THERE ARE…ENEMIES, said Death, as Binky galloped through icy mountains.
“They’re all dead—”
OTHER ENEMIES. YOU MAY AS WELL KNOW THIS. DOWN IN THE DEEPEST KINGDOMS OF THE SEA, WHERE THERE IS NO LIGHT, THERE LIVES A TYPE OF CREATURE WITH NO BRAIN AND NO EYES AND NO MOUTH. IT DOES NOTHING BUT LIVE AND PUT FORTH PETALS OF PERFECT CRIMSON WHERE NONE ARE THERE TO SEE. IT IS NOTHING EXCEPT A TINY YES IN THE NIGHT. AND YET…AND YET…IT HAS ENEMIES THAT BEAR ON IT A VICIOUS, UNBENDING MALICE, WHO WISH NOT ONLY FOR ITS TINY LIFE TO BE OVER BUT ALSO THAT IT HAD NEVER EXISTED. ARE YOU WITH ME SO FAR?
“Well, yes, but—”
GOOD. NOW, IMAGINE WHAT THEY THINK OF HUMANITY.
Susan was shocked. She had never heard her grandfather speak in anything other than calm tones. Now there was a cutting edge in his words.
“What are they?” she said.
WE MUST HURRY. THERE IS NOT MUCH TIME.
“I thought you always had time. I mean…whatever it is you want to stop, you can go back in time and—”
“You’ve done it before…”
THIS TIME IT IS OTHERS WHO ARE DOING IT. AND THEY HAVE NO RIGHT.
THEY HAVE NO NAME. CALL THEM THE AUDITORS. THEY RUN THE UNIVERSE. THEY SEE TO IT THAT GRAVITY WORKS AND THE ATOMS SPIN, OR WHATEVER IT IS ATOMS DO. AND THEY HATE LIFE.
IT IS…IRREGULAR. IT WAS NEVER SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. THEY LIKE STONES, MOVING IN CURVES. AND THEY HATE HUMANS MOST OF ALL. Death sighed. IN MANY WAYS, THEY LACK A SENSE OF HUMOR.
“Why the Hog—”
IT IS THE THINGS YOU BELIEVE WHICH MAKE YOU HUMAN. GOOD THINGS AND BAD THINGS, IT’S ALL THE SAME.
IT GETS UNDER YOUR SKIN, LIFE, said Death, stepping forward. SPEAKING METAPHORICALLY, OF COURSE. IT’S A HABIT THAT’S HARD TO GIVE UP. ONE PUFF OF BREATH IS NEVER ENOUGH. YOU’LL FIND YOU WANT TO TAKE ANOTHER.
A dog started to slip on the snow and scrabbled desperately to save itself from the long, cold drop.
AND, YOU SEE, THE MORE YOU STRUGGLE FOR EVERY MOMENT, THE MORE ALIVE YOU STAY…WHICH IS WHERE I COME IN, AS A MATTER OF FACT.
The leading dog managed, for a moment, to become a gray cowled figure before being dragged back into shape.
FEAR, TOO, IS AN ANCHOR, said Death. ALL THOSE SENSES, WIDE OPEN TO EVERY FRAGMENT OF THE WORLD. THAT BEATING HEART. THAT RUSH OF BLOOD. CAN YOU NOT FEEL IT, DRAGGING YOU BACK?
Once again the Auditor managed to retain a shape for a few seconds, and managed to say: You cannot do this, there are rules!
YES. THERE ARE RULES. BUT YOU BROKE THEM. HOW DARE YOU? HOW DARE YOU?
The scythe blade was a thin blue outline in the gray light.
Death raised a thin finger to where his lips might have been, and suddenly looked thoughtful.
AND NOW THERE REMAINS ONLY ONE FINAL QUESTION, he said.
He raised his hands, and seemed to grow. Light flared in his eye sockets. When he spoke next, avalanches fell in the mountains.
HAVE YOU BEEN NAUGHTY…OR NICE?
HO. HO. HO.
I AM NOTHING IF NOT LITERAL-MINDED. TRICKERY WITH WORDS IS WHERE HUMANS LIVE.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
She tried to assemble her thoughts.
THERE IS A PLACE WHERE TWO GALAXIES HAVE BEEN COLLIDING FOR A MILLION YEARS, said Death, apropos of nothing. DON’T TRY TO TELL ME THAT’S RIGHT.
“Yes, but people don’t think about that,” said Susan. “Somewhere there was a bed…”
CORRECT. STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A…A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.
OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.
“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…
NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death, helping her up onto Binky.
“You winked at me! I thought you had a plan!”
INDEED. OH, YES. I PLANNED TO SEE WHAT YOU WOULD DO.
YOU ARE VERY RESOURCEFUL. AND OF COURSE YOU HAVE HAD AN EDUCATION.
I DID ADD THE SPARKLY STARS AND THE NOISE, THOUGH. I THOUGHT THEY WOULD BE APPROPRIATE.
“And if I hadn’t done anything?”
I DARESAY I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF SOMETHING. AT THE LAST MINUTE.
“That was the last minute!”
THERE IS ALWAYS TIME FOR ANOTHER LAST MINUTE.
“The children had to watch that!”
EDUCATIONAL. THE WORLD WILL TEACH THEM ABOUT MONSTERS SOON ENOUGH. LET THEM REMEMBER THERE’S ALWAYS THE POKER.
“But they saw he’s human—”
I THINK THEY HAD A VERY GOOD IDEA OF WHAT HE WAS.