[It seems a good moment to post a little fiction. I wrote the story below more than twenty years ago. It holds the dubious distinction of being my most-plagiarized piece. Despite the offense done to it — and to me — I’m still rather fond of it. — FWP]
Darius Culloden almost fell asleep and missed the capture. His apparatus did not.
Culloden had picked one of the four derelicts in the storeroom as likeliest to expire that day. The old man’s skin was chalk white. His beard was caked with mucus. His shallow, raucous breathing presaged pulmonary failure, barely fogging the chill air. His slumped position, head canted against the grimy wall tiles, suggested that there was no fight left in him. Culloden had positioned the detector coils and meson generators accordingly, and had retreated to the hall outside before any of the winos alerted to his presence.
Culloden struggled to stay awake in the gloom of the maintenance tunnel. He could risk no light by which to read. He dared not make any unnecessary sound. The tumor in his gut stabbed at him sporadically, and his body, all its other defenses exhausted, yearned for the shelter of sleep. He muttered fragments of poetry under his breath, recited mathematical derivations in his head, and grieved over his dead wife and daughter. By three AM it had all failed, and his pain-wracked body slouched toward slumber.
Culloden had surrendered to exhaustion when the dying bum emitted a bubbling gasp, the field coils hummed and the meson generators surged to life.
He pushed back the curtain of darkness with groggy determination and raised himself erect. The humming from the storeroom rose as he shouldered open the dented steel door.
The wino was breathing what would have been his last, save for Culloden’s trap. Tracer beams illuminated a cube eighteen inches on a side over the derelict’s face. Had it been a solid object, the old bum would have been kissing it.
Within the cube surged a power source of enormous size. The field coils hummed and glowed in time to its efforts to free itself, but the meson flux held it tight.
Torn between supreme exaltation and borderless fear, Culloden fetched his containment and inched toward the trap. Heedless of the grunts and stares of the other three derelicts, he knelt, slid the technetium box delicately around the trap zone, swung the lid over the open face and snapped its clasps shut. The wino did not stir. The humming sank to a subsonic bass, then dwindled to nothing.
He held his breath.
The box was solid and steady in his hands. It emitted nothing his senses or instruments could detect.
Pain shrieked from Culloden’s abdomen. Fear howled at the center of his brain. Adrenaline sang in his veins. He strode out into the tunnel, and raced out of the Penn Station sub-basement, toward the world of living men.
By the time Culloden reached his lab and locked its door behind him, all his fatigue had fled. His body was indifferent to pain, alive with imminence. He stood at the threshold of a greatness no man had ever approached.
The technetium box remained static and silent. The thing trapped within gave no indication of its presence. If it struggled to escape, there was no sign.
He stepped carefully over the bundles of cables that crisscrossed the floor and mounted the box in the sensor cradle at the center of the web. As the box’s walls slid against the cradle’s slip-contacts, the instruments that lined the lab began to show readings. Within seconds, all the screens were active. Culloden stepped back cautiously, eyes fixed on the box, and slumped into the high-backed chair at his battered sheet-steel desk.
Fatigue surged back. Dizziness tipped him forward, tilted his head toward his chest. His eyes slid closed.
“WELL? WHAT NEXT?”
The godlike basso profundo blasted him a million miles from sleep. He shot forward as if catapulted from his chair. No one else was present. The lab door was still closed, still locked.
The voice had seemed to come from all around him.
The technetium box was where he’d left it. The many displays around the room were as they had been.
“Is it you?”
“WHO ELSE? SHALL WE DISCUSS THIS, OR WOULD YOU RATHER NAP?”
It was evident that the entity in the box preferred the former choice.
“How is it that you can speak to me?”
“THE BOX CONFINES ONLY MY MOTION. THE CONTACTS ALONG ITS SIDES, IF PROPERLY MODULATED AT THE QUANTUM LEVEL, ALLOW ME TO VIBRATE THE OBJECTS TO WHICH THEY ARE CONNECTED. I CAN HEAR YOU THUS, AS WELL.”
Culloden’s head swiveled about the room again, examining each of his instruments in turn. All continued to function.
“FEAR NOT, DR. CULLODEN. EVEN WERE I MINDED TO HARM YOU, I CANNOT. IT IS CLEAR WHY THE ALMIGHTY DID NOT PERMIT TECHNETIUM TO OCCUR IN NATURE. MY CONGRATULATIONS ON THE DISCOVERY OF THE AGES.
“BUT I MUST ASK: ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH HAVING PROVED THAT YOU CAN DO THIS THING, OR DID CAPTURING ME HAVE SOME LARGER PURPOSE?”
Culloden’s muscles had turned to water. He could not bring himself to move even enough to return to his chair.
“There was… more.”
A bellows-like sigh ghosted through the room.
“I SUSPECTED AS MUCH. TELL ME, PLEASE. I HAVE DUTIES TO DISCHARGE.”
Culloden’s resolve returned in a flood.
“You will not be returning to those duties, Uriel.”
“AH, YOU KNOW MY NAME. MOST ERUDITE. THEN PERHAPS YOU WILL TELL ME WHY?”
The last syllable, though no louder than what came before, seemed to shake the walls with its gravity.
“It is my mission.” The researcher marshaled his will. “I am alone in the world. All that I loved, you have taken away. Parents, friends, colleagues, even my wife and child. Soon, myself… unless I take your scythe from you. From this day forward, for as long as that box will hold you, no one shall die.”
The silence became immeasurably deep. Culloden had wondered how the angel would respond. Surely an immortal would not passively accept imprisonment by a lesser creature.
“YOU ARE IN THE GRIP OF A MISCONCEPTION, DR. CULLODEN. IT IS NOT I WHO DECIDES THAT A MAN SHALL DIE, OR WHEN. ALL THINGS THAT LIVE MUST DIE, BY THE LAWS THE ALMIGHTY HAS DECREED FOR YOUR WORLD.”
“Not so, Uriel. What of the amoeba? What of the bacteria and viruses? What of the carp? If these can pass down the eons, why not Man?”
“A FANTASY. THE AMOEBA DIES IN THE ACT OF PROCREATION. SO ALSO DO THE BACTERIA. VIRUSES ARE NOT TRULY ALIVE, HAVING NO STABLE FORM AND BEING INCAPABLE OF UNASSISTED REPRODUCTION. A CARP MAY LIVE A LONG TIME, BY YOUR STANDARDS, BUT IT TOO MUST EVENTUALLY SUCCUMB, WHETHER TO DISEASE, PREDATION, OR MISADVENTURE.”
Footsteps sounded in the hallway outside. Culloden’s guts leaped at the thought that Uriel’s booming voice might reach into the adjacent labs. Then he thought about being found talking to himself in an empty room, and could not decide which would be worse. His reputation had already deteriorated because of his obsession with religion and myth. He stepped closer to the box.
“Uriel,” he murmured, “I cannot risk having others discover your presence here. Please lower your voice so that only I can hear it, or I shall sever the connections that permit you to speak.”
There was a brief silence.
“Agreed.” It was a barely audible murmur, as if the word had been impressed on the wind. Culloden slumped back into his chair. One hand rose to rub at his chest.
Was it possible for an angel to lie? Could the Dark Angel, the Doorwarden between the worlds, be telling him the literal truth?
If so, his family had perished for no reason at all. Unthinkable.
“Until I have proof, I prefer to believe otherwise. If I’m right, I save uncounted lives with each hour I confine you. If I’m wrong, I do no harm.”
“No harm, you say?” Though the voice remained whisper-quiet, its words rode an undertone of scorn. “Do you think a multitude of souls expelled from their mortal bodies but tethered to this world, unable to affect their surroundings or reach their destinies, constitutes no harm?”
“Unable to reach… what?”
“Their destinies, Doctor. Their final rewards for the lives they’ve lived and the deaths they’ve died. It is by my hand that a soul slips the bonds of time and passes into eternity. I am the Doorwarden. I do not kill. I liberate.
“As we speak, souls accumulate about the globe in unprecedented numbers. They are confused, distressed, uncertain of their fates. They await a guide to the next plane, the guide you have taken prisoner.
“Imagine your wife and child, set free of their bodies, confronting their remains. Imagine their bewilderment at not being able to communicate with you, not knowing what has happened or why you don’t respond. Imagine the frenzy that would build in them, were that condition of silent impotence to be prolonged. Now multiply it a millionfold for each day you chain me here. The consequences will not be long in coming.”
Culloden’s tumor, quiet since his flight from the Penn Station storeroom, awoke and racked him with pain. He winced, clenched his teeth, and waited for the attack to subside.
“The souls of the dead cannot act upon the material world, but if they remain upon this plane, they can be sensed by the souls of the living. The sensation is not pleasant. Weaker minds are unhinged by it. In time, the accumulation of unguided spirits will cause eruptions of mass psychosis. They will be worst in those parts of the world where mental discipline is least practiced. The Middle East might well devour itself whole.”
Culloden’s brain reeled in the silence. He imagined a thousand pairs of ghostly eyes, Sophia’s and Bridget’s among them, weighing him, questioning his judgment, and pondering the punishment for his arrogance.
“I cannot… It’s unthinkable, Uriel. You must take me for a mortal fool. No such thing would occur. God would intervene at once.”
“He would not. He has not, has he? After the Deluge, the Almighty renounced the police power over your world. Until my brother Gabriel sounds the last trump, it will be what you make of it, nothing more.”
Despite his agony, Culloden smiled. “But all of this requires the assumption that you do only what you say, that you don’t take lives. Without that premise, your argument fails.”
“Are you a scientist in name only, Dr. Culloden, or in fact?”
The researcher stiffened. “What do you think, my unwilling guest?”
“I think you have evaded the question.”
“I am a scientist.” He hurled the words at the Dark Angel, a return of service of the glove Uriel had hurled into his face.
“What is the first rule of science?”
“Prediction is knowledge.”
“How many counterexamples are required to disprove a theory?”
Culloden could see the end of the syllogism. “One.”
“Then let us return whence you found me.”
The nether dankness of the Penn Station sublevel was more oppressive than before. Rivulets of moisture dripped from the overhanging pipes and ran down the mottled cinderblock walls. Each step scuffed a cloud of gritty dust from the concrete floor. Now and then Culloden glimpsed motion in the crannies along the walls and ceilings, where webs of pipe or electrical conduits had allowed vermin to nest.
The researcher clutched his prize and pressed on, oblivious to pain and fatigue. Uriel had been still since they left the lab.
Down the long main corridor, through a near-invisible side vent and down a narrow, steeply sloped passageway devoid of light, were the oldest of the terminal’s storerooms. Shorn of their original purpose for a century, they stood unlocked, unlit, and unused, except by the bottommost bottom dwellers of the city. Culloden fumbled out his torch, lit it, and pressed cautiously against the battered door where he’d kept vigil. It swung open at his touch.
Four bodies lay sprawled amid the trash. Two were visibly moving, chests rising and falling in the wheezing labor of pneumonia. The third was less obviously alive. It did not seem to move, and made no sound. The fourth, over which he’d poised his trap, lay absolutely still, exactly as he’d remembered him. As he’d left him.
Culloden set the box down next to the motionless derelict. He pulled headphones from his coat pocket, slipped them on, and taped their jack against a contact on the technetium box.
“We’re here, Uriel,” he whispered.
“Indeed.” Through the headphones, the angel’s voice thundered like an enveloping storm. “How would you describe the man I was attending when you captured me?”
Culloden squatted, muscles clenched against the protests from his abdomen, and laid his fingers against the pulse point in the derelict’s neck. There was no vibration, and no warmth. He put his palm against the bum’s grimy mouth and nose. No breath.
“Now, you might argue to yourself that I had finished with him before your trap closed upon me. But what of the others?”
Culloden went to the other unmoving derelict. He performed the same checks as before. There were no signs of life.
“This one’s dead too. But he could have –”
“He did not.”
“How can you expect me to take your word?” A spasm from his tumor lanced through his body. “If I release you in error, I’ve unleashed death on the world, only hours after chaining it!”
There was a long silence from the box. Yet Culloden sensed a gathering of energies within it, as though a mighty engine were being prepared for an unknown purpose.
“You need not take my word, Dr. Culloden. Look yonder, to your left.”
One of the two remaining derelicts had gone into crisis. His back arched against the floor. His hands flailed the darkness, fingers twitching galvanically. He grunted a series of weak protests against… what? The intrusion upon his privacy? The quality of his accommodations? The unfairness of it all?
Culloden crept silently toward him.
The bum’s back flattened against the dirty concrete. His gruntings and twitchings grew slower and weaker. Presently that stopped as well. The silence was restored.
Straining against a reluctance that dwarfed any emotion he had ever known, Culloden laid two fingers against the pulse point in the old wino’s neck. Nothing.
“Are you satisfied, Dr. Culloden?”
Culloden started to reply, stopped. He rose shakily from his squat over the dead derelict, closed his eyes, and surrendered to tears. It was the first time he’d wept since the accident in which his family died.
“It was all for nothing.”
“Was it, Doctor? You have gained knowledge of a thing which has been a mystery throughout all the ages of man. You have pierced the veil that shrouds the lands beyond time. No one has ever thought to investigate the phenomenon of death as you have done. Likely, no one will ever do so again.
“And there is this as well. Listen.”
“To what, Uriel?”
At the fringes of his consciousness, Culloden detected a faint, non-auditory buzz. Despite its insubstantiality it was decidedly unpleasant. He strained toward it in a manner he could not define. His five conventional senses collapsed to shadows.
The buzz crescendoed from a faint, sinister scraping against the surface of his mind to an insistent, terror-filled cadence that converged upon him from a thousand points of pulsing not-light and not-sound. A battalion of triphammers might have made such a clamor, if triphammers could feel ultimate loss and fear.
Culloden reeled back, desperate to put space between his ego and whatever keened at it so piercingly. But the yammering things were faster than he. They beat at the defenses around his consciousness, screaming for mercy and vengeance as one, growing louder all the while. The torch fell from his nerveless hand.
“Stop it… Uriel, stop it, please!”
“You must open the box.”
The researcher dove for the angel trap and groped for the catches. He ripped back the lid and frantically thrust himself away, toppling backward, smashing his head and elbows against the concrete. His brain floated in an ocean of pain.
Something uncoiled from the box. It expanded through measureless dimensions to enclose the mass of shrieking ghosts that had assailed Culloden. The clamor subsided at once. Silence returned.
A tide of acceptance swept through Culloden. It relaxed his entire body, washed away his pain and fear. Though he lay amid the greasy detritus of a century, with three dead bodies nearby, he felt only peace. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he beheld a glowing naked figure, a young man of extraordinary beauty. Though his flesh shone white, radiant as the sun, his eyes and hair were of the darkest jet. He smiled and spread his arms in welcome.
“Now, do you see?”
Culloden rose to his feet with unaccustomed fluidity. The torment from his gut had disappeared. There was no pain from his fall. Even the long-endured stiffness in his hips and knees was absent.
The youth nodded.
“Be at peace, Dr. Culloden. You chose well.”
“But how is it that I can see you?”
The angel indicated the floor behind Culloden with a gentle wave of the hand. Culloden turned.
He lay supine in the filth, arms splayed wide, eyes closed and features at rest. No movement. The technetium box sat open and empty beside his corpse.
“Will I lie here for long?”
Uriel chuckled. “Your flesh, perhaps. The rest will soon embark on a remarkable journey. More remarkable than even the man who conceived of how to capture an angel can imagine.”
“If I had died before releasing you –”
“But you did not.”
“Come. The Father awaits.”
The Doorwarden stepped forward to embrace the soul of Darius Culloden. As Uriel’s arms closed about him, he unlinked from the reality he had known. The grimy storeroom, the labyrinth beneath the city, and the world of men were swept to an infinite remove. Around them shone a golden light that knew no sun.
“Will I… are Sophia and Bridget…?”
“Yes. Be at peace.”
“And your other duties? The ones I… interrupted?”
“The work of a moment.”
“Uriel…” Culloden faltered, “will there be work for me?”
Culloden felt the angel’s smile as a wave of serene joy, the embrace of a purpose that could consume even an eternal life.
“You may rest assured of it, Dr. Culloden. God wastes not.”
Copyright © 2000 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.