Beckel killed himself every day. He knew Hell's guards had no compassion, but he hoped curiosity itched their hides. Although he was immortal, it still hurt every time. A bonus was that it kept the resident goons off his back. With his foppish human looks he'd been branded sweetmeat as soon as he'd arrived. But after a few stunts like thrusting his head into a lava pool till his skull melted, or kicking a sabre-toothed hyena where it hurt while it was tearing flesh off another inmate, even the hardballs opted for less psychotic targets.
But he wasn't mad. He was a survivor.
And he had a plan.
He was going to be the first person, ever, to escape from Hell.
Every time he died he pictured the face of the man he was going to destroy as soon as he got out: Decker. His only remaining son, who had tricked him, got him here in the first place.
A Grindle knocked into his back, sending him sprawling onto the hot rocks. Beckel scrunched his eyes as pain skewered into his outstretched palms -- it was impossible not to, even after four years of third degree burns every day; there was no way to switch off his neural responses. The Grindle -- a cross between a polar bear and a one-eyed rhino, grinned at Beckel, daring him as he got back to his feet. A few other alien inmates looked up briefly to see what would happen. Beckel bent over and picked up a red-hot rock, hefting it in scalding hands. If he landed it, the Grindle would catch fire, and with all that fur ... Grinning through gritted teeth, he tossed the glowing stone from one scarring palm to the other, thinking: Decker ... Decker ... Decker ... His eyes met the Grindle's. The rhino horn swayed in the steamy air, then turned and shuffled off. He dropped the rock. He could have torched the Grindle, but then its mates would make the rest of Beckel's day even more intolerable, and he was already close to breaking point.
Beckel glanced around, and the other aliens turned back to whatever they weren't doing. No humans of course. He'd finished most of them off himself twenty years earlier, sold their ripe DNA to an alien race called the Skrim, in exchange for immortality and a tidy sum to last him an extended lifetime: why Decker had sent him to Hell in the first place.
Which was not completely fair. Sure, Beckel had signed away Earth's entire population -- plus Mars and the Moon's satellite stations in a three-for-one deal -- but the Skrim were going to take what they wanted anyway. They preferred some kind of legitimacy to keep the Rangers off their backs, which Beckel's signature and authority as head of Earth Asteroid Trading and Mining Enterprises kind of gave them, but they'd have gone ahead and harvested Earth without it.
It was Earth's own fault, too. If they'd been nicer to him, instead of over-looking his career aspirations and side-lining him into a dead-end job in the asteroid belt, he might have been more sympathetic. And as for giving him Earth's missile defence codes -- such naivety didn't merit survival in Beckel's view.
Last but not least, the Skrim had given him immortality -- after a fashion -- sub-space back-up to rebuild him with real-time mem-feed. Even if he was vaporised, he'd come back within an hour. How many would have turned down such an offer?
His bastard son, for one. He'd never really known him, having divorced the kid's mother when Decker was a toddler. And now his own offspring had tricked him here. Beckel kicked a rock, a big one, so that it hurt his toes. If only he hadn't picked up that innocuous looking ion bar. He'd held it only for a second, it had glowed red, and then ... he'd arrived in Hell, courtesy of a teleportation device that went way beyond anything the Hundred Races dreamt of, even the Skrim. The thin metal rod had disappeared on arrival, naturally.
He had the faintest glimmer of respect for his offspring; at least it showed some wile left in the family genes. But when you're immortal, family lose their appeal real fast, and Decker had to go ... But first, Beckel had to escape from Hell.
Back to the Plan. He scouted for the Anacraeon, who had the key, literally. He went by the name of Klotchnik, and was already wary of Beckel, because they shared a secret -- there was a way out, and a way back in. Klotchnik was here doing research, so he'd said. Well, you get used to "weird" fast in this place.
Beckel paused on a hillock. Hell was full of hills and ravines: loose, sharp stones everywhere, and no shoes or anything that could serve as footware. Most of the stones were the colour of mud, from the dried blood of any being stupid enough to go walking. Aliens capable of flying had their wings clipped or air sacs punctured on arrival -- now they looked really depressed.
But four years of dying at least once a day had taken its toll on Beckel. He'd seen the way some of the long-termers looked at him when they thought he wasn't looking back, with a kind of pity: 'poor sucker, he won't last much longer.' Well, damn them to ... hmm. He picked up his pace.
He scoured the waxy horizon for patches of white fur, for Grindle. He'd made a deal -- that's what he was best at. He hoped they were ready, in place. He'd planned this a long time. If it failed ... He cut himself off. Pessimism was for losers. Besides, he wasn't sure he could face the alternative.
He stumbled for hours under violet clouds, the occasional lightning shard ending in an alien scream -- the bolts always found a target, him included once or twice.
That was the most common misconception about hell -- that it was eternal, you couldn't die there, would burn forever, etc. Bull. And it wasn't about religion, either. He'd gradually pieced it together, mainly from conversations with the taciturn Klotchnik. This is what he'd found out.
Hell was an alien soul processing factory, hidden inside the only white hole in the galaxy, close enough to the galactic core that there weren't many callers, and even if there were, the only way in and out was with a special key.
The story went that there were these really old races in the galaxy -- probably from another one, originally. Beckel didn't know their name, so he called them the Progenitors. After millions of years they got bored of life and their sentience tended to bleed away into subspace. They lost the will to continue. They'd seen it all: fantastic civilisations, meeting and cross-breeding new races, inter-galactic battles, you name it. After millions of years of being top dog, they simply lost interest and gave up.
So, this other race -- the Zarghyliss -- fairly advanced themselves, and not lacking a nasal orifice for an emerging market with a steep profit margin, came up with an idea. What the Progenitors needed was to start again. Of course they'd tried it -- mindwiping, meshing with alien hosts, even going the Gaia route and merging their sentience with planets or stars. In the end it was as unsatisfying as everything else, because ... the Progenitors' very souls were tired of life. And so, the Zarghyliss figured, they needed new souls. Fresh ones.
In practice, recycled would do.
And it wasn't religion or hokum either: it was hard science. Okay, maybe a little squidgy.
Beckel's only analogy was humanity's pitiful late twenty-first century technology, still rooted in the ubiquitous ISOSIM chip. Ubiquitous, that is, before he colluded in wiping out humanity.
He'd had the usual gadgets like everyone else in Earth's backwaters -- comms, instant wiki-learning, and entertainment on tap with full-sense immersion. All the gear had a single address. The beauty was that if you lost the gear or, more likely, had it stolen, you still had your ISOSIM address, and could start again, downloading files you'd stored in the sub-space Cloud. The soul, Klotchnik had explained on one of his more lucid days, was like an ISOSIM card. In theory you could erase the software -- the personality, memories, and all that, and install a new one. In theory ...
Beckel had been more than a little surprised that a hundred scientifically-advanced, space-faring races still had truck with a concept such as a soul. Truth was, many didn't, but then there was the "clone conundrum," which was something he'd already heard about.
Clones had been around for some time. Even back on Earth scientists had finally produced some of the human variety, but there had been a problem. They had no personality. No spark. Instead they were dull, dull, dull. In the end most of them were either put down or sent to work in the asteroid mines, but they weren't even good workers. Klotchnik confirmed it: clones had no soul, no equivalent of an ISOSIM card to drive the software, to energize a bunch of ideas and preferences and attitudes into a real, living being. The soul, or Universal Personality Locating Address (UPLA, pronounced 'Oop-la'), according to leading scientists, existed on some sub-spatial plane not yet accessible to contemporary detection methods.
So, back to the problem -- how to clean a soul and make it ready for a new user. It turned out that once a soul has a life, a personality, it's really hard to erase it. The personality is like an anti-virus system; it rejects re-programming and is every bit as tenacious as a virus. Very hard to wipe.
And so the Zarghyliss came up with an ingenious idea. A factory for recycling souls. All they had to do was make the original owner of the soul give it up. While plenty of beings said they'd had enough, souls are resilient when it comes to survival, so in practice it takes a lot more persuasion. Usually a seriously unbearable existence without hope for a few years, ten at tops, does the trick, especially if mixed in with frequent painful deaths.
Beckel had seen some go pretty fast, a matter of months. Others -- old hands -- had been around for a century or more. He reckoned their souls must fetch a high price. If he ever got out, he'd consider buying shares in the place -- as a prelude to a hostile takeover.
The details of how the Progenitors downloaded into the recycled souls were fuzzy. Klotchnik had tried to explain, but Beckel didn't have the math or physics to follow it. Point was, sales were up, and the Milky Way's reprobates -- an endless supply chain once you thought about it -- got their just dessert. Apparently, most rejuvenated Progenitors left the galaxy afterwards and headed out to explore new ones. Beckel appreciated the business model, your basic win-win paradigm, except that he was trapped in the processing chain ...
He tripped on a vine he was sure hadn't been there a second ago, and tumbled down an escarpment in a cloud of choking dust. A small avalanche of rocks and pebbles peppered his head as he scraped to a halt on the hot, rocky floor.
The voice made him flinch more than the burning rocks.
He stood up and dusted himself down, patting the small flames that tried to gain purchase on his meagre clothes.
"Klotchnik, my dear friend, how the hell are you?" He grinned at his own pun.
Klotchnik had three grey eyes, all of which winked at different intervals, and four stringy arms. Beckel assumed Klotchnik was male. He'd never inquired. Asking aliens their sex was invariably misinterpreted, usually resulting in uninvited copulation or a fight, such acts often difficult to tell apart even if you were participating. Anyway, he perched on his two hind, furry legs. There was no obvious mouth. Beckel was never sure if Klotchnik actually spoke, or was telepathic.
His head swivelled away from Beckel to survey the vast plain below, a searing desert bordered by heat-rippled mountains shimmering in the distance. It had taken Beckel five days and five lives to cross it. Same coming back. Dying of sunstroke wasn't in his top ten favourite ways to go. There was nothing over there. That was the point, just another way to squeeze hope out of the more arduous inmates. It had almost worked.
"What is it you're actually researching?" Beckel had tried engaging Klotchnik in conversation about his home planet, or nebula as it turned out, but Anacraeons were very secretive about their home territory.
"Not a way to get home," Beckel continued, filling in the usual conversational void, "we both know you already have that." He'd already attacked Klotchnik several times in an attempt to find the ion bar he knew was hidden somewhere. It was Beckel's ticket home, if he could steal it.
One of Klotchnik's eyes sprung out on a stalk, staring at Beckel, perhaps anticipating another attack.
Beckel squatted on his haunches, one of only two postures possible that didn't burn. He never slept -- you can't sleep when you're on fire, no matter how tired you are. That was part of the Hell package, too: permanent insomnia. He'd gotten used to it. But thinking in a straight line was increasingly difficult. This plan was his last hope. If it didn't work ... He didn't want to go there, where every other resident lived, with Hell on the inside, too.
He waited. He'd learned not to shift on his feet despite the slow-burn sole-grilling of the rocky floor -- best to stay still. He listened for a long time, then heard it. One of Klotchnik's three ears pricked up, then another, then the third, each facing in a different direction. A faraway sound like an elephant doing the rising trot, or rather a lot of them doing it, keeping time, getting closer. Beckel remained still. The sound appeared to be coming from all directions, because it was. A tightening noose.
Klotchnik rose -- Beckel had never seen him stand tall before, always moving between one crouch level and another -- and was surprised to see him reach three metres. Still Beckel stayed put. The ground-thumping noise had grown from a distant knocking to a hammering din. It was all around them. A circle. Beckel heard his own heart beat, too.
Klotchnik swayed a little, looking this way and that, seeking an escape route. But there was none. Beckel had seen to that. He almost felt sorry for Klotchnik.
Klotchnik scampered over sideways like a crab, looming over him. "What have you done, Beckel? Who is coming and why?"
Beckel stayed on his haunches. It occurred to him that such strong thigh muscles as he'd developed would be great for the ski slopes of Orion Major, when he got out. He suppressed the idea; he wasn't there yet. He didn't look up.
"You have something I want," he said, deadpan. There. One thing he still had the knack of was cutting to the core deal, leaving out all the reasoning, positioning, politicking, social niceties, and not-so-niceties.
Klotchnik vibrated. Beckel didn't know what emotion, if any, it signified. He doubted it was fear; anger maybe. The rumbling of the Grindle herd, around two hundred of them, was getting louder. They'd waited for Beckel's signal, which he'd given that morning to the Grindle who'd knocked him over.
Klotchnik stretched his neck even higher, presumably able to see the tops of the herd trundling his way, and then stooped to Beckel's level.
"How did you do it?"
Beckel had to respect Klotchnik; the Anacraeon was a true researcher, always trying to understand 'why' even when a couple hundred Grindle were coming to render him two-dimensional. It was a good question. There was nothing to barter with in Hell, no smokes, drugs, or meal portions, and inter-alien sexual favours were pretty unappetising, and from what he could see, judging from the aftermath, mutually painful. Besides, when two aliens did get it on, the chances of being struck by lightning just before climax went up dramatically.
"Envy," he said.
Klotchnik drew back, standing tall again. "Interesting," he said.
Beckel had nothing to bargain with except base emotions. He'd told the Grindle that one creature, and one creature alone, had a way out, and could leave at any time. Grindle were true herd creatures -- all for one and one for all, and applied their philosophy to everyone else. The very idea that one being had a way out and kept it for himself incensed them, and Beckel stoked them up until they agreed to work together to destroy this aberration. Beckel assumed -- hoped -- that it would trigger Klotchnik to reveal the ion bar, his ticket out of Hell. It wasn't much of an escape plan, but Beckel's brain was so griddled it was the best he could muster.
The ground shook, and Beckel caught the first whiff of the herd's rancid scent. He stood. "Time to go?" It would do him no good if the Anacraeon decided to stay. For the first time, Beckel felt his plan falter -- he'd assumed Klotchnik would save himself, would produce the bar, giving Beckel an opportunity to seize it. But what if he didn't? This was his only chance at escape -- ever. Tightness suddenly wrenched at his gut -- his four years in Hell had felt like a slow descent into the abyss, supported by a gossamer thread stretched taut, ready to snap at any moment, at which point he'd fall, give up, and he'd lose his soul.
The idea that Klotchnik would just allow himself to be stampeded to death didn't produce so much a sinking feeling, more like a whole planet hanging above him ready to squash him into the ground. A cold sweat broke out across Beckel's face and back, his first since arriving. With a major effort, he switched off that line of thought.
Still Klotchnik remained where he was, waiting, one of his eyes on Beckel, the other two watching the swirl of dust as the Grindle herd arrived, horns jabbing left and right, fore-hooves clawing the dusty rocks, wall-to-wall one-eyed rhinos glaring. Beckel could smell their breath. Putrid didn't cover it.
Klotchnik, now using all three eyes, stared them down. Not good. Beckel felt his soul's lifeline split and fray. Klotchnik was going to let himself be killed after all. Beckel undoubtedly would meet the same fate in the process, but that hardly mattered. He slumped. He'd never be able to pull off a stunt like this again. Most likely he'd never see Klotchnik again. Beckel foresaw a hundred, a thousand miserable deaths, and even the lust for vengeance against his son wouldn't sustain him. He wondered if the new owner of his soul would know or feel anything of its former occupant: most likely not. That was the whole point, after all: delete the software.
The head Grindle lifted its head and roared. Beckel winced -- being mashed by a hundred rhino horns was going to hurt. Decker had won after all. He stared at the ground, not looking up as the Grindle herd charged in unison, a battering ram approaching from all directions. He didn't tense; sometimes it's best not to. His line snapped. He closed his eyes.
And felt a hand on his shoulder, and the touch of a cool ion bar in his palm.
Beckel awoke in a small craft wafting around in a scarlet and azure nebula. It was the most beautiful thing he could remember seeing. Klotchnik was in front of him operating incomprehensible controls. Beckel cleared his throat.
"The bar was inside your body all this time?"
The Anacraeon did not answer, but did not refute, so Beckel took it as a 'yes'. He was still shaky, not from a near-death experience -- he had those by the bucket-load -- but from losing his confidence for the first time in his life.
"Why ... why did you save me?"
The Anacraeon made a human gesture with its shoulders. It looked a bit awkward, but Beckel was sure it was a shrug. And then Klotchnik spoke.
"You humans too few. Was not studying Hell. Studying rare breed. You." One of its flimsy arms reached forward and a bony finger touched something on the sticky dashboard. A white light rose out towards Beckel, until all he saw was white.
A flood of noise around him made him start. He was in a bar on Betelguese Five. He knew this place, he'd been here several times, years ago. He looked around but Klotchnik was gone. Impressive. None of the known hundred species had perfected teleportation at all, let alone sent somebody halfway across the galaxy. He wondered why here? Perhaps Klotchnik had been telepathic after all, and had searched his memory for somewhere Beckel would feel at home. He even had a large glass of Lorentian ale in his hand. Nice touch. He was further impressed when he realised he had a charged pulse pistol in his other hand. Klotchnik knew a thing or two about bars.
Beckel raised the ale to his lips and tasted the sweet blue nectar, his first drink in four years. As he swallowed, relishing its coolness as much as the taste, he gazed through the upper edge of the glass and his eyes fell on a face. He paused. Swallowed. Put down the glass. Wiped his lips. He stared for a full minute, a solemn grin spreading across his lips as he eased the pistol onto the table. Eventually the man glanced in Beckel's direction, and froze. His glass slipped to the floor, accompanied by that universal, conversation-arresting sound of breaking glass.
Beckel levelled the pistol. "Hello, son."