The trek got still harder. Not only were the steps getting steeper; the rate at which they grew steeper was increasing. After a while, Jason wasn't moving horizontally so much as vertically, using his stump and his hand (still wrapped around the Black Scythe's snath) to heave himself up each step. It occurred to him that the whole staircase, seen in profile, probably looked more like an exponential curve than a line. If he remembered correctly from those ancient days when he'd still attended school, this meant that the inclination was asymptotically approaching that of a vertical line. He wondered what he'd do once the steps got too tall to climb. Exhaustion wore on him; he had to stop several times to rest. He sang a little song to keep his spirits up:

I make the plans that make the whole world sting.
I make the plans of Death and gross suffering.
I make the plans that make the young girls die.
I make the plans, I make the plans.

Just as Jason was thinking how nice it would be if there were no further landings between himself and his goal, he caught sight of a third. <I can only hope there's finitely many of them.> he thought despairingly. He tried to think of every person who might conceivably show up now to talk him out of his quest, and had built up quite a list by the time he reached the landing. Yet Jason hadn't in the least anticipated who the new man was: Simon Baria, and not as a skeleton but in the flesh. He was as naked as the others; the cape and shoulder-pads of Death were gone.

Jason's jaw dropped. "Simon? What are you doing here?"

"I think you know the answer to that." said Simon.

Jason shuddered. It wasn't the words that frightened him; it was the voice. Simon's voice had deepened even more than Curtis's. Looking closely, Jason saw that Simon was not a castrato.

"So…" Jason said slowly, in awe, "you had us all fooled for so long."

Simon shook his head. "I really was a eunuch; I'm just not one any more. When Death compressed itself into that scythe, Life made a new body for me. The design was its, not mine."

"Oh." said Jason. "I see. But… well, I can only guess you're here to stop me." Simon nodded. "What the hell? I thought Life's idea of paradise was your worst nightmare."

"I thought it was. I've gained some more perspective since then."

"You mean participated in that debauchery?" said Jason, gesturing into the sunny blue void with his stump.

"Actually, no. I'm even less of a party animal than you. Unlike Curtis, I remain a virgin."

"You're naked!" Jason protested.

"Did you suppose Life provided me with clothes?" said Simon.

"Then you can use my jacket as a loincloth." A curious expression passed over Simon's face, and Jason said "I can read that. Don't lie: it's no accident you're naked."

"You're right, it isn't." Simon admitted. "But I'm not nude for sexual reasons."

"Then why are you?"

"Because hiding one's flesh is an illegitimate reason to wear clothes. Clothing is denial and blatant censorship of objective truth. Why should the human body need to be hidden? What's wrong with it?"

"It's obscene."

"But what is 'obscene' but a dysphemism for 'natural'?"

"What's 'natural' but a euphemism for 'obscene'?"

"That which is alive, supportive of life, or characteristic of life."

"Like death?" said Jason. He interrupted Simon's reply. "Enough politics. This is endlessly trivial! Just tell me why you think it's in my best interests to not do what I'm about to do. That's what you're here to say, isn't it?"

"Fair enough. Jason, have you thought very much about Life's vision for the multiverse?"

"Eternal change, you mean?"


"Enough to motivate me to destroy Life."

"You haven't thought through it carefully enough. I didn't, until just recently. Consider this: the multiverse will assume an entirely random state each moment. There will be no limits on what this state can be, aside from how its own characteristics won't be able to override the eternal change. Hence, literally, anything will be possible."

Jason nodded. "And thus, nothing will be coherent."

"Except sometimes. The change will be as infinite in duration as in scope; it will go on forever. And given infinite chances, all theoretically possible events—even those with probability zero—will occur infinitely many times. Since all events will be theoretically possible, everything will happen."

"So, every conceivable state will come up infinitely many times?"

"Yes. Moreover, every conceivable sequence of events will occur infinitely many times. Such sequences of events include, for instance, the entire history of the world up to this point."

"Everything… everything could happen all over again?"

"Everything will happen all over again, down to the last detail. So will every variation, from the trivial to the incomparable."

Jason gasped. "That means… innumerable eons ago, Life might have already won."

"That's right. But there's no guarantee of that, so I'm fighting for Life now. Please, Jason, think of this: absolutely anything you wish to happen will happen—if you abandon the scythe."

"But what happened to your own wish for everlasting peace?" said Jason.

"There will be infinitely many arbitrarily long periods of peace."

"Well… yes, I guess. But that's not the same as a single continuous period of infinite length. At any given moment of peace, one could never be sure of what would happen next."

"That's true." said Simon, unperturbed.

"So you've abandoned your old goal, haven't you?"

"No, I've merely chosen a better method, and broadened my scope."

"To what? What do you really want, Simon?"

"What everyone wants. Why please only a few creatures when we could please them all?"

"So you… but…" Jason shook his head in disgust. "I think I understand your argument. What's—what I find quite disturbing is that it's exactly the opposite of what you were saying just a few weeks ago. Wasn't your goal not to satisfy wants, but to nullify them? Didn't you think of desire as suffering? I didn't respond favorably at the time, I know—but now, I'm beginning to have a new perspective on the matter."

"I'll be frank. I was a fool. I was selfish." Simon sounded perfectly earnest. "I was estranged from life as well as from Life. I was more closely allied to rocks and rivers than living things. I've since realized which side is to be preferred."

Jason swore and cried out "What happened? You're not capricious! You're the least capricious person in the multiverse—or at least, you were. The truth, Simon, is that you haven't switched sides of your own accord—Life brainwashed you. It isn't hard for me to believe that if Life can now practically shape the multiverse to its will, it can outright convert humans to its side. I doubt that all those reasons you gave are what caused your change of allegiance; rather, the change was forced, and you rationalized it." His face fell. "Which means… it isn't even your fault that you're saying these things to me. Oh, gosh, Simon, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." He sighed. "I can only hope that once I've destroyed Life, at least a few of the changes it wrought will be reversed."

"I'm not going to attempt to convince you of the truth of these matters." said Simon. "I don't expect to be able to unseat such a conviction."

"Well, then, riddle me this: is there anyone in the multiverse—anyone other than myself, who's under the protection of the Black Scythe—who opposes Life?"


"So they've all just changed their minds, all these billions of Death supporters?"

"We all saw the light—all except you. The scythe blinds you. Throw it away, and everything will become clear."

"I'd rather die."

"Then what is your goal, Jason? Why do you want to destroy the gods, and why won't you accept eternal change, since it will eventually bring about whatever you desire?"

"My goal is to save sapience from obliteration. Some people have pleasure as their highest god; some so worship happiness; others possessions, or stability, or peace, or a literal deity, or their own family, or life. I worship the human brain. No, really, it's not that glob of wrinkled pink flesh that's valuable; it's the strange loop it engenders, the abstract entity capable of introspection, of synthesizing ideas from an unthinking environment and constructing complex ideas from simple ones. There might be other things in the multiverse that are sapient insofar as they can talk intelligibly—like dragons, and graylings, and the gods. But none of these intelligences have the full generality of the human's; all are the unquestioning servants of some particular principle, or even of some state of mind. How do I know? Because of all the great discoveries and inventions in history, all were the product of our race. In short, I'm a human supremacist.

"It's not that I believe that clothed apes are somehow uniquely capable of sapience. It's merely that the human mind is, so far, the only mind that has come into being through natural selection: the united forge of life and death, the only conceivable origin of complexity. As such, it's the only one that has adapted to be fully general. Contrastingly, the gods, Ymir-like, were born of the friction between sapience and the unthinking multiverse, and the graylings and so on are their creations. Now, possibly, as Leela suggested, there were real sapient creatures in the multiverse long before we evolved into being. Possibly also Hydrogen was sapient, since it came about by an evolutionary process, one made possible by Life's and Death's existence, no less. But those are gone. The only true rational thought left is our own."

"You haven't even fully answered my first question." said Simon. "Why is 'fully general' sapience valuable?"

"Because… well… okay, I don't really know what to value any more than anybody else does. I don't know the meaning of life. Yet it seems to me that of everything in the world, general sapience is unique in that it has a property of advancement. Even if life can increase in complexity all on its own through evolution, it's limited. Compare the different creatures that have evolved over billions of years to everything we've done in less than a million. Life is ultimately limited: it can't yield organisms that can launch themselves into space, for example, and it can arrive at technically sophisticated designs only by trial and error, which is why its sophistication has long had a ceiling. We, on the other hand, are capable of deliberately working with ideas, for their own sake. We can actually understand and take advantage of the subtler details of our environment. Life has stagnated; today's organisms on my home verse, Earth, aren't significantly more complex than those that roamed the planet a few mass extinctions ago.

"As things stand now, only humanity can really increase in complexity. Why do I value complexity? It's hard to say. All I know is that of pleasure, peace, and ideas, I prefer the latter. There's no mystery to eternal change or eternal nothingness. They're dead ends. With complexity, perhaps—I mean, I really don't know, but at least there's a chance—that there's some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. If not, I suppose we can fall back on change or nothingness. But first, sapience deserves a chance, before any other state of affairs is allowed to occur for an infinite amount of time."

"Your conviction is on such uncertain footing," said Simon, "and yet you're willing to do what everyone in the multiverse wishes you wouldn't, just for its sake? You're being profoundly selfish."

"I know. Such is the way of our species, Simon: we're selfish. We care for non-humans only as long as they're useful to us; we lay waste to irreplaceable habitats, and breed vast populations of animals in blatantly cruel conditions, merely for our own convenience. Recently, some of us have come to think of this behavior as shameful, or something. We shouldn't! It's only appropriate that we, the thinkers, should rule despotically over the unthinking world."

"You speak as if you were the only human left alive!"

"On the contrary, I fight to free the living of the god who's enslaved them. You're human, too, Simon, even if Life has brainwashed you. Are you deaf to my appeal? I'd extend my hand," (he glanced at it), "only I'm afraid to unclench my fist. This scythe is a heavy burden! Join me; help me carry it. With our combined strength, we can destroy Life and restore order to the multiverse."

"I'll never join you!" said Simon, horrified. "What kind of madman are you, to defy the consensus of all the billions you supposedly fight for?"

"I just don't trust the judgment of humans corrupted by the gods."

"There are other means of corruption." said Simon. "Good luck." He disappeared.

Jason shrugged.

I won't dwell further on the thoughts that went through Jason's head as he scaled that red-carpeted mountain. Let it only be said that they were exceptionally morbid, and Jason wouldn't have been able to tolerate them for long if he hadn't already been long acclimated to despair.

So steep was the staircase now that Jason only discovered the next landing when he climbed onto it. Already, the motes were congregating. They were now taking the shape of three separate people.

At once, Jason anticipated who they were. "Don't you dare!" he snarled, raising the Black Scythe.

With that, the golden specks scattered, leaving no one behind. Jason allowed himself a short sigh of relief and went on.