In the beginning, there was nothing.
As children, some of us are taught the occurrence of the Big Bang theory is what created the universe. For others of more puritanical, bullshit upbringings, a supreme being created the world in six days and rested the seventh. In those six days, God created rock, fire and water, fusing them together with air to produce the ground we walk on. On that ground, he planted trees and flowers and grass, created wind to rustle their leaves and petals and blades. He put animals on the Earth, and designated man their shepherd, telling him of his supremacy.
My name is Hale and I have lived twenty-nine times. In theory, this is my thirtieth incarnation- United States first lieutenant Benjamin Flagg, executive officer aboard the SSNB Lincoln- a nuclear submarine patrolling the West Pacific.
My captain, a stout fellow named Edward J. Olsen, stands across from me in the control room, watching the sonar. Seated in front of him is Greg Weeks, one of the best dives in the Navy. Both men are unshaven, beards growing at their necks and jawlines. I can’t go a day without my routine of shaving.
Olsen’s eyes are sunken under bifocal glasses that betray not only his failing eyesight but his age as well. He regularly tells me he finds the idea of retirement loathsome. Too many storms to chase and enemies to pursue under the ocean’s roiled surface.
I am not more experienced than Olsen at the helm of a nuclear weapon, but I have far more experience with the explosions they create.
There is not enough time in a day to tell you how I came to be this way. But someone has handed me the power of space and time, and a responsibility to match. This incarnation is different from the others because the object I was given allows me to retain my memories. I am no longer running in the dark.
Olsen will not live to see his retirement. It is unfortunate, since I quite enjoy his company. We have shared drinks and stories. Some of the highlights I told him were from the life of Benjamin Flagg, whose existence I have inhabited from its beginning. Others were rendered from past lives stretching all the way back to the beginning of humanity.
I have sat in the chairs of Presidents and dictators; played the role of hero, villain and unknown. But all lives end, one way or another. As Olsen, Weeks and the rest of the crew of the Lincoln will soon realize- if you are born, you are simultaneously sentenced to die at some point, and there’s no getting around it.
Unless you are like me, and hold the most powerful card.
The board flashes, and Weeks assures his Captain and the man seated next to him everything is fine. But it won’t be that way for long.
Weeks reiterates his assurances, and I excuse myself. Descending the ladder to the deck below, I pass my crewmates who pay their respects to my rank with nods of their head and brief salutes. I pay them no attention, for they will soon be dead and the world will burn with them.
I have waited too long for this.
Men like Olsen and Weeks blindly follow the commands they are given. The men below them are no better. Five thousand leagues below and we take orders from others on dry land- safe from death and destruction in the waters of the Northwest Pacific.
I owe no man explanation or allegiance.
Another ladder, another deck. The closer I draw to Engineering and the level where the nuclear torpedos are maintained and safeguarded, the louder my nonexistent heart rollicks with nervous excitement.
I have had everything taken, and so too will they. The world will feel what I felt when that ceremonial dagger cut across my heart the way it did Olivia’s flesh and I became the Shroud’s new caretaker. They will feel the fear that purged me from empathy’s waters and took everything I ever loved.
Engineering is dark, as it ought to be- a hole for the rats who know holes best, and how to plug them. The two men at the panels, checking off boxes on clipboards and flicking switches, pay me no mind. I turn the other way, following lights along the walkway- the only source of illumination in this claustrophobic tunnel. I make my way along, reaching up to feel the panels above me, and hear pounding feet on their other end.
Only a few steps to go.
There is no need to sabotage the weapons onboard, for my touch is more powerful than any torpedo. In the middle of the corridor, I stop, and wait for the deck above me to clear. When it falls quiet of sailors and captains, I reach into my uniform, producing a sheathed hunting knife. I stole it from one of the sailors’ quarters, but any sharp object would do. Turning it toward me and lowering it to my abdomen, I drive the sharp blade through.
The pain is momentary, albeit excruciating. I have done this before, and it is for the larger good. Suppressing a scream, I twist the knife in my belly until my knees weaken and the corporeal part of me falls away.
I missed this. My true form is malleable as smoke and black like the tunnel would be without its floor lighting. Taking a second to admire my ability to sharpen or dull myself into any blunt shape of my choosing, I know I cannot linger long.
If my plan is to succeed, time is of the essence.
The bending and breaking of metal does not come easily, but neither does it require all my effort. The side of the submarine crumples against the water that rushes in. My density thins in the cold liquid that will push the Lincoln to the ocean’s bottom and drown all its occupants. The last thing I hear before departing is the sound of blaring alarms screaming at themselves, because nothing is coming to save them.
I take no pleasure in their deaths, but emotional attachments are the death of greater purpose. Reaper left this task to me, but I didn’t want it. The submarine plummets into liquid darkness and I imagine the crew of the SSNB Lincoln will scramble for reasoning in their final moments, but greater purpose lies ahead. Their cause of deaths will be for their superiors to wrangle with.
By that point, the world will be in nuclear hellfire and they may be overlooked completely.
The Russian submarine is reflective of the one I just sunk inside ten seconds. An unfortunate effect of the Timestream is its inability to spawn at the desired moment. There is the process of birth, over and over again.
But I have the Anchor, and with the Anchor, the process is quicker. More within my control. In the past, Reaper controlled her. He told me, as I made a fool of myself after Olivia’s death, it used to be an object. Reaper found it more humorous to instill it in a person.
Unlike the sunken Lincoln, the Soviet B-59 is above surface, a hundred miles off the coast of Maui. Remaining in the distance to stay hidden, I form massive tentacles to push myself out of water into air. It would chill a person’s skin, but I am a raincloud of destruction and easily camouflage with the grey sky.
I am not privy to whatever name the men standing outside the top hatch use for the sub. I observe them for a while, admiring the thick manes of men cast to sea, whether by choice or conscription. They fight for fellow men and country, much like Olsen and crew did. But they will be the catalyst of a thousand suns raining from the atmosphere.
With their backs turned to the hatch, some smoke and others are up for air the smokers taint. None of them see me slip through the opening, descending to the top level.
Merging was difficult at first. It is different from the Timestream experience, and requires maximum effort to achieve. But Reaper taught me well, and assuming control of a senior officer proves easier than I thought. My tendrils flow through his nervous center, wreaking havoc on his brain’s ability to control its own limbs. The officer Oleg may be able to think, but his words and actions belong to me.
And he has a sidearm. Wonderful.
Again, I make for Engineering- only this time, I have the actual torpedoes in my sights. On the second level, I am stopped by another officer with more stripes on his shirt than me. A superior.
I try to avoid conversation, as Russian is not in my current repertoire. The Timestream gives power, and the Timestream can take away. But the superior wants an answer, and Oleg’s attempts to escape aren’t proving satisfactory, so I turn my back on the man.
Kuda ty idesh', Oleg?
I keep walking, and the syllables repeat, only louder. No doubt he’s asking about my intended destination. But he won’t live long enough to get his answer.
Kuda ty idesh', Oleg?
My name is Hale and I have died twenty-nine times.
Oleg’s superior is no match for me. And still, I can’t risk a confrontation. I force Oleg’s knees to buckle. Head pointed up, eyes rolled to the sky, I feign collapse. The captain- I can only assume that’s what he is since few ranks would be higher than my host’s- shouts in Russian, summoning sailors from above and below. Their tongues are foreign, but I can make sense of it from the tones and rhythms I have come to associate with several human dialects.
What happened? I imagine the alpha sailor joining us says to the captain as he turns Oleg on his back.
No idea, the captain says, I was trying to ask him to do the thing, and he started walking away, ignoring me. Then, he just collapsed!
Is he drunk? another of the sailors asks, and the group chuckles in unison. Five or six of them have gathered around us, and despite Oleg’s closed eyes, I can see every one of their faces.
In each, I see a young boy being chastised by his mother before running out to play. I have endured lifetimes of school yard politics with these types, and have no wish to show mercy. In each of their faces, I see fear as my tendrils rise from Oleg’s form, I see fear. As those tendrils become piercing weapons, I see death in all their faces, impaling them. The bodies all fall toward each other in a heap, and any others I come across will experience the same.
Free from judgement and their questions, Oleg rises from the pile of bodies. He was slightly winded by several people falling over onto him, and it takes a moment to regain full control.
Above me, on top of the submarine, I hear a loud banging, and helicopters off in the distance. The thing which pounds on top of the submarine only does so once.
It couldn’t be the United States Navy. Not yet. Command is likely still trying to hail the submarine, and the President is likely learning of it now. Whatever that was, I am safe from it.
I climb through hatches along the bottom level until an alarm sounds. Someone has found the massacre I left on the top level, and it won’t be long before Oleg is the prime suspect. Behind me, two men run out of Engineering. Looking back down the dark tunnel, I raise Oleg’s sidearm and force him to pull the trigger, killing both. Firing a gun inside a nuclear submarine is probably a terrible idea, but my aim is superb from multiple lifetimes in some sort of armed force, whether Medieval or modern.
I remember all twenty-eight.
Olivia only made twenty-three, thanks to Reaper. Thanks to me. Drowning is the worst way to die, but those final lifetimes without her broke me.
I wish she were here.
Pushing Oleg down the tunnel, toward the world’s end, I am within minutes of achieving my goal.
My name is Hale and I have died twenty-nine times, Oleg. I know you probably don’t understand what is happening. Hell, I don’t know if you speak a fucking word of English, but I’m about to make up for the times I was wronged. All twenty fucking nine of them.
Together, we will accomplish this.
The torpedo room at the end of the hall is quite larger, given more space than any other individual room other than Command. Entering it and closing the door behind me, my plan materializes. The endgame is nigh, and there is little to stop Oleg and I from succeeding.
All I need to do is make the launch tube malfunction. It won’t require launch codes or special access, just some blunt trauma, deftly applied.
Together Oleg, we will change the world.
The voice behind me, which entered through no door and could simply be my conscience, is instantly familiar. It is impossible, for when I last saw the face attached to it, I had just driven a ceremonial dagger through her abdomen. Thinking the masked figure was Reaper, I cradled Olivia’s bloody body and called her name. I had come all this way, just to lose the person I loved more than anything.
Time seems to stop as I turn from the breach door to face the apparition of my guilt. In the moments which grind to a halt, I think of the events following her death. Reaper transported me from the Shroud to what is now Haven, Washington, circe 1777.
Olivia’s body had vanished from the arms I cradled her with.
The face I look upon now carries the full weight of my misdeeds over thirty lifetimes. I look nothing like she last saw me, and there is something different to her as well.
We have both changed so much.
I speak, but the tongue is in Russian. Guess I know how linguistic Oleg is now.
She stares me up and down, and I think of attacking Reaper after absorbing the fact I had just teleported. I swung, and he avoided it, and every swing thereafter. And when I gave up, he bestowed these gifts. Or curses.
“Reaper is not as clever as he thought,” Olivia replies. Her expression is stoned-faced and I don’t quite know if she understands me, but my true form has no mouth to speaker either of, or with. I am limited to Oleg’s dim world view. “What are we doing here, Hale?”
Are you alive?
She shakes her head.
“My body is gone. But I am here, speaking to you now. Something...happened. I woke up alone, in Valhalla. The Anchor, she was gone. You were gone. Reaper was there, and he told me he no longer had stakes in our struggle.”
He told her everything.
The Russian comes again, and it feels strange and rough on Oleg’s tongue.
If your body is gone, how are we speaking?
She looks at the ground with the grey eyes which I fell in love with, then sucked the life from with a blade.
“I don’t know. But what I do know is I died as Nancy Whitaker. And woke up to you stabbing me. And whatever Reaper did to the Anchor, it brought me back.
“What did Reaper say, when he first explained the rules of the game?”
Reaper says a lot.
She chuckles. Everything about her seems real. Nothing has changed in the crooked smile or clasping of the hands when she speaks.
“He said, ‘If you die in the Shroud, you are wiped from existence. You won’t see salvation or damnation.”
What’s your point?
“My soul is still here, Hale,” Olivia says, “And that soul is wondering what the hell you think you’re doing. I travelled so far to find you. And this is what I find you doing? What on Earth will starting a nuclear war achieve, Hale?”
I force Oleg’s brow down to demonstrate anger.
You wouldn’t understand, Olivia.
And her anger comes just as quick, as fast as footsteps rushing down the corridor, shouting foreign nonsense to my ears like Oleg here.
“Try to make me understand!” she shouts. This prompts the door behind her to open, and a couple remaining sailors to barge in. I raise Oleg’s pistol and fire the gun, much like I did the engineers. The bullets are meant to go over Olivia’s shoulder and kill the intruders in an instant, but it doesn’t play out that way. Instead, Oleg’s eyes are blinded by a white light, and when it fades, both the bullets and sailors are gone.
Hmm, I say, lowering the gun. Looks like I’m not the only one with fancy new powers. Does it have anything to do with the locket around your neck?
She ignores my jab, taking a step closer to me.
I have never seen it before.
She takes another two steps, and before long, I am looking at the face I have been to Hell and back with at least twenty-three times. And all my guilt is raging to the surface.
“I saved them. The crew of the Lincoln. Soon they will all wake on a United States Navy battleship, and no one will know how they got there. They won’t know how their submarine went down, and you won’t start a nuclear war. Right?”
I study her, trying to reconcile hatred and the rage of these powers Reaper bestowed on me- my purpose- with everything that came before it.
What gives you the right to do that? I spit in Oleg’s tongue. How dare you? Do you know how much planning went into this?
Oleg is ugly when he yells.
She steps forward again, and our faces almost touch, as her shorter frame leans up to mine.
“This won’t undo any of it, Hale. Things will never be what they were. But they don’t have to be this! Maybe it’s not what we pictured, but there has to be a reason you and I went through all of this?
“I know you’re...angry,” she winces, “I am too, Hale. It wasn’t fair Reaper took you from an era there wasn’t even working electricity. I remember how you described it to me. Remember? I remember. It wasn’t fair what he put me through, either. But this?”
I have no words.
Everything is ruined. I am relieved she was not wiped from existence. But what is her purpose now? To torment me?
“Please, Hale,” she says, “Talk to me.”
My heart sinks in Oleg’s chest and suddenly, the idea of nuclear hellfire and widespread destruction seems less appealing. That, and if I’m stuck with her ghost for all time, I would rather not be pestered about the time I ended the world.
And yet, all I can think are Reaper’s words to me, in a part of the United States not even the United States had yet mapped out in full, let alone named.
You will become me. A guardian of Death, a necessary counterbalance. You will sow chaos so that order will be held accountable. You will be darkness, to give Light something to consider other than its own radiance. You will become Death, until Death becomes you.
I have not spoken in several moments, because Russian is unpleasant to my own auditory comfort and I am trying to determine if she is telling the truth; or, as I suspect, she is a physical manifestation of my guilt.
Finally, I let the foreign syllables wash over Oleg’s teeth and out his lips. I cannot placate her questions, and I cannot let her see how hideous I have become. Not yet.
I don’t listen to her protests to return. Oleg is tired. I can sense how hard this has been on him, and he may well be the last man standing. Olivia got what she wanted and my plan is in ruins. And yet, there will be other opportunities. I will allow her this victory.
She calls for me, but I have changed. Soon, I will depart my host, and leave him to the consequences. I will leave him by the pile of bodies I created on my way in. He will wake, and collapse in shock, the only surviving crew member of a Soviet nuclear submarine in the Northwest Pacific.
Until next we meet, old friend.