The Death of Death by Carl West

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Illustration by Sue Babcock

The silhouette of black dunes against a distant horizon. Columns of ash and fire rising high into the stratosphere to support a canopy of rolling black clouds. That’s what Alton Brannon saw as he surveyed the alien and blasted landscape of that distant moon. He heard volcanic thunder rumble far to the east, and wondered if it was madness that brought him to this desolate place.

Of course it was madness. It was the madness of a man left without recourse in the face of certain death. It was the kind of desperate insanity born of a last, improbable hope; a hope to which he clung with a relentless grip.

He wouldn’t let go of that hope until the last vapor of breath escaped his lungs.

Alton Brannon started to suspect that might happen sooner rather than later. He was forced to wear a respiration augment, a mouthpiece that converted carbon dioxide into oxygen via atomic rearrangement. The atmosphere on this world was technically breathable, but the strenuous aerobic exercise of traversing the charred landscape required more oxygen than the air could provide.

Occasionally, a strong wind would blow across his body, filling the vents of the respiration augment with grainy, cinder-like sand. He would then be forced to remove the augment and clear out the vents, a task that, though seemingly small, required every bit of energy he could muster in that low-oxygen environment. Without the augment, his nostrils were exposed to the stale, burnt odor of the air around him. Every breath seared the inside of his lungs. He always got the augment back on as quickly as possible.

The shemagh that he wore around his head helped to prevent that from happening too often. He wondered at the fact that even in this time of interstellar travel and atomic rearrangement, the ancient head covering called the shemagh was still a necessity for traveling across a desert on foot. He would have employed his hover bike for the task of getting him to his destination, but the sand had found its way into the engine and destroyed it after only minutes of use. He was forced to abandon it knowing that when he returned–if he returned–it would be swallowed up by the shifting dunes and lost forever. So here he was: a man who travelled light-years across the galaxy in four weeks but was still forced to trek across a desolate wilderness like the sojourners of old.

A sudden nearby eruption shook the ground beneath him, and in his feeble and ultimately futile attempt to remain standing, it seemed to him as if the very dunes themselves crawled across the ground. Black wave after black wave of dark sand crested and fell, and he was struck with the unsettling impression of standing on the surface of a fathomless obsidian sea.

The roar of the volcanic blast came many seconds later, indicating that the eruption was at least seventy kilometers away. He was safe enough from any pyroclastic flows or falling debris. But the gust of wind that accompanied the roar would have knocked him over if he hadn’t already fallen to the ground. It was the strongest wind he’d encountered on the moon yet; the strongest wind he’d encountered in his life. He reached out in vain to catch his shemagh as it was torn from his head and lost in the shadowy abyss of blowing sand.

With his chin pressed against his chest and his arm across his face, he attempted to stand and walk. He found that his legs would not respond, and looking down he noticed that a small dune had already formed around him, engulfing him up to his knees. He began to dig frantically, but the relentless blast of wind was submerging him faster than he could dig himself out.

He was going to drown in that desert that seemed like a sea.

Still clawing at the black sand around him, he was scarcely aware that the respiration augment was completely clogged on the side facing the incoming wind. He was too soon short of breath, and quickly realized what had happened after noticing the sand caked on the left side of his augment.

He tried to dig into the vent with his index finger, but the wind was so powerful that it packed the sand down as tight as concrete.

At least it seemed like concrete to a man who was on the verge of fainting from near suffocation.

He continued to dig, but exhausted from the effort, he eventually resigned himself to his fate: to be entombed in the sand like a pharaoh of Old Earth. He would have laughed at the irony had he the breath to do so. He had incurred such tremendous expense to come to this place with the hope of escaping his inevitable demise, only for him to die all the sooner.

But he didn’t die. The wind stopped just as the sand had reached his navel. Without the wind pummeling him, he was able to summon his last reserve of energy to extricate himself from the small dune around his waist. After wrestling his boots free from the sand, he collapsed and gazed at the canopy of black clouds that blanketed the sky.

Red lightning bolts would streak across the underbelly of the cloud layer, static discharges created by friction from dust and soot in the atmosphere. Sometimes he could hear a low rumble accompany the lighting, but generally it was too soft a sound, and was drowned out by the constant bellow of distant eruptions.

The clouds would sometimes break just enough that he could glimpse the soft blue luminance of the gas giant. The moon upon which he lay was a doomed world. Its orbital radius around the gas giant was continually shrinking, and the tidal forces of the massive planet wrought tectonic havoc on the tiny moon. Volcanic activity would only increase, and eventually, the moon would break apart and form a ring around the gas giant.

He was a dying man come to a dying world; a man come to wrench free his final, mad hope from the moon’s very reluctant grasp.

With the renewed energy that his short rest had given him, he found he was able to unclog the left vent of his respiration augment with a pocket knife. He swallowed a nutrient capsule and an energy pill, and pulled a straw from his front breast pocket and sipped cold water into his mouth. With his body restored and spirits lifted, he continued on his madman’s quest for eternal life.

At least, the implication had been eternal life. Alton Brannon had journeyed to the very fringe of human society to seek out the Pleiadian monks. They were an ancient death cult–or life cult, to hear them tell it–often sought out for their unconventional medicine. Alton had been stricken with what the old timers called the ‘tanglement, a form of cancer caused by particles in the body becoming entangled with particles outside the body on a quantum level. It was a relatively common aliment found in people who made frequent use of the Quantum Bridges, as Alton certainly had.

Modern medicinal science, with all its instant cures and cybernetic prosthetics and limb regrowth serums, could not find a cure for the ‘tanglement. The prognosis was always death. Slow, painful death.

So in desperation to save his life, and breaking taboo and several laws, Alton had found himself standing before a wizened Pleiadian monk.

“The ‘tanglment, eh? No one’s ever come to us for that. Folks usually just accept their fate. But not you, eh?” the old monk had said. His long white beard would wag as he spoke, reminding Alton of the wizards from Old Earth folklore. “We don’t have medicine to treat it. But there might be a way, if you’ve got the coin.”

“I’ve got more coin than the Imperial Bank,” Alton had replied.

“Ha! Do you now? Well, I suppose you must have some wealth to match that kind of confidence.” The old monk stroked his beard and tilted his head upwards as if deep in thought. “Perhaps the only way to escape death is to kill it.”

“Kill what? Death? How would I kill death?”

“Not possible with modern medicine or even our medicine. The only way to do it is to drink from the Fountain of Lights.”

Alton wondered if the monk was speaking in some kind of parable and the Fountain of Lights was just a metaphor. “Fountain of Lights?” Alton asked. “Is that an actual place, or some Zen meditation crap where I make peace with death and all that?”

“No, no. It’s a place as sure as I stand here. You drink from the Fountain and death dies. Or that’s what the legend says. Never been there myself. Too distant. It’s on some desolate hell-hole of a moon orbiting a gas giant in the Halcyon system. Sky’s as black as night from smoke clouds, they say. Air’s breathable, but it stinks.”

Alton was beginning to suspect this was all a waste of time, but then decided he really had nothing to lose in the attempt. He indulged the old monk further: “So this Fountain grants immortality to those who drink from it? That’s what the legend says?”

“The legend was passed down to us orally from generations so far in the past that the first emperors still sat enthroned on Old Earth. All that it claims is that you when drink from the Fountain, death dies. That could mean you live forever or who knows what else.” The old monk had been standing the entire time, and had grown visibly weary. He groped for the chair behind him to be sure that when he fell backwards something was there to catch him. He hit the chair so hard that Alton thought he had hurt himself. But the old monk wasn’t hurt at all. “You’ll excuse an old man his arthritis, I hope?”

“Of course.” Alton began to wonder if these monks weren’t just snake oil salesmen. Arthritis was easily cured by convention medicine.

“They call it the Fountain of Lights because–now this is according to the legend, mind you–it glows and flashes and pulses with all the colors of the rainbow. Could be apocryphal, I don’t know.”

“And you have the coordinates to this moon?”

“To the moon and the Fountain.” The monk reached to his left and pulled a dusty, ancient tome from a shelf filled with books. Alton had heard of page books in history classes as a child, but never thought he’d actually see one. The monk opened the book and retrieved a piece of paper from between the pages. “Here we are. We store the coordinates like this because it’s safer. We can’t let just anyone know how to find the Fountain, after all. Just upload these to your navcom.”

The old monk started to hand Alton the paper, but suddenly snatched his hand back to his person.

“What’s the matter?” Alton asked.

“Almost forgot about payment, didn’t we?” The old monk’s eyes glistened as he squinted at Alton. “We take credits, gold, silver, plutonium, trade goods, you name it. We’re not picky.” A wry smile crept across the old monk’s face. Snake oil salesman, without a doubt.

The payment was a trifling amount for a merchant as wealthy as Alton Brannon. The old monk’s eyes had grown wide with wonder at the gold ingots in Alton’s briefcase all the same.

Alton had known the risk of using the Quantum Bridges to jump across the galaxy. “One last trade,” he’d told his wife countless times. “Just one last trade and I’m done.” But one last trade was never enough. That inward compulsion, that obsession had exacted its high price at last. Even with all his wealth, it was a price Alton Brannon was unable to pay.

His wife had begged him not to go to that remote moon. He could have spent the last months of his life surrounded by the people who loved him, but if he had a chance to save himself and live, didn’t he owe it to himself–didn’t he owe it to his family–to try for that chance?

Up ahead, a precipice of white craggy rock rose gently out of the black dunes, forming a sharp edge that cut into the dark horizon. Alton consulted the ocular navigation implant he’d had installed into his retina, and it superimposed a bright green line on the ground ahead of him. He followed it over and across the dunes, and the white precipice seemed to rise more steeply as he approached it.

Eventually sand gave way to stone, and he was relieved at the sensation of his boots finding sure purchase on solid rock. The wind blew steadily and hard upon this precipice, blasting away any sand and eroding the rock beneath into jagged formations.

The green navigation line went up and over the precipice with an ease that eluded Alton. It was a difficult climb to the edge. The shadows of the sharp rocks created illusions of sure footing, and more than once he misstepped and was nearly cut to pieces on the toothed formations that rose from the crags. The wind buffeted and threatened to send him plummeting to impalement and death.

He felt a strange gladness at being beyond the point of turning back. There had been a nagging doubt, the voice of his wife echoing in his head, saying, “Turn back. You can always turn back, Alton. Come home.” But now that voice was silenced, for even his doubt knew that his only possible choice was to continue on his madman’s quest.

At last his hands found the rough edge of the precipice, and he was able to pull himself upward onto a sufficiently flat surface. The precipice did not wane away gradually, but ended suddenly as if cut away by some giant knife. He looked out across the scene before him, and saw beauty the likes of which could not be found among the works of man or even in the yawing expanse of nature’s cosmos.

A kaleidoscopic array of lights of every imaginable hue flicked and danced across a shallow sea whose opposing shores could not been seen. It was the Fountain of Lights, just as the old monk had said. He was too enchanted to feel guilt at doubting the monk, and stood for minutes or hours or days or eons or eternity gazing into the florescent glory of the Fountain. The green line terminated in a hollow circle directly on top of the water. The old monk’s coordinates had been totally precise.

Alton twice tapped the center of his forehead to deactivate the cybernetic navigation implant, and the green line ceased to adulterate the immaculate beauty of the vista before him. What should have been obvious from the start struck him suddenly as an epiphany: he’d have to find a way down the vertical slopes of the precipice to reach the Fountain of Lights.

He knelt and scanned the face of the cliff to find a way down, and to his surprise there seemed to be a natural stairway of outcropped stone jutting from the cliff face. It was only about three meters below him, and he was able to drop down onto it.

The lights from the Fountain were bright enough to cast dancing shadows around his feet, and more than once a misplaced step nearly sent him careening down the face of the cliff.

His descent eventually brought him into the water. Colors pulsed all around him, casting the entire scene in vibrant tones of every color his eyes could perceive. On a hunch, he retrieved the bioanalyzer from his pocket and ladled some water from the Fountain into it. As he suspected, the water was teeming with bioluminescent microbes of unclassified configurations.

The Fountain was an alien sea, an oasis of defiant life in a sterile black desert.

Alton removed the respiration augment and his senses were not assailed by burnt and noxious odors. Instead, sweet aromas more redolent than that of roses or cherry blossoms were carried on gentle breezes. The air was softer and thicker, and every breath was taken more easily than the last. His face was not struck by abrasive sand, but a cool wind caressed his cheeks to soothe him. The waters lapped at his ankles, leaving some of the glowing microbes trapped in the fabric of his pants.

All of these things served to assure him of the veracity of the legend. This was a sacred place secluded from man; holy waters established on the periphery of the universe. He was a holy man to have found it; a righteous pilgrim granted a reprieve from death for his piety.

These were strange thoughts for as pragmatic and sensible a merchant as Alton Brannon, but something in the air invaded his consciousness and lured him into a profound spiritual sentiment.

He knelt down in the water and cupped some of it into his hands. The lights swirled inside his palms as he sipped the water into his mouth.

He was struck with a sudden dizziness and struggled to maintain his kneeling position. The dizziness quickly subsided, and the pulsing colors in the water had grown brighter and more vibrant, illuminating to clouds above him. He realized that it was not that the lights themselves that had grown brighter, but that his eyesight had grown keener. The roar of surrounding eruptions was louder and deeper, the sweet smell of the air was richer. His body tingled with unfamiliar sensations of buoyant lightness.

Soon the colors of the Fountain of Lights began to stretch upward into the sky in a rainbow bridge of refracted beams. The clouds parted as the beams ascended, but the gas giant did not lay beyond them. Planets, moons, suns, and swirling galaxies were arrayed on a radiant cosmic tapestry, all flickering in resonance with the colors of the Fountain that were now illuminating everything in the universe.

All creation pulsed and writhed together in accord with the lights, and the constant bellows of the volcanic eruptions were a beating drum to which the stars and planets danced.

Time dissolved into eternity and proceeded from an unfounded past into an unguessed future. Eons came and went as stars were born from nebulous dust clouds and died in violent holocausts; gargantuan explosions which in turn birthed new stars. Empires rose and fell as the wheel of human civilization turned, each spoke on the wheel another epoch of repeated history.

A black hole began to consume the stars and galaxies, the empires and epochs, eternity and time. Alton Brannon felt his very sense of self pulled into the black maw which threatened to destroy him. His attempt to resist digestion by the monstrous singularity was quickly proven futile as he was pulled in.

All fear vanished as he beheld the unveiled truths hidden inside. All celestial bodies, all matter, all energies were touching at a single point too infinitesimally small to see. Everything eventually collapsed into this point, and Alton was surrounded by primordial darkness.

A leaf fell from an unseen maple tree, illuminated by a sourceless light. Its lush green decayed into autumnal brown, and a burning ember which had ignited on one side spread until the entire leaf was engulfed in flame. Only smoke remained, and it too was dispersed by a passing draft.

Alton was surprised to feel such unwarranted sadness at the leaf’s destruction, but in the midst of his sadness he saw a wisp of smoke return on a contrary wind. It condensed into a single droplet of water, and splashed on the invisible ground.

Out of the infinitely black ground sprang every kind of lush vegetation, green with life and health. Whole forests spread across worlds that broke away from the fathomless blackness as stars were born out of the broken fragments of the void. The new universe expanded and dispersed the omnipresent darkness with piercing rays of starlight.

The demarcating wall that had so sturdily distinguished Alton Brannon from everything that was not Alton Brannon began to crumble and fall. His sense of self at first withered, then expanded into a greater sense of cosmic unity that dissolved the ego into a disseminated collection of personalities and behaviors. All things were seen as absolute realities: matter became energy, energy became matter.

There was no self.

There was no death.

Alton felt himself pulled back into the skin-encapsulated entity he used to consider his body. The vision had ended. The Fountain of Lights returned to its typical luminosity and the dull roar of eruptions could barely be heard.

Sadness for the maple leaf was replaced by exultation: it was not destroyed. It had transcended.

Every instinct of self-preservation which tethered Alton to his finite, mortal existence had been severed. He saw, for the first time, that he was not an organism distinct from the universe, he was the universe. The universe was him.

This revelation brought him unease. He was not able to join the universe in its song, he could not dance with the stars and planets. He would have to transcend, transcend like the maple leaf transcended: obliterate that which shackled him to himself.

Alton Brannon waded into the depths of the water. He submerged himself, and let water flood into his lungs. Before the universe took him, he allowed himself one last reassurance:

This wasn’t death. Death was dead.


BIO: Carl West lives and writes in southern Indiana. When he’s not working, sleeping, or writing, he’s watching Star Trek on Netflix.