharp cheekbones that looked like bones beneath the white dust. Alaria bit her lip. Why did they even bother? Why did they keep bodies that were no more than husks, when the true person had fled? Perhaps it was a remnant from the self-mummification rituals, to keep the body as a talisman on Rey, preventing the soul from reincarnating.
After the two monks left the room, Alaria approached the table. This isn’t Reyli, she told herself. She brought a hand close to the corpse’s face, let her hand hover over Reyli’s eyes. In her mind, Alaria said, Wherever you are, sister, may your soul be in the Buddha’s light.
She let her hand drop, and felt a chill creep up her bare feet to her legs. She looked out over the lines of corpses. How many… she wondered, how many are still here, trapped as spirits…
Alaria saw a flicker of movement across the wall to her left. It floated down the room like a shadow before vanishing in the darkness.
It was then that she decided what she must do.
“As I told you, you are a fine teacher.” Felzar smiled at his new apprentice, his cloudy blue eyes dappled with a bit of sunlight.
“Well, I wasn’t then,” Alaria said. It had been three months since she had passed her test as an ulnor. Three months to realize that there was so much more to learn before departing, and most importantly, so many more initiates to guide from this world.
“Ah, but what is time?” Felzar asked.
“Nothing at all.”
“So do you have a shadow?”
Instinctively, Alaria peered to her left, where a shadow of her sitting figure was cast upon the white marble. “I don’t,” she said softly.
For she knew that one day, her shadow would vanish. And if she was once enlightened, she would be for all time.