“The Last Seven Eternities of Dr. Julian Slade, PhD” by Joshua Kamin

7.

My search for the journalist named Darius Sicory took me to some strange places, and at some point along the way I must’ve taken a wrong turn, strayed too far down a particularly dark path and never really found my way back — not all in one piece, at any rate.

I mean, that’s one hypothesis.

Step one: focus.

I see myself walking along a lonely undulating street. Dilapidated buildings spike up on either side, rows of rotting teeth, and the street rises and falls slowly like a colossal tongue. There are people up ahead. I wish I could talk to them, but they’re too far away — I’d have to run to catch them, and the thought of running is absurd.

Step two…

Behind me the street stretches off into darkness under a navy slab of sky.

Is there a step two?

A shadow steals out from the recesses of a doorway and scuttles toward me. Its face is hidden beneath a hood. “I’m looking for this place,” it says. Its voice is like a dozen different voices all tangled up together. “A stone hallway with a tall vaulted ceiling, dark except for a few electric lanterns lining the walls. And heads, severed heads lined up like a shooting gallery, rows upon rows of them. Have you been to a place like that?”

“No,” I say brusquely. “Go away — ”

But the shadow’s already gone. I’m alone again beneath a lowering sky. My foot hits something — a glass bottle goes skidding off down the street, smashes against a lamppost, breaks into pieces —

Wait. I squint. There’s something lying there among the shards. A sheet of crumpled paper. The wind toys with it but doesn’t blow it away.

I go and pick it up, unfold it, but to my dismay it’s written in a language I don’t understand. Made-up letters. Nonsense words. I turn it on its side, flip it over, hoping that maybe I’m just looking at it upside-down or sideways, but no matter which angle I look at it from, it refuses to make any kind of sense.

So I let the breeze carry it away. Useless junk…

But I guess it means something, doesn’t it?

Someone’s trying to get ahold of you.

It’s an encouraging thought, I suppose. But whoever it is isn’t doing it very well.

I keep walking; eventually I come to a pub. The glowing neon sign above the door says SPIGOT, and I remember vaguely that they have good beer here. I steal a seat at the bar. “Step one,” says the bartender as he slides me a steaming mug: “focus. Step two: remember you’ve still got things to do.”

“Are you talking to me?”

The bartender shrugs. I huddle over my drink. It glows like the embers of a fire that raged long ago; I try to find my reflection in the surface but there isn’t any to be seen. Beside me, a hunched bearded man mutters to himself. “What do we know about it?” he drones. “Long ago, in a forgotten country, in a better world, people pretended to understand it. But…”

I tune him out. Turn back to the bartender: “Excuse me. You might be able to help me. I’m looking for someone. A journalist.”

The bartender grunts noncommittally.

“Named Darius Sicory.”

For a moment the bartender fixes me with a lurid gaze. Then he gestures to the bearded man. “Ask him.”

I nudge the bearded man gently with my elbow. “Excuse me, sir. Do you know where I might find someone named Darius Sicory? He, uh, he knows something I need to know.”

The bearded man shoots me a fleeting sidelong glance, then continues talking as though he didn’t even see me.

“…people understood that it existed, but that doesn’t mean they understood how… I mean, you can’t wrap your head around something that you can’t see from the outside — ”

I nudge him again. “Excuse me — ”

He grunts in surprise, turns, and glares. “Huh?” he demands with a quiet kind of fury. “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of an important lecture?”

“Um…”

“Well, it’s pointless now. You’ve ruined my momentum. You should’ve registered for the discussion section if you wanted to ask questions.” He grins garishly, revealing a mouth full of rotting teeth. “So? What d’you want?”

“Uh…” Have I forgotten already? Step one. “Darius Sicory! Do you know a man named Darius Sicory?”

“Sicory?” The would-be professor glances around surreptitiously, then leans in close. “Sicory’s here,” he whispers hoarsely. “In the back.”

“He — he is?” I look to the rear of the bar, but there’s nobody there — just a bunch of empty tables and chairs. “I don’t — ”

“Not there. Through the door.”

I squint, but I can’t see a door — just a dark brick hallway. Has it always been there? I look back at the bearded man but he’s murmuring to himself again. “So you see? We’ve constructed a simple word to define it. We’ve come up with ways to measure it — clocks, numbers, calendars…”

“Good luck with that,” I mutter. I get up, push my chair in. Cross the bar. Start down the hallway. The darkness swallows me and suddenly I can’t see a thing.

I look back. The dimly lit bar is much farther away than it should be.

Forward, then.

I grope about in the gloom until I hit something. A wall? No, no — after a moment of fumbling I find a doorknob. I twist.

The door slides open.

The first thing I see is flickering amber light. Torchlight. Beyond the door is a crowded stone chamber. It’s filled with people, dozens of them, their faces shrouded in shadow, and they’re forming a circle around… what is that?

I thrust myself into the throng. “Darius?” I shout. “Darius Sicory!” Through the crush of clamoring bodies I see it: a raised altar, a dais in the center of the room, on which a naked man’s body lies supine and perfectly still. A woman wearing safety goggles and a bloodstained lab coat stands beside the dais. She raises something in the air — a hacksaw. It gleams in the stuttering torchlight.

“Stop!” I shout.

She pauses. Looks at me. Her safety goggles gleam frigidly. “What?”

“Darius Sicory,” I gasp. “I need to find him.”

Him?” The woman in the lab coat smirks. “You’re not looking for Darius Sicory, my friend. You’re looking for the truth. Now watch.”

She swings the hacksaw. The scream leaves my lips before it even happens — I turn away but not quickly enough — I still see it, hear it too, the sickening crunch as the serrated blade is dragged through the unconscious man’s flesh. Blood sprays into the air and I’m pushing back through the crowd, but they’re all muttering in disgruntled voices and shoving me back towards the center of the room —

Someone grabs my arm. “No!” I shriek, but several hands are spinning me around. The mutilated body’s lugged away, the head barely recognizable anymore, just a droopy mass of bloodied flesh. Gravity sways, the ground swings sideways and the woman in the lab coat towers above me.

“If you cannot accept this, my friend,” she whispers, “then you will be lost until time itself rots.”

The room swims and blurs and then it’s empty, deathly silent, and I’m scrambling to my feet. A vision? There’s nothing left of the nightmare I just witnessed. Aside from the blood still dripping from the altar.

I’ve had enough. I lunge for the door, push through, into the shadowed brick hallway again, sprinting slowly, like I’m underwater…

…and eons later I emerge into the bar. The would-be professor’s still lecturing to himself — “You can’t wrap your head around something that you can’t see from the outside,” I catch him saying —

I brush past him, shove myself through the door and burst out into the lonely street.

It’s darker now. The sky’s a pitch-black vortex. Suddenly I find myself wondering what made me want to leave the bar so urgently. I screw up my face in concentration…

There was a brick hallway.

A door hidden behind curtains of darkness.

And… blood?

I know there was blood. Wasn’t there?

A wasted breeze runs its fingers over me. Abandoned buildings creak and groan. The street stretches on ahead, twisting into an infinite obscurity.

With a sigh I start walking again. There’s nothing better to do.

6.

I have this theory. I forget about it sometimes, but every once in a while I’ll remember, and it’ll make sense for a while till I forget it again. See, when you stay awake for too long — I’m talking days on end here — you begin to see things. They start in the corners of your eyes, little shadows darting out of sight whenever you try to catch them. But they get closer and closer as time goes by, and soon you start to see that they have glowing eyes and sharp teeth. And then the sky starts swirling, the ground crumbles beneath your feet —

And somehow, cruelly, you’re still awake.

Thing is, I stopped asking how I got here a long time ago. I mean, I think it was a long time ago. But time works differently here. It’s lazier. And sometimes I think I’m not here at all, I’m back there… standing in a narrow hallway behind a stage, sweating through a thick blue gown, and I can hear the crowd just a few yards away.

“Organic human tissue, eh?” says the man behind me. He’s dressed identically to me, which irritates me, because I know there’s no way he even came close to what I’ve accomplished.

“Semi-organic,” I find myself telling him, “but the end result is the same. I’ll explain in a sec — ”

I hurry out into the blast of the spotlight and moments later I’m sitting at a table, chewing on the juiciest, most delicious chicken I’ve ever tasted. Faces stare expectantly at me. I gulp down some port, then —

“I suppose” — I speak slowly, savoring the attention — “the first problem was figuring out how to conduct radically complex electrical impulses.”

“How complex, exactly?”

Infinitely complex.”

I’ve grown to love saying those two words. I relish the dozens upon dozens of gazes fixed raptly on me. Just look at them. All of them in their ridiculous gowns, acting like they’re on top of the world. Some of them are considered the most sought-after professionals in their respective fields, but if you were to ask any of them what the Ion Pillar is for, or how to stop the Blackout Legion, not a single one of them could’ve told you.

And there I am, the most ridiculous-looking of all. Just look at me. Am I really even there?

No. I’m here. Watching them in a reflection in a windowpane out of the corner of my eye —

All right, let’s stop there. We’ve got to be more careful. It’s easy to get caught up in tangents. You start wandering down some stray twist of thought and suddenly you’ll find yourself miles away from where you started, hopelessly turned around, with no way of getting back. For instance, I remember a little while ago I was walking down a garden path, looking for Nyah, and I knew she was nearby, I knew I was so close…

But then I tripped and stumbled into a funny little daydream populated with people running around helter-skelter, all of them wearing gas masks and shouting, and every so often one of them bumped into me — except whenever I touched them they collapsed in upon themselves and were dust. And the whole while someone was screaming, shrieking in my ears louder than anything I’d ever heard before, so loud I couldn’t take it. My head flew to pieces, blood and brains strewn through the air like ribbons and party streamers, and it hurt, god it hurt so fucking bad…

* * *

…and then someone (don’t ask me who) picked up the pieces and fitted them back together like a grisly jigsaw puzzle, and after a time I could think straight again. “Thank you,” I remember saying, and the person who’d fixed me whispered, from behind a veiled distance, “Come find us, Julian. There isn’t much time.”

That was when I finally remembered my name.

Julian.

It’s something, I guess.

5.

I keep coming back to the same place. It’s this place we used to go to hide, a forgotten little pocket of existence. A hollow in the weave of the world. There’s a sea of golden grass on one side, just visible through the trees, and a patch of the softest moss I’ve ever felt beneath my bare feet. There’s an old tire swing hanging from that oak over there, a cracked stone sundial on the ground just a few feet away. And there’s a brook nearby. It’s out of sight but I can hear it.

Something happened here. Something that shouldn’t have happened. For some reason I can’t remember the details exactly — they’re all jagged angles and grotesque blurs, but one thing is clear: this is where it all went wrong.

I speak softly, tentatively. “Nyah?”

She’s not here. Of course not.

This is where I lost her.

Maybe, I start to think, I have to bring her here. I close my eyes — try to focus on her, on her face, her olive skin, her hazel eyes, her cascading nightshade hair.

I open my eyes, but she’s nowhere to be seen.

Not good enough.

I try again. Close my eyes, and with all the strength I can muster I reach deep deep down, like I’m reaching into a cold, murky pond, and I grasp at the memories that dart by like little fishes. I manage to catch one. I squeeze it tight. It’s a short memory, a few fleeting seconds, and in it I’m climbing a towering sequoia, and she’s up there, right at the top, clinging to the trunk. She looks down at me and grins, and I’m flooded with so much of something that I lose my grip on the branches —

Falling —

“JULIAN!”

My heart jolts and I’m lying beside the sundial. She’s nowhere to be seen… but her voice is still here, riding the air. It’s so real.

And then I remember something horrible. I look at my watch — the numbers on the display are dancing and twirling, they’re impossible to read, but the light streaming through the trees is like molten copper and I remember that I’m late, horrendously late, because daylight savings began today and it’s an hour ahead —

I’m an hour behind —

And that’s when I spot her shirt, a sky-blue summer top, under the tire swing. It’s torn and bloodstained. Her name rises like vomit in my throat.

Step one: focus.

But all I can think of is her.

Step two: remember you’ve still got things to do.

I have to find her.

Step three: make a list of what you know.

Clumsily I fish for more memories. A phone call. Her voice on the other end, quiet and halting. She wants to meet. Why? It’s something about the Blackout Legion — and about her half-brother, her demented maniac of a half-brother who’s apparently been sworn in. “I saw him take the oath,” she told me. “Right there in our basement. He’s one of them now — and he knows I saw it. He’s after me. They’re all after me. You know what he said? He said he was gonna silence me. And Mum and Dad — they’re probably dead by now. You’ve gotta help me, Julian. I’ve gotta hide. Please don’t be late. I’m scared. I’m really really scared — ”

Focus! It’s not too late. I can still find her. I grab her tattered shirt, shove it into my pocket and start running — down the hidden dirt trail, through the tunnel of roots and brambles, over the graffiti-drenched brick wall —

Has the Blackout Legion already found her?

And then it occurs to me. Her house. The basement where her half-brother was sworn in. I know where it is. I picture her half-brother dragging her down the steps, bolting the cellar door. She used to tell me campfire stories about him. Stories about girls lured into the woods to be tied up and tormented and slowly picked apart. I only half-believed her until now… but I remember the last thing I saw on the news about the Blackout Legion. They’re ambassadors of chaos. They think the only way to save the world is by tearing it apart, and so far it seems there are no lines they aren’t willing to cross —

If they really want to silence her —

Go!

I’m running as fast as I can through darkening streets, a maze of never-ending lanes and alleys. There’s the house, the one that looks like it’s been abandoned. No time for the door. I get to the basement window — my foot flies through it, shattered glass tearing gashes in my leg.

I shove myself through the opening, slip into the warm gloom of the basement. “Nyah — ”

But she’s not there. Neither is her half-brother. There’s a desk stacked high with papers, and a woman sitting behind it. She’s got thick John Lennon glasses and unkempt gray hair. She looks like she hasn’t slept in months.

“Hello Julian,” she says with a tired smile.

“Nyah?” I gasp.

The smile fades. “Not exactly. My name is Darius Sicory. I think you’ve been looking for me. And I have most certainly been looking for you.” She motions to a chair. “Please sit down. We have a lot to cover, and time is not on our side.”

4.

By the time I sit down I’ve already forgotten why I’m covered in sweat, why my heart’s going all machine-gun in my chest. A feeling comes over me, like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Like I’m at the center of something cosmically important.

“Huh,” I say slowly. “I thought Darius was a boy’s name.” I can’t help how stupid it sounds.

A velvety laugh. “It’s a beautiful name, no?” She’s got an accent I didn’t notice before. Spanish? No, that’s not it. I lean back.

“So… you know something I need to know?”

“Yes. And you know it too, Julian. I’m simply here to remind you. There’s a native people in the Andes called the Seyura. Do you remember them?”

I shake my head.

“Not at all? Well. Hmm. Perhaps the fragmentation is worse than I thought. But… maybe this will jog your memory?”

She hands me an envelope. I open it. It’s filled with photographs, faded sepia images of a building — no, a complex of buildings, all rounded roofs and spires pointing to the sky. A vista of rolling foothills and mountains in the background.

“This temple,” says Darius Sicory, “goes by many different names. In fact, it has a different name for every language spoken in it, which makes for a considerable number. In our language it is called the Temple of the Crossroads. It is located near a Seyuran village. The monks who dwell there adhere to a particularly interesting creed, called the Way of the Crossroads.”

“The Way of the Crossroads,” I repeat. This all sounds… familiar. “But what does this have to do with — ”

“With anything? Well, the story is that the Seyura were a spiritual people. They would often hold ceremonies in which they consumed the flesh of the cacti which grew in the nearby mountains. These cacti contained alkaloids which would induce vivid hallucinations — visionary quests, if you will.”

Visionary quests. Something stirs in my memory. A foul taste in my mouth.

“The Seyura believed that when they embarked on these quests they could actually communicate with the souls of the dead — and with the gods or higher powers that ruled the cosmic planes of the universe.”

I must’ve looked dubious, because Sicory smiled dryly and added, “Whether you believe in such things or not, Julian, is quite irrelevant. The point is, one member of this society, Manioc, had an epiphany during one of these ceremonies. I had the chance to interview him some time ago — I have it recorded, but it’s in Seyuran, so you wouldn’t understand it. Let me read you the transcript of what he said.”

She fumbles on her desk for a moment, finds a thick stack of papers, flips through it and begins reading:

“‘I saw the entire world and all of time spread out before me, from its seeds and beginnings to the very present. I saw a beautiful oasis spinning through the vast emptiness of space. I saw it all shatter. In pain and suffering, in blood and guts spilled, in greed, cruelty, anguish, torment, it shattered. I saw a people who should be united torn apart by greed and haste. I saw needless quarrelling. Their gods and idols pitted against each other. They none of them realize that they worship the same god, a god of many faces, perhaps an infinity of faces. They refer to this god by different names, because it is difficult to gaze upon more than one of its faces at a time.

‘But I foresaw a remedy: a church built in these very mountains, to which I would summon peaceful representatives from all of the vast round world’s differing creeds and philosophies. Here we would discuss, deliberate, synthesize. We would attempt to divine the sacred truth of the universe. And I would say, most humbly and modestly, that after seven decades my vision has been realized.‘”

I’m silent. I wait for Sicory to continue. She puts the sheaf of papers away carefully before proceeding. “Manioc did succeed, Julian. This was a man who had never traveled to other countries. He never left his homeland. He saw nothing of the world beyond this desert plateau on which he lived, except in that vision. And yet he oversaw the building of the Temple of the Crossroads. He welcomed to it representatives from most — if not all — of the world’s religions.

“And that is where you are right now.”

I stare at her blankly. “Sorry?”

“You don’t believe me. I know it must seem wildly irrational. But you have got to believe. I know that for the past while you have been wondering where you are. Right at this moment you are in a hall in the Temple of the Crossroads, high in the Andes, in Peru.”

Something’s dislodged in my mind. I look around. I’m in a dingy basement. There’s a flickering light bulb dangling from a chain in the middle of the room. “Piss off,” I tell Darius Sicory. All this time I’ve been searching for her, and now that I’ve finally found her she tells me absolutely nothing I need to hear.

“Julian — ”

“FUCK YOU!” I scream. “WHERE’S NYAH?”

Sicory’s face has become a mask of rage. Papers scatter as she leaps over the desk, and I bolt — flee to the window, haul myself out of it. More cuts from the broken glass. I roll into the street, and I can’t breathe anymore — my lungs are searing, my throat tightening. The street’s flooded with people, they’re running and screaming, some of them are lying on the ground having fits — foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling back in their sockets. The sky above is the color of bloody vomit. I try to scream but I can’t. The corners of my vision blur, my stomach heaves — why can’t I see straight?

“IT’S HAPPENING!” a middle-aged lady screams. “IT’S HAPPENING!”

“Are we dying?” a little boy moans, right before collapsing into a convulsing heap.

“Masks! Masks!” somebody shrieks. “Get the fucking masks! THE MASKS!”

BANG! A gunshot blasts the air, and it’s hard to hear much of anything anymore. My legs buckle. Get back inside! I roll over, try to crawl back — but the house I just emerged from is ablaze, flames billowing out of every window, a funnel of black smoke spilling into the diseased sky. And someone’s coming toward me, shoving something over my head — a gas mask —

Air! I can breathe! I slurp it up, too fast, and my head breaks clean in two and my brain’s plucked out. What’s left of me collapses to the ground, lifeless, for the savage stampede to trample into the pavement.

3.

I keep coming back to the same place. It’s this place we used to go to hide, a forgotten little pocket of existence. A hollow in the weave of the world. There’s a sea of golden grass on one side, just visible through the trees, and a patch of the softest moss I’ve ever felt beneath my bare feet. There’s an old tire swing hanging from that oak over there, a cracked stone sundial on the ground just a few feet away. And a brook nearby. Somewhere.

I look up. The sky through the eaves is a cold, crystal blue. The leaves are painted like stained glass in the light of the sinking sun —

The sun?

Something makes me laugh, but it’s a chilly laugh, the kind where you know you shouldn’t be laughing, but you do it anyway because you just can’t stop yourself. And I remember that there is no sun. Not in this place.

Nyah’s supposed to be here. Where is she?

She’s not coming.

Maybe she’s running late. I check my watch, and the numbers on it are all dancing like they’ve got something to celebrate. She’s been late for ages. Part of me suspects that she’s been running late since the dawn of time —

That’s when I spot the shirt by the tire swing. Torn and bloody. My stomach swoops as I realize that I’m the one who’s late. Her voice echoes in my head:

“I know he’s completely fucked in the head. Of course he’d join the Blackout Legion. Just the kind of thing he’d do. I saw him take the oath. Right there in our basement. He’s one of them now — and he knows I saw it. He’s after me. They’re all after me. You know what he said? He said he was gonna silence me. And Mum and Dad — they’re probably dead by now. You’ve gotta help me, Julian. I’ve gotta hide. Please don’t be late. I’m scared. I’m really really scared — ”

I pick up the bloodstained shirt, unfold it. Something flutters out onto the ground. I pick it up. A note:

Step four: come home.

And then — “Julian.”

The voice is like an icicle plunged into my back. I turn and there she is — her name slips out of my mouth before I can help myself. She’s coming towards me, limping and smiling a strange, lopsided smile.

“I knew I’d find you here,” she says.

I’m backing away. It’s her, isn’t it? It’s her olive-colored skin, her jet-black hair, but —

Her eyes. They don’t look any different, but staring into them is like staring into two bottomless pits. A trickle of blood leaks out of her ear, creeps down the side of her neck.

And I know, in that moment, that something is very, very wrong.

“Nyah?” I whimper.

“Don’t worry, Julian.” Her voice is a spectral whisper, an echo of a whisper, and her lips aren’t moving as she speaks. “Please. It’s too late for me. Don’t worry.”

“Wha — what d’you mean?” I’m backing away from her now — my back grazes something and I’m up against a tree. “Nyah?”

“There’s nothing you can do. I don’t want you to be upset. It’s not your fault. You can’t blame yourself, Julian, even though I know you will. But I’m fine. It was horrible, for a little while back there, but I’m all better now. I’m going home…” She lifts up the corner of her shirt — the same shirt I’m holding in my hands — exposing a row of deep gouges. It’s only then that I notice that her arms are crisscrossed with cuts, too, and her emerald stockings are dark and wet with blood. There’s blood in her hair, a gouge drawn across her throat, blood pouring out of it —

“Forget about me.” Her voice is a drowning gurgle. “Try to, anyway.”

The scream explodes out of my throat like a peal of thunder, tearing the forest air apart, and before me Nyah falters, flickers like firelight, and sways like she’s been buffeted by a gale-force wind. Suddenly it’s much darker than it was before and I’m alone again, and there’s nothing left of Nyah but a sepulchral echoing laugh that strings its way through the air like dead leaves caught in an eternal journey to the ground.

But there’s something inside me now — a simmering ball of tightness deep in my chest, a knot of clotted despair, and Nyah’s half-brother appears before me in my mind’s eye. What’s his goddamn name?

I picture myself strangling him. Tearing his throat out. Chopping him into little pieces.

It’s my fault.

I press my face against the ground and sobs overtake me. It’s hard to be sure of how much time passes… but after a little while I’m walking again, shoving myself through tangles of branches and undergrowth and tumbling down a forgotten dirt trail. There’s a tunnel of roots, a graffiti-drenched wall, a street —

I’m blasted by the headlights of a cab. A horn wails in my ears, and for a moment I can’t move. Then I rush over to the passenger side door, open it, and climb in.

“Where to?” the driver asks.

“Home,” I croak.

“And where is that?”

“The land of the dead.”

The driver fixes me with a stern gaze. “Are you for real?” he demands.

I stare through his eyes into the depths of his soul. Then I give him Nyah’s address. He nods. It’s a short drive — painfully short — and soon we’re pulling up in front of Nyah’s parents’ house. At least, it’s where her parents’ house is supposed to be.

But the house isn’t there. It’s just a vacant lot. “No,” I snarl, my lips curling back over my gums. “No, no, no.”

And then I remember something. A handwritten note fluttering out of a blood-stained shirt.

Step four: come home.

I need to see her again. I need to.

And something occurs to me. There’s a place I’ve been told about. A place where I won’t be the only one who believes in ghosts.

I turn back to the cab driver. “Take me to the Temple of the Crossroads,” I tell him.

He sighs. “Buddy, you’ve got two choices: start making some sense, or get the hell out of my cab.”

“The airport. Take me to the airport.”

2.

Everything’s going slower now. Every moment takes longer to click into place, longer to fade into the next one. It’s like time has… loosened.

Time itself is decaying.

How long’s it been since I set off to find the Seyura and the Temple of the Crossroads? Part of me feels like it’s only been a few moments. But the rational part knows that it’s been a very, very long time. There was the ride to the airport. The flight to the ends of the earth. A drive down a forgotten highway, and then the walk, the never-ending walk through valleys and up mountainsides, into the mouth of a great, seething wilderness.

But I’m here now. That’s what matters.

There’s a plateau among the mountains, a towering desert plain beneath skeins of scintillating stars. The Seyuran village is located dead in the center of this plateau, and the Temple of the Crossroads is right at the edge of it, built into the sandstone cliff face. After dusk it glitters like a piece of the night sky has been nailed to the edge of the rock.

There’s a stairwell clinging to the side of the cliff. It looks like it was built eons ago… or maybe it grew there on its own. Maybe the gods made it. We climb, emerge on top of the immense windswept plateau.

Before us: the temple gate. A towering sandstone archway. People gather beneath it, shadowed blurs at first, but coming into focus. Arms spread wide, welcoming, as though they’ve been waiting an eternity for my arrival. As though I’m some kind of Messiah.

I scan the crowd. “Where’s Nyah?” I demand.

But the people don’t answer, they just beckon silently. Some of them are wearing masks, leering animal faces, owls and tigers and rams. One of them grabs my arm. “Julian,” she says. She’s not wearing a mask, but her face is unfocused, twisted out of shape. The important parts are there, though — a head frosted with an ashy mop of hair, elfin ears, a crooked nose, and those John Lennon glasses.

“Darius Sicory.”

Somehow I know, with an unshakeable certainty, that I’ve stood with her under this very archway before.

“It’s taken us a long time to get through to you, Dr. Slade.” Doctor? Yes. Yes! Dr. Julian Slade. PhD. How could I have forgotten that? A doctorate — my doctorate — in bioengineering, and Darius Sicory, Professor Darius Sicory, was my supervisor.

“Time is quite short,” she says. “Do you remember this place?” She guides me gently forward, into the yawning mouth of the Temple of the Crossroads. “You should be remembering now.”

“Yeah.” It’s a lie, or half a lie. Right at this moment you are in a vast hall in the Temple of the Crossroads, high in the Andes, in Peru. “Where’s Nyah?”

Sicory laughs, then sighs. “Nyah? I’m afraid I don’t know anybody by that name here.” I follow her down a torch-lit corridor. “It’s been difficult to get through to you, Julian. Your mind has fragmented. An unfortunate side effect.”

“I don’t — I’m not sure I underst — ”

“Think of it this way.” I remember that Sicory has a gift for explaining difficult concepts. “When you were Julian Slade, your mind was a pond. It was fed by rains and perhaps by a brook or two, and it was deep, but it was just a pond.

“Now, some time ago, your mind was poured into an ocean. What was once Julian Slade melded with a thousand other minds that were no longer individual minds. It’s hard to explain. It really is. But you aren’t just Julian Slade anymore. You are the Nexus.” Sicory spreads her arms dramatically. “We are the Nexus. But right now…” She pauses. “Right now we need what’s left of Dr. Julian Slade, PhD.”

The hallway ends. We’re going down a stairwell. I’m at a loss for words. I look down at my hands, my feet, my body, and realize for the first time how grotesquely misshapen I am. Is this what human bodies are supposed to look like? With dulled horror I realize that I can’t quite recall.

“Do you remember now, Julian?”

It’s coming back in fragments. A war, or something like it. What was it called? “The Drone War,” I murmur.

Yes, I remember. I remember that Julian Slade was afraid, very afraid, just like everyone else was, because everyone was thinking the same thing: mutually assured destruction. I remember that every day the news got bleaker. Entire cities wiped out. Refugees scattered across the globe. The doomsday clock closing in on midnight. Nukes stolen from the United Kingdom’s stockpile. The Blackout Legion, appearing only in staticky clips on TV, hidden behind pale masks, promising chaos and then rebirth.

Further down the stairwell, and there’s a humming noise in my ears now. It’s faint but it’s growing — cold and alien but comforting, somehow.

“Do you remember?”

Her voice startles me. “Yeah,” I tell her. “The Blackout Legion nuked Yellowstone, right before the super-volcano blew. It was a calamity. You couldn’t breathe the air anymore, no matter where you were. North America was the worst, but they were suffocating in Europe, Africa, Asia — you couldn’t escape it. So they built the Ion Pillar to neutralize the toxins in the air, but it was a time bomb, it wasn’t stable — ”

“Good, good. Very good. You were my sharpest student. And it’s no easy mental feat, piecing together an unraveled mind. I’m proud of you.”

“But there’s more. I’m not finished.” The floodgates have opened — the memories coming fast now, too fast. The humming in my ears is getting louder and louder, it’s coming from the floor, from the walls and the ceiling. The staircase ends. We’re standing in front of a metal door with a triple-bolt lock.

The humming, a steady high-pitched whine now, is coming from inside. The project.

I remember.

I remember that I got my doctorate degree on the same day that the Drone War broke out. The same day the world started sliding down to hell.

I remember finding Professor Sicory in her study, asking her about something she’d mentioned once, in passing, late at night in a cozy pub called the Spigot. “The Temple of the Crossroads,” I said. “It’s real, isn’t it? You’ve been there, haven’t you?”

I remember approaching this very door for the first time.

We go through, and we’re in a colossal chamber lined with pitch-black cylinders, a couple dozen of them, each one twice my height. They’re connected through thick pipes to a rail running down the center of the chamber.

“The energy cells,” says Darius Sicory. “They’re running out. Shutting down — you can feel it, can’t you? We knew this moment would come. We only have a day or two left before the whole system goes dark. In human time, that is.”

“Human time?”

We follow the rail down the hall. There’s something at the end of the chamber. Something very very strange. At first I can’t tell exactly what I’m looking at.

But then…

The part closest to us is shaped like a beehive, only it’s dark chrome in color and it towers above us. It’s what’s making the noise; this close to it the sound is like a thousand people humming in unison. The rail connects to this beehive on one side, and from the other side emerges a tangle of wires — except they’re made of what looks like fleshy pink string.

Semi-organic biotic tissue.

The wires disseminate — like a flashlight beam dispersing into rays of color when shone through a prism — and lead to a shelf behind the beehive which stretches up, up, up, all the way to the distant recesses of the ceiling, and off to either side, covering the entire wall.

And lining this shelf: disembodied brains.

They’re sitting in plastic orbs, floating in murky broth, and the flesh-wires connect to the orbs. There must be over a thousand of them. A thousand human brains.

Your pond — your mind — was poured into an ocean.

“Julian Slade, I present to you Julian Slade’s masterpiece.”

I fall to my knees. How could I ever have forgotten? Forgotten the years and years I spent here, deep in the Temple of the Crossroads? Forgotten that as the world went to hell outside, as the Earth’s atmosphere turned toxic and the very act of breathing became a chore, we tried to save humanity?

“Human beings evolved to think,” Darius Sicory once said, always said, will always have said. “That is something worth preserving. Don’t you agree?”

How could I have forgotten my research? The countless hours spent in labs, poring over data? The early blueprints for the Nexus, collaborated upon by me and Sicory and Manioc and a hundred others? The race against time to finish it?

“Don’t be ashamed. You got lost inside the Nexus. We all did. But we need you back now. Time is running out. Soon the energy cells will die, and the Nexus will shut down, and our brains will shut down with it.” Darius Sicory kneels beside me, but I can only see her as a white blur. “Do you remember what I said to you, Julian, as we lay on this very floor waiting for the surgeon to saw our heads open? The Nexus wasn’t complete, we hadn’t finished the testing phase — but the Ion Pillar had just imploded and we were out of time. I said something to you then. Do you remember?”

The memory’s right here, waiting for me:

“It’s times like these,” said Darius Sicory, her voice trembling, her eyes tearing up, “times when hope is at its dimmest, when all the future seems to hold is bleakness and heartbreak, that we have to give it all or nothing. We have to think not just about surviving, but about evolving. Not just about adapting — about transcending. I don’t know if the Nexus will work at all, and even if it does I don’t know what will happen inside it. But if it does, then perhaps a thousand human minds working together can come up with a way to not only preserve human consciousness in some form, but to take the next step.”

“The next step?”

“Yes, Julian. The next step. Immortality.”

And then I spoke the last words that my fleshy mouth would ever speak: “I know how. Darius! I know what we have to do. Find me. Promise you’ll find me. You have to promise — ”

The surgeon towered over me. “Your turn, Dr. Slade.”

My time was up. I closed my eyes, drew in the last breath of oxygen that Julian Slade would ever taste.

Not just surviving: evolving.

And now they crowd around me, hundreds of others, and they are me. We are the Nexus. We are one.

Not just adapting: transcending.

But I am also Julian Slade. I’m separate. They need me to be separate. Sicory’s talking now, but it’s not just her; it’s many, many voices speaking in unison.

“It was difficult, Julian, but we found you. And now we find ourselves in a peculiar situation. The energy cells are dying. We don’t have physical bodies. There’s nobody left in the Temple of the Crossroads to help us. But you assured me a long, long time ago that you had the solution. The Nexus doesn’t have it, but you do. So where is it? What is it? Not to put unwarranted pressure on you, but the future of human consciousness depends on it. Time’s running out, so think. We all need you to think.”

1

We need more time. That’s the first problem.

A council of minds has assembled in the Hall of the Many-Headed God. They’re there, all of them. The others. Lining the pews, shifting in and out of focus, and sometimes I get the feeling that nobody’s there at all, even though the Hall is boiling over with a cacophony of voices.

“What we need to do,” somebody yells, in a voice barely louder than the others, “is transmit this united front of human consciousness to another vessel — one that can have agency in the physical world.”

“Yes,” another responds, “but that would involve physical labor, and there’s no way for a thousand-plus brains in tanks to move so much as a speck of dust — ”

“Unless psychokinetics is a real possibility.”

“And… is it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then what good is that?”

“Dr. Slade? Any ideas?”

I barely hear the question. I’m lost in thought. The Seyura believe unequivocally that the mountains, valleys and plains surrounding their village and the Temple of the Crossroads are populated by spirits — spirits of the dead, of the unborn. They communicate with these spirits during their ceremonies — like the ceremony Julian Slade partook in lifetimes ago, when he first came to Seyura. Perhaps —

“Are you suggesting that we command spirits to do our bidding, Dr. Slade?”

I start in surprise. Have I been speaking my thoughts aloud? Then Darius Sicory, or some part of her, appears by my side.

“The human mind goes infinitely inwards,” she reminds me.

So I leave the Hall of the Many-Headed God, I close my eyes and create a space deep beneath the Temple of the Crossroads: a little study with wooden floors and a fireplace. I put a desk against the wall, a window looking out over the misty Andes, a comfy chair to sit on. A clock’s mounted above the desk, but it doesn’t have hands to tell time with.

Darius Sicory sits on a couch across from the desk, gazing out the window.

“I had the solution once,” I mutter. “I remember knowing, unmistakably, what needed to be done. But I don’t remember what it was.” I turn to her. “I should’ve written it down, or…”

Should-haves,” says Sicory, “are an insidious waste of time and thought.”

“I know. You taught me that years ago.” I smile. “You were Julian Slade’s mentor. First his idol, then his mentor, and then his friend.”

“We’re all friends here.” She speaks vaguely, as though she’s totally ambivalent about it. “We’re one and the same. And every person you ever meet keeps a little bit of you inside them.” Then she rises and drifts through the wall. For a moment her voice lingers in the air: “I’ll leave it to you. Focus, Julian.”

I stare at the papers cluttering the desk. Think.

The prospect of communicating with spirits comes back to me. It’s the best idea I have. First, though, I’ll have to determine if there’s any truth to the traditional Seyuran folklore —

No, no, it’s too late to be thorough. And then I remember something: standing in the woods, watching someone who shouldn’t, who couldn’t have been there limping towards me.

They’re real.

All doubt is erased from my mind. So. To business then. How does one make contact with a spirit?

The window draws my gaze. The not-so-distant mountains scintillate in the Peruvian summer heat. Winds toss the trees like salad.

Time’s running out.

For some reason this doesn’t trouble me as much as I know it should. In reality there might only be a day left before the energy cells shut down, but I’ve found this little pocket of timelessness here, deep inside my own mind, and I can’t let it go until I’ve solved the problem I’ve been charged with solving.

Step one: focus.

But there’s something tugging at the edge of my thoughts.

Step two: remember you’ve still got things to do.

Sunlight feathers the slopes of the nearby mountains. I glimpse something moving through the distant trees. An animal? A person?

A spirit?

Nyah?

I wonder, briefly, if her brain is one of the brains connected to the Nexus. It must be. I can feel her… can’t I? Maybe I’m just being wistful. And even if she is here somewhere, she’s scattered. Fragmented. Spread too thin, not enough of her in any one place.

I turn back to the papers on my desk. Step three…

Part of me drifts out through the window, leaving a slumped husk at the desk, and I glide through mountain forests beneath a glistening sun and a frosted moon. Seasons cycle through me, turning round and round like a great wheel, and I watch trees grow tall, reach for the heavens and then collapse, break down, topple, and rot. Stars sweep by overhead. Glaciers melt. Seas gather then evaporate, leaving nothing behind but silt and sediment.

Nothing lasts forever.

A river coils lazily through a valley.

Not even us…

In the real world this place is gray and deadlanded, covered in dust and ash, the trees are all dead and the river’s thick and black. But here it exists inside my head, green and gold beneath a sapphire sky.

“Nyah!” I call.

I spot her — spot her through the trees, lying impossibly still in the dappled shadows — and then the turning seasons catch her, the dirt swallows her, and I look up and I’m back in my room in the Temple of the Crossroads. The papers filled with blueprints and equations and charts and figures stare into my soul.

Something cruel occurs to me. Do Julian Slade’s memories of Nyah even belong to him? After all, he too was scattered, interlaced with hundreds upon hundreds of other minds…

But she said my name, didn’t she?

Didn’t she?

I wander through the Temple of the Crossroads. It’s losing shape now, all spiraling hallways and staircases that never end, and there are people here but nobody seems to want to talk anymore.

Time is decaying.

“Julian?” someone says. It’s Sicory, but I can’t see her anywhere. “I don’t mean to pressure you, but the cells are running extremely low. I estimate that we only have…”

I tune her out. I find my study again, but the desk’s overturned, papers strewn about everywhere. The clock lies face-down on the floor.

Out through the window again. I soar over a sea of trees. “Nyah!” I can feel her. She’s close. But she’s not all in one piece. And she got a head start.

I’ve fallen behind.

Sicory and the others are calling to me from a great distance, but I tune them out. Nothing was ever meant to last forever.

“Dr. Slade! You need to focus!”

Somewhere far away the Temple of the Crossroads crumbles, and the droning sound of the Nexus, a thousand human minds humming in unison, coalesces into one voice.

We are bound by time. It’s inescapable.

But if we could see the world outside of time, then we would realize that the eternal does exist, in a way, if you look at it from the right angle. It’s embedded in the natural order of things.

Step three: make a list of what you know.

Julian Slade will always be chasing after Nyah. But I am much more than Julian Slade.

Step four: come home.

I’m standing at the edge of a sprawling plain, a sea of grass painted a thousand different colors by a howling sunrise.

Come find me.

“Julian!” Sicory’s voice is faint and distant, but more urgent than ever. “We don’t have time for this! The cells are spent! It’s shutting down! Are you there? Please tell me you’re still there! They’re dying… please…”

I smile. Too late, my friend. I follow what’s left of Nyah into the vast unending sunrise, my smile widening into an infinite chasm, my entire being outstretched and immense — and I discover again, as I’ve discovered many times before, that in the end everything just has a way of falling into place.


black-widow-baby Joshua Kamin lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he divides his time between cycling, chasing sunsets, writing speculative fiction, and exploring the inscrutable border between dreams and reality.
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