CHAPTER 7

Anatta [Sanskrit]: The precept that no one has a permanent self. Other religions may believe in an “immortal soul,” but the Buddha rejected this idea. He contended we are all composite beings, made of flesh, thoughts, emotions, etc., and all these change over time. There is no component one can point to and say, “That is my unchanging core.”

In the next half hour, I wrote a BE ADVISED memo about Ifa-Vodun and put it in Pistachio’s dispatch queue for eventual delivery to Explorer Corps HQ. Explorers across the galaxy used such memos to warn each other of possible risks — not just physical threats but anything that might make the job more perverse. Soon, Explorers everywhere would be on the watch for Ifa-Vodun and similar activities. It wouldn’t take long for our corps to gather a dossier of useful information… and for teachers at the Academy to begin brainstorming what they ought to tell cadets.

Happy that I’d accomplished something useful on an otherwise bad day, I went to bed. Where I couldn’t sleep. So I lay on my back, staring up into blackness. A starship cabin with no lights on is as dark as the deepest cave.

The room began to feel close and airless, as if the ventilators had stopped working. I was wearing the light nightie I usually slept in, but after a while, I couldn’t stand the straitjacket feel of it against me. I fought my way out of the nightie’s clutch, almost tearing it in my haste; then I balled it up and threw it into the darkness. The cloth had been soaked with perspiration.

I lay back down, this time on top of the sheets and covers, sprawling wide to radiate the suffocating heat that seemed to pour off me. Burning up. Fever — I was dripping with fever. My ears began to ring. Something swam inside my head, but I didn’t know what it was.

It occurred to me my immune system had finally realized I’d been invaded by foreign organisms. This fever was the result. Perhaps I should call for a doctor — just whispering “Help!” would tell the ship’s computer to start emergency procedures. But I couldn’t bear the thought of being found naked and slick with sweat. Drenched. Sodden. Festina would see me, and Tut would see me, and Ubatu might smear me with pig’s blood…

The blackness was pierced by two spots of crimson. They shone from the tops of my feet — bright red spores glowing from where I’d been bitten.

Slowly, I sat up: propped damp pillows behind me so I could flop back against the bed’s headboard with my legs spread in front of me. Sweat trickled and rolled down my flesh. My weeping cheek was so runny, fluid streamed down my jawline and dripped off my chin onto my breasts. The splashes felt simmering hot.

In a while, I thought, I’ll be delirious. Things had already lost their sense of reality. I moved my feet, and the red dots moved too… like tiny spotlights, bright enough to show the outlines of my legs in the pitch-dark room. The sight was numbly mesmerizing. I moved my feet again, watching shadows shift across me. Reflections of the red dots glistened in the sweat on my thighs. I looked at the dots with befuddled wonderment, as if they were miraculous phenomena… but despite my growing dizziness, I knew why the dots had come.

No more strength in my limbs. Limp. Sinking into the bed. My eyes slumped shut, exhausted from the effort of staying open… but it seemed as if I could still see the two red dots glowing in an otherwise black universe.

“All right, Balrog,” I mumbled. “Talk to me.”

A vision. Bodyless, floating. Over an infinite row of Youn Suu’s, each inside some prison. Prisons shaped like eggs with barred windows, or glass-walled coffins, or golden castles with jewel-speckled towers but not a single door.

Many of the Youn Suu’s were dead. Some freshly dead and cooling. Some well into putrefaction. Some gone dry and withered. The ones in worst condition were children. Five-year-old Youn Suu’s who hadn’t looked both ways crossing the street… two-year-olds who’d put the wrong things in their mouths… eight-year-olds who didn’t notice the infected mosquito land on their arms.

Corpses now. Small, shriveled corpses. In some, the skin was intact enough to show the blemished cheek; in others, decay or some ravaging cause of death had erased all sign of disfigurement.

Every cadaver had a shining crimson dot in the middle of each foot.

So did the living Youn Suu’s. All nineteen years old. A few maimed or crippled from unknown accidents. A few showing signs of disease, from palsied tremors to leprous rot. Most, however, were intact — even healthy — inside their varied prisons.

Some clutched the steel bars that blocked their freedom; those girls howled obscenities to empty air. Some had their backs to the bars of their cage, sitting at food-heaped tables: eating, drinking, carousing. Some seemed engaged with invisible sex partners: lying, standing, kneeling.

Many were dancing. Elegant, frenzied, languid, lascivious. Masked for a festival or wearing full ballet garb, dressed down in rehearsal tights or even naked. Tightly contained steps, or wild leaps that caromed off the walls of their prisons.

Every dancing foot revealed a spot of crimson.

A million million possibilities. All the Youn Suu’s there could be. All imprisoned; all claimed by the spores.

The vision floated on, past ever-stranger versions of the same girl. With the left half of her face metal instead of flesh. Plastic instead of metal. Glass instead of plastic. The entire face unblemished… or gold-plated like Tut… or entirely missing, no muscles or bone, leaving the brain behind open and exposed.

Versions with fur or reptilian scales. Multicolored versions with Cashling spottles. Versions with insectlike mandibles or protruding snouts.

On and on the vision moved… till it reached not the end but the middle. The line of Youn Suu’s the vision had followed was a single spoke of a wheel that spread the breadth of a galaxy. More Youn Suu’s dotted the wheel’s other spokes: Youn Suu’s from different cycles of time, when all that had been would recur. Her string of lives would be relived, again and again as time repeated — each cycle a perfect rerun of all those before, unless, like the Buddha, she burned her way out from the ever-returning trap. But no Youn Suu had managed such a feat of liberation; all were still imprisoned, whether the cages were cramped stone cubicles or opulent pleasure palaces with the jail bars swathed in silk.

Except…

At the center of the wheel — the hub where the vision led — were two Youn Suu’s free of all confinement.

One lay unmoving on a sweat-soaked bed. She had no Balrog marks on her feet; no spores anywhere on her body. She wasn’t breathing: dead but cleansed. No Balrog. No prison.

The second Youn Suu was half-eaten: moss from the waist down, just like Kaisho, but with the left leg severed short at the knee and an abundance of blood-raked scratches wherever human flesh remained. This one was alive. Her eyes were open. She smiled, as if pleased with her cannibalized state. Delighted to be the Balrog’s banquet.

Were these the only alternatives? Or was there a final version of Youn Suu: one who’d escaped the cosmic wheel and so wasn’t here on display. A Youn Suu beyond the wheel’s grasp… beyond the endless repetitions… beyond the prisons, beyond the Balrog, beyond all chains and fetters.

Dead or alive, the only Youn Suu worth striving for.

A choice was made; and who knows what did the choosing? Certainly not a girl named Youn Suu. All possible versions of her were locked in prisons of the wheel… not standing outside, looking on, assessing options. There was no Youn Suu free to make a choice.

And yet, a choice was made.

I awoke shivering.

The bedclothes were clammy. The air smelled of vomit and urine. When I moved, I could feel crusty deposits flaking off from my chest and upper arms. The taste in my mouth was so vile I gagged; I might have thrown up again on the spot except there was nothing left in my stomach.

But I was alive.

The red dots had disappeared from my feet. Healed over. The cabin lay in total blackness. I thought of asking the room to turn on the lights, but decided I didn’t want to see the mess I’d made. Instead, I walked lumpenly to the washroom and rinsed my mouth ten or twenty times.

“Balrog?” I said in the darkness. “Did I make another choice? Was that what the dream was about?”

No answer. Never an answer.

I washed myself off in the shower, scrubbing with all my strength. Then I went back to the bed, gathered up the sheets, and washed them in the shower too until the smell of soap overcame the reek of bodily fluids. As for the bed itself, I offered my thanks to whoever decreed that navy mattresses should be one hundred percent waterproof — able to be cleaned with a damp cloth. I wiped the mattress down, then sat at my desk to give everything a chance to dry.

Through all this, I hadn’t turned on the lights. I didn’t need to. Despite the utter darkness, I could make my way without stumbling. I knew the exact position of every object in the room. If I concentrated, I knew the location of individual dust motes in the air. I didn’t sense them; I just knew. And this time, I didn’t tell the Balrog to take away its gift of inhuman perception. Keeping the room pitch-black was comforting after I’d almost died.

“I did almost die,” I said to the Balrog. “Right? And you let me decide… or did you? Was it just another trick to seduce me?”

The vision I’d had — an infinite wheel of Youn Suu lives from countless cycles of time — accorded exactly with the teachings I’d learned while growing up. Exactly. As if the Balrog plucked images from my mind and built a cosmic experience tailored to my expectations. And the decision I’d made (if I really did make a decision… and what had I decided?)… did the decision save my life? Or would the Balrog have kept me alive anyway? It controlled my body. It could suppress my deadly fever if it chose. The Balrog might have started the fever in the first place, so it could give me a taste of what I thought Ultimate Enlightenment would be like.

I couldn’t trust anything I’d just been through. Wasn’t this precisely the way nefarious cult leaders won converts? Wear down the target’s physical resistance with fatigue, starvation, and fever. Orchestrate experiences that brought on heightened emotional states. Wait for the target to embrace offered truths and fall deliriously in love with the guru himself… or in this case, the guru itself. An alien known for playing games with lesser creatures.

“I’m tired,” I told the Balrog. “If you’re going to keep toying with me, save it till tomorrow.”

Within minutes, I’d fallen asleep in the chair. No dreams. When I opened my eyes, it was morning.

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