The Scepter of Nowhere

The hiatus of LOST ON THE LAST CONTINENT continues, as my time is consumed now with STARQUEST. Soon I hope to return to regular episodes.

One of my rarer offerings, this story first appeared in Dark Discoveries: Issue 31, edited by James R. Beach. It is a quarterly magazine, which I believe is still in business.

The Scepter of Nowhere


It happened so quickly. We used to be human beings, you see.

When I heard the bomb go off, I ran to the door at the end of the corridor. It had two narrow slits for windows, one in each leaf of the door.

Outside was an alley leading to a chainlink fence. Beyond the fence was a rubbish yard. At the other end of the alley two cars were parked, bumper to bumper. The wall opposite was pierced with countless dark windows, and the roof was crenellated with chimneys and utility boxes.

Something in the scene terrified me. It was automatic, the echo of many dark evenings in missions in dangerous parts of the world. Later, I saw dimly with my mind what my instinct saw clearly: the alley was a killing ground, with no escape route. The cars were a choke-point, either wired to explode, or holding gunmen. Snipers in the windows, or in the broken ground on the far side of the chainlink fence would have perfect concealment and a clear shot at anyone trapped in the alley, or trying to climb the fence.

What about the other way? I ran back up the corridor, but it was too late.

The doors at the far end were flung open, revealing the stairway beyond. A crowd was pushing, panicking, rushing, screaming, clawing, falling down the stairway. Clouds of smoke followed them.

It was mostly schoolgirls and grannies. One had blood on her face. One was missing an eye, but was holding her eyeball to her cheek as if to push it back into place. One had half her hair burned away, and half her choir robe. One was holding to her friend’s hand, and had not noticed that her friend was headless, merely being held upright and moved along by the pressure of the crowd. One jumped down from the upper stairway landing, and fell onto the heads of women in choir robes, knocking them down, no doubt breaking bones. Those who fell were trampled.

Of the older women, the blind, the sick, who had come to the prayer meeting that evening, gray-haired and bent of spine, hobbling on canes or walkers or in wheelchairs, there was no sign. They had been left behind to burn.

The doors into the basement rooms were always locked this time of night. The only unlocked door led out into the deathtrap of the alley way.

And I would have planted a second bomb, timed to go off just in the amount of time needed to allow the targets attempting to escape to go down one flight of stairs. And the only place to put it —

I ran to the cabinet where the fire extinguisher was kept. The first place anyone trapped in a burning building would go, of course. I am not sure what I had in mind. Maybe I meant to stop anyone else from opening it; or maybe I thought I could find and yank out a conveniently labeled red wire before —

Whatever I had in mind does not matter. I put up my arms, knowing that I could not shield the women behind me even if my body had been made of something sterner than frail flesh and blood.

Light and fire shattered the universe, starting with my face and moving inward, and the tiny burnt ember of my consciousness was flung into infinite night.


Who would do such a thing? Randomly maul, maim, burn, blind and kill young women and old gathered merely to pray?

I sort of knew our little island nation would not long remain immune from the chaos ripping the rest of the world to bits, but I had not thought it would happen in my lifetime. Or, rather, I prayed it would not.

Some prayers are not answered. Maybe none.

Does God listen to prayers from creatures no longer human?



I woke up in hell. Neither the darkness nor the pain ended, but other sensations crowded in. My body felt like it was on fire.

I could not see. Lifting my hand to my head, I could feel the burnt and cracked edges of my flesh, the singed hair, and the crack in my skull. I was unwilling to put my fingers deep into the crack, not knowing what I would touch. I put my hand to my face. At first I could not find it. Some muddy and wrinkled substance, that I thought was burnt paper, was in the way. Someone put a phonebook on my face while I was sleeping, and crinkled it, and coated it with wet goo. Then I realized that was my face. There was no nose. The two gaping pits for eyes I could feel with my fingers, but there was no sensation of pain. Below the messy hole where my nose once had been, I felt another hole. There were some teeth left, and part of my tongue. Whether I had lips or not, I could not tell.

I could not feel nor move my legs. My hands encountered nothing when I reached. Had my leg been amputated? Both of my legs? Or, more likely, blown clean off?

Whether sticking my fingers here and there caused me pain, that I cannot say. I was in too much pain.

The smell of burnt flesh choked me. Was I lying on the floor in the downstairs hall? Perhaps it had only been a second or two.

But no, I seemed to be lying on a bed. I could smell disinfectants. I could smell the unmistakable scent of corpses, an odor not soon forgotten. I could hear someone moving about the room. I heard voices.

“Is this our John Smith?” Male voice, English accent, perhaps Oxfordian.

“Yes, Doctor, it is he.” Female, Middle Eastern accent.

“No identification, eh? No fingerprints on those hands. Good God! There is still debris in his head wound! I can see glass shards and metal splinters. Why wasn’t he prepped? Why wasn’t he operated on right away? Or given morphine?”

“We are overwhelmed. It is against health and safety regulations to give morphine to a dying man. He might develop a habit. Besides, he is brain-dead already. A vegetable. See? Look at him.”

I said, “I am alive! I am alive!” but I did not make any noise. Instead, I heard something that sounded like a sick gobbling sound, wet and sticky and grotesque.

The doctor said, “Shave his head and prep him for emergency surgery. I think I can fit him in to Dr. Omar’s schedule.”

The nurse said, “I cannot take the risk. Our hospital has not been attacked. We should do nothing provocative.”

“Nonetheless…” But the doctor was afraid. I heard it.

“And we have no budget for charity cases. Health and safety forbids it.”

“We can put him down on the research budget as an experimental test subject. A volunteer. Try out one of those new Descheneaux techniques, involving artificial brain tissue. They are calling it programmable matter. Since he won’t survive anyway….” The doctor’s voice sounded more cheerful, but it was fading, moving away.


By the smell, I could tell I was in a room of the dead. I don’t know if that was the same hour or even the same day. Then the nurse was back. She was changing my bandages.

She tugged and cut at the bandages in a painful manner, and laughed when I screamed.

She whispered in my ear, “This is the judgment of Allah against you, infidel!”

And the nurse yanked the bandages in my groin hard enough to pull away the flesh.


I opened my eyes, overwhelmed with a sense of joy.

The ceiling was diamond, but sculpted to look like wood, complete with grain, knotholes, and even a little twig with a diamond leaf protruding. I stared in fascination at the multicolored shadow, a shadow of light and not of darkness, which the sunlight passing through the diamond leaf made upon the ceiling.

I was ravenously hungry, but afraid to move: if I blinked, surely the sight would turn out to be delirium, and unending darkness would return.

Eventually I turned my head. I was lying, naked, in a bright chamber larger than a ballroom.

I stretched out my arms and legs, amazed to find all four limbs unhurt and full of energy. I lay on a pale circle wider than I could reach, without coverlet, of some substance that yielding and flowed when I moved, softer than mist.

The floor was a dark material I did not recognize, not metal, stone, nor ceramic. A floral pattern of gold threads ran through it. The walls were alternating panels of light and dark blue crystal. Trickles ran beneath the lambent surface the lighter sections, a thousand tiny waterfalls, making a restful sound. The fluid never reached the floor, but where it went, I could not see.

The dark blue sections were carved and gilded with many variations of one pattern: pollywogs near the floor, beneath tailed frogs, beneath frogs, and midway up the wall were feathery-winged frogs; above them, near the ceiling, were birds, fiery birds, and then shooting stars.

Scattered about the chamber were the large square ornaments held at various heights above the floor by an unseen force. All were adorned in a labyrinth of arabesques. So handsome were these objects that a minute passed before I recognized them to be the seat cushions and chair arms and table surfaces of some futuristic, legless, levitating furniture.

When I stood, I looked back and saw that the circular disk of my couch was also upheld by nothing.

The entire wall before me transparent. It looked out upon a landscape of rolling hills of emerald grass interrupted with solemn black outcroppings of boulders. The lawns were so rich a green they seemed to explode with color. Low fogs walked like giants through the clefts and vales. High above, marched a massy roof of magnificent clouds of white, pigeon-gray, and gunmetal-gray, twisted in knots and convolutions as complex as a human brain.

Oddly, a perfectly circular vortex, fringed with white swirls, was open in the heavy clouds like a bright blue eye, allowing the vast shaft of sunlight to slant down and strike this place that held me, mansion or madhouse.

No shepherd, no sheep, no crow, was visible in the whole vista of immense landscape. To the horizon, all was empty.

The rumble in my stomach reminded me that I was famished.


A noise behind me made me turn. A buxom brunette was entering through one of the panels. She was naked as a jay, but bejeweled from head to toe, but with a face and form of unnatural perfection, and graceful in motion to match.

The panel did not slide aside; instead the surface rippled like a quicksilver pond, curving around her curves, parting before her bare body.

I watched, eyes gaping and mind blank, as she glided toward me, a sonnet of motion. Her breasts were magnificent, too big to be true. Her hair was a dark cloud and fell past her deliciously rounded hips, clinging in curls like twining vines. Her face was oval, reaching from a firm but small chin to a smooth, wide brow. Her lips were red as blood, and she never closed them fully. Her nose was small and her eyes were large, as green as the eyes of a cat, and she never opened them fully.

Despite this overabundant wealth of female beauty, she unnerved me. I was reminded of those composite pictures of perfect faces composed by computer geeks with too much time on their hands, trying to discover the Golden Mean or other hidden ratios in the proportions of face and figure. She seemed false.

In her hand was an instrument like a thin scepter of white metal, as long as a walking stick, and adorned with keys or stops like a flute.

She wore jewelry, a coronet of lacy silver, a choker and necklaces, armbands, bracelets, rings. Jewelry jingled at ankle, calf, and thigh. A diamond at her navel winked. A v-shaped belt of massy gold was slung low around her ripe and swaying hips. She wore a triangle of gemstones in her groin, but I did not inspect those closely.

I remembered myself, and turned away. A gentle caress on my shoulder made me jump. She was behind me, dangerously close. Her scent was warmed wine. Her voice was an oboe, her words were night music.

“In perfect command of our bodies and environment, we no longer have need of the nudity taboo.”

“I have need of it,” I said. I took her by her creamy shoulders and moved her half a step away, and tried to keep my eyes on the ceiling. But when she made the slightest possible noise in her throat, and made the smallest possible yielding motion under my hands, which were so shockingly large and dark on her shoulders, they pulled her roughly to me, and my lips found her warm mouth.

My soul reared up. I was alive and should be dead. Wonderfully alive! I was nowhere, in an impossible world, holding an impossible beauty, and all my old life and its rules were forgotten.

Almost forgotten. “I am sorry —”

“For what? You kiss well,” She said with childish delight. “I shall play the nerve-memory many times again.”

I stepped away, trembling. “I am not one of that we who has perfect command of his flesh. Who are we?”

“We are the Men After Men, the Utopian Race, the Posthumans.”

I turned away. “Could you find something to wear, please, Miss Utopia? If this is the future, you must have spacesuits, or something?”

“There is no need. All nature responds with joy to our command. Observe!”

She flourished the wand, and depressed several keys and pulled stops in rapid succession as nimbly as a flutist, and tapped the transparent wall.

The wall rippled, bubbled outward, and formed an archway like a mouth yawning, and, like a tongue protruding, also formed a stairway to the grass. The threshold was decorated with lacy knots of gold. The outer air moaned and entered the chamber, shockingly cold.

Softly as a nymph and as regally as a queen, the vision of beauty descended the diamond stair, hips swaying.

On the bottom step, she turned, glanced back over her naked shoulder. The wind caught her long tresses and whirled them like a black flag. Some of the gemstones of her coiffeur darted around her head like fireflies, but none fell to the ground.

“It is cold,” I said. The chill quelled my otherwise masculine reactions to a girl dressed in nothing but the display case at Tiffany’s.

She said, “Your flesh is as our flesh now; sensations obey thought.”

It was true. It was not that I suddenly felt warm, but rather that the feeling of being cold was remote, not immediate, as if happening to someone else.

“Very nice! But I would still like a robe.”

She said, “Surrender to no fear nor shame. All these things are done away with. Will you break your fast? All men hunger when raised from the dead.”


“Recall that Christ ate the morning he was raised, fish and honeycomb. Recall also that he told his disciples swiftly to feed the daughter of Jairus, when he raised her. If you would sup, then come, and see.”

And she strode away across the rich, thick grass. I did not look behind, but followed the gorgeous nude through the cold.


Fast as I trotted, I somehow could not catch her. She always was just out of reach, and in the blustery wind, just out of earshot. The grass of the swooping valleys were sea waves, rippling and hypnotic, almost nauseating, and the flowing masses of her hair rose up and snapped in the wind, leaving exposing her round hips and white thighs to my ungoverned gaze, but the grass hid her calves and trim ankles.

The air of unreality grew. Even the pounding of my heart was odd. Or was it my heart? If my flesh was like hers, it was a posthuman heart, somehow invulnerable.

The mention of the name of Christ had introduced a false note into this impossible dream-world; for that name reminded me of life. Even in a dream, rules still held. One could not commit adultery in a dream, but one could lust in one’s heart, which is the same.

Either I was still in the hospital, under the ministrations of the sadistic nurse; or, more likely, I was dying on the floor of the church basement.


We descended a valley as deep and round as a cup, a maiden stepping as lightly as a white doe followed by a scowling man. The wind dropped, allowing me to speak.

I said, “Where are we?”

She said, “The Gobi.”

“The Gobi desert? In China?”

“No longer desert. No longer China. All nations are abolished; all races, one. All that you in your age dreamed religion would do, we have done: decreed the brotherhood of man, vanquished sorrow, and healed the sad rift between men and nature.” I could hear the pride ringing in her words.

“You spoke of Christ.”

“These myths are false, of course, but there are strange time-echoes in the racial subconscious that carry reflections of the future to the past. Your visionaries, groping so earnestly for authentic spirit, could sometimes hear them. Hence myth oft hides truth. All races of men dreamed of us long ages ere our dawn, and named us apsara or amschaspand, elf or angel, and called this Eden, or Elysium.”


She halted at a black rock. Her scepter elongated, growing, and revealed more stops and tabs and keys. She thrust its heel against the stone.

“This is anthracite, and I am redirecting the carbon atoms. Other atoms of oxygen and carbon exist in the air, and in soil oxides. Naturally, I could reorganize the cellulose in the grass to create the same result, but that would be too humble a demonstration.”

“How does it work? Your, ah, flute?”

“Each atom has a vibration rate, like notes in a scale of from Hydrogen to Unbinilium. To control basic molecular architecture requires phrase of vibrations, a song. Themes are kept in these memory tabs.”

Her fingers flew over the keys.

“Each set of keys is for a different order of magnitude: first are primal forces, rarely used; next, in order, are gravitons, leptons, bosons, and composites; tachyons and dechyons; then atomic forces; electromagnetic; then molecular; then macroscopic; vitality; this is the medical range; that the architectural; and the final register controls environmental effects, such as weather and tides. This is the reduction key that breaks all chemical bonds; the dark red stop breaks all atomic bonds.”

“A dangerous weapon!”

“Enough to destroy a continent, but, in our hands, it is a surgical scalpel. And should a continent be destroyed, this thumb-ring is the reverse key. Despite having perfect memory and perfect clarity of thought, we can regret, hence this undoes the last command from the system memory. The head absorbs all information of the surroundings down to the Planck level; the heel emits commands.”

“Emits how?”

“By infradimensional rotation.”

I frowned in recognition.

She misread my look. “You doubt? Look here.”

She held up the large gem resting between her breasts. “This is the transactinide Ununseptium. It is forty times heavier than lead. In nature, it has a halflife of less than ten milliseconds. We have decreed it to be stable. It can never tarnish.”

I picked up the bead, and held it as close as her necklace allowed. The play of light off its dull surface was eerie, showing strange depth, as if the thing were nested layers of gray glass about a dark core.

It felt strange under my fingers, tingly and slippery.

“The basic principle is simple. By means of longrange nucleonic forces, artificial atoms, hollow atoms, can be made. They have no protons nor neutrons, but the electron shells still interact with natural atoms according to all the rules of chemistry. Because the hollow atoms are nearly massless, they can be collapsed, transmitted, replicated, and re-inflated, moved from one point to another at lightspeed, all by simple vibrations.”

“I am familiar with the principle,” I said modestly, letting the gem fall.

“Once the original supersymmetry of the three basic forces of the universe, the trinity of electro-weak force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity, were reduced to a single expression, the substitutions of their properties became possible. Longrange nucleonics opened scientific troves of wonder. Programmable matter became reality. The original mathematical analysis used for the infradimensional rotation was the work of a Jesuit scientist named Do-Chain-Now.”

“Descheneaux,” I corrected her pronunciation automatically.

She did not hear. “The Wormwood station recreates the energy levels of the Big Bang, when the trinity of forces existed in unbroken super-symmetry. Other symmetries are possible, which means the gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear force can be sculpted differently. One symmetry allows, if only here alone, longrange nucleonic power to exist in this universe. The station is too massive to rest on earth, but since the receiving substations — like all our instruments — can be made out of hollow atoms, they can be replicated anywhere one wishes, of any size.” She held up her slender hand and the gems of her rings caught the light.

There was a flash and the smell of ozone. The black stone beneath her wand now held a smooth, glassy, bowl-shaped depression in which was a round loaf of sourdough bread, warm and issuing a delicious scent.

“Eat!” she said. “I have taken the liberty of programming pheromone neurotransmitters into the loaf, so that your brain will be programmed the lore and habits of this our age.”

“This bread will alter my brain?” My stomach rumbled, and my famine was as if I had a badger in my stomach, clawing, but I did not reach for the loaf.

“Eat! It will make you wise.”

I began wondering how accurate the time-echoes she earlier had mentioned might be.

I said, “If I eat that, what happens to me?”

“You become like unto us: perfect, and without sin.”

“And if I like being human?”

“To be human is to suffer.” And she was away, up the slope, her hair long hair wild in the wind.

I followed, with many a backward glance at the delicious, savory-scented, but dangerous bread.


At the hillcrest, for the first time, I saw the edifice where I woke. She saw the direction of my gaze. She raised the scepter. The narrow river of sunlight striking the foot of the tower opened ever wider as the roof of cloud parted like the Red Sea.

It was the work of titans. It was a spiral tower of bronze and black metal, bright as a looking glass, easily half a mile across at its base, twisted like the horn of a unicorn, rising course upon course. Like an aqueduct, there reared arch after black arch, holding gates wide enough that an army eager to storm heaven could have emerged. In the curving triangular gnomons between the endless ranks of huge arches were lesser openings or rose windows.

She said, “You were wounded. Of your original body made of natural matter, little remains. However, there is a sufficient hollow-atomic matter in your body that you can be carried rapidly where you would, without harm.”

Again she raised her scepter. I saw her point the head at me, depress a blue key then a white, and point the heel at the tower, and released both keys. There was a blinding flash.


I opened my eyes. I was perched atop a narrow ledge, perhaps five thousand feet up. The cloud layer was below us, and a wide circle, still growing, exposed ever more of the green highlands of the Gobi. Here the sun was merciless, and the winds were like breathless oven-air. The airstreams beating against the tower far below made distant howls.

The brunette was beside me, her head at my shoulder. As if it meant nothing, she circled my waist with her arm, and pressing nude curves against me. There was no room here to move her away: we were between two dark pillars. Rather than stand with my left arm overhead, I placed it around her shoulder. My elbow was lost in the cloud mass of her hair.

Merely to have someplace to rest my eyes, I stared at the pillars. “What is this made of? It looks organic.”

“It is grown from an alloy of Darmstadtium, element 110, impregnated with negative mass particles to reduce weight.”

“You grow rather than build your buildings?”

“The distinction is meaningless. And there is but one edifice. For convenience, the entire population of Earth is housed here, both incarnate and virtual, since matter transmission makes all points on the globe as if equidistant.”

“How did you lose your … human nature?”

She mistook my meaning, because she smiled with pride. “It happened very quickly. It was years rather than decades, once the Do-Chain-Now process was perfected, to make our bodies out of programmable matter. All bodily information can be stored, hence reestablished. Disease of brain or body is impossible. We cannot be harmed; we cannot die. Nor can you! Cast yourself to the ground!”

“Descheneaux. And, no, thank you.”

“Your fears hinder you. Come! We will fall together.”

I released her shoulder and plucked her arm from my waist, fearing she might push me. “No.”

She said softly, “You must not refuse! Do you understand who you are?”

She turned to face me, which displayed an indifference to height that was freakishly inhuman. Only her toes gripped the ledge; her heels were resting on nothing. A vastness of air was behind.

She said, “If I throw myself down and return again unharmed, will you foreswear your foolish hesitations?”

“No. Even if this is a jest, or a test, or a dream, some things are sacred. Life is sacred. I did not create myself; I have no right to destroy myself.”

Now, her eyes flashed with a hot emotion. “You did create yourself! As have we all, following you! You are our Adam. Our primary!”

“You seem to have mistaken me for someone else….”

“Our records show you are the first to have artificial matter injected into your brain. It was done to stabilize a hemorrhage, nothing more. But even that small amount was enough to preserve you through decades of coma, then centuries. Your body failed, your heart ceased, but your brain did not die! The artificial matter replicated itself, replacing cell by cell, preserving what it encountered.”

“And — others copied this?”

“Whether we started as a clan, or a cabal, conspiracy, corporation, or cult is lost in history. We were a coven the deathless ones. We sought others like us, to be us. It is our way. We replaced the mortals, one by one by inviting the worthy to join us, using no violence, no fraud.”

“And the unworthy?”

“One is wed forever with any to whom one grants immortality. We were careful. Never did they suspect we moved unseen among them. We play-acted at their pointless battles and commercial ambitions, until there was but one land of mortals left, then but one city, one quarter, one household, one child named René.”

Ironic. The name meant rebirth.

She spoke on. “For years he lived, and all lives in his life were but homunculi in a worldwide masquerade. He died one night in peace, surrounded by what he thought were friends, students, fans, grandchildren. With that dawn, mankind was extinct, and his iron weapons, gold coins, and vulgar vanities died with him.”

The image was dizzying. I murmured to myself, ” Who sups at the banquet of Phaedrus, if he nigh to Socrates recline, may put his hand in the pot with a Typhon, unknowing, or a monster more malign …”

“Then we gathered those who are partly posthuman, trapped in the amber of suspended animation, and revived them one by one. You are the last.”

“Eh? Last what?”

“You are the last man, the last to be apotheosized to posthumanity! If you do not join us, all our world is humiliated! If you remain mortal and die, then we have not conquered death! But we have! We have! Why do you doubt?”

“It is not that,” I said, sighing. The old, old frustration of never being able to explain the obvious, which I first met in school, had found me again. “Even if you are reborn after, suicide is still not right.”

“No, your words are empty. You are afraid; you grope for excuse. Hold this.”

She pushed the flute into my hand. “Actually, miss, since I know perfectly well that I have been raised from …”

“Forget your fear! Watch me! See, and grow brave!”

And smiled. Her face perfectly tranquil, angelic.

It still took me by surprise. People fall much quicker than you think. You always imagine that if you saw someone leaping off a bridge, you could make some heroic grab in midair. In reality, if you see it, you are too late.

My hand reached toward her, but in one second, she was already sixteen feet below me, then sixty-four, and then one hundred forty-four. Once, as a child, I dropped a goldfish out of my grandmother’s tenth story attic window, just to see it fall. Four seconds flung her nude body farther than twice those mere ten stories, and still she accelerated.

The sight of that last split-second was burned into me. As she stepped back, her serenity had departed, as if someone had yanked a mask off her face. I was looking right in her eyes when it happened. It was a different person with a different expression, now distorted with terror; her scream of shock at the betrayal, her shriek of panic, followed her down until it mingled with the far noise of the winds striking the tower.

The tower tapered from base to crown. Peering, I saw her helpless body bounce, leaving a long scarlet smear on the black substance, and then, farther down, she glanced from the sloping side, and explode like a waterballoon of red ink. Something like a mass of uncooked butcher’s meat continued on.

I threw myself back from the brink, aghast, and the wall behind me gave way, becoming liquid. I fell.


I came to my feet in a long, arched tunnel that penetrated to the core of the tower. Her flutelike scepter was still in my hand. I walked rapidly, my thoughts a torment.

In the center was a vast open space, paved with clear crystal. Underfoot was a ballroom on whose roof I stood. Here an endless congregation of nude figures, male and female, all of perfect form and physique, all adorned with crowns and rings and countless winking gems, were dancing in a long and sinuous line. There were lanterns between me and the dancers. But I saw that their floor was also crystal. Below them was another ballroom of dancers, also writhing in celebration. An ache of loneliness pricked me for the first time.

Also, I saw that there was food, pyramids of fruit and bowls of wine, cuts of many steaming meats, salmon and crab, pastries, prawn, lavish trenchers of salads and tumblers of soup. Oddly, the food was placed on the floor, and the partygoers ate without utensils, as if neither heat nor cold annoyed their fingers. They plucked morsels with kisses from each other’s teeth, fearless of germs, as ignorant of privacy as puppies.

I heard the sound the silvery bells, and the slap of naked feet. I turned.

A redhead, thinner and more petite than the other woman, was swaying toward me across the crystal floor.

Like her twin, she was naked, crowned and beringed, braceleted, necklaced, and begirdled with bezants, gems and gold chains. She had the same walk, and stance, and gleam in her heavily-lidded eyes. Differences were few. Now she wore emeralds. Now had freckles. The face was different, but somehow she had the same idealized features, oversized eyes, oversharp cheekbones, and full lips, not the bony but stronger features I thought of typical of redheads. It made her face more clearly artificial. She was a doll.

“You are not the same person,” I said.

“We are all the same person,” she said. “When we replaced our flesh with new substance, we replaced our nerves as well. Our brains were made more efficient, and interlinked. Our thoughts flow freely, and we possess none, and share all. There are many of us, all one.”

“She died. You killed her.”

“I am she. Kiss me, and see.”

I backed away. “Really? What was the last noise you made?”

“I told you to watch and believe.”

“No. It was a scream.”

“The unoccupied body contains animal reflexes of no particular importance.”

“I saw you depart the body you were possessing. I saw her awareness return to her eyes and the horror of it. Tell me your name?”

“We have no names. Names cause division. I am large; I contain multitudes; I am legion.”

“A demon?”

“Do not flaunt your backwardness! Where your sages did but grope and bungle, we know! We have examined all the levels of the human mind, subconscious and superconscious and more, and all the phenomena of parapsychology, we grasp. The mass soul of man, and, yes, of bestial and vegetable life as well, form a mystic whole. Our spiritual science discovered how to channel the vital force! We command the driving passions of evolution itself, the very blind and ever-changing principle which brought forth the universe! We serve the thrust of infinite potential, the psycho-cosmic energy called life, which reaches ever upward, ever onward, a flight above infinity!”

I laughed. “I think those time-echoes you mentioned told our primitive and bungling sages what waits in the future. A day of fire.”

“All your religions could not provide true happiness, true pleasure. Your squabbling sects were each as cruel as the next, mere mechanisms to inspire guilt and hate, forging chains for fearful souls!”

“Do your records say that second group was blowing up the first at random, in the places where the first group met to pray for them, their enemies? Each group was following the words of their holy book to the letter. That does not sound the same to me.”

She waved that aside. “Do you dare claim your way is better than ours? You died of the deadly passions religion unleashed! Look down! Below us is the celebration of life, raw life, the animal spirit, the joy that only immortals know. Do you not hunger and thirst? The women are lovely!”

I was parched and starving. Below, the line dance had devolved. All were shuffling on their knees, swaying to inaudible music. Each dancer caressed the genitals of the dancer before, or stooped to lick and kiss, regardless of anyone’s sex. Many parts of the line of nudes was already rolling through the food, licking pastries from each other’s flesh. All wore smiles of idiotic emptiness, or looks of narrow-eyed hunger indistinguishable from hatred.

“Would you prefer to be as you were, burnt and blind?” She demanded, her eyes flashing, her bosom heaving. “That is your choice! Go down and join them! Drown in pleasure, and live forever; or burn in pain, and die!”

That sounded ominous. I pointed the business end of the wand at her. “This is the stop that disintegrates things, is it not?”

“No physical hurt can touch us.”

As she rose and approached, I retreated, helpless. If there was a real girl inside, it would be murder if I pulled the stop.

She put out her hand. “Give up the caduceus. It will not save you.”

I halted, grinned, and proffered the scepter. The head was pointed at me, the heel at her.

Just before she closed her fingers on it, I let it slip aside, out of reach, pointing past her elbow. “Whoops!” I cried, and worked the blue and white keys as she had.

I was standing on the other side of the vast white floor. She turned, and walked slowly toward me, patient as a stalking lioness. Immortals have no sense of time.

“Give the caduceus to me, Mr. Smith. You must hand it over freely.”

I pointed the wand straight up. All the floors above me, level after level, were made of a clear substance like crystal. I wondered what might happen. I worked the two keys.


I opened my eyes. I was standing on the white diamond roof of a tower above the edge of the stratosphere. In the same way I could, by an act of will, eliminate the sensation of cold, I made it so the near-vacuum did not disturb me. My skin gleamed with some strange, luminous coating.

But I was so high up that I could see the grand curve of the Earth, and the air like a blue bright line following that horizon. The sun above was white and stark. It is supposed to be impossible, even in space, to see the sun and stars at the same time, because the human eye cannot adjust. My eyes were no longer human: the stars were bright and sharp as diamond points, and I saw countless millions more than I ever saw on Earth, even on the clearest night.

And I saw the moon to one side, white as a skull, covered with the ruins of empty cities.

And directly overhead, immense, I saw the golden sphere decorated with whorls and whirls of labyrinths. Something less like the a spacestation cannot be imagined. But I saw the pattern in the swirls, and knew them, since I had drawn and redrawn them countless times on chalkboards, napkins, and computer screens. This was the supercollider. In its heart, the Big Bang was reenacted in miniature.

The redhead emerged from the solid rooftiles underfoot like a dolphin vaulting straight up out of a pool. Her fingers emerged first, already encircling the wand, which seemed like cheating to me, since there was a flash, and she stood four feet away, caduceus in hand, and my fingers holding nothing. Like me, there was a nimbus close around her naked flesh. Even their vacuum suits were see-through after all.

She spoke, her words dim in the near vacuum. “You are here, as foreseen. Do you not understand that all this has been a trial? We deny infinity to the unworthy.”

She pressed a key and tapped the wand to the floor. The diamond substance at my feet parted, a small, bright item, no bigger than my hand, came up into view. Here was a crucifix of wood with silver trimmings, and a tiny ivory figure of the savior in agony.

She said, “All you need do is trample that object. As the first of the posthumans, you will be given a position of highest honor and be our king.”

“Out of curiosity, why that? You don’t believe…”

“But you do.” She stepped forward, two feet away, one. She had a habit of standing too close. Posthumans do not believe in personal space. “Human psychology is an exact science. This is the final testing. You must either be human, worship nonsense, and die in pain; or else be posthuman, worship me, and live in orgies of infinite pleasure! Be our prince, and hold in hand power unending — I offer the very scepter of our utopian world!”

I looked at her with pity. “Utopia is nowhere; a prince of nowhere rules nothing, for a world of endless nothing is still nothing. Shall I surrender my very self, shall I give up everything, and in return get nothing?”

And she twisted a key on the wand sharply.

I fell. My eyes and lips and nose were gone, my hair, my earlobes, half my tongue and both my legs. The lack of air, the decompression, and the hard radiation from space were killing me, but that was not the worst. My whole body was my enemy. My skin was a mass of pain.

I could feel a hard, angular object under me I fell, and instinctively, my fingers closed on it. Unlike everything else I had touched that day, it felt solid, and real.

She was bending over me. “You underestimate all we have done for you! This is the state in which you were found …”

I thrust the crucifix toward her voice, struck her, and she screamed a nonhuman scream. It rose from a low moan of hate to a shriek of agony. She dropped the wand on top of me, and fell.

Blood was coming from my nose-hole, ears, leg stumps, and anus. With hands as dull and remote as empty gloves, I clutched at the wand, blindly. By touch I found and yanked out the thumb-ring, the reverse switch.

I stood up. The woman was kneeling in a heap, her head down. There was a burn mark running from her neck, across her face, and up into her hairline, and a second burn at right angles slashed across both cheeks.

She said in a low, trembling voice, “You are John Smith. The record says you bombed a church, and almost died in the attempt. We do not make mistakes. This is impossible.”

“You were burned by the cross of Christ. All things are possible!” It had a nice silver chain, and I slung it around my neck. It felt warm above my heart.

“Superstitious fool. The matter in that object is programmed to damage us. Some members of your sect still linger. They made that as a weapon. The only weapon in Eden! Are you proud of it?”

“Why not leave them alone? And me?”

“Your existence is an affront! We cannot be content, until all are forced into perfection!”

“That is not the only weapon!” I shouted. I pointed the wand at her suddenly terrified face, and gripped the dark red stop. “Whoops!” I cried, and yanked the heel up as I yanked up the stop, firing over her shoulder, striking nothing.

“Wait!” Another girl’s voice issued from her throat. “In the name of God, don’t shoot! I’m human!”


If you have ever seen an actress drop the voice and mannerisms of her onstage character the moment the curtain drops, all I can say is, this was nothing like that.

Hers was still the same face, but now the eyes seemed a trifle smaller, the nose the tiniest bit longer, the mouth a trifle too large and thin. The scar was gone.

I looked up. I aimed more carefully this time, picking which whorls in the design I thought might be the electromagnetic accelerators. I fired again, and again. The unseen ray sliced neatly through the golden sphere, and the release of energies were causing blue incandescence — maybe this was what fires looked like in zero gravity — to gush out into the vacuum along with the oxygen supply. I pushed the dark red stop back in.

She said, “What is happening?”

“Armageddon. I am trying to prove that the time-echoes which the bungling sage who penned the Apocalypse detected were accurate. Do you have a name?”

“High Aieai Yray of Tycho Pressure.”

“Beautiful name.”

“Thank you. It is Lunarian. You are not the mad bomber who brain could never die? For four hundred years, you were on display at the Smithsonian.”

“Mistaken identity.”

“Your name is not really Smith?”

“That is what the constables in the islands where I am from—”

She rolled her eyes. “I know what England is.”

“— uses for nameless men. Francis Earnest Everard Descheneaux. You may call me Doctor Descheneaux, but I prefer Father Frank. Pardon me for being naked.”

She reached over and typed a command on the wand keys. Air solidified. A simple mantle now covered me. Aieai Yray wore a pleated white tunic.

“You remember what the demon knew?”

“The mental composite is not a—”

“We can discuss theological niceties later, since the exotic material, including something called negative mass— which I am very pleased turned out to exist just as my theory predicted (ho ha!) and I hope Dr Luttinger of Columbia was also resurrected so I can shake his hand — are about to evaporate into nothing, and all the hollow atoms of all the hollow people as well.”

“Not immediately. The gems hold a reserve charge for about a day and a half.”

“Show me how to unfold the wand. I don’t need the periodic table; I need the bestiary of subatomic particles.”

She did. The thing was simple to use. Well, simple for a physicist.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

I laughed. “Once of the first things I discovered was how devilishly hard it was to keep a hollow atom hollow. The empty spot in the heart naturally attracts the correct numbers of protons and neutrons to fill it up. So, I have to spray this tower (where all the peoples of Earth are conveniently gathered) with neutrons, which should proffer no difficulty. The hard part is the protonic energy, which will destroy everything if I am not careful. But I can make protons temporarily no-range on their interactions. It is actually the problem I solved first, before I solved how to extension nucleonic interaction range to macroscopic. I assume the demons—”

“The composite minds—”

“— let us just agree they are not human — will flee now from all flesh, since they must expect all physical bodies to ignite into a huge mass of lightning. Where will they flee?”

“If they expect all the substations, and all their civilization, to vanish, Wormwood is the only place.” And now Aieai Yray looked at me in puzzlement, perhaps awe. “You were the only one left, the only unconverted human! Why didn’t they just leave you be?”

“You heard why. Hate.”

“And you despise them, and destroy the whole world.”

“Them? No. Their ideas, the dark spirit that rules them? Yes.”

She gestured at the burning globe, which I only realized then was much larger and much farther off than it seemed. Not a space station: a space city. “Why do you do this?”

“The last thing I remember, I went to a church to pray for my enemies, and I blown in half by them by way of thanks. But I never surrendered my humanity, and I never surrendered to hate. This is my reward. Now watch! I have altered the composition of the outer hull to create the particle spray we need. When it explodes — Do you have any way to communicate with world? The human beings will have to use the devil tools to build all the tools, clothing, houses, and cattle of civilization before the last of the power vanishes. And any transuranic must be disintegrated safely. Warn them all! Once the matter is no longer hollow, it can no longer be manipulated. Whatever they decide this day, they decide for life. Tell them to abandon ship! When this tower falls, it will make a hole eleven miles long, or I am no judge of heights.” I laughed a jovial laugh at that thought.

Aieai Yray looked at me sharply “If you have misjudged, and the hollow matter is not filled, then everything fades away. What then?”

“Then it is back to the Paleolithic.”

Her look softened to pity. “And you return to being blind and crippled, in a world were all medicals arts are long forgotten.”

“It is all worth it!”

“How can you say that? Are you sure you are a priest? You seem too — happy.”

“If we live, I will explain the source of my joy.” I handed her the wand.

She said, “I can talk to anyone holding a caduceus. Ah—What should I say?”

And I was repeating to her the words of the prayers of exorcism, which I heard echoing from countless lips down the whole length of the tower, when Wormwood turned silently into a vast, bright, star.

In the light of the new star, I could see countless people, clothed in white robes, streaming like gulls from every window of the endless tower, cloud on cloud. With my new eyes, I beheld that each had the face not perfect, not serene, but alive, and torn halfway between heavenly joy and hellish fears. Each was individual face, infinitely precious.

And then the tower fell, and I stood on a cloud with the girl from the moon, and watched the vast, vain, hideous stronghold collapsing, and it upper courses turned cherry red with reentry heat.

This is not paradise. Mistakes happen. I may go blind tomorrow. But, if so, these were glorious sights to see on my last day of light.