I wasn’t ready when I died.
The first illusion death stole from me was that my body is designed to perceive the universe around me. This is incorrect. The primary function of your senses is to stop yourself from experiencing the universe, whose infinite information would otherwise overwhelm and madden you. Eyes that once simplified the world into finite wavelengths of color closed for the last time, and then I saw everything. Ears once deaf to cosmic music sung by the birth of stars, the communal heartbeat of the human race, and the haunting pop of each collapsing universe now concealed them no longer.
Even the distinction between senses decayed alongside my corporal prison. Starlight was a symphony that bathed me in warmth, and the heat in turn sang with such melodic iridescence that I was thrall to its majesty. It’s impossible to measure how long I existed in such a state, but by gradual degrees I learned to separate my own thoughts from the medley of existence. The moment I began to comprehend my own internal voice, I became aware of a second voice that was not my own.
“…478 points. Hey Jason! You close that passenger pigeon room yet? I told you we don’t do them anymore.”
“Um. Hi. Excuse me,” I said to the unrepentant chaos of the universe.
“Here you go, let me help you with that.”
Remember what I said about the unfiltered synesthesia of my senses. Now imagine being struck by lightning. A moment later, I found myself with hands and knees to collapse onto the stone floor with, my new lungs racing a marathon. Holy shit did that hurt. I kind of wanted to do it again.
“478 points, up from 314 last time. Solid performance.” I don’t know what was harder to accept: my naked new body which looked exactly like my old one, the colossal stone cathedral I suddenly found myself within, or the koala bear who sat in front of me with a clipboard. He flipped another page.
“Oh that explains it,” the koala said in its soothingly gruff undertone. “50 points for loving someone and being loved in return. That’s always a nice boost. Then you picked up another 20 from that album you released in the eighties — touched more lives then you’ll know with that one.”
“You were keeping score?”
“I’d hate to think what people got up to if we weren’t… lost 12 points because you stopped visiting Mark when he got cancer, but you got a few of those back when you played at his funeral. Hey Jason! What’s “accepting your own imperfections” worth? We got new numbers on that yet?”
He was answered by the incomprehensible shriek of an eagle.
“Shit man, right back at ya!” the koala hollered.
“Have you always been a koala?” I asked.
“Have you always asked stupid questions? You’re lucky we don’t dock points for that.”
“Kidding, kidding. Sort of. This way now.” The koala slid the clipboard under his arm and began a brisk waddle. I hurried to keep pace, doing my best to avoid the absolute zoo which thronged the stone hallway onward. Up the great diverging staircase with its goats and mountain lions. Past the library whose shelves bustled with scaling monkeys, over the pools filled with playing otters and thrashing fish, beneath the gargantuan brass dome revolving with teeming flights of birds, the koala explaining as we went.
“Long story short, if your life brought more good into the world than evil, you’re going to end up with more points than you started. Your 478 points can unlock any of the rooms on this floor, except for the psychic and the prophet which are both 500. Think of your choice as an investment: coming back as a human will be expensive, but you also have the greatest capacity to improve your score. The only rule is that you pick something on the right floor for your budget.”
“What would happen if I didn’t have any points? Or went below zero?”
I hadn’t been aware koalas could even grin before this moment.
“Generally you’ll just keep going down. It’s hard to get out of the negatives once you’ve started, so if you can’t figure out how to do some good then you’re forced to keep choosing worse and worse punishment rounds. Get far enough negative, and suddenly you’re looking at a demon or a vampire or the like. Some people actually do evil on purpose to aim for that though, can you imagine?”
“No,” I answered honestly, “but I’m beginning to.”
“All the animals you see are just spirits taking their new bodies for a test drive. Feel free to look around and — Jason! What’s that thing doing up here? Keep the politicians downstairs please!”
The mournful shriek of an eagle somehow sounded like it had heard this joke far too many times. The koala sighed and threw his paws melodramatically in the air. “Kidding, kidding, God. What is this, a morgue?”
I wasn’t paying attention anymore though. Dwarfed and humbled by the immensity of the structure, I turned my gaze to the top of the stairs and the small balcony which overhung the whole arena.
“What’s at the very top?”
My guide shrugged, seemingly losing interest in me. “Donno. No-one’s ever had enough points to unlock that door. Not for as long as I’ve been here.”
“How long have —”
“Diggory! Mixy! Ground floor let’s go! People dyin’ over here!”
And he was gone, leaving me adrift in the swirling profusion between death and life. Overwhelmed and disoriented, I continued to climb the stairs, driven as much to isolate myself as I was by curiosity. Past 500 points and the crowd dissipated precipitously. Strange, alien creatures began mingling with the dwindling remaining options. Seraphic beings with skin of light and shadow, and golden toned creatures of sublime beauty came and went as I continued to mount the lonely stairs.
Finally reaching the balcony at the very top, I turned to survey the whole mad spectacle flowing beneath me. The perspective was disorienting: though I’d only climbed a few flights of stairs, looking down it seemed more like the view from an airplane window. All creatures were minuscule in their eager dance; all sounds had faded and combined into a single omnipresent hymn. All sounds that is, except for the rapid burst of knocking on the door behind me.
It wasn’t like the other doors. It’s metallic composition seemed in perpetual motion, rippling and glistening like a pool of oil. Three ponderous iron bars were bolted across the frame to prevent it opening outward, each engraven with mystic runes beyond my comprehension. The knocking came again — rapid, urgent, a prisoner desperately calling for aid without wanting to alert the guards.
“Hello? Someone in there?”
A hissing sound like high-pressured steam bursting through its confinement. The bolts in the iron bars were beginning to slide outward. I rushed back to the balcony in search of my guide, but so far below he had merged seamlessly with the throng. Behind me a clanging sound had me jump — the first iron bar had dropped off to the ground.
“Can anyone hear me?”
But I was utterly alone. I took a half-dozen steps back toward the stairs, but at the clang of the second iron bar I indecisively spun back. And why not? What was the worst that could happen, now that I was already dead? That sentiment did not endure through the dropping of the third bar. The whole door shimmered like a mirage in the desert, then without motion or warning, it was gone.
Bile rose in my throat the instant I saw the creature. My legs buckled beneath me and I crashed hard to my knees, vomiting profusely upon the ground. It wasn’t food. Heaving again, my whole body convulsing from the swelling pressure, I released another dark torrent of blood, lumps of degraded flesh, and even what appeared to be entire rotting organs which laboriously wriggled up my throat and out my mouth. I’d almost forgotten my own death for awhile, but it immediately became clear that I had not escaped as far as I thought.
“Come in,” the creature commanded.
I was powerless to refuse. Crawling through my own sick, not daring to look up again, I passed through the open door. Seeing it once had been enough. The humanoid being was swollen to the size of a cow, bloated with gas which unevenly malformed its corpulent frame. Open sores covered its body, weeping blood and pus to stream down its nakedness so thickly that it almost seemed a garment. Gaping mortal wounds punctured its chest and belly in many places, allowing clear sight all the way through to its broken and uneven ribs. Somehow worst of all, the unblemished face of a young boy stared out from that mockery of human life.
“Are you alone?”
More alone than I’ve ever been. I nodded, still not looking up. The room itself was minimal in the extreme: a concrete prison cell with no comfort besides thin bamboo floor mat.
“Not anymore,” it said, hot fetid air blowing across my face with each word.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“The final prize. Come, sit with me. Be at ease.”
My body tensed so sharply that I thought I was about to vomit again. I remained on my knees.
“Why would anyone want to be —” I stopped myself, but the child simply laughed with a sound like wind-chimes.
“No-one would, but being at the top doesn’t mean the best. It simply means that I have the greatest capacity to do good or evil. I can create life, or end it. Does that sound like a power you’d want to have?”
I shook my head, finally daring another glance. The creature had leaned forward on its mat, its terribly perfect face mere inches from mine. The boy sighed and leaned back once more.
“Me neither, which is why I remain in this place. My influence is too great, and any good or evil I bring into existence is multiplied countless times. If I allow that to happen, then I will die with so many points that I am forced to be reborn within this same cursed form.”
“So you have the power to do anything, but instead you sit here and do nothing?”
“Not nothing. I wait to die. That’s the only way for me to reset to zero points and have another chance to begin again. Unless of course…” the child’s face was drawing closer. The stench was too foul to breathe through my nose, but even having the air enter my mouth was enough to taste its rot.
“You invited me in to kill you then.” I said it as matter-of-factly as I could, not wishing to cause offense.
“You aren’t the first,” he said, gesturing at the wounds which scoured its body. “But through revulsion or weakness or cowardice, each have failed so far. Will you be the one to show me mercy?”
The thought of even getting close enough to harm the creature almost had me retching again. “I still don’t understand though,” I said, buying time. “If you’re the supreme power here, why can’t you save yourself?”
“The supreme power?” Laughter like the wind, so sweet and so sad. “Death is the supreme power, and I am his servant like any other. Don’t think I have not tried to take my own life before. The act carries such significance that I simply find myself reborn in this same body. Here, you will need this.”
A trembling hand reached out to me, its obese fingers fused at the joints. I recoiled by reflex, but I felt such pity for the creature that I fought against my instincts to accept the black dagger from his grasp.
“How do I end you?”
“Through the eye,” he begged.
“Are you sure?”
Such a dazzling smile from such a loathsome creature. I can’t imagine how much he must have suffered, and I’m sure I would have asked the same in his place. The cool dark metal felt righteous in my hand as I steeled myself for the killing blow. Some nagging doubt lingered in the back of my head, but I was so mesmerized by my disgust and sympathy that I could think of no other course.
“Won’t you at least close your eyes?” I asked.
His smile widened — unnaturally so for the child’s face. “I’ve been looking forward to this moment for as long as I can remember. I’m not going to miss a moment.”
Worried that any hesitation would steal my resolve, I took the dagger in both hands and plunged it deep. The eye did not close even as the blade slipped through it. It cut so easily that I felt no resistance until the very hilt was embedded in the boy’s face. The smile faltered for the briefest instant before returning, then grimacing again as though fluctuating between agony and ecstasy. The massive body trembled, but I didn’t relinquish my grip until its last spasm overbalanced the monstrosity. I scrambled to get out of the way as it toppled face-first toward me, slamming against the ground and further pounding the dagger within its skull.
Crowds parted around me as I returned down the staircase. Claws and talons pointed at me with undisguised fascination. Whispers and murmurs from the multifarious assembly swelled and faded like the ocean waves.
“I think I’d like to come back as a cat,” I told the koala when I found him again. He was easy enough to locate, standing out in the open, seemingly paralyzed by shock. “Cats seem to have things figured out.”
“Jason! Mixy? Anyone!” the koala shouted in a hoarse, strained voice from the corner of his mouth, not taking his eyes off me for a moment.
“What is it? Did I do something wrong?”
An owl landed nearby, its head cocking from side-to-side to get a better look at me.
“Hey Mixy —” the koala said, still without turning. “How many points do you get for killing God? You have a number for that somewhere?”
I swallowed hard, but I couldn’t get rid of the dry lump in my throat.
“You’re sure I didn’t lose points?”
He stared dumbly at his clipboard. “Considering what he would have done if you hadn’t, yeah. Says ‘Act of mercy’ on here. You’re way in the positive, my man.”
“I’m not going to become that… thing, am I?”
“Not yet. You came here with 478, so that’s what you’re going back with. But shit man, you’ve got so many now that —”
“Unless I can spend them all next life, right?”
“Unless I bring so much evil into the world that I break even. That’s what you’re saying, right?”
The koala looked helplessly to the owl who fluffed its wings in something resembling a shrug.
“Better do human again then,” I said. “I don’t care what I have to do. I’m not going live as that monster.”
“You’re not serious, are you?” the koala whispered. “Do you have any idea what you’d have to do to —”
“I killed God, didn’t I? Who knows what I’m capable of?”
Now that I’m back alive, I suppose I’m going to find out.