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The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation

In the few seconds she had before the light of her world winked out forever, the dying human being said the following ten things.

“Oh God.

“It hurts.

“It hurts.

“Help me.

“Somebody please help me.

“Anybody.

“Holy Shit What Are You?”

“Oh, God.

“Please.

“Mommy.”

Her name was Robyn Howlett, and she was twenty-two years old.

Robyn was an alien creature to me, product of conditions wholly at odds with those that produced my kind. She spoke in a language I had never heard. Nevertheless, I understood everything she said. It is the nature of my kind to understand everything that is spoken in our presence, a necessary adaptation given that we are often summoned by creatures as alien to us as we are to them, creatures who often cannot expand their minds enough to even perceive us in any but the most primitive terms. Somebody has to take charge of the hard work of comprehension, and it might as well be us.

Most of the primitive beings my kind has encountered are limited to thinking of us as demons or nightmares, and have called us into whatever realm they inhabit out of some childish desire to bend some powerful being to their will. The sense that we don’t like being bound even more than they would eludes their understanding, and so they get what they deserve in the way of chastisement, as indeed was already the case of Dr. Emmanuel Eggard, the human being who had constructed the crude machine that opened the portal to my plane. Others are blameless and may be slaughtered, claimed as property, or even left alone, depending on our personal whim. Until Robyn made all of her ten statements, I had not made my final decision.

This is not quite the same thing as saying that I wasn’t judging her from the moment I first laid my thousand eyes on her.

Robyn was—as I saw through her life’s sum total of memories, which washed over me at the instant I shambled into her cramped three-dimensional space—blameless. Not perfect, not an angel, not a creature shining enough to escape the hell her cultural traditions had carved as an afterlife, but blameless, in the sense that her duties in Eggard’s place of power had been no more than menial. She hadn’t understood the principles behind his device. She’d needed some extra money for incidental expenses on campus, and had applied for a part-time clerical position posted on a community bulletin board, understanding only that her chief responsibilities would include getting his coffee, running his errands, and typing up his notes. Upon taking the job, she soon became aware that he also harbored vague ambitions of pressuring her into sex, a prospect that had not yet reached its crisis point, but might have if he hadn’t activated his machine today. At that point, she would have decided whether to quit or file a complaint. The critical factor, in her view, was only that he was disgusting: an ironic judgment, given that she was now being confronted by something she found more repellent by far.

I also had access to Dr. Eggard’s memories, having begun my incursion into this realm at the portal that materialized within his chest cavity. Brilliant by the standards of his kind, though always shunned socially for his volatile personality and failures of personal hygiene, he had built what he imagined to be a workable matter-transmission device, seeking in his arrogance to reduce the higher planes to a shortcut across the vast distances of the universe he called home. He sought a path to the stars, but was not above terrorizing this other human he’d hired to help him. He’d found a certain thrill in ordering the little bubblehead around, in subtly condescending to what he considered a deeply inferior intelligence, and in commencing the manipulation that he believed would end with her agreeing to service him sexually, in order to avoid being blacklisted from further employment on campus. He indeed planned to celebrate her surrender by deliberately mispronouncing her surname as “Harlot.” That Robyn considered him physically disgusting was both known to him, and indeed the usual pattern with all his transactions of that sort. He planned to take pleasure in that—a motivation not unknown to my kind, in our fleeting interactions with his. We, too, enjoyed the revulsion we caused. The resonance was the source of what little empathy I had for him.

Eggard had not been prepared when the gateway opened just below his left lung, and I, a creature multiple times that portal’s volume, emerged, ripping asunder the insignificant obstruction that was his physical body, and flinging the pieces in as many directions as five-dimensional geometry permitted. He did not have time to scream, not on Earth, but would have time to do just that in the place his consciousness wound up: a place where the death normally afforded those whose flesh is reduced to droplets, will forever be denied. Sooner or later I would return and eat him. Creatures like him have always been quite the delicacy. And he would continue to be indefinitely, because even after being eaten, death would still be denied him, and I would be able to return to this meal as many times as I wanted. The beings of Eggard’s plane would likely find this easiest to understand as, not devouring, but chewing. We never stopped chewing.

Robyn’s fate was still up to my discretion, and so I paid very close attention to what she did and what she said, those ten things I’ve already listed her as saying, as she lay dazed and bleeding in her debris field of scattered flesh and broken glass. I would not make my decision until she’d said nine of them.

(1.) Oh, God.

This was not directed at me, I understood, but at the deity posited by her primitive culture; a being of immense age and even more extreme whim whose millennia of deeds, as recorded by their holiest books and in the religious upbringing of her own experience, betrayed an equally immense immaturity. (The being in question is best summarized as the kind of all-powerful authority figure that could only be imagined by an idiot.) What kept me from taking offense at the rudeness inherent in calling to another source of power when I was coalescing right there, was the immediate understanding that she was not actually calling to that God for help. Indeed, she personally never believed in Him. Her words were no appeal, but an expression of her cognitive and emotional surfeit, an exclamation reflecting her struggle to process what her limited senses interpreted as the aftermath of an explosion. She only knew that there had been a flash of light, a wave of literally unearthly cold, a shower of wet viscera splattering her, a moment of flight, and an aftermath of searing pain as she hit the laboratory wall with bone-shattering force; and that when all that was over, she was left with cracked ribs, one forearm studded with shards of shattered glass, another with a compound fracture, numerous other wounds, and a concussion, all in a room which had been gleaming and white but which was now scarlet and beginning to throb with a literally unearthly light, as something she found incomprehensible continued to take form before her. Oh, God.

From her perspective this was a reasonable thing to say, and so I took no offense.

(2.) It hurts.

This made sense, given that catalogue of injuries. The pain was exquisite, and would only get worse, given that some of the debris pinning her had caught fire, and that she had only a few seconds before she began to cook. I perceived that she was still not addressing me or her hypothetical God or anyone else she could imagine capable of hearing her, but simply processing the input of her senses, the electrical signals racing through nerves that had never been meant to convey information of this severity and still leave room for much in the way of conscious thought. If I did decide to take her to my realm, I would of course be able to separate her from her physical limitations and provide her with a level of agony that her mere flesh could not sustain, for far longer than her current vessel of blood and bone had drawn breath—eons longer. But for now, she was enduring near-peak capacity, and the observation that it hurt was, again, a reasonable one.

I still took no offense.

(3.) It hurts.

This sounded like the same statement made a second time, but I understood that it was no mere repetition for emphasis. Her kind often interpreted trauma of this scale in stages, the initial observation that something caused pain mild in comparison to the measurement that arrived a second later, that the pain was getting worse with every second. I had known others of her species who had vocalized this progression as, It hurts, oh my god, it REALLY hurts, that really functioning as an expression as an upward curve in the estimate, as more sensory information was processed. In this realm, there were temporal limits in how far that progression could go before the body ceased functioning, but, again, if I decided to bring her to mine, that upward curve could be rendered infinite. I had not yet decided. But the repetition was, like everything else she’d said, wholly reasonable.

(4.) Help me.

She could not rise, she was too hurt to move, she was just beginning to focus past the pain to the inhuman form congealing out of the mist and darkness around her, and so it made sense to call for assistance. Had I sensed any direct connection between this plea for aid and her ineffectual God, I might have taken offense. But there was none. Had any human being been present to burst into the room, pull her from the wreckage, and rush her to some place where her wounds could be tended, she would have accepted that aid as more than sufficient. Of course, no human beings were available. Everybody in that building and within hundreds of paces of that building had fallen dead at the same moment I entered their plane, casualties of the violence I do any of these lesser realms upon entering it; they were all with Eggard, experiencing the first few minutes of the same eternal fate that awaited him. Robyn’s survival even in her current debilitated condition had been a function of being within the eye of the storm. But she had no way of knowing that. And so I judged this reasonable as well. I had to admit that in saying four things and still not causing any offense that would earn her an eternity of suffering, she was beating the odds.

(5.) Somebody please help me.

This was an amplification of her prior statement. I judged its address ambiguous, in that it still failed to specify a higher power, and might have still been some manifestation of faith in human intervention. I even approved of the please, as she had no business being arrogant about it.

(6.) Anybody.

By now, of course, I had almost completely taken form in the place once occupied by Dr. Eggard. My ten thousand barbed limbs probed what remained of the basement laboratory walls, ripping gouges in the cinderblock construction. My ten thousand eyes bored into hers, taking measurements far more extensive than she must have thought possible. My mouths must have looked like what they were, portals to some place far worse, even considering how bad here was, right now. And so, I understood, Anybody amounted to further amplification. It included not just those who might conceivably be within earshot or crawling about in what remained of the building, but any force in her world known to provide assistance at desperate moments. Her inadequate God was included in that subset, which I found irritating, but I found saving grace in the understanding that in her general call he did not outrank campus security, cops, Navy SEALs, the Army, the Air Force, her roommates, her estranged father, the step-brother she’d never gotten along with, the multiple fictional rescuers like Batman who existed only in the mythology of her species, and—buried so deeply in that compendium that she was not aware of it—myself, the thing looming over her whose plans appeared to be to rend her in the same way Dr. Eggard had been rended.

This is the instinctive thought, please don’t hurt me, please see me as something that deserves to live, that any trapped animal thinks when trapped by its natural (and, it follows, unnatural) predator. It is the reason why animals who live only by slaughter still sometimes hesitate or even back down when the cries of an imminent kill force an unwilling mental association with the helpless young of their own kind; why the occasional lioness has been known to refrain from ripping open the throat of an orphaned baby monkey or gazelle. So that part of the cry was directed directly at me. Please don’t hurt me. Please see me as something that deserves to live. It is the kind of sentiment that comes with an implied footnote. I’ll do anything. I would not penalize her for not being able to manage any more elegant expression.

(7.) Holy Shit What Are You?

With this, Robyn was still, against all odds, zeroing in on every possible step she needed to transact in order to placate me. Holy Shit was of course just a place-holder expression of her terror, both equivalent to and in many ways equivalent to her prior exclamation, God. It did, however, please me in that it was more appropriate than she ever could have known. My kind are not after all born of any sexually-based exchange of genetic material but are the literal refuse of the darker forces even higher than us, who devour worlds and then drop us as waste.

Shit we are, in a manner only a trifle more removed than her kind, who died only to be devoured by insects and worms, which fertilized the plants, which were eaten by animals, which were then eaten and not recognized for what they were, by the very descendants of those who became shit and furthered the whole messy process. Shit was, by our religion, the only meaning life had, the only god worth talking about. Shit is the only form of immortality that has ever existed, for any living thing, and the precise reason why denying permanent death to creatures like Dr. Eggard, and thus removing them from the cycle, was such a savage form of punishment.

Holy Shit was a sentiment I could therefore only approve of.

What Are You?, though screamed in revulsion and terror, was nevertheless an attempt to communicate, one I was bound to respect. And so I provided a full answer. I told her what I was. I told her where I came from. I told her what I had done to Dr. Eggard and what I would continue to do to him until the weak candles her kind knew as stars went out. I told her that as long as I was here, I was prepared to do the same to her and to everyone she had ever known and loved. I told her what this would feel like and how this would never end. I told her that none of this, except what happened to her, was negotiable. But in that one thing I was willing to negotiate, even if I would give her no time for indecisiveness. All she had to do was meet my terms.

(8.) Oh, God.

This was the same thing she had said before, but I understood that my revelations had shattered her mind, destroying the woman she’d been, shattering that doomed creature into as many pieces as the late Dr. Eggard’s physical form. Vocabulary can be the first thing to go. But there was a difference, detectable to me, between what she had said before and what she said now. Her prior appeals to God, whether articulated or innate, had referenced the hypothetical being of her upbringing, the one she knew from holy books and chapel ceilings, the bearded old man capable of instilling life with the touch of an index finger. She had not believed in Him except in that part of herself all her young cynicism had not been able to touch. Now, she was faced with something infinitely powerful that was about to destroy everything she had ever cared about, something that was present and unavoidable that would devour her in less than a heartbeat if she did not give up all loyalties she may have thought she had for her friends and her family and her species and her world, something which, I kindly pointed out, should be fairly easy to do, now that I had shown her just how little they all meant in the scheme of things.

It was in a sense the same deal she had been offered, on a much smaller scale, by Dr. Eggard. Give up your dignity, everything you value, and everything you want to be, in exchange for favor. The only difference was that he’d sought to threaten her. I offered sanctuary from threat.

All she had to do was love me forever.

And so Oh, God was her de facto acknowledgment of the differences in scale between us.

(9.) Please.

She screamed it while weeping, but I did not make the mistake of believing this to be anything but what it was, the eagerness of the drowning to seize any object that would prevent her from sinking.

She’d taken the deal.

This is, as I’ve said, where I delivered my verdict. I accepted her. Indeed, it’s fair to say that I loved her. My kind has always been capable of love. We feel it unashamedly and without restraint. We also feel it possessively, in much the same way that Dr. Eggard did, albeit without any mortal limitations. When we declare our love for a lesser being—and Robyn was, and is, a lesser being—we agree to make them part of ourselves, for all time: a subset of everything we are, retaining just enough of what they once were to retain perspective on everything that happens next. They exist protected within us, and though they’ll never again possess volition of any sort, they will also exist with the knowledge that they’re cherished by something much greater than themselves.

I drew close, so close by so many measurements that she choked from the sheer stench of me. I cradled her broken body in but a few of my many limbs. I communicated with my loving touch that I would always care for her. I opened a loving portal in my flesh, one that would grip her and transport her upward, through passages cramped and noisome, to the eternal womb I was even now preparing for her, the one that would always keep her warm and protected and fed, floating in the eternal darkness inside me.

Robyn’s last spoken word, ever, was not an appeal to the mere woman who carried her for nine months, who cared for her for many years after that, who even now and for a little while to come would still exist as a being apart from her daughter. No. It was an acknowledgment that she recognized the nature of the portal she was now being brought to, the privileged future it meant she would now have.

(10.) Mommy.

It’s so satisfying when one’s children show their appreciation.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The final installment in the series, Gustav Gloom And The Castle of Fear, came out in 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest projects are a mainstream thriller currently making the publishing rounds, and an audio collection he expects to announce early in 2019. He lives in Florida.