A Thousand Times Before His Death
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1.

Every morning, the herdsman would screw up his eyes and rise from his bed. It wasn't much of a bed: an ancient, stinking mattress covered in a thin blanket. His ramshackle cottage was falling apart. There was no running water or electricity. He preferred the dark to that kind of negotiation.

He'd splash cold water from the well over his face. He'd change into new clothes, just as matted and rank as the old. He'd take up his stick and walk, to clean out the pens, fill the trough, bring feed for the sheep. He'd take them out to the high fields to let them graze. He'd watch out for wolves, even though he didn't really need to any more. It just felt like something a herdsman should do.

In the evening, he could be found in front of the fire. It warmed him. It moved in a pattern that was unnatural but lively. The walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of old books, all of which he would read over and over again. They comforted him. Worlds nestled inside worlds.

At 10 he'd go to sleep, before the cycle would begin again at dawn. In the cold months, the air could get could get bitter, but the woods nearby kept him healthy. Whenever he'd shear or slaughter his animals, or when it was milking season, he'd force himself to go down into town. He did not speak except for business. Sometimes he'd buy more sheep, or more books, but he never looked up. Eyes on his feet, like his father had taught him.

He'd look up through his window at night and see the rolling stars, and wonder which of them were real.


Of course, he hadn't always been a herdsman. That almost goes without saying.

Once, he'd been in finance, that high-stakes gain of gambling and extraction. Another time, he'd been a soldier in the Imperial army, stamping down dissent on a thousand Imperial worlds, believing in something greater than the self. In a different life, he'd opened a small flower shop in Kensington. He'd been an SCP member, a militant of the Hand, an Insurgent of Chaos, a husband, wife, father, mother, lover.

The images would all flash past him now, scenes from a half-remembered film.So many centuries to suffer the onslaught of the senses. The neon slogans blared across the sky told him enough: his pasts had all contributed to what the outside was, and he hated it. He had been so many people that he'd lost count, but they'd all shared one thing in common: they all engaged, full-throated and wholeheartedly, in the turning of the earth.

So he'd spent the last of the money on a Neo-Prometheus "Perpetual" body, a few acres of hillside, and some sheep. He made his goodbyes and ran away. He would stare into the sun and his eyes would stay the same. He'd cut himself and the wound would be made whole again. He'd tremble in the dark and try not to remember.

He'd been so many things. He didn't know how long he'd be this thing, but he didn't want anything else. He just wanted them all to shut up. He just wanted the sky to be clear.


One night, the sky was clear. No adverts or propaganda blaring down from overhead. There were usually one or two nights a month where this happened. Any good advertiser knows that too much familiarity cheapens the effect.

He willed the dark to come, but he just couldn't sleep. The blankets seemed to scratch and claw at him, as he twisted them into strange shapes. He remembered war, romance, heartbreak, smiling men in boardrooms. He opened his eyes and he still wasn't dreaming.

Then he heard laughter.

It was distant, but his land was extensive. They were up in the woods. He didn't know what to think about it. It had been… decades, probably, since anyone had last done that. It would just be more drunken kids, or the elderly enjoying their stolen youth. He'd chased them off with a shotgun the last time. He knew he couldn't kill them, but he could at least make them hurt.

But he didn't have a shotgun any more. He'd lost it in the spring of '29. He groaned, rose, and stumbled outside. The wind bit him as the clouds were tossed aside by the moon; a classic pastoral scene. The whole reason he'd moved out here in the first place.

The laughter had come from the trees to the north. He could see the distant signs of a fire, burning high and bright. Slowly, he started to walk. He was frightened. He didn't want to be seen and he wasn't sure he wanted to see. His body would remain perpetually young and fit, but his mind saw things in a vividness accessible only to the old.

He got closer. His body rustled through the trees, snapping twigs and scattering birds. He wasn't being subtle but he couldn't help himself. Why couldn't they just leave him alone? He heard voices, saw flames leaping through the trees. This was his land. He shouldn't- didn't- have to hide.

He reached an immense clearing, and a bonfire stood before him. It was a grandiose affair, crackling incessantly as it licked the treeline. All around it were people dancing, splayed out in multicoloured cloth, laughing and drinking and talking.

He tried to edge towards them, but he stumbled, and fell into the middle of the celebration. A man he'd never seen in his life shoved a drink into his hand, and then he was being clasped by two burly drunks, and then whisked bodily into the dance. Round and round the fire, a fire of rowan and beech and oak, and he laughed and drank and did not know why he was laughing and drinking.

"What is this?", he asked a woman. She was young, and pretty, and smiled so broadly.

"Bone Fire! You nae ken the bone-fire?"

He shook his head. He saw them throwing things in there- white, ivory objects.

"Where did you get the bones? There are no bones like that any more."

She looked at him quizzically. "My, straunge thou art. Comen on dauncen!"

And they throw the bones into the bonfire to ward for another year, and he danced, and listened to the frail pipe, and drank and made merry, and the fire rose, up and up and up, for another year. Their faces were so pale. They flashed broken teeth at him. Real human bodies, not faked, not forged; bodies of God, he could see, of the field and fowl.

He talked about sheep, about the herd and flock, and the menfolk nodded aye, aye, and they poured him more of the bitter ale, and the womenfolk laughed and they threw and stamped and locked arm in arm. They talked of bitter winters and of the end of death, which meant two things to each that somehow came out as one.

He kissed the girl, at the end, and she smiled and laughed and pressed a wooden cross into his hand. He fell asleep on fair loam, staring up at the stars, seeing the patterns in them. The hunter and the snake. Scorpion and fair foul. She murmured in his ear, and all the lights went out.


He woke up on a bank, the dawn beginning to shine through. He groaned, and held his head. There was no fire, no ash, nothing. No sign of anyone. The girl was gone, they were all gone. Had it been a dream?

He felt into his pocket, and found the wooden cross. He felt the woolen cloak draped around his shoulders. No. It was real. Someone had been here.

He lifted up his weary legs and began to trek back. The leaves rustled. There was no sound there, and barely any light. A crow looked at him, cocking its head in precise motions. He was of no interest to it.


The book was bound in cheap plastic. Print books were rare, and this one was at least two centuries old. He cracked it open, watching as the glue rattled out of the spine. It bounced across the floor.

His eyes were new and fresh, as they had been for decades. His brain was old but pulsed further, higher, louder as he read, roaring in a comprehension that could never be dimmed. It was the light of a man who had passed through old age and come out the other side, ready to be entranced again.

In the Middle Ages, spring and summer often saw rural celebrations called the Bone Fires. These would see peasants throwing bones into the fire to ward off spirits. Like many festivals, this was a celebratory occasion which frequently saw mummers, drinking and both spiritual and material indulgence, with

He didn't read any further. The starlings squawked in the distance, and his mind was aflame.

Because it was always aflame. The greying grass and low clouds might numb it, for a time, but it could not go out. There was a world out there, of people and dirt and muck, blood and pain, life expanding its greenery into every corner of creation. Bustle that was never the same twice, a word made one by such a frail world.

He did not know why he had seen the past, but it thrust him up, forward, his limbs transforming into motion. He walked. His shoulders were thrust back and his eyes looked up at the metal neon and the artificial moons and he walked, boots crushing frail grass, running down the hillside, ready once again, wanting the world again. One town, then two, then a thousand, then a history of travel, light, life, that midnight curve!


2.

And so he returned to the world. It embraced him, as it had done before. He started from the ground up, but he had all the time imaginable. He became a firebrand, a reformer. He gave great speeches atop high statues, his perpetual youth helping his words to ring out across crowds and skies. Laws were changed, the guilty were punished, papers fluttered across the wind as he soared and laughed.

He grew old again; not in body, but in mind. New ideas were being pushed through that he opposed, stubbornly insisting on the righteousness of the old way, his way- and, though he would never admit it, his position and status. He stood at the top of a very tall building, staring down below, at the ants and the lines and the crisscrossing grids. It was all so much. He saw parasites, fungus, eating away at the dead matter of these metal trees.

He swallowed the rest of his whisky. He removed his coat, then his jacket, and laid them carefully over a chair. He placed his hand against the glass, then with a sudden jerk smashed it. The wind howled in his ears as he placed his arms together, ran forward, and dived.

After he hit the earth and shattered, it took them months to piece him together. Only the finest for the great reformer. The faux-shock of a deathless world on faces above furs staring out of television screens- that was what he remembered. That was what his eyes saw, day after day as a new body was built, on gaunt white tables with a tailor stretched above him.


He returned to his farmland. The rustic charm it had once held was gone as the sprawl encroached on it, but his woods and pasture were still legally his property, and so none could seize them. Tall buildings grew ever taller, but there was always room for sheep.

It took decades to be fully forgotten. He watched the memoranda, the tears, the stirring speeches in memory of his former self. They were blaring out of the sky, twelve hours a day, six days a week. He began to forget what his name had been, this time. It didn't matter. History was too vast to be remembered.

Most nights he spent shivering, until suddenly he didn't any more. The shadows of the buildings grew more and more profound. The skies began to cry out now, great monuments of flashing sound. Tyrants of the sordid space, begging, pleading for more hands on the line, more men for the Empire, more workers for the colonies.

He took his pillow and shoved it around his ears. He would read a book, trying to absorb himself in another place and time, but the hands of the stars reached into his room and held his skull like a vice. He screamed, he sobbed, and the residents of the tall buildings wondered who was in such pain. They never thought to look below.

Then, one night, it happened again. A fire-light from the trees. He rose again, almost weeping. He needed this. It was so cold here. He needed them all. He stumbled, half-awake and half-laughing, out of his house and into the night.


Lives flashed in a fevered montage. In one iteration, he was a vagabond of the stars, a hermit who travelled from planet to planet telling stories that seared the mind. In another, he was a great captain of merchant vessels, renowned for both honesty and bravery. He was a writer of histories and a scientist who solved the mystery of the Michaels Continuum. He was a good man and a wicked woman, a silent workhorse and a terrible snake.

He had traversed the oceans of Sirius IV, that failed experiment in terraforming. He would look deep into the ocean, into the crabs and bustle and farms of endless kelp, and see in that complexity a kind of banal, monolithic slate.

This time, he had been a sky-sailor on the Engorged Line, that fire-born region of space that circled the galaxy's black hole. He and others would descend into it, sharding harpoons and light cannon at the ready, experiencing the unreality that lay beyond and raiding it for strange treasures. He had seen a woman in there, staring up, mouthing wordless and unforgettable sounds of distress.

And now, as he did every time, he had returned to his farm. The millenia had reclaimed the buildings around it; no towns, no villages any more. Earth was one small cog in an empire of trillions, and only the rustic and nostalgic lived there any more- a haven for the Once-Dead, that tiny minority of seven or eight billion who were born before eternity.

It could be a decade. It could be centuries. But every time he'd see a lick of fire, and find them in the forest, and return to the world. The bonfires would be lit high and they would dance in strange circles. He didn't know and couldn't tell if they were the same people each time. Nobody else had ever saw them, or mentioned them. It was just one of those things, he supposed.

He sat on the bank and looked out at the rising dawn. The revellers were all lying, exhausted, or drinking ale and mead. They talked of the harvest to come, of the Earl's wife, of the sheriff's men. He wondered a while at this speech. He wondered if it was really the speech of the past, or if it was just a construct, a fantasy.

Why did he come here? The cycles of his life continued unabated. Every time he tried to resist, one way or another, he seemed to just make it happen. The bustle of the worlds didn't seem so uniform any more, but it seems more oppressive. But he'd thought that, and its opposite, many times.

No. He knew why he came here. He came here when he'd been cold and shivering, when he'd been rejected or spurned or disillusioned with reality. He came here because the man he'd been the last cycle, the woman he'd been before that, every version of himself since the start had been somebody else.

He came here to die. Because of the things they all felt, behind the eyes, and never talked about.

The fires went out. The revellers disappeared. He stood up, sighed, and looked into the sun. It was time to dance again.

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