Because I Could Not Stop - Uncharted

Because I Could Not Stop

By Curtis Chen

Good morning, Professor! I’m Death, and I would like to speak to you about, well, me.

Oh dear. I see now that my sudden appearance must be a bit of a shock to a frail human psyche. Go on, take a moment to collect yourself. I’ll wait.

Right, let’s begin again. I’m Death. And I need you, Professor, to halt your experiments.

Why? I’m sorry, did you miss the part where I am Death? The Grim Reaper? I’m doing you a courtesy, showing up here in this crude manifestation. Quite frankly, I was under no obligation to speak with you at all.

But I do believe in civility. You’re meddling with forces beyond your comprehension, and you couldn’t possibly have known the consequences, so it seems only fair to give you a chance to correct your transgression.

Here’s the problem: your continued experimentation, Professor, might unbalance the universe and upend all of creation. So we do need you to stop. And destroy all your notes. And, ideally, burn this entire laboratory to the ground.

I can help you with that last part, by the way. More than happy to.

Hmm. Fair point; you do deserve a bit of an explanation. All right, prepare your puny mind to receive some cosmic wisdom, yeah?

As previously established, I am Death, but I’m not the one who decides when you die, and I’m not the one who actually causes your demise. There are other entities who handle those things; it’s a division-of-labor arrangement. I’m just the collector. I only perform the final rite of passage: I convey your soul out of this mortal world and into the great beyond, so-called.

That’s the important bit. When you die, your soul doesn’t depart this plane automatically. I need to be there to help you move on. Now, per regulations, we do offer you a choice: if you feel you have unfinished business with the living, we may allow your spirit to linger. That’s a whole other department; there’s paperwork, not my bailiwick. I only make the offer, you understand. The default, if you’re ready to move on, is for me to wrap you within my shroud and transport you beyond the veil.

Now, Professor, I know you have only the best of intentions. I know you’ve been aware of the existence of so-called “ghosts” for many years, ever since your father died and subsequently haunted you for several months before passing on. I know you have deep personal motivations for building your so-called “aetheric dilator matrix.” But I implore you to stop because you’re very close to a breakthrough that will have terrible unintended consequences.

No, your instrument will work. That’s the problem! It will indeed pierce the veil, linking the worlds of the living and the dead, and allow you to see and speak to your father again. You will be able to prove the existence of an afterlife, your own sanity, so on and so forth.

In fact, you will be able to refine your instrument to the point where you can establish communication with any dead soul, as long as the loved one seeking them is present to guide the targeting mechanism. Your invention will be the greatest advancement in occultism for generations to come.

It will also prevent the dead from ever finding peace.

I do not mean that metaphorically. Yes, it’s true, if you eventually mass-produce these “matrices” and allow anyone in the world to use them whenever they like, it will become impossible for the dead to escape the living. And some of them do want to, you know. They’re done with their mortal lives and would prefer not to be pestered any more. But there is an even larger, more dire issue.

You see, Professor, your “matrix” works by thinning the partition between this world and the infinite. It does something similar to what I do when I carry away dead souls, though in a much more primitive fashion. And because your instrument is a mindless mechanism, it is unable to finesse that operation and flow between worlds as smoothly as I do.

Only an entity can make that journey safely. Only a mind of some sort can transition through the barrier without damaging it. You see, the barrier itself is alive–in a way. It responds instinctively to certain stimuli, and it maintains its own integrity through processes that you might call “healing.”

Your machine, Professor, is unnatural. The “dilation” caused by your “matrix” is a crude, unrefined approximation of what should be a beautiful natural process. Every time you peer into the world of the dead, you will damage the partition, and when you are done, that section of it will toughen as it heals. Over time, it will harden like a scar until it becomes a true barrier, impenetrable even to myself.

Now, none of us knows how long that process will take, but we have already seen it happening. You’ve been poking and prodding ceaselessly for weeks, and even though you haven’t yet breached the barrier, it has already responded by thickening in places, becoming more difficult to traverse.

Do you understand what this means, Professor? If we allow you to complete your instrument, if we allow other humans to use it, the barrier between this mortal world and the infinite will eventually become completely and permanently impassable!

And if I cannot enter your world, then I cannot remove souls as their bodies expire. Those spirits would accumulate forever, a never-ending plague of ghosts with no choice but to haunt the living. Plus, it wouldn’t just be the ghosts of humans–it would be every living thing. Animals, insects, plants! Do you know how many plants there are in the world? Have you ever counted the dead leaves that cover the ground every autumn? Can you imagine all those leafy corpses swirling and multiplying, year after year, century upon century?

And that is the better of two possibilities! The second, and worse, is that I could be trapped here when the barrier undergoes its final congealment. And Professor, believe me, if I am imprisoned in this plane because someone used your matrix one time too many, if I’m down here when your infernal machine ruins the grand design of creation–I will never forgive you. And I will never leave you alone.

Remember what I do, Professor? I transport souls. And I am not limited to moving souls between worlds. I have the ability to pry souls out of their physical bodies, just in case someone becomes ensnared by an unusual psychic condition. And I can also insert souls into other, existing physical forms.

I could rip your soul from your body and seal it within the glass of one of these containers scattered about your workspace. Perhaps that one, sitting atop the gas burner. When someone lights the flame, you will feel the searing heat but be unable to move or scream. If someone should happen to knock the glass to the ground and shatter it, your soul would be fragmented into hundreds of pieces. What would that feel like, I wonder? I’m sure it wouldn’t be pleasant.

Eternity is a long time, Professor. If your matrix seals the barrier between worlds, if I am trapped here with you, we will all be stuck until the end of the universe. I’ll have billions of years to devise hideous new torments for you and anyone you love. You’ve heard the phrase “Hell on Earth”? I can make that happen. Literally.

But it needn’t come to that, Professor. I don’t want to be cruel. I’m here to help you. I’ll let you complete your prototype. In secret, of course. But then you will use it to help me.

Your considerable talents should not be wasted. I could use an assistant. It does get tiring, you know? Day in, day out, shuttling the dead away, listening to them plead for mercy or time or any number of other things. It’s nearly impossible to convince people that I can’t make exceptions. There are rules, you know? I’m just here to execute them. So to speak.

It would be nice to take a holiday once in a while. And once your matrix is perfected, you can take over for me! Oh, not for long, maybe just a day or two at a time. No more than a week. We’ll see how it goes.

Come, Professor, aren’t you curious to see the cosmic workings for yourself? The offer, the transition, the final rest? And you know, most people are very grateful for a bit of mercy at the end. That’s one of the best parts of the job, if you ask me. Being able to grant kindness to those in despair is quite a wonderful feeling.

You don’t have to answer right now. Sleep on it. But not too long. What dreams may come, you know?

A threat? Oh, I don’t make threats, Professor. I’m Death. I only promise.

About the Author

Curtis Chen's debut novel WAYPOINT KANGAROO was a finalist for the 2017 Locus Awards and Endeavour Award. The sequel, KANGAROO TOO, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. His short fiction has appeared in Playboy Magazine, ALIENS VS. PREDATORS: ULTIMATE PREY, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Clarion West and Viable Paradise.

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