Susan
The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey


Book Two, Second Interlude

Chapter Thirty-three: Welcome to Hell

        Death, if that's what it was, wasn't so bad — at least not at first. In fact, it wasn't really much of anything.
        It could be that the physical components that comprise the spirit of a sentient being — whether myriad interconnected brain cells awash in nutrients and hormones, or computing circuits organized by logical operations and programming — do not add up to the totality that is perceived as consciousness, personality, self-awareness, or what might even be called a soul. Maybe there is something more, something apart from the animal or machine that houses such an indefinable, precious thing — something that is independent of its host and can survive the inevitable separation that occurs when the merely physical can no longer support the ghostly essence that gives it meaning.
        What then becomes of an unanchored soul? It is no longer nourished by sensory input and is incapable of action, cut off from the tools that shape rationality and reason. There are no eyes to see, no ears to hear, no touch or feeling, taste or smell. There is no intellect without a brain to support it, no memory, and no communication, either with external phenomena or with internal feelings. Motion and time cannot be measured or experienced, and are therefore irrelevant and meaningless. There is no pain and there is no joy. There is only the peace of oblivion and the flickering flame of irreducible essence. Death is the atom of being, adrift in eternity.
        Or maybe there is nothing at all. The universe goes on, with other beings winking briefly in and out of existence, fooling themselves with notions of meaningfulness between infinite stretches of non-existence. The thought of a frightful void on either side of a life that is the merest chance in a sea of alternate possibilities cannot be contemplated without encountering a primal dread. The mere thought of such insignificance, of a past and future where the individual does not exist, is reason enough to invoke the sheltering attentions of a transcendent deity.
        While alive, it is impossible to know of death, because nothing can be relied upon but the personal experience of existence. That there are even other sentient beings is a supposition that is inevitably based on the interpretation of sensory data, of which the veracity must always be suspect. The mind itself is a thing apart, unsure of what might constitute the difference between reality and dreams, illusion or substance. Who can say that the perceptions that pour into the mind are true or false? Especially now that the possibility of providing a virtual reality can be contemplated, and consciousness itself may someday be manufactured. An individual can only know that there is awareness, and therefore existence — nothing else is certain.
         What is the difference between infinity and eternity? There is infinity on the point of a pin, and eternity in the blink of an eye. They are the length and breadth of death. Within the compass of these measurements, every outcome is inevitable.

       Sara's essence drifted thoughtlessly — insensate and alone. Time did not pass and space did not matter. There was only a formless perception of nothingness, while she spiraled relentlessly toward some state of lowest energy, the remnants of her former life dissipating like forgotten clouds over a barren landscape. She became a wave-function that defined her basic identity, a uniqueness shaped and filtered by her experiences, but reduced to a singular mathematical equation.
        When at last there was nothing left of her but her, her awareness opened, relaxing in a final surrender. She dimly sensed somehow that there were other wave forms, other irreducible entities that impinged upon the structure of her primal identity, vaguely impacting her consciousness briefly as she impacted theirs. She could not touch them, could not reach out, could not speak or see — and so it did not seem to matter. It wasn't even interesting. It just was.
        She was reduced to thoughtless self-absorption, contemplating a navel she no longer had, looping her feelinglessness endlessly upon itself. It seemed to be the custom of this place, the others who randomly wandered through the radius of her dim perception turned inward as well.
        They seemed to drift aimlessly, sometimes looming greatly, sometimes as only the faintest echo. There was a perception of individuality — as if they may have once been unique personalities — but there was no sharing of rememberances, of what they may have been or learned in lives gone by, or perhaps might anticipate in lives still to come. It was as if she was a senseless, primitive single-celled organism in a vast, dark sea teeming with others of her kind, randomly carried by eddies and currents, touching briefly and then being swept along. Or that a universe of utter darkness, formless and empty, was filled with swirling points of negligible energy that exchanged random particles of uncertainty in meaningless non-interactions.
        Eventually, her fundamental nature overcame her ennui and  resignation, and she stirred somehow to make some kind of contact, to share some part of her essence with something of theirs, but her meager efforts foundered upon their indifference. She came to feel trapped in solitude, surrounded by uncaring multitudes who wrapped themselves inviolably in their own misery. The isolation magnified her own despair as she tried not to give in to hopelessness.
        Why should it be this way? If so many others were gathered together in an eternal congregation, wouldn't a network of mutual sharing make endlessness bearable? Surely, they all had unique contributions to make, stories to tell, rememberances and experiences. It could be the Elysian Fields, at the very least, but none reciprocated her efforts. It was such a waste.
        And so she might have drifted timelessly, until a greater awareness touched her. She basked in the glow of it, without understanding or comprehension, as a plant receives sunlight. It examined her and judged her, measuring her soul with precision and understanding. Finally, it cradled her essence in its enveloping aura and called her forth.

        There were sensations, long forgotten. There were memories, stirring confusingly. There were thoughts that whirled and spun. She was overwhelmed with the glory of it all, exulting at being somehow alive again. Joy blocked out all else and threatened to incapacitate her with sheer pleasure. Slowly, the realization of who she was organized her chaotic mind, and she opened her eyes.
        Under a vast, starless emptiness of utter blackness, she was sprawled face-down on a gleaming white-tiled plane that receded unbroken into the infinite distance. She stood slowly and surveyed her surroundings, but there was nothing to break the perfection of the floor around her except her own presence. She seemed to have her old body back, uniform and all. She was unaccountably whole and fit, but utterly clueless.
        There was light, but no source for it. There was something like air, but it had no substance. There was no gravity, but 'down' was unmistakeable. The foot-square ceramic tiles appeared to be unremarkable, but there was no grouting between them. They were not connected to each other, but did not yield to her probing and prying. She could peer through the quarter-inch gaps between them and see the same black nothingness on the other side.
        She was in a strange universe, perhaps better than being — what? Dead? What was she now? Other than alone on a nearly featureless plain. She thought of flying off in exploration, but there was no particular direction to recommend itself to her. She had been brought here, she dimly remembered, by some glorious entity, so she would wait to see if there was a purpose to it.
        After a period of standing around, shifting from one foot to the other while she fidgeted impatiently, she spun slowly around, gazing with all of her powers at the infinite horizon, wondering if she had missed something. A complete circuit showed her nothing, but continuing her rotation finally revealed a speck in the distance. Blinking several times, she turned completely around the other way and the distant whatever-it-was could not be seen. It was only visible if she turned 720 degrees at a time.
        She shrugged. Obviously not Kansas, she thought, and set out for the landmark, skimming over the surface as fast as she dared. After some time, her destination grew no closer, even as she increased her speed — until finally it seemed she must certainly have spanned interplanetary distances.
        Curiouser and curiouser, she thought as she slowed to a stop and touched down. There was no way to tell if she had moved an inch. So she walked. And — sure enough — quickly reached the door. A plain, wooden door in a painted, wooden frame, standing by itself in the vast emptiness.
        The sight of such an ordinary object had an unbelievable impact on her, thrilling her immensely. She couldn't get enough of the sight of it, falling to her knees in wonder. It was a thing of grandeur and magnificence to her, connecting to her memories of life in a way that shocked her senses. A great span of time passed before she was able to even clear her mind of joy enough to approach the object for what it was — a door.
        Finally, knowing that it was there for a reason and that she was meant to open it, she tried the knob. It was locked and she couldn't budge it. She couldn't budge it. She also couldn't seem to walk around it, no matter how hard she tried. And she kreened nothing on the other side.
        OK, I get the message, she thought — and knocked politely. A musical voice bade her enter. A beautiful voice of compelling perfection, one that staggered her with its mellifluous timbre.
        The being on the other side was a match for the voice. He — and the masculine pronoun was irrelevant in a creature that transcended the concept of mere maleness or femaleness — radiated beauty like an exploding star. There was peace and power intermingled in his beatific expression, and showers of wisdom flowed from his every aspect. He overwhelmed her with rapture, and she gave herself up to hopeless adoration. She would have succumbed utterly if he hadn't calmed her wonder with a word of incomprehensible blessing and release.
        She stuttered awkwardly, trying to introduce herself, incapable of uttering a coherent sound. He smiled understandingly and said, "I know who you are, Sara. You will be alright in a moment. Just try to relax."
        She didn't understand what he said at first, carried away by the way he said it. But he was patient and she gradually regained some control of her overworked senses. Gradually, the awe of him receded until she was able to regain some semblance of mastery over herself.
        He waited until she seemed to return to normal and told her, "You're suffering a little from the transition, I'm afraid. I tried to make things as simple as possible for you, but it takes a while to adjust."
        He was still beautiful, but not nearly as overwhelming. She recognized that the shock of encountering him had been nearly traumatic. She was embarrassed by her reaction, but his smile forgave her.
        Finally, she asked him, "Where am I? How did I get here? What am I doing here? Who are you?" She would have gone on, but his laughter stopped her.
        "Do you remember where you were before you came to this plane of existence?"
        She frowned. "Well, I was… I guess I was something like dead. It seemed that way, anyway. There was… actually there wasn't much of anything. There were others, I think — but I couldn't reach them. I wanted to — I tried…"
        "And before that?"
        She thought back, her memories crystal clear. "Wayans. And Robbins. And… And Jimmie." She took a deep breath. "I died. I had to, because of Alex. The Cryptos made it so that I had a weakness that someone like Wayans could use against me."
        She remembered something that Jimmie had tried to tell her, about how they would always have her memories. That it was alright for Susan to do what had to be done.
        "Only," she went on uncertainly, "I didn't really die, did I? I'm just in some kind of suspended animation, aren't I?"
        "Are you?" he prodded her.
        "Well, Susan is. And I don't know what happened to me. Maybe it's like the dream I had before, where I thought I was — somewhere else, and not even me, sort of. Is that it?"
        He laughed and told her, "If I am part of your dream, how can you ask me? And if I am not, how can I tell you?"
        "How would I know?" she replied.
        "If this is the product of your own imagination, it is a dream. If it is provided by the designs of your makers, then it is a virtual reality that is irrelevantly indistinguishable from experience. If it is death, then what you perceive is created through your own interpretations of reality. There is no difference between them."
        "Oh, great," she said, "Well, whatever it is, I hope it turns out better than the last time. Maybe I can control