The void lived up to expectations in that it failed to live up to them. Everyone's least favourite afterlife was indeed a whole lot of nothing. Mid-step, every physical sense I had disappeared without so much as a vague floating sensation to replace them. It wasn’t dark, because I had no eyes to perceive darkness, and it wasn’t uncomfortable, because I had no body with which to register discomfort. I was simply there, helpless to do much more than exist in the absence of everything.
Or almost everything.
Apollo was still with me, pressing in on my awareness. I took the opportunity to sneak a peek at his soul while his defences were down, but he was still just the same old Head of Security who had been pestering me for the past several hundred years. Disappointing.
It was far more than the souls of the dead ever got, though, who had to endure eternity alone in this place. No one was really supposed to talk about it, but it was common knowledge they were all slowly going mad. Back in the old days, some of the more despotic afterlives had been designed to cloud the thoughts and prevent their inhabitants from being able to realise what was being done to them. Brutal, horrendous, but merciful in their paranoid efficiency. Providence didn’t even bother to go that far, citing additional upkeep costs. Most of the souls had probably managed to figure out they were dead before long. Then it was a matter of the long wait for hope that might never arrive. A wait they had no choice but to make awake and alert, since sleep was no longer an option.
A significant contingent of the Death department had been demoted when the changes had gone through. Not Hel. I’d taught her too well. But others.
How are you planning on finding the face in here? I asked the seer. The void contained billions of souls, but I had no idea how to reach any of them, let alone a specific one.
I know Janus well, he responded. The only good thing I can say about this place is that everyone is everywhere. As long as you have their soul's signature, so to speak, you can find them instantly.
I pictured my son Narfi, who was irrefutably dead, and tried reaching out. When that failed, I tried Hitler. Not that I'd known the genocidal dictator personally. To this day he was the undisputed record holder of being the subject of the most assassination requests - including many optimistic posthumous ones - in Providence's Helpdesk system. I figured he was similar enough to the tyrant that I could put in a decent estimate. Nothing.
System’s broken, I informed my companion. Please tell me the damage doesn’t extend to the exit.
I could feel Apollo rolling his eyes even without a body. Nothing’s broken. You just don’t have security access.
How does one obtain security access? I asked cautiously.
Loki, he said, there is no timeline in which I am ever giving you that kind of power. I’d sooner entrust Lucifer with it. And no, I’m not giving it to him either.
But my own words had jogged a memory. Broken systems. In the absence of anything else to do, there was no better time to ask. Have you heard anything about glitches happening in the Helpdesk task system?
There was a long pause. I have now, he replied. Something Themis is looking into. It’s part of the Siphon investigation.
I knew it. What about Odin?
I think it’s best I don’t cross paths with him until this spear endeavour is over. Also, I found the face. It wants to talk to you.
Too bad I don’t have security acc – oh, I finished, as an unfamiliar presence brushed my mind. Straight away I could tell there was something off about it, but couldn’t put my finger on the exact nature of the problem.
Loki, it said. I hear you have a message for me from my other self. Unlike the rest of Janus, who had spoken in English, this part of him used Latin. I guessed there wasn’t much of a connection between the parts, if any. It made sense that the void, being the lack of a place, would be one entity omnipresence couldn’t reach.
Er, yes. Apollo didn’t pass it on?
Forgive me if I don’t take what the Betrayer says at face value.
Well, I said, fairly sure Apollo wasn’t listening in at the moment, I’d be inclined to agree with you. Truth is a bit of a fiddly concept. But you do realise who you’re talking to, right? One of us has a bad reputation, and it isn’t him.
I have no idea who you are, the face declared. All I know is your name and that you have a message for me, from me. I’d like to hear it.
The ominous feeling I’d had back in the river was returning. You – Janus, that is – said to tell you it’s time. Whatever that was supposed to mean.
Ah, it said, after a short pause. I’d better come with you, then. Even if you do keep questionable company.
I let a good dose of incredulity seep out along with my next words. You’ve been in the void for decades, and we’re here to rescue you. You must be the only person – or face, I suppose – I stumbled a bit over what to call it – who can be so casual about it.
Decades? Amusement trickled through the words. You mean when all the souls dropped in? Loki, you have the wrong idea. I’ve been waiting here since the end of the war.
Something told me it wasn’t talking about India. You’ll have to be more specific, I said.
With my pantheon. We called it the Constantine War.
Right. Definitely not India. The empty non-space of the void hung over me in its weird anti-pressure, offering its eternity of nothing and no one, and it was all too easy to imagine how you would lose track of time. Not to mention forgetting what it was like to ever have fingers, or sight, or the ability to hyperventilate at the thought of your unending doom. Being stuck in a single form for three hundred years had been bad enough. I considered the notion of being trapped in the void for longer than the average timespan it took to microwave a packet of mediocre instant noodles and would have shuddered if I'd been able. Not being able to only made it worse.
That was before I was born, I stated bluntly. How have you not gone insane or been discovered by now? What could be worth waiting for that badly that you’d spend close to two thousand years in the most tedious place in the universe?
Hmm, mused the face. My other self was not forthcoming with you. Perhaps because of your association with the Betrayer. However, I am the part of myself that looks inwards. Without the rest of me, I cannot perceive anything else. Thus, this is a good place for me.
The Roman pantheon definitely contained some oddballs, I thought to myself. But each to their own. You still haven’t told me what you’ve been waiting for.
The end of creation, it answered. I can’t see it coming. But my other self can. If he says it’s time, it’s time.
World destruction was the overrated topic of the week, it seemed. Though the face at least had an excuse for missing the memo. Janus - the one who was everywhere, that was, not the one who was nowhere - was no doubt picking up bits of Grace's media coverage and mistaking them in his delirium for literal gospel. Between you and me, I think Janus is jumping the gun. But we – I cut off abruptly, as the Vatican Concord refused to let the rest of my words out. There’s a lot of public attention on the topic right now, I amended, readjusting. Mainly because Yahweh blew up a city.
He hasn’t changed, then, the face observed.
I could sense Apollo becoming more impatient the longer the conversation went on and gave him a poke. We’re done, I informed him. But while we’re here –
I can’t contact this Canciana person for you, he interrupted, pre-empting the query. I’d have to look her details up on the company system. But she isn’t here anyway.
I hadn't expected to have a chance to visit the void for investigatory purposes, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up. If I could speak to the Hacker in person, it would go a long way to answering a lot of niggling questions.
She’s dead, I insisted. She has to be. I dropped her into a volcano myself.
Well, she’s not here. And seriously, stop murdering people.
How do you even know, if you can’t find her?
Your new friend seems to be able to navigate its way around the souls here. I asked.
If I could have looked at him, it would have been very skeptical.
Indirectly, he followed up.
Back to square one on that front, then. It was all down to Lucy's comp sec contacts now. I wondered what it meant that Canciana wasn't in the only afterlife in existence. Was Siphon taking mortals' souls too? And what in Ishtar's temper did they need them for?
I thought about asking the face to contact Narfi for me, then decided against it. As badly as I wanted to see him, dangling uncertain hope in front of him after decades of silence was too cruel. Not when I didn’t know when or if I’d be able to return. When I came back, it ought to be with an immediate solution, even if I had to carry him out in a soul jar.
Which I did have sitting in my kitchen, as it happened. It was no resurrection, but it was better than the void.
We should go, said Apollo, and just like that it was over, the two of us basking in reality again. The abrupt unexpectedness of the return transition left me dazed and reeling, my perceptions jumbled and full of noise. Everything was too loud, sharp and bright, with every physical sense turned up to eleven, and my initial reaction was to cringe.
Pull yourself together, Loki, said Apollo, and it took me a moment to realise I could see him from at least a dozen different angles and what someone both charitable and brave might describe as a daring number of eyeballs. The sensory overload suddenly made much more sense.
I blinked back to a human form, an immediate improvement, and gave a small cough. “I may have tried to overcompensate.”
“And this is why we’re doing this in the Antarctic desert, instead of a shopping mall,” he said. “Otherwise I’d be tied up right now curing people of rapid-onset PTSD.”
We were back in the crater, which seemed to have gotten a little deeper than I remembered it being, with the door to the void nowhere to be seen. I didn’t have the lanyard looped over my hand anymore, which might have been why, though Apollo had probably just closed it. Leaving it open for someone to stumble into by accident was the sort of thing I’d do, if the consequences were a little less final. Though around here, it would most likely just feed in a steady supply of snow and the occasional unlucky penguin.
I noticed his hands were occupied carrying a mask-like object. “Is that -”
“Janus, yes.” He held it out towards me.
I accepted it gingerly, holding it by the edges. Oval-shaped, it was slightly wider at the forehead than the chin and about a centimetre thick, lending it a stiffness I wouldn’t have expected from something made of flesh. It was definitely alive, the skin on the front soft and warm, and the underside red but bloodless. Stranger still, it looked like no face I’d ever seen, as though an error had been made somewhere along the way by someone who didn’t understand how human faces were supposed to work. The features resembled Janus’, but the contours were inverted, lips, nose and eye sockets sinking into the skin like the inside of a mask.
I gave it a very tentative mental poke and was relieved to find it had fallen unconscious during the transition.
“I have to admit, this is a new one for me,” I said, shifting away the building nausea. “He’s going to regenerate from it, right?”
To my relief, Apollo nodded. “Seems intended to be a temporary measure. Janus would have cut through his own soul to do it. Should take a few weeks. Faster, if you can provide a body. Though he’s not going to pass for human.”
“Better that than the alternative.” I gestured at the inverted features. “You knew him. Did this face always look so… unusual?”
The seer’s expression turned glum. “He didn’t show it in public. He had four in total, but you know what people are like. We weren’t like the Egyptians. If you looked different, you were branded a monster.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “Awfully perceptive for someone who never had to deal with it.”
“You’re the last person who should be throwing stones for that. You had a reputation.”
I grinned, remembering. As it happened, a good number of the legends across Europe about decrepit beggars testing the unwary only to turn into beautiful enchantresses were my fault, although the curses they blamed on me were exaggerations. Mostly. But it was never the same when you had a choice, and I couldn’t deny I’d spent most of my time in shapes to rival Lucy’s. “I suppose that’s fair. We both know people who got hit by it. Rest assured that if I knew how to pass my powers on, I would.”
“The sleep is an issue, though,” Apollo confessed, his eyes returning to the face in my hands. “We’re going to have to wake it up to deal with Parvati. One of us will have to give it something for the pain.”
“That’s easy. What I want to know is how we’re supposed to get into Singapore now that it’s an impenetrable fortress. You don’t have clearance to override her authority, do you?”
“I don’t. Fortunately, while you were talking to Janus, I was busy gathering ideas from the master of annoying and ridiculous disruptions.”
“I think you mean ‘audacious’ and ‘genius’,” I amended for him, just as a flash of green caught my eye above us. “And the verdict?”
“Think about it,” Apollo said, following my glance up towards the aurora that had just started flickering overhead. “We’re dealing with a non-specific compulsion. What do you know of that can override it?”
I wasn’t sure why he didn’t just give me the answer, and squinted at him. Overriding a problem wasn’t really my style. Not when you could look for a loophole to circumvent it entirely. “Depends on the situation,” I answered. “Themis’ powers are on the literal side, so there might be something there. Other than that, I suppose a more specific compulsion would do the trick, if it was powerful enough.”
“Right,” he said. “And where have you encountered something like that recently?”
One of Enki’s edicts would do the trick, if it was targeted at the right aspect. Short of dismantling the managers’ bathroom, though, which Apollo had made his thoughts clear on, I wasn’t sure how we could set one up to serve our needs at short notice. Enki might have been a drunk, but he wasn’t a pushover.
Lucy’s magic – which, once again, I was reminded I knew less about than I should – comprised a form of compulsion. He probably could get around the Singapore restriction, come to think of it, but possessing a body beyond the border partition wasn’t much help when we needed to bring Janus to Parvati in person.
Janus himself, god of borders, would have been the ideal person to handle this situation – except that we only had part of him, and the wrong part. Fiddling with souls wasn’t going to help us break into a country.
Siding with Odin was a possibility so ludicrous it didn’t beg consideration.
And the only other recent non-Themis instance of compulsion I’d come across was –
“Ah,” I voiced, suddenly understanding why Apollo had come at the topic sideways. “I believe we’re on the same page.”
We could use the geas.