Life and Death

Dazed and disturbed, Jason and Curtis returned to the apartment. Jason didn't expect to see either Roland or Simon again for quite a while, but that night, Red spoke to him in his dreams:

"My Champion is lying in a bed in Eta Hospital, unconscious, recovering from his wounds. I'll awaken him at noon. I ask that you be present; you may not be fond of me, but I don't imagine you're on Death's side."

The following morning, Jason told Curtis of the visitation and suggested they accede to Life's request. Curtis agreed without reservation, and by noon, there they were in a tiny, bare white room, sitting in hard chairs beside the bedridden Roland. It was actually one of the few rooms in the hospital with a window; Jason didn't think this an accident.

At noon exactly, Roland's eyes fluttered open. He groaned. He had been grievously hurt: his face was covered with stitches, and one each of his arms and his legs were in a cast. The white flames on his hands were gone. He looked around and noticed the boys. "Have you been here for a long time?" he asked.

"Eight minutes, thirty-seven seconds." said Curtis, glancing at the big digital clock beside the bed. "Love said it would wake you up at noon."

"Love…" Roland sighed. "Mine is dead."

"Roland," said Jason carefully, "you do know that you fell in love with Beatrix again only because of a love potion, right?"

"Love potion?" said Roland incredulously. "No love potion could last so long."

"Mine do."

Jason and Curtis jumped. Turning to the source of the voice, Jason saw a perfect copy of the fox that he'd met in his dream last April. It walked up to the bed and sat down on its haunches on the side opposite the boys. "I wouldn't be a very good love-god if I couldn't rekindle an old flame, now would I?"

"You're god of a lot more than love." said Jason in an ominous tone.

"Not really." said the fox jovially. "I'm multifaceted merely as love itself is multifaceted."

"Is… is it true?" Roland asked Red.

"That a love potion was what set your heart on Bea? Oh, yes, most certainly. Have you forgotten how much you despised her?" Red asked laughingly.

"Hm. Well, I… yes, good point. Love certainly brings one to see things in a new light."

"Do you still want to be the avatar of a god who deliberately deceived you?" said Jason, looking at Red. Red did not make protest.

"Deceived me?" said Roland. "I'm afraid I don't follow. Deceived me how?"

"Well, Lust―"

"That's a vicious epithet, boy." the fox spoke up suddenly. "If we're to get along, you had better not call me that."

"Fair enough." said Jason, though he was reminded of what Simon had said about euphemism. "What I was saying is that Red poisoned you with love potion without telling you. You thought you were really in love, so you didn't realize you were being manipulated."

"But I was really in love." said Roland, staring at Jason.

"Do you suppose" said Red "that the passions I bring about are in some way inferior to those that arise of their own accord?"

"Er…" said Jason "well… natural love arises gradually, not suddenly. And it's not arbitrarily time-limited."

"Nonsense." said Red. "Sometimes love is fast; sometimes it is slow. Sometimes love lasts but a short while; sometimes it is permanent. It served my purposes best to make Roland fall head-over-heels for Beatrix suddenly and permanently, and so he did. There is nothing unnatural about my love potions."

"Whatever." Jason sighed. "I don't know what I'm talking about."

"You will in seven weeks!" said Red. That meant that for Jason, puberty would begin in early February. He frowned.

"But why do you want us here?" said Curtis.

"Good question!" said Red. "Rather than answering it directly, let me tell the three of you what you don't know about Beatrix. I believe you'll find her story both interesting and relevant.

"First, you should know that neither I, nor Peace, nor Courage, nor Death was responsible for letting the criminal Frank Moodbloom know where you were hiding in week 9. In fact, some time earlier, Beatrix had planted a tracking device in Roland's suit. You'd all seen her do it, but you completely forgot about it, because she'd been wearing the Antimnemonic. She sold your location to the underground intelligence network, her idea being she might thus aid any other party who wanted Roland dead or imprisoned.

"After Roland changed his suit, your trial in the High Court was dismissed, and all of you became immensely popular, Beatrix abandoned her murderous ambition. She continued to search for the Droydanian biologist Leela Aranin, without success." Jason wondered if Red knew the party had found Leela. "Finally, just after Gyeeds began sending troops to aid the Lausi government, I approached her. I told her of Life and Death, and the imminent final war; I suggested that, since she presumably did not want to fight on the side of Death, it was in her best interests to join me. She agreed, but you, Jason, would do well to remember that she was reluctant—very reluctant indeed! Small wonder, since she'd given her soul to science a long time ago; I daresay she hadn't really felt alive for at least a decade. And yet once I had described to her the mighty, malevolent force that threatens life itself, she rose to the occasion, and agreed to do whatever was necessary to save the world." Red paused. "That is what is known as nobility.

"Now, though I was pleased to have Beatrix as an ally, she would have been totally unsuitable as my Champion. For that, I would need someone truly dedicated to the cause of Life. The perfect choice, I had thought for some time, was Roland Moralheart." Roland smiled. "The difficulty was that the three of you—and the eunuch—had been working against me for some time. I doubted Roland would react very well when, for instance, he learned that I had created Thorm, the grayling Jason killed."

"Grayling?" said Jason.

"That's the name of the species." said Red. "I knew then that the way to reach Roland was through his heart. I created the love potion that Beatrix paid to have Roland poisoned with; then, all she had to do was to cross his path, as if by accident, and he fell for her on sight."

"That I did." said Roland wistfully.

"Those last few weeks of Beatrix's life were difficult for her." said Red. "After nearly every rendezvous, she would complain to me about 'dignity' and 'objectification' and so forth. I told her she'd feel infinitely better if she sampled some love potion herself, but she refused. I don't pretend to know why: I can see into a woman's heart, but not her head. Regardless, Beatrix did her duty, and once Roland had sufficiently bonded to her, I had her arrange for a wedding, with a selection of my most loyal Gyeedian servants as guests. Once Roland had married Beatrix, I knew, he would be ready to make an even greater commitment. Alas that Death chose to have a killing spree in the center of Gyeeds that very same day!"

"What?" said Roland. Jason told him about the animated statue that had attacked the financial district, his defeat of it, and the consequences. "Oh." said Roland. "That was surprisingly… heroic of you, Jason."

"Have you forgiven him, Roland?" Red asked, in a tone that left ambiguous what answer it wanted to hear.

Roland thought about that for a while, staring at Jason. Despite the stitches that covered his face, he looked remarkably vital—as if he had just been born. "No." he said.

"But I have." said Red, looking right at Jason.

There was a pause. "You made Roland Champion even though the wedding didn't finish?" said Curtis.

"Yes. I knew Roland would be very much receptive to my offer at that moment, his bride having just been killed. We had a long conversation—through telepathy, gods can converse with mortals far faster than mortals can converse with each other—and he agreed to be my Champion."

Curtis nodded. "Can you answer my first question now?"

"Yes, in fact." said the fox. "Boys, the great war is almost upon us. It's time for you to take a side. Either you're with us or you're against us. Join us. I don't ask that you love life, but I ask that, like Beatrix, you value it. I won't force you into puberty, if you wish to remain immature, but I expect you to help me in the war against Death."

"And if we refuse?" said Jason.

"I'd have to kill you." said Red. "Don't try to just teleport or fly away, either. I strike very quickly." it added, its eyes flashing.

"I guess that settles it, then." said Jason, sighing. "Curt?"

"I don't have a problem with it." said Curtis to Red.

"Okay, we're allies." said Jason.

"I thought I could bring you to reason." said Red, jumping onto the bed and over Roland. "Clasp, Curtis?" It extended a paw and Curtis clasped his hand around it briefly. "Shake, Jason?" it said in English.

"Where did you learn English, anyway?" said Jason, shaking the warm paw. He didn't lose his soul immediately.

"I know all natural tongues. What you actually ought to be impressed by is my knowledge of Common."

"What do you want us to do now?" Curtis asked.

"Now? Wait, is all. My Champion needs rest! He should be completely healed in…" It put a paw over Roland's heart. "three days. Being the Champion of Life has its benefits." it added, looking at Jason. "Well, unless any of you have something else to say, I'll be going now."

"Er, don't you want to shake Roland's hand?" said Jason.

"Does a lord shake his knight's hand?" Red replied, and disappeared in a puff of white flame.

There was a thoughtful silence.

"Now you can believe that Simon is evil," said Roland, looking at the two of them, "can't you?"

"Oh, yeah!" said Curtis.

"He is now." said Jason darkly. "How do you feel about me?"

"I… oh, Jason, I wish I'd never met you, never decided to verseport to that wasteland and adopt you instead of letting you die there. It was Love who ordered me to spare you—although I have no love for you! Killed Beatrix…"

Jason felt ill. "You and Red didn't treat her much better."

"Silence, urchin." Roland growled, and with that began to silently weep. "Beatrix dead… my God! Oh, no, Jason, it would be wrong to call you the real killer of Beatrix. I was wrong; I know now who was responsible for her death." His voice hardened. "I will avenge her."

Again, Jason did his best to avoid thinking about the slaying he'd committed. It appeared that in trying to weaken Life, and postpone the great war, he had significantly strengthened both gods and hastened the war's approach. His own two companions, Roland and Simon, the divine Champions! Had he only known, he would have killed them both a long time ago. But perhaps even that wouldn't have helped; perhaps the gods would simply have chosen two other people yesterday. On the other hand, when Jason considered the respective characters of Roland and Simon, and how, in particular, they had been diametrically opposed to each other from the start, it became difficult for him to imagine more appropriate Champions.

<Let's move on.> Jason said to himself. <There's no time for regrets. If I don't think up a trick or arrange for a miracle very soon, everything will be lost.>

"Curtis," said Jason the afternoon after they'd visited Roland in the hospital, "we need to see Leela."

"Why's that?"

"Well, for one thing, I'm at my wits' end, and Leela may have an idea of something we can do. Life has brought us into its confidence now, sort of. At the very least, Leela may be able to advise us whether we're better off helping Life or hurting it. I'd email her, but I'm afraid that other people in the multiverse may have discovered, like Hydrogen did, that brute-force decryption is a lot more effective than it should be. The second reason we should really talk to her is that she's in more danger than ever. I think she succeeded in hiding from the gods, but now, each god has a servant who knows exactly where she lives. I mean, I'd hope Simon wouldn't give his own mother away, but I wouldn't put it past Roland to let something horrible happen to her. We've got to help her."

Curtis looked worried. "Jay, we can't keep secrets from Life. It won't be happy if we talk to Leela without telling it."

"To hell with Life!" said Jason. "I must see Leela. She's our only hope."

"You can go alone, then." said Curtis quietly, and then quickly added "If that's okay with you."

"Er… yeah. Could you just teleport me to Koliporoth first? I should be able to get from Antarctica to Greenland myself."

On Earth, Jason flew from Pillow Knob to McMurdo Station under his own power; Antarctica's weather was barely tolerable now in late December, the beginning of summer. In McMurdo, he hitched a ride on a small plane (in the form of a fly) to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he waited a few extra hours for a grueling fifteen-hour flight to Toronto, Canada. It didn't take long for him to sorely regret making this journey himself; he wished he'd tried harder to get Curtis to bring him the whole way. From Toronto, he set off on the last and longest leg of the journey: a three-day flight, as an albatross, to Leela's home in Greenland, guided only by a GPS receiver he'd stolen. It seemed to take infinitely long; his only comfort was that because of his many days of wandering earlier, he was used to traveling hundreds of miles without seeing a soul, and because he'd picked up some food in Toronto, he didn't have to adopt a wild animal's diet. Actually, there was one other comfort: he knew that even though the gods were now, in theory, perfectly capable of locating Leela, she was alive and in the same place as always. The oracular coin told him so.

Eventually, Jason came to the right spot. The air was desperately cold, and the stars shone down in all their glory—the skies were always dark this far north in the winter. Jason became his well-insulated self and walked toward the hatch. Again it burst open, and he descended into the library to find Leela wide awake, sitting at a laptop computer on her desk.

"Jason!" Leela cried. "It's wonderful to see you. Did you come here alone?"

"You too." said Jason, walking to the desk. "Yes, I did. Have you heard of what's happened lately?"

"You mean Roland's and Simon's Championship? Oh, very much so. These are evil times. I'm not sure whether or not it was a good idea for you to kill Beatrix Shadewalker; I can only say that I doubt it will make much of a difference either way. Have you heard what Simon has been doing over the past few days?"

"No… he said he would organize the Death-army."

"Well, perhaps he is doing that—journalists aren't allowed in Droydania anymore, of course—but he's taken on another mission, as well: to kill every living scholar of the gods. He's been systematically hunting down everyone I know who's spent at least some time researching the nature of Life and Death. It's terrifying—even worse than the loss of life is the loss of minds. I was only able to learn so much, to piece together such a deep understanding of these monsters, by collaborating with my colleagues—by standing on the shoulders of giants. What am I to do now, Jason?" she asked, tears beginning to drip from her eyes. "I like to think I'm an able researcher, but now I'm nearly alone. How can just one scientist find a way to prevent the end of human history in just a few weeks?"

Jason felt as if Doom itself breathed down his neck. "Things have only gotten worse―" he said—"a thousand times worse!"

Leela nodded gravely. "And oh, Jason, I can imagine why Life made Roland spare you, but have no illusions about Life's aims! I've finally learned its vision for the world—a Gyeedian psychologist gave me the last crucial clue just before he met his end at my son's hands. Life wants change—infinite change. If the forces of Death are destroyed, it will abolish causality and stability entirely. Each moment—with each passing Planck time, I think—the entire multiverse will assume a completely random state, with no necessary relation to past states."

Jason's mouth hung open slightly. "Why… why on earth would anybody want that?"

"These aren't humans, Jason." said Leela. "These are gods—and the poor primates they have dehumanized." Then, with no prior warning, she screamed.

Jason whirled around. There by the ladder stood Simon Baria, the undead Champion of Death. The Argonaut nearly had a heart attack himself. "Step aside, Jason." said the frigid skeletal voice.

"Matricide, Simon?" said Leela, with a note of real mortal terror in her voice Jason had never heard before. "Matricide?"

"I'm free of the bonds of life now, Mom." said Simon. "The best I can do for you, and for Death, is to kill you."

Simon waved a hand, and Jason was thrown against a bookcase as if by a tornado. Leela began to cast a spell, but Simon was quicker. There was an explosion of dark purple sparks from his outstretched hand and a noise like a thunderclap, and Leela collapsed.

"You have one minute to live." Simon intoned. "And Jason, the choice remains open, but not for long." He disappeared.

Jason stumbled over and behind the desk. Leela's breathing was shallow and her eyes were half-lidded; Jason didn't doubt that Simon had told the truth.

"Take my hand." said Leela, sounding as if speaking had suddenly become very difficult for her. Jason grabbed her left hand. With her right, she pulled a handful of that green powder from a reagent-pouch and teleported the two of them to a dark bedroom, illuminated by light from streetlamps and other buildings streaming in through big windows. "Good, unoccupied." said Leela, and collapsed on the bed.

"What can I do?" Jason asked frantically.

"Nothing!" said Leela. "Death itself powered that spell, and I'm no divine avatar."

"No, Leela!" Jason cried. "Please don't die!"

"I don't want to die." said Leela simply, her voice already fading. "I could only hide so long." A rattling sigh shook through her. "My own son! I thought Simon had changed somehow when I saw him weeks ago, but he hid the nature of that change well."

"What—Leela, I—you've got to tell me; what should I do? What can I do?"

"I don't know the means," said Leela, now as quiet as a whisper, "but the end is straightforward: save humanity! Save knowledge! Save sapience! None of these things are safe so long as the gods exist. And they are the only things that matter, Jason. Everything else is either irredeemably static or dynamic beyond structure. Understanding is the only way."

"Oh, atheism, Leela," said Jason, "I don't think I've ever been given a greater task before. But I'll do what I can."

Leela nodded. "At this point, only your wits can save human wits as a whole. Don't hold back, make no compromises, and never forget the true plans of the gods." Jason strained to make out her words. "The time has come; the war is nigh. You've come far, so far that what remains is short by comparison. Yet the last leg of the journey may be the hardest."

"I'll make it!" Jason cried. "I'll do whatever it takes!"

"Excellent. Now, enough talk."

With a final burst of effort—just before she collapsed again, and died—Leela heaved herself into a sitting position, looked Jason straight in the eyes, and said in a perfectly audible volume:

"Finish the battle."