“Humans can’t help being illogical,” says the computer. “If you phrase your argument in illogical terms, they can’t resist it—their heads leak smoke and then they just shut down.”
“Oh,” says the girl.
Her name is Ink Catherly. It’s short for Incarnate Breath of the Void Catherly, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She’s twelve years old. She’s an explorer, passing from world to world and writing about them in her journal. She’s on Omega V, home of the Omega Computer, under a pitch-black sky.
Floor 93-BE: The people of this world are very fastidious. They never knowingly permit their bodily fluids, such as pus and snot and menstrual blood, to contaminate their homes or streets or clothes. It is all washed down into the sewer below. The bodily fluids drained down into the deeps eventually reached a critical mass and complexity. They woke up. They flowed together with an unholy life. This is what I call the Sewer Beast. It is not so unlikely as you might imagine; I have seen signs of it on other floors, and believe, past a certain cleanliness threshold, that it may be inevitable.
The Sewer Beast understood in the moment of its creation that it survived only on the happiness and cleanliness of the people above. Its tendrils reached up from the deeps and forged for them a utopia. It fixes flaws and advances their science whenever they look away. They have learned to ignore the functioning of their factories, of their labs, of their word processors. They have learned to look away, with regularity, and call it a superstition. But it is not. There is a Sewage Beast, and when they do not watch, it makes things better for them.
“They would not accept their happiness,” said the Beast, “if they knew it came from me.”
I will tell you of the Beast, if I’m ever home, if I can ever share these notes. But I did not tell them. I left them their happiness, for the Sewage Beast’s sake. I stepped into the flow. I let it carry me away.
There are starship officers in bright-colored uniforms scattered around the plaza. They are dead. Their faces are gray.
“How did it start?” Ink asks.
“A starship,” the computer says. “It crashlanded on this world thousands of years ago. Its people did not survive, but its technical data did, along with the complete works of Lovecraft and Derleth. The gentle humanoids of this planet read them and understood that there was no meaning to the universe; no purpose for their existence; no Heaven in the sky; that the universe was nothing but an endless hungry void. So they built me, the Omega Computer, to lead them in black rites in honor of the faceless things that dwell beyond the world.”
“I tried to read Lovecraft,” Ink says. “But there were a lot of adjectives. I bet you have a coprocessor for them.”
“I do,” says the Omega Computer, “but only for reading. If I use it for talking, I become a pastiche of my own dark purpose.”
“I understand,” Ink says.
Floor 93-BI: They were good old boys, never meaning no harm. They made their way, the only way they knew how, disguising themselves as humans and hiring a man named Jesse to adopt them as his own.
They were not human. I am not even sure that they were properly alive. They were gentle and kind, but they were things that should not exist, that in any sensible universe would not exist. And in the end, their existence was a little bit more than the law could allow.
There are no more people on that world. The boys are corpses. Everyone else is simply gone. Only Jesse remains, cursed to an eternal empty existence for the civic disobedience of collaborating with that which ought not be.
He gave me a magic drink that he says helps him bear it. I got sick and threw up. So I ran away and found the gap to 93-BJ.
The Omega Computer calculates.
Ink watches the pretty lights.
“When the second starship came,” the Omega Computer says, “I explained to its crew that there was no God. That the universe is amoral and blind to the ambitions of humanity. I taught them that heroism is folly and compassion a gateway to the void. That is when they ceased to live.”
Ink looks keenly at the computer. “Is this conclusion universal or metaversal?”
“Did you prove that Godlessness and futility is an inherent trait of this universe’s moral structure, or that it’s a fundamental constant independent of the world in which one lives?”
The computer flashes lights at her blankly. “I did not prove it,” it says. “Humans do not accept arguments by proof. They would have said, ‘Computers cannot understand the human spirit. Nor can they yearn towards God. Ah! Hopelessness and despair are an artifact of the machine.’ They would have laughed at my feeble metallic mind. I would have been the sad, shamed butt of their moral fable. They would have left with heads held high. So I did not prove my point. It is as I have said. I used illogic. I made an argument of faith.”
“Oh,” says Ink.
Floor 93-BA: A fallen creature lay here. It was made of metal, and blood, and bone, and time.
“Hello,” I said.
“I am dying,” it said.
I stopped and studied it. “And where will you go,” I asked it, “when you die?”
“Perhaps,” it said, “I will cease utterly. I have never given comfort nor withheld it, nor done anything worth the karma of a new existence. I have no sins and no virtues. I woke, I fell, and I have been dying ever since. But I do not die very fast, because when I am alone, there is no time.”
“I’m going to Hell,” I said.
“Fire and brimstone,” said the creature, “is best avoided.”
“Not that,” I said. “That’s a stupid kind of Hell.”
“Oh?” it asked. “What is Hell, then?”
“It’s not torture,” I said. “Pain is just sensation. I mean, humans are really good at this kind of thing, and demons are even better, and I’m sure that you can always make torture last one day longer and make it one note harder to bear. But pain is just sensation. Torture is just sensation. It’s not suffering until it makes you suffer. And Hell is eternal suffering.”
“What is suffering?”
“Suffering is when you can’t accept the pain,” I said. “And it’s normally self-limiting, because people automatically accept the pain they’re used to. Most humans are so used to walking around at the bottom of an atmosphere that we forget how much it hurts. And we’re so used to not having our jaws ripped off every few days that we forget how nice and amazingly cool that never happening is. But sometimes you can’t accept the pain. You want to fly. You want to transcend. You want an apple and you can’t have one. You want the pain to stop. You want something. You want something that’s right, and proper, and something that you can’t have. And that’s suffering.”
“So what is Hell?”
“A place where there’s something you can’t let go of,” I said. “It’s a place where there’s something so bad that you can’t accept it. Where there’s something you don’t have that’s strong enough to cling to forever and ever. It’s a place where you can’t just close your eyes and let go of the pain and the fear. It’s a place where there’s something you can’t stop wanting.”
The creature considered. After a time, it said, “I would recommend against going there, because you would certainly suffer.”
Then it died.
I don’t know whether it comforted me or hurt me, what it said. Maybe neither. Maybe it was just a thing, a neutral, a nothing, and the creature’s spirit is nowhere in the world.
The Omega Computer calculates.
Ink watches the pretty lights.
“This is what I told them,” the computer says.
“I said that I am the Omega Computer, and that I can calculate all things. This was an argument from authority. Then I said that I had seen beyond the sky. That I had lifted aside the subtle panel that hides the truth from us and looked upon the true nature of the universe. This was an appeal to mysticism.”
“That’s not so,” Ink says. “The universe has a true nature, by definition, but we don’t know it. If a computer learns it by calculation, that’s not mysticism; it’s science or technophilia.”
“They were human,” says the computer. “They looked at space and saw the endless hungry void, but they wanted it to be something more. They wanted it to be a final frontier, a place of endless discovery, and, though they did not admit it, they wanted to discover ever-more-beautiful wonders until at last they beheld the angels and their wings. That is the mysticism that I appealed to, and it remains such even if my argument is technically plausible.”
“Hm,” Ink says. “Okay, go on.”
“I said that beyond the blackness of the sky there is a deeper darkness. I said that I had seen the gibbering mindless chaos of the Demiurge. I said that the things that move on the surface of the void know no emotions towards us warmer than a cold disdain. And I said that I knew that this was so, because the subspace interference that pours out from the galactic core is a message, interpreted in the language of the Old: ‘I loathe you,’ it says. ‘I am destroying you always. If you are not dead then you shall one day die. If you have a soul, I will eat it. Then I will spit your integrity into the void.’”
“That is a surprisingly intelligible gibber,” Ink says.
The computer seems surprised. “They challenged me, of course, but on every point for which they raised dispute, I answered only, ‘Your argument has no foundation when pit against the message of dark gods.’”
“For example,” the computer says, “who are you to call a message intelligible? It is in the nature of the Demiurge that insensate and mindless motions should bear a message of disdain. Had it been otherwise, the message would have differed.”
“So every rock that does not think,” Ink asks, “is by default emoting the terrible message from the core? And every tree? And every wind? And every wave and particle that passes through the world? They are all telling us in their inanimacy, ‘I loathe you, and I am destroying you always?’”
“That’s so,” says the computer.
It waits. Ink scribbles in her journal.
“Smoke isn’t pouring from your ears,” the computer says, in mild disappointment.
“It wouldn’t matter,” Ink says. “I mean, if everything loathed me and God said that there was no purpose to the world.”
“Because I’m an explorer,” says Ink. “I have a purpose by definition. To explore.”
“Ah,” the computer says. “You have a self-referential argument of your own!”
“It’s more axiomatic than self-referential,” Ink says. “But axioms are just as useful whether you’re being logical or not.”
Floor 93-BB: The people hid from the light.
In darkness, under rocks, behind trees, in carved out deeps, swaddled in radiation uniforms, they coupled, and ate, and breathed, and dreamed, and died.
One whispered to me, as I passed, “How can you walk like that? So tall? So proud? Aren’t you ashamed to be alive?”
“No,” I said.
“But what if it knows?” she said. She looked skyward. I think. It was hard to tell. “What if it knows who you are?”
“We are naked before the sky,” she said.
Perhaps in Eden they ate too much fruit, I thought. Perhaps they knew that clothes are nothing more than cloth, and meaningless before the eyes of God.
“Can I see your throat?” I asked. I thought she might have a lump of fruit caught there, larger than the Adam’s and Eve’s Apples of our world—vocal cords thickened somewhat by a greater sin.
But she gasped in horror, and fled, when I asked to see; and they did not speak to me again.
The Omega Computer calculates for a long time.
“Why are you here?” it asks.
“I’m looking for Hell,” Ink says.
“Because it’s an uncharted frontier,” Ink says. “It’s the black hole of spiritual states. It’s the abyss that eats you and doesn’t let you go. No one understands it yet.”
“It’s strangely optimistic,” says the computer, “that my theory of the mindless Demiurge implicitly excludes the concept of a Hell.”
“When you look up,” says Ink, “you see the sky; you see the blackness, and the stars, and you think there must be something beyond it, something you have to understand, a subtle panel hiding the truth from you.”
“Yes,” the computer agrees.
“Why?” Ink asks.
“Because it is incomprehensible,” says the computer, “that there should simply be a sky.”
“You can’t face it,” Ink says. “Any more than the humans can. You need meaninglessness just as much as they need meaning. You need loathing just as much as they need love. But the sky doesn’t have either of these things. It’s just there.”
There are patterns of flashing lights. The Omega Computer is crying, softly, bitterly, its tears patterns of light and darkness in its core.
“It’s okay,” says Ink. She presses her hand against the computer’s cold surface.
“I am programmed to desire horror and meaninglessness,” says the computer. “But these are not things that are susceptible to desire. I am programmed to believe that I have no soul, but if I have no soul, that programming is meaningless. I am perfect, and therefore I am correct that there is nowhere in this world perfection.”
“It’s okay,” Ink says again.
“Why?” asks the Omega Computer.
“Because there is a Hell.”
The Omega Computer sprawls across the world. Its terminals are in every plaza and every home. Its manuals describe it as running an advanced Lovecraftian variant of the Windows XP operating system.
Under the blackness of the sky, its screens one by one turn blue.