“Are you sure that this information is correct?” Ajax looked up from the scroll he had been examining, and gave Persephone a doubtful look.
“Emph,” said Persephone, through a mouthful of pastry.
Persephone swallowed, brushed crumbs from her fake beard, and returned Ajax’s doubtful look with a stern one. “I said, yes. It is quite accurate. Why wouldn’t it be?” She reached for another pastry.
“Only, it just seems so unlikely, and well… you compiled it.”
“And there it is.”
“There what is?”
“The snarky comment calculated to goad me into doing something rash, like not eating this delicious pastry. It won’t work, you know.”
“Because, before we all went extinct, I was first amongst the great Historian-Philosophers of my era.” Persephone stroked her beard in false contemplation. “If I remember correctly, you were ranked somewhere in the high billions during your tenure among the non-extinct.”
“That was a perfectly respectable position at the time,” Ajax said, defensively. “There were rather a lot of us around then.”
“Yes, but much more of us by the time I came to be ‘First’.”
“So what? That means nothing.”
“Except, of course, that I was, and still am, much smarter than you by several orders of magnitude.”
“Well, you would believe that. I, however, am less convinced. My studies into the ranking system suggest that it was epistemologically unsound.”
“And if you had ranked higher, would you still feel that the system was unsound?”
“Yes.” That was a lie. Ajax knew that if he had ranked higher, he wouldn’t have bothered looking into the system at all. There would have been no need. He decided to switch back to a discussion of the the scroll, just in case he got caught in his own hypocrisy. “Tell you what, just for now, let us assume that the scroll is telling the truth. We’ll worry about its epistemic value later. You’re sure that our afterlife is becoming over populated?”
“Quite sure. I mean, look around. Doesn’t it seem like there are a lot more of us here than there should be?”
Ajax looked. There did seem to be a lot more of the extinct crowding around these days. But then, there were probably just a lot more species dying out in the living-universe. It did happen from time to time. He’d seen it before, as had Persephone. They’d even come up with a name for it: ‘Convergent Extinction’. “Perhaps there are more fresh extinctees than usual, but maybe there’s just some sort of pan-extinction event taking place in the living realm. It’ll settle down eventually, no doubt.”
“No doubt,” agreed Persephone. “Yet, I’m less concerned about these mass extinctions, and more concerned about why they seem to be taking up so much space here.”
“It’s true,” Ajax conceded, “that shouldn’t happen. That’s one of the reasons why this information seems unlikely to be correct. I’d always thought that the rules that governed the availability of space in the various afterlives preclude there being a shortage of places for the dead to go. Especially in this, the last possible afterlife.”
“The last possible afterlife as far as we know,” Persephone corrected.
Ajax snorted. “I’ve never subscribed to that theory. It’s clearly bovine-shit. It’s absurd to think there’s another afterlife beyond this one. No, extinct is as dead as you can ever get, thus the last place anyone can end up, is in the afterlife for the extinct. To believe otherwise, is just so much meta-extinctionist wishful thinking.”
“So how do explain section twenty-two, sub-paragraph C, then?”
“You did read all of the scroll?”
“Of course I did…. Well, I skimmed it.”
“So, that would be a ‘no’, then?”
“I got the gist.”
“Try getting a better gist. Start with the section and sub-paragraph I just mentioned. Take your time, you can even move your lips while you read if you like. I won’t tell anyone.”
Without comment on Persephone’s dig at his literacy, Ajax read the sub-paragraph. Then, he read it again. That couldn’t be right, it was impossible. Just to be sure, he started at the beginning of the section, read it all the way through, and then read the entirety of the section that followed it. “Surely this is just some sort of mistake?”
“There is no mistake, the methodology is sound.”
Troubling, Ajax thought. “There really are individuals disappearing from this afterlife?”
“Yes. The most gifted ones from across a whole range of extinct species, too. There’s a definite pattern to it; a pattern which you can see graphed in figure 8.4.”
“But where are they going? There is literally nowhere else to go. I’m certain of it.”
“I think they are going to the next afterlife, although not in the way our best meta-extinction models predicted.”
“I see,” said Ajax, hoping that he didn’t. If true, it would undermine his whole death-time’s work. There must be a way to salvage his not very considerable reputation. He found it, and broke into a very broad, bearded smile. “Ah, but it has to be wrong. The disappearances preclude the overcrowding you have graphed in figure 7.1.” That should take the wind out of Persephone’s argument. Ajax couldn’t help feeling a little smug about that, it wasn’t often he bettered her in a battle of wits.
“You didn’t read the last section, did you?” Should she wait for him to read it? That would take forever, and even then, Ajax would try to find a way to wriggle out of the evidence. Persephone decided on a different course of action. “Come with me, I have something to show you.”
* * *
The Gardener sat in her kitchen and listened. Not to the sound of the wind in the trees. Nor to birds and insects happily flitting and buzzing about outside. Instead, she listened to the man seated opposite her at the kitchen table. He was still fairly angry, but that was to be expected. She would let him carry on for a bit; he’d run out of steam eventually. Anyway, there was still time before her other guests arrived, although those guests probably didn’t know that they would be coming here just yet. So she listened, smiled, or sympathized as the tone of story required, and drank lemonade. This, in spite of the fact that she already knew his story and the source of his outrage, yet he could not know that she had such knowledge. It was against the rules.
The man’s name, as far as he was concerned, was Azeal Braithwaite. In life, he had been an extremely unpopular writer, and had died in some gutter, somewhere, without so much as a button to his name. The manner of his death, however, was not the source of his angry disappointment. In fact, he felt that his death had a perfect, tragic poetry to it. It was what had happened after his death that raised his ire: he had become posthumously famous.
“Can you believe it?” This was not the first time Azeal had asked that particular question, but it was part of his style, and he would ask it as many times as he felt he needed to.
“I know,” said The Gardner, playing along. “I understand how terribly hurt you must feel.”
“Hurt? HURT? Not just hurt, I’m livid. Did you know that several literature scholars have built successful careers on the back of my work? The same work, moreover, I was not able to use for my own benefit. The fucking parasites.”
“How shocking,” said The Gardener, even though it wasn’t.
“And my publisher, the same publisher who refused – refused, mind you – to keep my novels in print, don’t even get me started about him.”
“Doing well is he?”
“Well? WELL? He’s not just making a killing with my back catalogue, he’s making a slaughter. Do you know what he says about me? Do you?”
The Gardner did, but asked anyway.
“He’s saying I was a misunderstood genius, that I was way ahead of my time.”
“The nerve of the man.”
“That’s not even the least of it. He’s saying, and I quote: ‘Azeal, wherever he is, is looking down on us, pleased that he finally got the recognition he deserves’.”
“I take it that you are not pleased?”
“Pleased? PLEASED? I’m not even close to being averagely happy about it. Who wants to be appreciated after they’re dead? Seriously, what’s the fucking point in that? I wanted to be appreciated in my own time. No prestige, or any other kind of reward for that matter, in being appreciated after you’re dead.”
“Still,” The Gardener soothed, “at least you won’t have to worry about being upset about that now that you’re here.”
Azeal slumped back into his chair, all the bluster and pain suddenly dissipated. “True,” he conceded, “I am grateful to that nice skeleton for helping me cross over.” He paused to take a sip of lemonade. It was warm, he’d neglected it while he ranted. “So, this is the afterlife, then?”
This, thought The Gardener, is going to be hard to explain. It was made slightly more complicated by the fact that Azeal Braithwaite was not quite as he believed himself to be. It was true, up to a point, that he had been a writer. All the details of his death, and subsequent disappointment, were correct. Only, strictly speaking, none of that had really happened to him. For Azeal was not so much the writer of the now successful back catalogue being exploited by his publisher, but more the ‘pen name’ that writer used. This made him ontologically complex, and was why he could be brought here to the afterlife for the extinct, instead of going where the actual writer – a human called Jon Doe – went. Azeal was what is known in quasi-metaphysical terms as a ‘Special Status Being’.
Azael’s special status derived from a little known property of creative endeavor. It is often remarked, although not really believed, that creative products – books, paintings, films, and so on – have a life beyond the person that created them. They are somehow worlds born of, but separate from, the mind that made them up. It’s a shame that this is not really believed, because it turns out to be literally true. Everytime someone looks at a work of art, or reads a really good novel – or a bad one, for that matter – they are participating in, and adding to, a world as real as the one they think they live in. And if a creative, as was the case for the ill-fated Jon Doe, uses a different name on his or her work, that brings into existence something altogether stranger and, in its way, quite beautiful.
It works like this: the more someone uses a different name for their ‘art’, the more that name becomes a personality. Eventually, the artist develops, for lack of a better term, a ‘Double Soul’. Once developed, with no small amount of effort – and only after death – it is possible to separate the Double Soul from that of the original. Unlike the original soul, the Double is a unique being, can thus circumvent some very inconvenient rules, and head directly to the afterlife for the extinct. This is what The Gardener had arranged for Azeal, which is why he was now in a place that the Jon Doe original wouldn’t be permitted to go until his species went extinct.
It had been a close thing for The Gardener. For Azeal was a human soul, and human souls were now unable to cross to any afterlife. This made the whole enterprise quite tricky, because it was only possible to separate a Double from its original at the point where they would cross, and the Gardener had only just got in under the wire. This was very lucky, because she needed him if she was to have any hope of stopping the chaos that was about to come.
But, the Gardener mused, perhaps it was best not to tell Azeal all of that just yet? So instead of giving a more detailed answer to his question about the afterlife, she said: “Yes, this is it. What do you think?”
“Well,” Azeal scratched his chin, “it’s nice, isn’t it?”
“I think so.”
“Only, it’s not quite what I expected.”
“Really? How so?”
“I don’t know. I just thought I’d get to meet a few dead relatives and such. Maybe even a few of my childhood pets would be here, that sort of thing.”
“I expect they’re around somewhere.” A lie, but a necessary one. The Gardner didn’t want to spook him just yet. She needed him focused.
“Oh? Well that’s good, I’d begun to think something was a bit off.”
From outside the kitchen the sound of two bickering voices wafted in. That would be the other two guests The Gardener had been waiting for. They both would have seen the barrier by now, and would have come to her for advice. Two bearded figures appeared at the open kitchen door.
“Persephone, Ajax, what a lovely surprise. Please come in, have some lemonade.”
“I hope this isn’t a bad time,” said Ajax, “I see you have company.”
“Not at all,” said The Gardener, “always room for more at my kitchen table, you know that. I say, you both look a bit troubled. Is there something the matter?”
Persephone shifted uneasily on her feet. “I think we need your help. It’s just so unbelievable. I have a scroll here, though, that should help make it a bit clearer.”
The Gardener smiled. She would believe it; knew what the problem was already, in fact. She couldn’t tell them that, though. She’d have to let it play out naturally. Because, you know, rules.
END OF PART THIRTEEN