The Keys to the Kingdom
Simon upon damnable Simon! How tiresome it is to hear how he
is worshipped! I have read the so-called great treatises produced
by the simpleton powers of the other realms. How little they see!
How little they know! How incomplete their understanding!
Simon will return. Simon has a plan. Simon will be restored.
What laughable nonsense! It is a secret pleasure we feel in know-
ing the truth about Simon.
– from My Struggle with Simon
by Alexander Levinthal (1034a.s.)
Simon’s Rage had not yet died in Vilb and he felt it like a fire in his brain even as Levinthal’s seven colossi dragged Simon’s New Body, battered and burned, back to their master and imprisoned him in a dungeon buried deep beneath the Seven Towers of New Chicago. He lay there chained on his back and swooned with vertigo as feverish visions of battle poured through his head. He saw himself striding across the Greater Earth with the power of M in his hand, and he moved to free Simon, reunite with Martha, and let fall the swift justice of Simon’s righteous wrath upon the heads of his enemies. Simon’s New Body was his, and he raised a hand into the clouds and called down a writhing band of lightning and hurled it overhand at the tallest of Levinthal’s Seven Towers like one of the Great Gods from the Ancient books. Vilb watched the black ooze of the tallest The Keys to the Kingdom tower explode into fire, and the others towers collapsed into the black lake sending up a powerful surge that swamped Simon’s New Body; Vilb felt himself falling and then he was under the surface, but then rose up in a panic drenched in the lake’s foul pitch. He howled in pain as the defilement of the lake burned his skin.
The sound of his own screams woke Vilb from his fever dream of battle. He blinked hard and shivered. The fire had left him and Levinthal’s dungeon was cool and damp. Vilb lay bound by chains that wrapped around his chest and arms, legs and feet. He could move his head, though only slightly back and forth, and up to see Simon’s New Body immobilized. The walls and ceiling of the dungeon cavern looked as if they had been carved by giant hands digging hastily through soft mud. Though he lay there bound in Levinthal’s great black chain, his mind was still sharp and awake, and he considered what had happened since Eiger Vault and his decision to attack Levinthal. They had tried to warn him about Levinthal’s great power—especially RomHauer. But even so, Vilb thought, he would do it again. The only way forward was… forward. There was no going back, and so here he was, beaten but not defeated, not while he still controlled the remains, not while the memory of the power of M remained fresh and present in his mind. Even now Vilb could feel the power of M all about him—it was there for the taking—all he had to do was burst free and wreak havoc, but it was impossible. Was this what Qir had wanted? Prav? Simon? He had come so far, yet he still felt as if his entire pilgrimage had taken him from one dark cloud of ignorance to another. To dispel all darkness! To wipe out ignorance! To bring light and knowing to the Field! If he could, he would free all sentient beings from the yoke of the gods—then free the gods themselves! Simon’s Rage had burned him into a rarified state, blameless and pure. As Simon’s New Body, he felt beyond condemnation, beyond self-recrimination, beyond human wants and desires; he felt one with the power of M. But those feelings were quickly fading as his fever cooled.
For a moment more, Vilb fought his restraints, but the grip holding him only became stronger still as he struggled until finally he realized that he had truly lost control of Simon’s New Body and he knew he was Levinthal’s prisoner. A wave of bitter agony filled his chest as he knew he must endure the unendurable; there was nothing he could do but lay there and wait.
In the next moment he felt a weight press against him from above. He felt it hovering there above him, pressing lightly on his forehead, his nose, his chin and the tops of his toes. It hovered there for a moment like a giant might hold a fly between his thumb and forefinger, and then the weight began to press down slowly, incrementally. Vilb could not move his head and so it took the heaviest weight first. The sound of his skull fracturing and his jaw snapping sickened him; he remained awake and alert for the entire process. The stone slab pressed down on him until it was impossible to breathe. He could hear the air all around him begin to buzz and crackle, and it beat upon what was left of his eardrums with a pulsating thrum; he heard his ribs pop and snap within him and all the air went out of his body. He felt crushed and broken when, suddenly, the weight lifted and the presence above him seemed to vanish. Vilb’s eyes snapped open and he blinked hard in the dark. He could lift his broken head now, and he struggled to find something to focus on in the blackness. His jaw hung uselessly to the side, his teeth shattered in his mouth.
A wave of panic rose up in him and carried away whatever was left of his former resolve, but he did his best to suppress his rising fear and concentrated his mind on what he could sense and feel. He took shallow, ragged breaths, as well as he could manage, over and over until he managed to keep his panic at bay. He was broken, cold and powerless, but he would not surrender. He could lift his head and see the broken form of Simon’s New Body still chained, but now the chain seemed superfluous. Vilb fixed his eye on a distant light across the cavern; he could just make out the effervescent shimmer of emerald M-wave distortion, like distant holographs grouped together moving to and fro as they entered the cavern. At least one of the figures was waving its arms and shouting angrily at the others.
The figures were hard to make out except as ghosts, but the voices carried through the dungeon in the way sound often does in a cavernous space. Vilb thought he recognized the angry voice. Could it be her? Was she here? If so, then who else? Remove them now! the voice shouted. Deliver over to us what you promised! the shrill voice demanded. We paid! All that we had! She sounded apoplectic with anger.
Cassandra Coffin, he thought to himself. The floor pitched out from under him with vertigo and he swooned and felt sick. Vilb recognized the voice of the crazed high priestess of the Magisterium. He strained to hear more and found he could make out three voices, perhaps more, but their vibrations were muddled by the heavy, damp air of the cavern. He could sense that Cassandra was angry and she spoke loudly, but the other figures at first replied only in muffled tones.
There have been problems, I acknowledge that, my dear, said a second voice, clearly in response to Cassandra’s fit. He spoke loudly at first, almost shouting over the others, though the second voice grew quieter as the others quieted. Vilb recognized it as the voice of Levinthal. We all need him, that much I realize, but this development is… unexpected, Levinthal said. Then the voice fell away. Vilb heard the words he belongs to me and he is my boy, followed by a long silence, then murmurs, then dangerous game… and Cassandra’s angry voice arguing. Then he heard, I am as concerned as you are. Levinthal argued with Cassandra, that much Vilb could discern but complete understanding eluded him But then a third voice spoke up, again pressing Levinthal to make good on his promises. There was a quiet, monotone urgency in this newest voice.
M-stone, it said—over and over—M-stone, M-stone, M-stone, and other words he could not make out; but then we have paid dearly for this and I hope you know what you are doing reverberated clearly. Was the third voice… was it… Peter Coffin’s? And once again there were others as well, but they spoke quietly. Vilb let fall his cracked skull and redoubled his efforts to hear more, though his ears were ringing loudly and his entire body vibrated and throbbed. The voices in the distance finally fell silent, though he thought he felt as if he could feel them looking, studying him silently from somewhere in the distance. They were worried. Scared even, but not Levinthal. He was sure, that too Vilb could sense. At the same moment, a single voice was in his ear in an intimate and familiar it spoke earnestly and with an exuberance that caught Vilb off guard.
Welcome, my boy, welcome! Truly. I am pleased to have you hear. I’m afraid this process is going to be painful if we want to get you clean, eh my boy? We must cure the infection! Uproot the parasites! Free the body, free the mind! And our friends won’t wait, will they? They want what they want. Still, there’s no point in putting this off and time won’t wait! No, it runs faster by the moment, eh, old sport? The voice seemed to be coming from the green cloud, reemerging now in the space around him. It shimmered with specks of golden starlight in an emerald field. And we do want them all, indeed we do! That’s the only way to save you, my boy. I’ll get you out of this terrible prison they have you in. Just hold on, my boy, just hold on. You will be right as rain when we’re through, and you will have me to thank.
Extraction initiated, Levinthal’s voice said from a distance now, but just as quickly it was in Vilb’s ear again. And then on to a new heaven and a new earth! Perhaps, my boy, perhaps!
Vilb winced and sucked in a weak breath. Levinthal sounded giddy, as if he were about to burst with joy. Cellular surgery, my boy. There’s no way around the pain, I’m afraid. I am sorry. Just a few more seconds—300 trillion shards of glass ripping you apart at the cellular level! Fantastic! They said it couldn’t be done. But I’ve done it! Yes! I’ve done it. In that moment, a searing shock ran through Vilb’s body and exploded in his brain; he felt his brain boil and wondered if this were the end, and with the thought came a curious calm. Could Levinthal end it all for him? Vilb had long ago come to accept his fate as a nearly indestructible immortal. Then, with Simon’s New Body in his control and the power of M in his hand, he had dared to believe that perhaps he was indeed destined to become a god. Now, here, in Levinthal’s dungeon, the pain shooting through his brain and broken body suddenly wracked and ruined him.
Yet even in his suffering, Vilb beheld a vision of himself as Simon’s New Body, striding across the Greater Earth. For a moment, the memory kindled Simon’s Rage within him and he made one last desperate struggle against his restraints, but it was no use for Simon’s New Body was broken and the power of M went out of him utterly. As Levinthal pulverized Simon’s New Body, a bitter and dark despair descended upon Vilb until finally all went dark and silent in his mind, but the bitterness remained.
When he awoke, Vilb was still lying in the cavern, but now he felt small and alone among the massive ruins of Simon’s New Body. Vilb could hear Levinthal barking out orders in the distance. For the moment, his pain was gone and he felt cool and comfortable; his lungs expanded easily and fully and he felt his heart pounding in his chest. He pinched his side, knowing he was alive and in a body that felt old and familiar. All that was Simon felt far away from him now, and Vilb felt his old heart quiver. Levinthal went on speaking in the distance, but Vilb was too overcome to pay attention, focused as he was on his own unexpected transformation. He sat up, put his hands to his chest and breathed. He felt weak, brutish and short—but still alive.
“There it is, my boy. The first part is over,” cried out Levinthal voice from afar. “I wish I could say the worst was over, but not yet. Not yet. Be strong, my boy.” Vilb struggled to form a clear, organized thought. He was in a daze. Had Simon failed him, or had he failed Simon? Or was it possible that Levinthal’s power was greater even than the full power of M? Was such a thing possible? Vilb found it difficult to conceive of such power. He shuddered at the thought and reflected for a moment on the choices he had made. His plans… to defeat Levinthal and to save the children of the Vault, to return to Little Earth and to start again… he sighed heavily. They all seemed preposterous now. He would need the power of ten gods to make such a fantasy into reality. He felt a vortex of doubt and despair taking shape all about him and then the disembodied voice of Levinthal was in his ear again.
“How is that my boy, are you feeling better yet?” Vilb opened his mouth to respond, but his tongue was sluggish and thick and he felt as if a heavy boot had descended on his chest. In the next instant, the distant knock of his heart stopped and what was left of the circulation in his petrified body cease. Still the boot pressed down, and is ribs cracked, his collarbones separated and his spine pulled free from the base of his skull.
It really was the end, he thought, and all was quiet about him and within him. The boot went on crushing him; all feeling was lost, yet somehow he could still hear the sound of water trickling over mossy stone off in the cavernous distance. Whose ears could hear such things now? Yet still he listened. Indeed, it was unmistakable: water seeking its level. The sound took him back to the badlands. He loved the stark and arid beauty of the east, and a vision of his homeland sent a wave of nostalgia and longing through him as he struggled for one last breath. How he missed the simple confusions of his earlier years! His grotto, a cool retreat from the harshness of the land! His reverence for the gods! His love of The Book of M! How slenderly he knew himself in those blissfully ignorant days!
The feeling and the memory lasted only a moment, then the badlands vanished from his mind as an explosive shock of emerald lightning drove all thought from his mind. A fire swept through every drought-ridden cell of his body. He grimaced with pain as the last of his bodily fluids escaped with an agonizing groan and his bones snapped and collapsed under the weight of the heavy boot on his chest. The darkness fell across his mind again.
Vilb woke up to his pulse pounding in his ears and his heart beating hard and fast in his chest. He was sweating and shivering—delirious—but in some new form, some new body. He could still smell the damp air of the cavern all about him. If he could only get to his feet, he thought; he struggled to sit up and found that he was now able to move his arms and legs freely, though he felt nauseous and shaky. Groaning with the effort he managed to shift himself to his side, and then, finally, to his hands and knees. Vilb raised himself up and sat unsteadily back on his heels. He blinked. Levinthal’s voice struck him like a blow from above.
Rest easy, my boy, no need to push. Please be patient. We’re almost through. Vilb drew in what breath he could and steadied himself with one hand on the cavern floor. With his other he reached out slowly towards the green gaseous plasma all about him. He could see bands of brighter green amidst the shimmering cloud flowing all around him in the darkness. The Field, he thought, wanting to touch one of the emerald lines of force.
This volume I is part of the 2050: A Future History series, which is a vision of the post-human world 2000 years from now, about 2050 “after Simon” as the locals say. Their history is our future. The overarching narrative is a meditation on knowing. It is also a projection about where things are headed from here, given our obsessions with AI, cloning, and life extension, infinite power, and so on.
Joseph Zornado is a professor of English and director of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning at Rhode Island College in Providence, Rhode Island. His three-volume 2050: A Future History is made up of Gods of Little Earth, The Power at the Bottom of the World, and The Keys to the Kingdom. All three are published by Merry Blacksmith Press. Joseph Zornado is also the author of Inventing the Child (Garland 2000/Routledge 2006).