The Afterman is a double-album with Ascension being the first of the two, followed by Descension. It was originally released as a limited edition called the Amory Award, which included 4 CDs, a documentary DVD, a replica of Sirius' Award and medal, and a 78-page coffee table book which included the song-by-song background information and story; lyrics and artwork written by Claudio Sanchez and illustrated by Nathan Spoor. The story was re-released with The Afterman: Deluxe Edition which only included the two main CDs, and the Live Album as well as additional photos from the tour.
The story follows the adventures of Sirius Amory in his journey into the Keywork. During his time in the Keywork, he is inhabited by several entities ("Key Entities") who take control of his consciousness.
Sirius is an ambitious scientist interested in the Keywork: how does it work, why does it exist? He risks everything to explore the mysteries of it at great cost to himself; personally with his wife, and emotionally and mentally with his discoveries in the Keywork. He is considered to be a bit of a kook by his peers so he also feels a lot of pressure to get the best information. The Entities he encounters are often not nice, but they lead him to make several key discoveries: the Keywork is made up of souls of the departed, and within the Keywork, there are two levels.
The first, surface level is called The Mono. It is, as it's name suggests, bland and full of people reliving moments of disappointments, failures, and overall upsetting situations they went through. The next level, which is sort of parallel to The Mono, is The Samaritaine and is its exact opposite. It is full of color and life and the entities here are calm, happy and at true peace. Sirius is worn ragged by his experiences, but the kind souls of The Samaritaine help him and he is able to return home.
However, it has been approximately a year and a half since his departure and everyone, including his wife, has presumed him dead. There is excitement at his return and the knowledge he's gained, but also uncertainty. In fact, The Prise come to him and specifically tell him NOT to share his discovery. So he lies just enough to still get the fame and recognition he desires but doesn't give any of its major secrets away. His wife, Meri, is happy and proud of him, but their reunity is bittersweet for her as, in his absence, she has moved on and is starting a family with a new man. Sirius is devastated and in his grief, causes an accident that Meri does not survive. Vowing to do right by her, he departs for Keywork again, only this time to make sure her soul finds the Samaritaine so she can live in the happiness and peace she'd always deserved.
Each song corresponds directly to one chapter in The Afterman storyline.
Part One: Ascension Edit
1. The Hollow Edit
Sirius Amory walks determinedly across the bridge of his spacecraft, preparing a few last minute cross checks with the craft's computer main frame, the soothing, artificial intelligence he developed specifically for this mission. He calls her All Mother and as she's programmed to do, she takes the task of protecting Sirius very seriously. There is not a moment All Mother is not monitoring Sirius' vital signs, taking notes of any changes in the atmosphere around the ship, navigating precisely where they need to go for various reasons.
Most importantly, the All Mother will be able to do all of this and more from the comfort of a mobile apparatus; a suit crafted by Sirius to take him beyond Heaven's Fence and directly into the blazing sapphire light known to him as the Keywork. His spacecraft, The Meriwell, named after his beloved wife, Meri, is too fragile to traipse into the Keywork's energy, and, like its namesake, will remain a safe distance behind.
Not that this is the decision Sirius would have made for his wife. In his final moments at home on Valencine, he pleaded for her to join him on this journey into the unknown. "It will be our lives' greatest adventure!" he assured her. Yet, the only thing she could consider was the possibility of something going wrong…of being forced to watch as her husband was hurt or lost or worse. Instead, she begged him to call off the entire endeavor, to remain home with her and turn his research toward more reasonable avenues.
Staying home, however, was never a real option for Sirius. This exploration was the thing he was born to do. For as long as he can remember, he's felt a magnetic pull toward the Keywork, the glowing beams that envelop the worlds of Heaven's Fence like an all-encompassing question. It was the very reason he became a scientist, thrusting himself into breaking down all the current and accepted theories about small interplanetary gravitational fields. Along with developing seemingly far-fetched hypotheses of his own, Sirius disproved research which others in the scientific community had spent their lives pursuing, making him one of the most controversial-researchers in all of Heaven's Fence. But this is how Sirius thrived most efficiently. When left to his own devices and without others consuming his mental energy with their own theories and needs, he had always felt most productive, most comfortable.
The one exception to this was Meri, who had been a driving force in his life since the day they met, over a decade before on Hetricus. She had always been his biggest fan and the person who understood his brilliance long before anyone else could. Now she had refused to join him and though he hadn't had time yet to allow the seriousness of their last fight to sink in, the idea that she may not be there waiting for him when he returns has begun to creep into his psyche.
It was less than thirteen months ago that he had--after sleepless nights turned to sleepless months and years--at last found the missing piece. It had been staring at him all along. A star seemingly planted in the middle of a portion of the Keywork, its emission calculations elevated ever so slightly, giving away its location. Then, he found another, like a needle in a haystack of energy. He used the distance between these two to approximate where the others may lie, finding a total of seven. Seven perfect stars serving as points to connect the beams of blue light. They have since been named after him The Stars of Sirius, concluding that the structure served to hold all seventy-eight planets of Heaven's Fence in position and quite possibly, provide the worlds with the essential mineral and chemical elements each needs to sustain life. Sirius believed it could unlock the mysteries of humankind. His Keywork.
The scientific community did not support this theory. They still do not, even at this moment, as Sirius is suited up, striding through the fog that tends to accumulate in the bottom portion of the aircraft, earning it the nickname of The Hollow. Every day of his existence has been building to this moment, but for the first time, the reality of the potential consequences rises up within Sirius, heavy as the bay door that stands between him and the Keywork. He wonders if this could this be his final breath. There's a chance he won't last more than an instant out there, incinerating the second he comes in contact with the energy. For the first time, the familiar system he's spent a lifetime discerning seems alarmingly alien, but even so, the allure of the unknown is far more persuasive to Sirius than fear. And so he continues on.
The bay door opens, letting in free-flowing gas which mixes with the fog, reminding Sirius of walking into a storm. His steps are synchronized with the robotic song of All Mother's voice in his ear, setting his course into the Keywork, where the gaseous indigo may welcome him with open arms… or gnashing teeth.
"It's incredible," Sirius can't help but say aloud into his helmet, as he floats about in the wonderous blue nothing, the shades shifting and swirling from navy to the lightest aquamarine. He fumbles for a suction container from a compartment in his suit, to begin collecting samples. He considers whether the color changes are a result of energy shifts--possibly the molecules circulating to maintain equilibrium--; then he does something completely new to him; Sirius puts the container back and allows himself a few profound moments of enjoyment. He is the very first person who has been to this place, the first man to ever question the information known to be true about the haze, though it had surrounded every world the same since the beginning of existence. Seventy-eight planets filled with being who accepted what they'd been told about the blue without hesitation. But not Sirius.
A sense of accomplishment rushes through him. Pure adrenaline. The persecution by his scientist peers seems worth it now that he is here. Then... something...
Sirius is bewildered, as from out of the silence, tiny scattered noises begin to fill the space around him, leaking into his helmet.
La la la...la la la la.
The eerie whispers grow. Louder still, they sneak into his consciousness, as the glow of the Keywork begins to pulse and move, ever so subtly, like a million maggots weaving within it. The haze becomes dense, from transparent to translucent. The micro-movements strengthen, gaining more definition until Sirius can make out human shapes and heads squirming to get out, as if an endless sheer blue veil was pulled taut over them and they can't seem to escape. All Mother cannot identify the composition of what they are seeing through scientific classification of any sort. She scans all of her databases and comes up with over 100 words, borrowed from every dialect within Heaven's Fence, and though Sirius cannot make sense of it, the words all have nearly the same translation: Souls.
Without warning, one entity forcefully makes his way through the mass of entities, pushing them aside with pure muscle. This is the soul of Domino, who bursts from the mass into Sirius, overcoming and possessing him, his essence churning through every organic fiber in his body. He struggles desperately for control.
"I am unable to process your brain wave function, Sirius. Troubleshooting now," drones All Mother. But Sirius cannot respond. He cannot move to check whether the electrodes secured at the base of his skull have come loose. He is with Domino, viewing him through the eyes of a voyeur. He is Domino, sharing the entity's every emotion, the most intense of these being the feeling of complete hopelessness. Sirius' possession by the entity gives him a dual perspective, a perfectly clear view of the impact of another person's choices in life, juxtaposed with the reasons and traits that drove the choices in the first place. Domino hasn't learned much in his afterlife and feels that this human, the only one ever to enter the Keywork, could be a conduit to return to the living world.
Sirius finds himself in a vast maze, constructed of the memories that torment Domino's consciousness, the blurred images dripping down the walls like liquid holograms and solidifying before him. He's unsure how to navigate the maze on his own, but Domino's soul shows him where to begin...In Domino's living body, he was a boxer with incredible potential. His biggest supporter and trainer, was his younger, newly married brother Chess. The brothers were a great team, but as Domino ran up the ranks undefeated, he demanded more of Chess's attention and time. Domino had begun to feel slightly envious of his brother's new found happiness--like a third wheel--when his flawless record began to attract the attention of a local organized crime boss, Kriptor Noncruss. Kriptor saw potential in Domino, showing up at the gym and at his fights, planting dreams of big, beautiful things in his mind, promising Domino money and fame, while he reaped the payout on Domino's fights. Chess disapproved of his brother's involvement with such a seedy character, even as Kriptor continued to wedge Chess out from Domino's life.Giving way to Kriptor's allure, Domino became increasingly willing to do anything to get to the top, doping himself up to win fights as his talents started slipping. Eventually he became so addicted to the drugs, money and fame that he started taking bigger risks for his "friend," dependent on a man who took advantage of him in every way possible.
Sirius navigates each phase of Domino's life as if he were a train on a pre-determined path, leading up to an eventual destination, though he has no idea what that might be or how long he'll be forced to travel for it. He fights against the desires of Domino, trying to extract the entity from his mind. He reaches into the morphing walls of the maze, trying to find a way out, but his manipulation does nothing. Intuition pushes him forward, promising a release if he can just keep going...
A memory begins to coagulate, thickening and darkening just before a new scene bubbles up inside, bursting from within the gelatinous exterior of the wall and flooding the maze with images of the interior of a packed stadium of screaming fans. It is here Domino was pitted up against the reigning champion of the ring, Saul "the Ghostmaker" Maven in what was meant to be the fight of the century. The damage to his body and lack of focus was too much and he lost the fight in a stunning knockout, unlocking the floodgate to his complete decline. At his lowest--homeless, a "has been" and too broke to feed his addiction--Krip offered him a quick solution. If Domino would help him out with an armored car heist, he'd share the big pay out. Domino saw it as his chance at redemption. Trying to mend the relationship with Chess, Domino offered him a role in the plan--knowing he could've used the money, after all and would do anything to help his older brother. The heist went horribly wrong, with Chess getting shot.
Sirius watches all of this happen, as if it were occurring in real time, feeling all the pain and desperation of Domino as the final scene begins to play. All Mother continues her attempts to communicate, but her voice remains white noise to Sirius. Domino is lying propped up against the wall on the street, helpless as his brother slumps to the cobblestone and takes his last breath.
Completely devastated, he realizes what he's done. Domino puts the gun in his mouth and suddenly, the perspective changes and Sirius is Domino, holding the gun.
Let go of me, Domino.
Not a chance, man. You're gonna take me back down there.Sirius is acutely aware that this is a definitive moment; the single most regretted event in Domino's life. This must be the destination the maze has been easing him toward; the exact moment Domino's complete and utter destitution.Suddenly, he understands. This is the way out.
Sirius pulls the trigger, severing the possession Domino has on him. Domino screams; a hair-raising, unearthly sound that, in turn, resonates a destructive frequency through the All Mother, who transmits the tone through her hard connecton to Sirius' ship, causing it to explode in the quiet of space.
3. The Afterman Edit
Back on the planet Valencine, Meri Amory has been throwing herself into work since her husband left to chart course on what, in her opinion, may well be a suicide mission. She had no intention of arguing with him that day, or any day for that matter. Confrontation where Sirius was concerned had always been something she avoided at all costs, both because she hated any unrest between them, and because he spent enough time fighting with the entire scientific populace. That is Meri, ever supportive, skilled at moving her needs to the back burner to accommodate the desires of the people she loves. And Sirius is at the very top of that list.
Meri can't help blaming herself for this unresolved fight, when she'd known well before the day she married him that with a man as gifted and bull headed as Sirius, the possibility of even his wildest dreams coming true wasn't so unreasonable. She remained confident that if she stood by him to see his goals through, eventually, he would return the favor and they could have a child, maybe two. They would go on vacation and take up new hobbies and watch the Keywork illuminate the dark sky from the comfort of some blanket in the park. They would be normal. Instead, he planned not only to endanger himself, but possibly take every one of those hopes away with him. Deep down, she thought that if he was truly faced with the prospect of losing her or giving up this expedition, he would choose her.
Then he did not. Could she get used to this terrible feeling of not being a priority? Should she be gone when he returns just to teach him a lesson? Would he even care if she did leave? Was she overreacting?
"And adding insult to injury," Meri thinks, taking her eyes off the fluff piece she is meant to be writing about the overpopulation of feral cats on Valencine, "He named his damn ship after me! Well, go on Sirius--head off into nowhere with the more adventurous, bold other woman."
She sighs, her emotions falling somewhere in the trinity between annoyance, longing and debilitating fear. Meri returns to her work, but nothing good is coming out. She can't find her words--even the most elementary ones required for the ridiculous story in front of her. With the afternoon having gotten away from her, Meri decides to do some mindless web browsing on what is an incredibly advanced version of what we know as a computer. There are no keys, no tangible screen, only thoughts that trigger searches. Her immediate mind search for "current events" bring dozens of stories up holographically into the air in front of her, but she only sees one.
BREAKING NEWS: CONTROVERSIAL RESEARCHER SIRIUS AMORY FEARED DEAD AFTER UNEXPLAINED EXPLOSION, ENDING PRIVATELY FUNDED ENDEAVOR TO SELF-PROFESSED "KEYWORK"
Meri rereads the headline, skipping key phrases: Possible system failure. Recovered burned debris from Amory's ship, The Meriwell. No chance of survival. The images from the web search disappear, as her mind wipes clean of every thought, every emotion, everything she knows in that moment. She sees the information, but it is not real. How could it possibly be? She's in their home and there is the photo they took only last week and his shoes by the door and... Her body accepts the news a few moments before her brain, throwing her to the ground like a paper doll, the flood delayed. Then the tears come and don't seem to stop.
She is overwhelmed, yet depleted, lying on the cold floor when they come. Reporters from every major news outlet and beyond, calling, messaging, knocking at her door; trying to reach her on every form of communicator they can find. They want information: "Have you heard the news?" "Can we get your reaction?" "What kind of person was Sirius?" "When was the last time you spoke to him?" Can you tell us more about what your husband was looking for?"
Was. Meri realizes that as long as she refuses to acknowledge them at all, as long as she answers no questions, hears nothing...then she can remain in the loving arms of disbelief. She is not waiting for news, not waiting for someone to pull her out of this nightmare. She is only waiting for Sirius to defy the odds again, like he always does, and return home.
Free of Domino, Sirius journeys deeper into the blue. He's still trying to process what has just happened to him. From his experience within the maze, he's deduced that an individual's persona in life, echoes as energy in death through the beams of the Keywork. If Domino is any kind of example, a tormented person in life is a negative energy in death, whereas a good person in life will output positive energy in the after.
Yet, Sirius still has a great deal to learn. He will soon find that these souls--in all their rage and joy, sadness and virtue--make up the beams of light, eternally forced (or so it seems) to emit energy for the greater good. His next discovery will be that the Keywork doesn't discriminate against positive or negative energy. It's all equally valuable to the output. This is the cause of tremendous unrest within the Keywork, where many of the souls, on either end of the spectrum, protest for their individuality. Most of the entities who've been well-behaved in life, banking on the possibility of a heaven and hell type scenario, are unhappy to find that their 'afterlife' in the Keywork is no better than the 'afterlife' of the entities who were criminals and murderers. Some of those who were hateful in life are angry that they have no chance at redemption in the after...or are content to maintain that attitude. They are all destined to commingle eternally, their energies as diverse here as they were in life. There is no one for them to bring their discontent to, until Sirius shows up, the first human to ever enter the Keywork. Sirius is very attractive to the souls; the good, who want recognition for their positive behavior and the bad entities seeking salvation, who can't attain change in death. They can feel his presence, this man in the after...
The deeper Sirius gets into the Keywork, the more he discovers the parallel world beyond--a never-ending, monochromatic, fictional plane, where these souls remain as tangible energy. It is an entirely neutral place, neither bad nor good. Sirius does not know it yet, but the bland landscape is the projection of the entities, having been exposed to the repeating loop of their lives playing out within the maze, over and over, until even the most poignant moments of their human lives feel mundane. Later, he will come to know this place as The Mono.
Submerged in the unfamiliar, Sirius can't help but try to regain his mental bearings, as if his brain were pushing familiar, comforting things into his mind. Like notches cut into a mountainside as he climbs, these are the spaces to hold on to, to keep him steady; A morning walk with Meri. The tiny smile on her lips as she slept. Her tip-toeing around the kitchen, recreating some elaborate concoction she'd seen on the holoscreen earlier that day. The way she'd scratch her left hand uncontrollaby when she was mad or scared or upset. After years of studying her and working to uncover the structure of his wife, he could list a million things that made up this phenomenon called Meri. A million things to love. A million things he'd already begun to miss.
Sirius explores the world, searching for a way out, he is careful not to draw attention to himself, moving in hidden places as he goes, fully aware that his presence could be catastrophic to the balance here. It appears that the world is contained, endless, yet somehow limited; until he reaches out and finds he is able to physically peel back a portion of the space around him, as if the atmosphere itself was a tangible substance. He's startled and confused to find that the area beyond what's been peeled away is in full, stunning color, similar to that of the planet he knows--only incredible beyond anything anyone could ever comprehend. It is a perfect Utopia beyond this place, bathed in a warm glow...the purest light he's ever seen. His innate tendency to give things definition--to name them--can conjure up nothing. Suddenly, the piece draws back up, concealing his discovery and returning to its previous mundane appearance.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: The world within the Keywork is the first stop of the two levels of the afterlife. The first, where Sirius is at the moment, is actually more of a purgatory, though the souls are unaware that this is not necessarily their final resting place. Life, it turns out, was simply a trial run for this stage, where souls must coexist together with their own individual problems and demands, until they learn that true peace can only come from the shedding of the simplistic human agendas, the letting go of the consciousness reserved for the physical bodies rather than souls. They must let go of everything. Once the souls stop looking out only for themselves--shirking the "me, me, me," attitude that leads to regret, unfinished business and unrest--they can move to the collective consciousness, to the perfect Utopian afterlife.)
Meri realizes she needs to get out of the house. Nearly six months have passed since Sirius was declared dead and she's been struggling with the utter devastation that comes with losing a spouse, coupled with her guilt for the way their relationship had begun to backslide in the time before he left for the Keywork. She has so many doubts...so many questions...so many regrets...but her friends and family keep pushing her to stop acting like she's the one who's dead. In an effort to be around people and remember what it's like to be alive, she decides to stop by a local bar, a low-key pub called The Fair Lady. She is there without any real intentions, planning to have a drink or two, people watch, possibly have a regular chat with someone who won't see her through sympathetic eyes. She's sick of the way everyone looks at her, feeling sorry for her, whispering the dreaded word in hallways far enough away that they believe she can't hear: "Widow."
Her arrival at the bar (and any lack of companion) doesn't go unnoticed, attracting the attention of Dyer Grinlock, a local lowlife who makes himself comfortable on the empty barstool beside her. He boldly strikes up a conversation, noting her wedding band and asking why any man would leave his beautiful wife to drink alone. She is guarded in her answers, thinking to herself that maybe this was the bad idea; maybe she's not ready to mingle after all. Not wanting to be rude, she sips at something strong, as Grinlock continues to try to impress her, eventually slyly knocking the glass over. It smashes on the floor between them.
Realizing that this night is kind of a bust, Meri begins collecting her things, thanking Grinlock for the company, as frustrated tears start to well up in the corners of her eyes. By the time she's turned around from putting her coat on, he's ordered another drink for her, this one with a secret "friend at the bottom"; an illegal tasteless, colorless sedative. She tries to decline, but her pursuer, noting her emotional fragility, tries to keep her there, offering up some words of encouragement. "Sometimes it's a lot easier to see the glass half-full with a glass half-empty. You wanna talk about it?"
Meri smiles begrudgingly, reaching for the glass, just as a man comes, seemingly from out of nowhere and places his hand over the top of the beverage. This is Officer Graves Colten, an undercover police officer who's been watching the whole scene go down. They've been trying to nail this perp for months. His partner cuffs Grinlock, taking him into custody. Colten gives his card to Meri, requesting that she swing by the station the following day to give a report. Little does she know, the officer will eventually become her new love interest.
Very deep into the Keywork now, the scientist in Sirius is making the most of his time there, attempting to collect samples of the residual energy to take back with him. He's hesitant to do or take anything too drastic, nervous that his presence could disrupt the molecular ecosystem, but this discovery of the afterlife has been bigger than he could have ever imagined. Still, he's plagued with nagging questions about the mission. He can't seem to find the way out of this place. What if he never does? His nutrient supply, delivered intravenously via the mobile suit, could, in an emergency, be stretched out longer than expected. But what if Meri was right? What if he's fated to die here within the Keywork?
Though doing his best to remain unseen in the strange world, Sirius can't shake the feeling that something... or someone is following him. The energy around him is relentless, compulsive. His massive helmet blocks some of his peripheral vision as he turns in a full circle to find the source of the energy, his nervousness increasing rapidly to panic.
"Second entity identified," warns the All Mother.
Simultaneously, a flowing form rises from the ground as if it had been lying there facedown all along. Its ethereal, female hands claw their way up his legs frantically, just before making eye contact and entering Sirius' body. The soul has been following him the whole time, her attention growing into fanatical interest in Sirius. This entity doesn't want to take Sirius's body to return to Heaven's Fence. She's mesmerized with this human the souls have deemed the Afterman... and wants to keep him right here.
The panic Sirius felt seconds before is instantly swapped with a sensation of complete obsession, as he is possessed by the shrieking, erratic entity of Holly Wood the Cracked. In Holly's clutches, Sirius relives her frenetic, roller coaster past from within the shifting labyrinth, just as he experienced Domino's.
Holly, in life, was a wannabe starlet, fixated on celebrity. She would do anything to be near fame, going to dangerous lengths to feel she was connected to celebrities, somehow. Concealed beneath her clothes, engraved into her flesh like a trophy case of scars, read the names of the celebs she adored. But of all the idols she lusted over, no one monopolized her attention like Madame Crisis Maroe, a vibrant actress. Holly idolized MCM's every move, mimicking her mannerisms to complete duplication. She regularly stole from the boutique where she worked to mirror the lifestyle of MCM, spending the stolen cash on plastic surgeries, maiming her body in an attempt to resemble the starlet, but becoming a monster-like caricature in the process.
After trying to break into MCM's mansion one night, a restraining order was issued, but it did nothing to deter Holly. On the contrary, it encouraged her to know that now... yes, finally... MCM knew that she existed. It fueled her neuroses, pushing her obsession to its breaking point.
Sirius watches from afar within the liquescent maze of Holly's memories, anticipating how much further this soul could have taken her fixation, unsure what would drive someone to be so consumed... so destroyed by an interest. Is this a lesson he is meant to learn in regard to his own sometimes obsessive attention to his work? Sirius can't be sure as the memory stream of Holly's life builds toward a climax. He can hear her thoughts.
There cannot be two. THE WORLD HAS NO ROOM FOR TWO.
Suddenly, Sirius is at a public appearance of MCM, with people out in droves to see the actress. MCM is supernaturally beautiful, obviously special in a way that surely directed her to fame. Then Holly is there too, without warning, firing a handgun at MCM. No less than five shots. The star falls and in this second, Sirius knows Holly is at her most "cracked."
In retaliation, a handful of security guards, one of them being Sirius who recognizes this is the moment for him to escape the possession, aim to fire back at Holly. Before Sirius can pull the trigger, the entire memory condenses into a solid and begins to combust, cracking apart as if someone is punching their way into the physical structures of the flashback. A series of BOOM's rip through the air, loud and bass-driven enough to break ear drums by way of dislocation.
The words echo through Sirius's consciousness: "He's mine."
A new entity smashes into the scene. This is Vic the Butcher.
Vic was a tyrannical Army Lieutenant General whose lack of empathy and disregard for rules made him very successful. Sirius can see the majority of Vic's conquests in life were based on loopholes, illegal activities, and dirty dealings, yet because of his power, he'd managed to instill fear in so many of those who worked beneath him that his orders remained unquestioned. Even as a young recruit, Vic impressed higher ups, returning from more than one mission as the last man standing, painting himself as stealthy and brave, when in reality, he'd killed the other members of his crew so they wouldn't reveal his torture tactics on the field. Soon, Vic moved up the ranks and began to brainwash his platoons, tormenting those who questioned any of his decisions. More than one promising young soldier returned home from their first off-world military tour with missing limbs, near fatal burns, and wounds inflicted by their very leader as a form of psychological warfare... and all were too terrified to tell. The later part of his military career, while stationed on a distant foreign planet, Vic found out that a band of terrorists were hiding in a nearby camp, amongst a number of innocent people far outweighing that of the enemy.
Knowing that it was against "standard" protocol, he called a promising Sergeant Major named Sentry into his private quarters to give him a secret order to bomb the building. It did not go over well, with Sentry defying the orders, arguing that protocol required they attempt to draw the insurgents out to avoid civilian casualties. Vic assured Sentry that he didn't care what "the book" said and guaranteed that Sentry would regret his insubordination. Regardless, Sentry refused to murder the innocent, and told Vic he planned to report the illegal order to the Field Marshall in their platoon. In retaliation, that night, Vic, a true megalomaniac and ruthless man, ordered Sentry secretly hung by some of his "dirty" soldiers in a deserted portion of the barracks, as he watched.
Sirius witnesses this, trapped in the aqueous barricade and wondering if it's the time that he is meant to act in order to get himself out of Vic's retrospective maze. Surely, someone will intervene, rather than let an innocent man be hung for his refusal to participate in a murder! This HAS to be the moment that Vic is at his most evil. The time that he is truly a butcher? Sirius watches as Sentry's body twists and turns, the life pouring out of him. No one does anything to stop it.
Sirius panics as he looks around for a weapon to try to kill Vic, noticing a gun in the waistband of one of the accompanying soldiers. He grabs for it repeatedly, but the gun is intangible and his fingers can't seem to grasp it. It's as if the weapon is some kind of hologram... something he can't physically touch. Sirius is terrified. How will he be able to remove himself from this possession if he can't pinpoint the right moment?
The maze shape-shifts around Sirius, carrying him forward on a rolling ground swell. After the murder, Vic sent word to Sentry's family that he had committed suicide, citing the intense mental strain of being in the military and expressing his sympathies on behalf of the army. The events jump years later into Vic's life, where he was living domestically in Building 184, a brownstone on the edge of a quiet world with his wife, having retired from the military to avoid the spotlight. His evils finally caught up with him and he was extradited and charged for his heinous war crimes and gross misconduct, with a trial by jury ahead. Vic, refusing to go down in shame and face trial, decided to burn down the building he lived in, with both he and his wife inside... as well as hundreds of other residents and a nursery school on the bottom floor.
The moment shifts, back to the event as if it were happening for the first time; Vic standing there in the basement of the building, the smell of gasoline rising up and soaking everything. It becomes clear to Sirius that THIS is the true epitome of Vic’s terrible crimes. Suddenly, Sirius is Vic, the match flickering in his hands. This, not the hanging of Sentry, is the moment he's been waiting for. Yet, Sirius stands conflicted. To remove himself from the possession, he knows he has to set the fire, but this experience is different. There are children involved. Would going through with this connect him in any way to the murder of innocent people? He's nearly lost in Vic's essence, but he can still make out the line of his own morality. Sirius simply can't set the fire. He extinguishes the flame.
In turn, Sirius feels the soul of Vic the Butcher raging inside him, evil trapped and spreading into his body. The All Mother, speaks to the unconscious Sirius, inquiring about his well-being. His strength and physiological levels are dropping at an unnatural, alarming rate. She survey's the suit. Sirius can't endure anymore or he will die.
The tone begins to shift slowly and a warm light overwhelms him from above, as if the essence of all that is good is pulling him up and out of Vic’s energy.
Now Sirius is being cradled by a new soul, one that has managed to transcend into the Utopia, having shed her human consciousness. This soul is Evagria the Faithful and she has come to rescue Sirius from Vic’s tight grip, bathing the Afterman in healing, positive light as he begins to settle into her expansive, intangible embrace. In her arms, he is able to glimpse the second level of the afterlife, where everything is ideal and incredibly peaceful. There is a soothing light, like a soft focus lens radiating all around, and Sirius, in his poor health, can’t believe what he’s seeing… and this is only a fragment of the beyond. The landscape of this new place is incomparable to anything he knows… abstract and beautiful in the sense that he just can’t understand it. One might call it psychedelic, but more so that it’s entirely incomprehensible and nothing has the same representation it has in the worlds he knows on Heaven’s Fence. This plane of the Keywork is wholly unique, differentiating itself from anything a human could perceive. It’s the culmination of perfect harmony and oneness, where need and desire no longer exist.
Evagria projects faith and an all-encompassing field of vibrations, creating a perimeter around Sirius which keeps all the other souls out and protects Sirius. Evagria chooses to share with him the life she once lived, taking him along on a replaying of her own story. In this case, the events do not appear disheveled and erratic within the same maze Sirius has experienced with the other entities. Instead, they flow in clean, smooth succession like a river.
Evagria is a truly good soul. In her living body, she was always strong and caring, taking care of those around her. She gave of her time through her career in social work, eventually adopting three at risk children on her own, from underfunded orphanages off-world. Evagria focused much of her life on raising them, ensuring they had every advantage in life, starting with a mother who gave them her time. When a political protest tore through her planet, Evagria was one of the first to volunteer at a local hospital to care for the victims, regardless of whether they shared the same views she did. She was unconcerned with petty disagreements and felt that times of collective human suffering were the ideal opportunity to bring people together through compassion.
The pathways open up, trickling gently past Sirius and into the memory of a hospital room, years later, where Evagria laid surrounded by flowers, balloons, and cards pleading with her to ‘get well soon.’ Even when diagnosed with a rare bone disease mid-life, she never showed weakness; rather, she spent her final days comforting her friends and family as they watched her succumb to the devastating disease that kept her in tremendous pain. When she finally passed away, her children were left with a solid set of morals and an understanding that they would carry on the charitable ways of their mother. Evagria’s soul is spiritual and in line with the fair and honest side of humanity. Sirius observes that she is a good Samaritan and in this moment, she comes to act as Sirius’ savior from the souls who want him.
But she can only hold the other entities off so long…
9. Subtraction Edit
In Evagria's embrace, Sirius has a moment of clarity, comprehending more of the complexities of this afterlife. He is aware of at least two separate levels of consciousness within it, allowing unresolved souls to exist eternally within a bland maze that echoes their living energy and the enlightened souls who transcend the maze, moving forward into a Utopia he will ultimately name in honor of the entity, the Samaritaine. Through Evagria, he understands that to progress, one must constantly let go of the qualifiers that define them as an individual, in life and here in death. Sirius reflects on his own life with this knowledge.
He realizes the mission to the Keywork was, of course, about advancing the scientific community and finding truth, but also about his own personal fulfillment. Sirius has always felt he lacked the social advantages of others in finding camaraderie, collaborating with other scientists, making personal connections that may increase funding for his research. Sirius' only leg up was persistence. And it was this relentless refusal to give up that pushed his exploration into uncharted territory-while driving his relationship to a breaking point.
This contemplation leads to his reflection on his marriage and the great love he left behind. In retrospect, he is able to pinpoint dozens of moments that Meri could have seized, to save herself from the great pain he would eventually inflict with his absence.
Sirius has always known this could happen. For years he pleaded that his occupation demanded he put himself in this position. This was the life of a research scientist. But in reality, it was never about what he did for a living. It was the drive to do something more significant than others. Sirius wanted to be proud of himself, to make Meri proud, to keep her near him so she could share this great discovery with him. He believed he could have it all with her by his side, never considering that her love for him would prevent her from agreeing to put him in harm's way. He begins to deeply feel her absence, wishing that she was there to see all the beautiful things he's discovered.
Meri had warned him that she was threatened by his departure to the point of leaving, but how could she be the one to leave if he's destined to be the one who will never return? With these two enormous concepts plaguing his life, Sirius wonders, in death, would his energy resonate the drive that defines him... or would his maze lead up to the moment he deserted his wife?
Part Two: Descension Edit
1. Pretelethal Edit
In this moment the innumerable lost souls of the Keywork, along with the three entities of Domino, Holly, and Vic, start to converge on the safety net of Evagria, reaching for the prize within her: The Afterman. Knowing that she holds the one being who may be able to help free them from this monotonous existence; they bombard her energy with their own needs, clawing at her light, trying to break through her to get to Sirius.
While Evagria is strong, her energy begins to fade, tormented and drained by that of the mobs of unsettled entities. The two planes of the afterworld flicker in and out, moving from the monochromatic, dull nothing into the enlightened beauty, and back. Evagria's grip is loosening, her very being chipping away and cracking. She looks down sadly at Sirius who is too weak to retaliate. His emotional heart is breaking and the walls are closing in. It begins to feel like a lost cause. Sirius may very well spend the last moments of his life here.
Who will repair this broken heart?
The distress call is heard, as Sentry the Defiant charges into the hopeless landscape like a soldier on the front line; quickly driving a wedge between the entities and the ailing Sirius. With the mass of unresolved souls now advancing on Sentry and Evagria, there isn't a moment to spare. Sentry takes over Sirius' body and instantly provides him sustenance. The Afterman becomes strong, his physiological levels returning to near-normal, as the unraveling maze of Sentry's life starts to unfold.
A Sergeant Major in Vic's army, Sentry was slowly climbing his way up to the higher ranks in a completely opposite way than Vic - with hard work and an incredible moral compass. Sirius views a scene he's watched before, where Vic has ordered Sentry to bomb the off-world structure, knowing that innocent people would be slaughtered. In this replay, the order is defied again, with Sentry returning to camp that night and confiding in another sergeant about what had happened, knowing in his heart his disobedience would not be taken lightly by a man like Vic. He intended to notify the Field Marshal the following day, but would not make it through the night alive. When he is found hanged the next morning, his fellow sergeant was too afraid to pass the news on about Vic's illegal orders. The man kept his mouth shut - until years later, when loads of evidence regarding Vic's war crimes began to surface and the sergeant finally came forward about what Sentry had told him that fateful night. Eventually, one of the guards involved in the murder turned himself in, too overcome with guilt to live with his demons any longer.
In addition to being charged for the heinous crimes, Vic was charged with Sentry's murder. In death, Sentry was award a postmortem Medal of Honor, his memory no longer cloaked in the shame of suicide. Rather than a coward, Sentry became a beloved figure, lauded for standing his moral ground and paying with his life.
Still - Sirius realizes as he watches the events pour out - Sentry's tale isn't quite as uplifting as it seems, considering Vic took his own life in the brownstone fire before he'd ever stand trial. Justice could never be served in life, leaving Sentry and Vic with unresolved issues in the afterlife.
There is a physical fight between Sentry and Vic as they go head to head, Vic trying to punish Sentry. Sirius is caught in the middle of this, fighting AS Sentry because he is still in his possession, when it occurs to him that he may be able to give Sentry the insight he needs to move into the second level. Having experienced Evagria's feeling of complete contentment, Sirius believes he understands the difference between her and the entities who remain in the middle plane is that the souls here seem unable to look past unresolved issues from their lifetimes. They carry the emotions from the world into the afterlife and it hinders them from moving on.
Within their shared mind, as Vic continues to throw blows, Sirius backtracks within Sentry's maze, searching frantically for the memory of Sentry's hanging. Consumed by this entity, he feels the need to convince him to stop fighting back and to let go of this worldly grudge. The walls of the maze turn inside out, appearing to almost regurgitate the memories back. Sirius finally spots the familiar scene - the damp, dark barracks where Sentry's life came to an end.
Sirius sees Sentry's body dangling from the ceiling... the cloth wrapped tightly around his neck... his limbs shaking... the group of soldiers looking on, unaffected. Standing below him, Sirius urges Sentry to wipe this moment, to wipe all his human moments from his mind. Still in Sentry's possession, Sirius warns him that to continue holding onto this, will doom him to relive these memories forever.
It doesn't matter now, Sentry. Just let it go. Move beyond. This moment does not define you.
The entire scene stops; flash frozen in time. Then, as if a tiny pebble had been dropped within the molten image, a small ripple begins to flow out from Sentry's abdomen... followed by another and another still. Without warning, the noose around Sentry's neck bursts apart, light poking through his entire body like a million pin pricks. A heat fills the space, spreading out into every crevice of the maze. Sentry remains suspended where he once hung, now floating, cloaked in the same ethereal glow of Evagria. Sirius watches, his eyes wide and his own cognition returning as the entity slowly begins to peel apart from his awareness. It's as if someone suddenly switched on every light in existence, flooding the world with radiance.
Sentry has crossed over.
Sirius is captivated, held in disbelief that he's witnessed this extraordinary thing. With droves and droves of entities, including Domino and Holly Wood approaching to occupy his body, his enchantment quickly comes to an end. With no other choice, he faces the swarm of souls moving toward him. He's afraid, but not nearly ready to give up.
Just in time, Evagria consumes Sirius, bringing him along with her to the dimension of enlightenment. This is more than a glimpse. He can see it in its entirety now, in all its glory. Yet, as quickly as he arrived, he must leave. Evagria waves her hand - as if using her fingers to cut an opening in the space around her - and pulls up a portion of the materialized energy like a fishing net, showing Sirius the way out.
Free of all the stifling vapors of the Keywork, the All Mother attempts to reconnect with remnants of the Meriwell to magnify their transmission signal to Heaven's Fence. The attempt fails. Relying on the only other option, she provides Sirius with the odds of survival for a descent back; the suit his only protection. She explains that his time spent in the Keywork is unlike the time measured on the Fence. What feels to Sirius like a week, has in actuality been 547 days. Her tone suggests that in his absence things have undoubtedly changed, asking him "Do you still want to go home?"
That, is all he wants to do.
The All Mother plots the course of their return. If Sirius is able to navigate the descent before they break the atmosphere of Heaven's Fence, it's possible for him to land on a satellite station outside the planet Morlunus. If he misses the station, he will essentially free fall the remaining distance back to Heaven's Fence, the gravitation pull of the Keywork playing a dangerous factor. His odds of survival would decrease significantly.
The All Mother gives the prompt. Despite her being created for the singular purpose of serving him, Sirius thanks her for her service and for keeping him company on this lonely journey.
He glances at the fiery light of the Keywork one last time. It remains as incredible as the first time he peered up toward it as a child, that gleaming cobalt structure lighting the sky and igniting so many questions within him. Only now, Sirius looks at it as a country conquered, as a new language finally mastered that he alone can understand. He's ready to return now to Meri, to the familiarity of his laboratory, to the normalcy he didn't know he'd miss so badly.
Initiate the free fall.
Against the odds, Sirius is able to make contact with the Morlunus space station, after air traffic control notices an unidentified object barreling toward the station and offer their assistance bringing him safely down. They're shocked that he's alive (not to mention, proud to be involved in the biggest news story of the year) and help to transport Sirius back to his home planet, where the whole world is waiting with bated breath to hear the story of the man who defied all odds for a glimpse at the unknown.
Upon returning to Valencine, Sirius is taken in for debriefing, but given the traumatic nature of his voyage, it's decided he should be given some recovery time. As many truths tend to be, Sirius quickly realizes the things he witnessed in the Keywork could create complications for the people of Heaven's Fence and more persecution for himself in the scientific community. Equally as important is the difficulty of coming home alive to a world who has already accepted his death. A great deal can happen in 547 days and Sirius has been mourned, his loss accepted by his friends and family, who've begun to move on. His entire return is a hard sell.
Sirius confides in his mentor, Dr. Allen Linkev, a man he's trusted for decades, who thinks of Sirius as his own son. Linkev believes the discovery could be catastrophic, especially for someone who may want to try to harness the powerful souls of the Keywork. Linkev cautions that for the public to know that an afterlife exists, that it's not what they have thought it would be and that their behavior in life holds no real weight on the after—could change the equilibrium of humanity, creating Fence-wide depression and potentially mass hysteria. Sirius respects Linkev's opinion, but wonders if he could use the discovery to help people transcend? Linkev argues that some things are better left untampered with.
Still, Sirius has given up so much to make this discovery, believing in truth so deeply that he put an irreparable strain on his marriage in the name of seeking it. Now he's expected to keep that truth to himself?
Recognizing Sirius's indecision about keeping the makeup of the Keywork to himself, the Prise decide to pay him a visit. They reinforce Linkev's sentiments, explaining to Sirius that he has stumbled upon a secret of the universe which only the Prise were meant to know. Entrusted with the duty of protecting the structure and all its mysteries, they would be forced to view any exposure of those mysteries as an open declaration of war against them. This is information of the highest security and though they can do nothing about Sirius having found it out, should he share it with the others, he must understand that he'd be firing the first shot in a planetary war which mankind could never win.
A press conference is held a few days later, to hear about the discoveries of this man who defied death in the name of science. Up to this point, Sirius has not been able to commit to keeping the secret of the Prise to himself, deciding he will know the right decision when it sits before him. An older brunette reporter from a Fence-wide news network poses the first question, "Mr. Amory, can you tell us about your findings?"
As Sirius stands before the sea of press, he can feel the excitement, almost electric in the packed to capacity conference room. Bubbling up even more steadily in the audience, he feels a different emotion emitting from the crowd: Fear. Fear of the unfamiliar, fear of what this scientist might have to say, fear of having to question things they held true. He knows at that moment, it is not his place to share what he has learned.
Sirius substitutes an algorithm, combining physics, molecular structure and chemistry to scientifically explain away his findings about the energy of the Keywork and its relationship to the colony. The research community is thrilled. This is a theory they can finally wrap their heads around... one that follows the scientific method and can be replicated on their terms. The mission is the biggest historical accomplishment for mankind. He is honored with the first of an award created in his name: The Amory Award. In his acceptance speech, Sirius watches the crowd smiling back at him, the pride on their faces, the hope they have in something bigger than themselves... and he knows he's made the right choice. The impact of his choices in his personal life, however, haven't proven as positive.
Meri has a difficult time handling the abrupt return of her husband, who's reentered her life suddenly and without warning, like some living ghost. Of course she's never stopped loving Sirius, but after dealing with the stages of grief and finally accepting a future of which he has no part; it's not easy to revert to what feels like a different lifetime. She's since cultivated a relationship with Colten, her knight-in-shining-armor from the bar. Colten, who never denied thinking Meri was the embodiment of his ideal woman from the moment he'd spotted her... who was patient with her indecision... who wanted nothing more than to discover everything about Meri with the same intensity Sirius had given to his work.
As the worlds at large champion Sirius' return, Meri struggles to find out where she falls in all that has happened. Would she appear a villain, leaving her husband; this hero who has returned as if he were a prisoner of war? Is love reason enough to backslide into a life that at times made her feel like she was on the outside looking in, when she's just getting settled into a new life where she is the epicenter? There are too many emotions for her to process, too many variables and uncertainties. And there is one more thing: It turns out Sirius is not the only one in the Amory family who can keep a secret: Meri's made a discovery of her own.
4. Number City Edit
We flash forward from the acceptance of the Amory Award to the scene of a tragic accident. The medical response crew is already there. The EMTs survey the scene of the crash, unable to determine exactly why the driver lost control.
It's as if the vehicle exploded from within on collision, sending burning hunks of metal flying out in every direction at speeds so high that police find an entire melted door wrapped around a tree twenty feet away. There are shards of glass strewn about in every shape and size, reflecting the periwinkle glow of the Keywork as if the ground is sprinkled with stars. The victims were both ejected from the vehicle. The EMTs find Sirius first, who's been knocked nearly unconscious and is in critical condition. Meri is found contorted on the ground nearly five yards away, her limbs positioned at fatal angles. It's obvious she's taken the much harder hit in the crash.
The EMTs rush to get her on a stretcher, taking a blood sample for the transfusion she urgently needs. So much blood. Everywhere. Sirius struggles to listen to what's going on, his trauma reducing most of the medical jargon to calculations and numbers. The figures mean nothing to him but the passing of seconds... the fading of existence.
As they load Meri into the ICU emergency transport, the sample reveals more than a blood type, her body giving up the secret she'd been hiding. Her heart stops moments after and the EMTs work to kick start it again using a defibrillator as they speed off toward the hospital.
We rewind back, just before the crash, to Sirius and Meri driving home together from the award ceremony. It's been a whirlwind since his return. A quick, intensely powerful tornado that picks up entire homes and drops them somewhere else. Her heart has been displaced and she's quietly contemplated where to go from here, finally deciding that she can't stay with Sirius.
Meri begins the conversation, telling Sirius how inexplicably proud she is of him. She knew the day would come that he'd be revered. He's far surpassed the goals he set out for himself and deserves the recognition that has been his reward. For her to bask in the glow of his glory - to continue on as if nothing has changed - would be unfair to him. They've both made sacrifices... but sacrifice, at times, meant one another.
She recalls a moment before the mission and the choice he made. Sirius can't help but feel she isn't being fair. "There was never a choice, Meri," an impassioned Sirius retorts, "And sacrifice? In the grand scheme of things, a year and a half of sacrifice in order to change the world doesn't seem so terrible. Can't you see? I came back for you!"
Meri confesses that she'll always love Sirius, but his absence has set in motion the irreversible reality that she cannot change. Sirius' anxiety starts to build as he continues driving. She reveals her relationship with Colten and that she's 3 months pregnant. Sirius is aghast, the news rips through him harder than any entity had, the shock causing him to lose his train of thought and instantly takes his attention from the road. The vehicle jumps the divider and smashes head-on with a massive ground freighter, sending them both rocketing out of the windshield, lives reduced to nameless weight and mass. The couple are suspended in motion for one perfect second, before dropping dangerously to the pavement.
Rushed to the hospital, the couple is attended to by Dr. Straight, the man who saves the life of Sirius. Meri suffered a miscarriage on impact, but the doctor and his team are working tirelessly to save her.
6. Away We Go Edit
Many believe that just before you die, as the body flips between unconsciousness and cognizance, there is a profound experience. It can be described like oil and vinegar, or oil and vinegar and a million other ingredients, standing perfectly well on their own, each able to hold up their structure despite coexisting in one container together. If the body is like a container, the ingredients are ideas, abstractions like dreams, schemas of the afterlife, memories from the best and worst days we lived, repetition that has engrained itself into our perception; shapes, sequences, feelings, choices, jingles we learned in school to memorize something important. There are the things we cannot remember consciously and the things we spend a lifetime trying to forget. In our final moments, perhaps it's as if the container is suddenly shaken up, taking all of our individual reveries and forcing them together, until what we believed to only make sense as separate, compartmentalized thoughts now seem incredibly clear as a single, fluid experience.For Meri Amory, this moment occurs from a gurney, where Dr. Straight and his team of specialists are doing everything they can to pull her from the grip of death. To her, the doctors are faceless white apparitions moving around a room that has metamorphosed into a collage of landscapes, events and ruminations. She views the space around her with newborn eyes. She is walking across a bridge, high above the trees. There are elaborate gazebos with pillars and columns hidden within them. She walks without a purpose, breathing in air so pure she believes she must be the first person to ever have breathed it.
Slowly, swirling in like a plastic bag caught up in a gust of wind, a sphere of light approaches, rings of color radiating and growing until the center is stretched so far it opens wide, leaving a hole of nothingness there. From the void, a small balcony draws out like an ellipse, a living gateway appearing there; a cloak extending forth a transparent figure from within that beckons to her, guides her. Meri continues to move down the path presented by the figure, knowing exactly where to go, despite never having been here before... she feels at ease... she's going home...
Then Meri is at the beach and she has definitely been here. Planet Hetricus. The Jersey City dunes. She's much younger and she's walking to meet a boy she's only met once before. Her pulse quickens, anticipating the encounter as she moves toward a rickety dock, completely overdressed for the midday heat. She can hear the trapped drum of her heart amidst the crash and slush of the waves. It's as if she might reach out and touch all the possibilities, all the promise this moment holds.
He sees her first. From then on, he'd constantly remind her that's how it happened. "I watched you come over that little wooden dock and we may as well have walked down the aisle then and there," he'd say. Eventually she would grow to question whether he'd changed his mind.
But, not now. Now is pure magic for a girl and a young scientist finding out for the first time that not everything can be explained away with a little logic.
Finally, she sees him. He is love personified. There are no awkward words exchanged. There are no words at all yet, but an embrace held long enough to convey the feelings of two people glad to see each other, happy to no longer be apart. In this case, people who have been kept apart their entire lives and are only now realizing how much they've missed the other. "It's nice to see you again, Sirius," she says. The boy opens his mouth to agree. Meri knows what he will say. She's thought of this moment over and over for the better half of her adult life.
But rather than words, a warm glow begins to emit from Sirius' mouth, as if he's breathing light around her, surrounding and comforting her. Now the waves have stopped where they rise, flattening out into a vastness that could go on forever, familiar likenesses and places developing in the transparency of the liquid.
Through the afterglow enveloping her, Meri watches as Sirius closes his eyes and disappears; the landscape reworking itself into an intricate labyrinth, massive doors opened in front of her. She, like those before her, will traverse this place indefinitely, into the world of the unknown, until the new becomes the monochromatic plane where wayward souls reside before they transcend... if they ever do.
With certainty and contentment she looks ahead, taking the first step into the maze.
Away we go.
Sirius is released from the hospital two weeks later. A car is hired to bring him home as he's refused rides from everyone he knows. He does not want to see his friends or family, he doesn't want to talk to anyone. He needs this time alone to reflect on the devastating loss of his wife and the sequence of events leading up to it.
He watches out the window in the backseat. The day is beautiful, calm, clear. The indigo blaze of the Keywork seems warmer than usual, as if it were burning a little brighter now that it is home to the light of his life. The birds are singing. Sirius thinks to himself that this is the exact type of day Meri would have enjoyed and the realization that she is gone and not coming back punches him straight in the chest again. He thinks he may be sick and rolls down the window. He considers throwing himself from the moving vehicle, but he can't be moved to care about anything enough at this point to take action. This is a pain he can't medicate and a phenomenon he can't research his way out of. He's devastated.
Sirius' thoughts turn to regret for moments in their life together where his obstinacy got in the way of letting him show his real feelings for Meri. When she confessed on the drive, just before the crash, that she had found someone who not only put her first, but had given her the child she always wanted, Sirius was furious. Not at Meri... not even at Colten. He was angry with himself for not being the man to give her those things.
He had been stubborn, maybe even cruel in his departure from her, when she'd only wanted to love and keep him safe. He thought he'd feel fulfilled journeying into the Keywork; that he'd finally do something outstanding by discovering what no one had been able to see. Instead, he realizes that none of the things he's accomplished matter as much to him as Meri.
Now, like some universal attempt at irony, she has left for the Keywork without him. Only she won't be coming back.
On the long ride home, Sirius thinks about a small plaque that sits on Allen Linkev’s desk, spelling out words of wisdom he often hears his mentor repeat: No man is an island.
“Mr. Amory,” he’d begin, his tiny eyebrows joining forces with the deep crinkle in his forehead, “We are not made to go through existence entirely on our own. By joining our lives with others, only then can we become strong continents.” It would not occur to Sirius until now that Linkev had been cautioning him specifically. Sirius had tried to remain an island his entire life.
As a scientist, he chose to research ideas no one else believed in, thinking that he must be the only man who truly understood the universe at work. Looking back, he’s suddenly aware that he picked those topics because they were areas where he didn’t have to rely on anyone else. He could remain in his own isolated brain without having to answer to other opinions or hypotheses. This character flaw eventually reared its head in his personal life, too, causing him to push people away without knowing it. He kept Meri at arm’s length – not intentionally – but because it’s the only way he’s ever known.
Without warning, a storm begins to roll in just as Sirius arrives home carrying nothing but the clothes he and Meri had been wearing before the crash. He refused to let the hospital dispose of them. Scientists have a hard time throwing things away, thoroughly documenting all research so that it can never be lost. The bits of cloth left from the accident are empirical evidence of the last time his world would make sense.
As he hobbles toward the front porch of the modest home he shared with Meri, his legs relying on two custom-fitted steel extensions to do the work as they heal, he feels something is not right. A man he’s never seen before is there, sitting on the floor, his head tilted back against the wall of the house. At the sound of Sirius’ footsteps, the man straightens, looking up with red, swollen eyes. His brain functioning slower than usual, Sirius catches a glimpse of the badge and instantly wonders if this police officer has come with even more bad news. His hair stands on end as he realizes who the man is. Colten.
The officer watches the ground as Sirius walks toward the porch, avoiding eye contact, seeming to work at avoiding any interaction altogether. Sirius puts the key in the door, half of him wondering if he can get inside without any confrontation, the other half hoping the man opens fire, raining down a barrage of punishment for all Sirius has taken from him. He receives neither. Only one word: “Why,” Colten breathes, the utterance less a question than a judgment.
Sirius can’t find a single reply for a query that has so many answers: Because I shouldn’t have gone without her. Because I wanted redemption. Because I wanted to come home. Because emotions were high and I lost control of the vehicle. Because the transport we collided with was so much bigger. Because your unborn child was too fragile and Meri’s heart was too weak and sometimes medicine fails us... and I’m perpetually failing.
Because you’re a better man than I could hope to be.
He doesn’t have to say anything as Colten stands – lack of sleep and emotional devastation creating the illusion he is far older than he is – and says, “You had a million chances to play the hero for her, but you made your choice and hers too. You left that woman in the dark and came back like you could just turn the light on? If you loved her, you would’ve stayed up there, Sirius. You would have let her go.”
Colten shakes his head, walking off the porch into the downpour, leaving Sirius to shout out into the rain, “I’m sorry!”
He repeats the phrase over and over, crumbling down into himself on the welcome mat, his keys still in the door.
Sirius reconnects to the All Mother mainframe, her programming upgraded and implanted inside the mobile suit. This ship – he calls it Saudade – is far more advanced than the last he guided into the reaches beyond Heaven’s Fence, acquired through a generous grant meant to continue his exploration of the Keywork. Sirius gladly accepted the funding, but with very different intentions as to how he will use it. He cannot divulge why he is going – after all, no one within Heaven’s Fence knows about the truth of the Keywork. Now, he has abandoned all his previous motivations, to focus on a new one entirely: Sirius will return to the Keywork to give his wife what he couldn’t in life.
“I am coming back to you, Meri. I can’t change the past, but I can give you something better. I can give you everything.”
Sirius knows from witnessing it firsthand that the Keywork holds the secret to the afterlife. Meri’s soul must be there and he’s going to locate her, to help her transcend to the Samaritaine, the Utopia he knows exists beyond. He was wrong about his last voyage – it was not the greatest journey of his life. It was just the beginning.
He programs the Keywork into the All Mother’s navigation system and she questions him, asking if maybe he’s requesting the wrong coordinates. He assures her that the destination is not a mistake. He is ready to return. She is unsure what is driving him there again, considering she operates entirely on rational decisions and revisiting a place that nearly killed him doesn’t seem like a very sound choice to make.
“Sirius, is this what love is?” she questions.
He answers, “Yes.”
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