On the backstage of Earth most real things are represented by cardboard cutouts.
That’s why, when the girl’s life flashes before her eyes, she can see it in one convenient bundle of life rather than as a holographic memory array. Her life flashes past her eyes as a chunk of set detritus and it lands with a thump. The smell of fresh paint on it reminds her that she hasn’t lived that long.
“Ye-aa!” screams the girl.
Her name is Ink Catherly. Short for Incriminatory Evidence, she’ll tell you, and maybe that’s the truth. She’ll justify it by explaining just how wrong the universe had to go before her existence was even possible; “and it’s not just possible, but transparently necessary,” she’ll often add.
That’s not far wrong.
Right now, Ink Catherly is seeking Hell and exploring all the worlds on the way. She’s given her reasons at other times and in other places, but in the end they boil down to a restless dissatisfaction with everyplace else.
For example, with this place. This “backstage of the Earth.” It’s not so great. It has gorgosauruses. They are talking gorgosauruses, talking self-centered gorgosauruses, self-righteous dinosaurs quite arrogant about appointing and dispensing with the things of the Earth.
They have their good points but they are very dangerous and very certain. People have died, already, today, because one chased Ink Catherly too fast.
Now it seizes Ink’s arm in its teeth and her leg in its hand and tears Ink Catherly apart.
From Ink’s Journal
Floor 93-HH: I had a vision of things like great stick-legged men and women, laughing in the darkness. They danced. They reveled. They whispered secrets to one another that, I think, justified the world. Then as the vision began to fade they grew more desperate. They could feel me forgetting them. They knew they were growing fuzzy, distant, and dim. They hurt my mind with their panic and I think one kicked my spleen.
The stick-legged folk flicker in and out like candles, now. When I think of them they are a fading flame. They are haggard, now. They are gray. They are cold. Their life soon ends.
And Ink falls.
She lays there on the ground like a broken doll.
But she is whole. The flesh of her arm is clean, whole, and new, with shreds of dead skin scattered atop it.
And she is breathing.
She remembers the gorgosaurus tearing off her arm and shoulder. It is as if they were the outer layer of a puff pastry, flimsy, crisp, and dead. The creature is spitting out the dried and withered skin.
The adrenaline pumping through her makes Ink breathe in short, sharp gasps.
“That was a lacertilian trick,” says the gorgosaurus. It scrubs its tongue with its arm. “I am inclined to a certain admiration.”
Ink’s breath whines in and out.
“But how did you do it, little thing?”
It leans down. It stares at her. It reaches for her leg. Ink’s breathing accelerates in renewed panic. Then the creature backs away.
“People have died for you today,” it says.
Calm comes slowly.
“I think,” says Ink Catherly, slowly and carefully, “that I do not like dinosaurs. Here are my reasons.
“1. Dinosaurs are very large and scary.
“2. Dinosaurs have sharp teeth.
“3. Dinosaurs totally flip out and try to eat people.
“4. Dinosaurs make me uncomfortable about how I process the world.
“5. Dinosaurs profess benevolence but spend all their time blaming other people.”
The gorgosaurus looks down at her.
“Pfeh,” it says, dismissively.
Then it turns away. It stomps off into the Tokyo set, barely missing Tokyo Tower. Then Ink is alone.
“Are you here?” Ink asks.
There is silence.
“There’s a thing,” she says. “It said, ‘such pain as you know is at my sufferance, and of my possession.’ That thing. Are you there?”
There is silence.
“Because I don’t have a very good explanation for what just happened, otherwise.”
There is more silence.
Then a hole opens in the world. It is spinning and a turning and fire and it is blades and twisting and things not fitting together and it is an exhalation of the void.
“I am here,” it says.
“I’d thought about it as a bargain,” Ink says. “I’d thought you were a creature. Things happened, one by one, including talking to you. And things have consequences. I never stopped to ask myself: what does it say about the world, that something would claim my pain?”
“And what does it say?” asks the hole in the world.
“It means that it’s better if there are limits to my pain,” Ink says. “Such as, ‘not getting eaten by a gorgosaurus.'”
Ink has explored a place where people were eaten by gorgosauruses, as part of the complete Seattle Zoo experience. She thinks of them now. She has also watched as good people’s souls caught on fire. She has looked into the eyes of monsters. She has seen spirits broken by the fast-paced world of competitive spelling. Long before that, before her first steps in the tower up to Hell, she lost her family and her joy to entropy’s slow calm gentle cutting knives. And it is natural when she considers what her survival means for her to think upon these sorrows. But she does not do so now. Not aloud, at least. It is not her desire at this time to investigate whether everything or simply some things in the world are meant as kind.
“It means something good,” Ink says.
“But it also means,” Ink says, “that you are in the crux of a contradiction; for it is cold and terrible that you deny me Hell.”
The gap in space it spins in silence.
“I don’t deserve pain,” Ink says. “I’m unworthy of Hell. That’s what things like you keep saying. But that’s your meaning.”
She is huddling a little. This is an old hurt for her.
“It’s important,” Ink says, “that I make my own meanings.”
“As you will,” says the voice.
The hole is gone.
There is a gap in the darkness and Ink falls; not slowly but swiftly, through thin cold air, and with a terrible thunder in her ears.
Below her is the void.