A Break from Death
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“Look, Mith Thuthan! A big thkeleton!”
Susan Sto Helit sighed. “Death doesn’t find lisping any cuter than I do, Janet, so it won’t get you any favors.”
“Oh. That sucks.” The little girl ran up to Death and poked him in the ribs. “My puppy died last Christmas. Can you give him back?”
Death scratched his head. WELL THAT WOULD DEPEND UPON WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM.
Susan raised an eyebrow at him.
“I sat on him!” Janet said happily. “We were playing horsey, but he wasn’t very cooperative. If you give him back, can you make him bigger?”
“All right, Janet, why don’t you join the other children in the playground now,” Susan said, taking her arm and guided her gently but forcefully into the hall.
The little girl looked ready to protest, but Susan gave her the if-you-don’t-cooperate-you’ll-lose-all-c
SQUEAK, he protested, and a chocolate-covered almond dropped from his paws.
I THOUGHT YOU KEPT THE CHOCOLATES IN THE CABINET, Death said, looking a little sheepish. For a moment, Susan’s anger vanished as she reconsidered the mystery of her disappearing chocolates.
“Well, they clearly weren’t safe in the cabinets,” she replied. “What do you want? Recess ends in five minutes, and I want you out of here by then.”
I AM TAKING A VACATION, announced Death. He brushed some non-existent dust off his robe, as though to draw attention to the fact that it was new.
“What?” Susan groaned.
I THOUGHT IT POLITE TO NOTIFY YOU IN ADVANCE, THIS TIME.
“Can’t you find someone else to be your replacement?”
THE LAST TIME I DID THAT, YOUR FATHER CHANGED THE HISTORY OF THE DISC.
“Yeah, but that happens all the time anyway.”
BINKY MISSES YOU.
“Oh, no, don’t play the helpless horse card on me.”
IT WILL JUST BE FOR A WEEK.
“Why? What sort of anthropomorphic personification needs a vacation?”
I AM YOUR GRANDFATHER, YOUNG LADY.
“That line had its day years ago.”
I COULD GIVE YOU A KITTEN? Death extracted a mewing tabby from his robe and set it down on her desk. The Death of Rats let out a little shriek as the cat promptly jumped on it and started sharpening her teeth on his skull, purring all the while.
I AM DESIROUS OF TRAVELING THE UNIVERSE AND WITNESSING ITS MANY MARVELS IN THE FACE OF THE GRADUAL, CREEPING ENTROPY WHICH WILL EVENTUALLY BECOME THE ULTIMATE DEATH OF ALL ITS INHABITANTS.
“You’re going on sabbatical?”
ER, THAT DOES SOUND BETTER, YES.
“I’m not covering your vacation! At least when you have a mental breakdown, I know you didn’t shove the position on me while in your right mind.”
IT IS A SABBATICAL. IT IS IMPORTANT FOR THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE.
“You’re going to have tea with crazy cat ladies and cook quiches!”
A CRITICAL MASS OF QUICHES IS IMPORTANT FOR THE STABILITY OF THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM.
“You’re making stuff up! Never lie to someone you need favors from.”
THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS.
“And they are...?”
LOOK! AN ANTELOPE. Death pointed behind her with one hand and scooped the kitten up with his other. The cat yowled as the Death of Rats fell from her grip and scampered away into Susan’s box of chocolates. Susan didn’t take her eyes off her grandfather. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO LOOK THAT WAY, he said, wiggling his finger.
“An antelope? Really.”
YES. IT APPEARS TO BE EATING YOUNG JANET’S FINGERPAINTING.
“That has no bearing on this conversation.”
WOULD YOU PLEASE CONSIDER TAKING OVER MY POSITION FOR A WEEK? I AM SURE IT WOULD PROVIDE A WELCOME BREAK FROM YOUR STRENUOUS DUTIES HERE AND PROVIDE YOU SOME TIME TO PURSUE YOUR OWN INTERESTS. PLENTY OF TIME.
Susan considered this. While she suspected she ought to yell at him some more, the prospect of having Time all to herself was certainly an interesting proposition. She suspected he’d find it interesting as well. “Oh fine.”
THANK YOU. Death turned and walked away through the side wall, taking the kitten and the Death of Rats with him. So Death was taking a break from death. Susan sighed as she considered the fact that most people lived even stranger lives than her and wondered whether she ought to feel sorry for them or not. Then she picked up the poker she kept under her desk and gave the antelope a strong whack on the behind, sending it off to harass some other classroom.
“At least this time, I know when he’ll be back,” she said to the empty room.
In the shadows, little voices giggled, and their laughter echoed sinisterly.
The universe was a vast place, so grand and complex even an immortal such as Death could not visit all its wonders. He couldn’t even begin to see a thousandth of a thousandth of a thousandth of a percent of it, but he had a week in which to savor a small sample.
SQUEAK, the Death of Rats told him as he shut his suitcase.
YES, I COULD BEND TIME AND SPACE AND BE GONE AS LONG AS I WANT, BUT THAT WOULD BE UNFAIR TO SUSAN, WOULDN’T IT?
“What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her,” Quoth, the raven, said.
ALFRED WOULD KNOW, replied Death. AND YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ALFRED GETS UPSET.
“Yes, he sulks. It’s absolutely terrifying.”
Death extracted a pair of dice from his robe and clattered them about in his bony hands. Humans had such fascinating pastimes, and the game of chance was one that had puzzled him for ages. For one thing, the laws of probabilities stated that you were guaranteed to lose at some point. The perversity of persisting in this sort of futile pursuit increased further after some fool in Überwald named Edvard Morfine formulated Morfine’s Law that anything that could go wrong would do so in a manner that would cause maximum pain and suffering. He proved this by enclosing cats in boxes with cyanide pills that had a fifty percent chance of exploding at any given moment. Whenever the observers were cat-lovers, the pill always exploded the moment before the box was opened. Whenever the observers were cat-haters, the cat escaped safely, only to be mauled by a pack of lipwigzers once out of sight, for the law was a species-blind offender (what happened to the dogs, no one yet knew, but it was presumably something awful as well).
When Death found out about this, he persuaded Susan to track down the man and convince him that the same rules governed the afterlife. As a result, the man now spent all of eternity with a succession of fifty-pound cats taking turns sleeping on his face.
Nevertheless, the fact that probability was a form of human imagination masquerading as an objective fact of life made Death wonder why people never caught on. Alfred had then introduced him to a series of books called The Twelve Step Program for Recovering Addicts. Death made it as far as Giving All Your Money to a Temple So You Can’t Spend It before he gave the study up as hopeless.
OF COURSE, Death mused, A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING IS GOOD FOR THE SOUL.
The dice in his hands were special. They were spherical rather than cubic and possessed, as far as Death knew, an infinite number of sides, for that was the definition of a sphere. On one die was inscribed every possible spatial coordinate in existence, and on the other was every possible temporal coordinate in the forward and backward history of the universe.
“Is everything in order, Master?” Alfred asked as he entered the room, carrying a tray suffused in blue light.
YES, ALFRED, I AM READY. Death took the tray and positioned the dice over them. DEATH TRAVELS BY THE WILL OF THE DIE, HA HA HA.
“Yes, very funny, sir,” Alfred said stiffly.
Death dropped the dice. They clattered once, twice, then rolled to a stop. A flash of blue light burst forth from the tray and spread along Death’s fingers up his arms and around his body. When it faded, his surroundings had changed, his companions were gone, and he had no idea where he was.
DISCOVERING WHERE YOU ARE IS HALF THE ADVENTURE, Death said to himself, pleased at discovering a use for a phrase he’d picked up on the disc. Of course, the man who said it had then fallen into the sewers of Ankh-Morpork and been eaten by giant alligators. That was the problem with being death incarnate; you never got to see people happy. Well, that was what vacations were for.
OH DEAR. Death finally got a good look at his surroundings. Although everything was dark and the details of his environment were difficult to see, it wasn’t nighttime as he’d first assumed. Rather, he was indoors in a massive warehouse of some sort, and all the lights were out. Far in the distance, a red glow emanated from a room.
Death picked his way up a flight of stairs. All around, containers were broken and some sort of transparent wrapping material littered the ground. Further along, he found bodies and broken shells of metal suits of armor. It looked as though he’d teleported himself into the middle of a battlefield. Mentally, Death cursed Morfine and hoped a seventy-pound cat would soon head his way. There was so much beauty in the universe, and so much nothingness as well; in fact, by all statistical measures, Death should have found himself in the middle of deep space, but no, the first place he visited had to be a battlefield littered with dead people.
Then he arrived at the source of the light, and he peered through a doorway straight into the heart of an inferno.
OH MY, he said, and this was one of those rare instances when Death was truly left in awe. Before him on a screen was an image of a beautiful spherical planet, all shades of blue and green and brown with clusters of clouds swirling about in a way they never could on the disc. All around the sphere was pure blackness, broken only by the white pinpoints of a field of stars. A red glow covered the screen, and the planet grew larger and larger. Death suddenly realized what was happening, but for once, he could understand what it meant to see beauty in destruction.
THE TIME OF ALL THINGS MUST COME, Death said, and if he could feel emotions, he knew he would be feeling sorrow now, BUT IF DARKNESS MUST COME, BETTER IT BE A FLASH OF BRILLIANCE THAN A SLOW FADING.
All around him, the roar of rushing particles and the scream of melting metal grew louder with every passing instant. Behind him, the cargo hold began splintering. The walls glowed red, and beams crashed down from the ceiling. Death stared at the awful chaos before him, saw the bodies on the floor catch fire and burn, and then he realized someone was speaking to him.
“Who are you?” a voice repeated.
So riveted Death had been by the screen that he’d missed the figure standing before it. The sole survivor of the battle was a young boy, barely entering manhood, and he held a gun in two shaking hands, one of which had a piece of braided rope wrapped about the fingers. He must have grabbed the gun from the fallen warrior beside him when he heard Death speak, and now he aimed it at him.
YOU KNOW WHO I AM.
“No, no I don’t,” the boy said. “You don’t sound like one of them, but you could still be an android. It dressed up like you, back during the Plague.”
A burst of flame roared through the doors past Death and into the room. The boy took a step back, and the tongues of fire barely missed his face. The light illuminated his expression, and Death saw in his eyes sadness and resignation but no fear. Just an angry, raging determination, and though Death had met many heroes who’d accepted death as a final glory and many more who’d welcomed death as a relief, he didn’t think he’d ever seen someone quite like this boy, so unwilling to die yet so willing to accept the inexorable end.
Death considered for but a moment, and then he decided. This was no interference, after all, just a delay of the inevitable.
I AM NO IMITATION, he said. I CAN PROVE IT TO YOU.
“How?” the boy challenged.
I CAN SLOW DOWN TIME, IF YOU ARE WILLING. I WOULD LIKE TO TALK, BUT IF YOU WOULD RATHER NOT PROLONG THE WAITING, I WILL HONOR YOUR WISHES.
The boy blinked, but his aim didn’t shift. He seemed to suspect a trap, but he said, “How long?”
I COULD GIVE YOU FIVE MORE MINUTES.
Five minutes, nothing in the span of a lifetime, or even a day, but it was something. The boy laughed humorlessly. “Why not? Life is life.”
Death raised one hand, and the boy nearly fired, but then he snapped his fingers and all noise ceased. The boy looked about in wonder. With a finger, he reached out to touch one of a thousand sparks flying through the air in slow motion. It sizzled against his skin but when he pulled his finger away, it was unburnt, and the spark continued its glacial arc.
The boy dropped his gun and smiled weakly. “Well, at least this way, I’ll have more time to react when my friends come.”
YOU ARE EXPECTING RESCUE?
“My friends won’t let me down. He’s never let me down.”
ARE THEY ON BOARD THIS SHIP? The boy’s words sounded so silly, so ridiculous, and yet Death felt he was the fool here, while the boy was the one who knew what he was talking about. For a moment, Death could almost believe the boy would live, just from the conviction in his voice, and he wished he could read his hourglass to confirm this, but the boy was not under his dominion, and he was as blind as any other living creature in the matter of this life and death.
The boy shook his head. “It’s complicated. You said you wanted to talk, then talk, but don’t ask for my life story. I want something new before I die; I don’t need to relive what I worked so hard to escape.”
YOU BELIEVE YOU WILL DIE, YET YOU DON’T TAKE MY ARRIVAL AS A SIGN OF YOUR IMPENDING DEMISE.
“You’re the death of humans.” He looked so defiant, so proud. “But I’m not human; you’re not here for me, so what are you hear for? Or who?”
I AM ON VACATION, Death replied and instantly regretted his choice of words.
“You’re on vacation?” the boy replied incredulously. He looked furious. “So this is your idea of fun? A jolly romp through space to see how other species die!”
MY TRAVEL IS RANDOM. Death showed him the dice. IT WAS NOT MY INTENTION TO BE HERE, BUT I WILL NOT REGRET HAVING SEEN THIS. I AM THE DESTROYER OF LIGHT; THE REASON FOR MY EXISTENCE IS TO WATCH OTHERS END, BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN I DO NOT RESPECT THAT WHICH WORKS SO HARD TO DELAY ME.
“There’s nothing to see here, no delay. I failed,” the boy said, turning back to the control panel. “This planet is going to die because I couldn’t save it. These,” he pointed at the console, “these logic panels locked the controls on Earth, and I could have solved them, but that, that thing kept me from finishing.”
Death walked up beside him and looked down at the scorched metal controls. He swept one bony finger along them, and pieces chipped off at his touch. He turned to look at the boy. YOU FEEL STRONGLY ABOUT THIS FAILURE. WHY?
“I’ll never know if I was right,” the boy said.
IT IS THE PUZZLE THAT MATTERS TO YOU?
“It’s who I am! I never fit in. Nobody ever wanted me with them. I always had to force myself in, to prove myself, and even when I did, they accepted me grudgingly. Through it all, my calculations were all I could count on; they were all I could be proud of, all that I knew would never fail me.”
Death waved his hands over the control, and sparks exploded, but they flew backwards, soaring through the air in real-time, not slowly like everything else. The panel shook as it absorbed the glowing points one by one. It resealed itself and the scorch marks faded. The boy watched breathlessly as they waited one second, two, and the panel clicked.
“I was right,” he breathed. “I was right.”
IT WILL NOT SAVE YOU. I CANNOT INTERFERE IN ANY SIGNIFICANT MANNER.
“That’s okay, I know. He’s the same way, my friend. So much power in his hands, but he can’t use it, because with his power he has knowledge, and once you know the consequences of interfering, you know you can’t do it, no matter how much you want to, no matter how much it breaks your heart.” The boy sighed. “He can’t come back for me. If he doesn’t come back for me, that’s why.” He smiled sadly. “I have to believe that’s why.”
This seemed to strike a nerve in the boy. He turned to him with such violence his hair fell before his eyes, but Death could still feel the force of his glare. “Why? It’s been more than two minutes already. If he was going to come, he’d have come, but he hasn’t! Why should I lie to myself any more? It’s bad enough that I still trust him, but I can’t bring myself not to. Why wait for something that’s never going to happen? That’s what my people did; entire generations spent their lives waiting for something that was never going to happen, and if the Doctor hadn’t come, they’d still be waiting, wasting their lives away, putting faith in a lie! Numbers don’t lie; I can trust numbers, but everything else, everyone else... they always let you down in the end.”
AT LEAST THERE IS BEAUTY. Death cringed, knowing how hollow his words must sound. It wasn’t supposed to be like this; he only appeared when people were already dead, and then he ushered them away and did his job. This comforting, this involving himself when there was nothing he could do and no reason to stay, it was a new experience, and he wondered how humans coped. He knew how to interfere, and he knew how to perform his task, but he didn’t know how just to stand there and watch someone die.
“No!” The boy slammed his fist against the console. “It isn’t beautiful! I’m sorry, but there’s no beauty in death! Dead is dead, and this planet is going to go before its time. Billions of creatures all dying too soon, and what did they do to deserve it? It isn’t fair, it isn’t noble, it isn’t beautiful! There is no good death. One way or another, it’s all the same, it ends in darkness.”
DEATH IS WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT, Death replied, wracking his memories for all the countless souls he’d ushered away. Each memory burned; to him, they were as the warmth of starlight in the vacuum of space, but for one who was supposed to feel nothing, their touch was as powerful as the flames that would soon engulf this ship and the young boy. He forced himself to remember, though, to convince himself that his words were true. HEROES DIE AS HEROES NOT BECAUSE OF WHAT THEY DID IN LIFE BUT BECAUSE OF HOW THEY APPROACHED THEIR DEMISE. IF YOU TRUST THERE IS MORE TO COME, THEN THERE WILL ALWAYS BE SOMETHING WAITING.
“Maybe I don’t want to find anything else.” The boy lifted up the strand of rope to his face. “My brother’s dead. My family’s gone, and if there’s another life, how will I find them? They’re in a whole other universe, different dimensions, how would I ever make my way back? I can calculate the path in this world, but how do I know the rules will be the same in the next? How do I know they’d want me back?”
YOU COULD WAIT FOR YOUR FRIENDS.
“I’m sick of waiting! I’m tired of having expectations that won’t be met.”
THEN YOU DESIRE NOTHINGNESS? YOU DO NOT WISH FOR A SOUL?
“Life is suffering,” the boy whispered. “To be is to suffer. You know this, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes.” The blue glow of Death’s eyes were reflected in the boy’s. “Dying starlight, that’s what your eyes are. All you ever see is beautiful things run down. Don’t you ever get tired of it?”
FATIGUE IS AN EMOTION FOR THE LIVING, Death said, but all his words were sounding wrong. He was feeling... doubt. IT IS NOT FOR ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATIONS TO TIRE.
“But you feel it anyway. How can you not? You’re Death, if you really are. You exist only in the minds of those you take. And anything created is only as good as its maker. You tell yourself you don’t know what it’s like to live, but you know, because life gave birth to you.”
“That’s something new, isn’t it? To put fear in the heart of Death.”
Death rallied. I DO NOT FEAR, he boomed.
The boy nodded, backing away as though to distance himself from Death’s distasteful existence. “You tell yourself that. You just keep repeating that to yourself. Have faith.”
YOU DO NOT MEAN THAT. YOU ARE LASHING OUT AT ME BECAUSE YOU WISH TO RAGE AT YOUR OWN SITUATION.
“And now you’re angry. Such a range of emotions for the emotionless.”
I AM NOT ANGRY! I CANNOT FEEL EMOTIONS. EMOTIONS ARE JUST GLANDS.
“Are they? What a base explanation for the driving force of life.”
ALL THOSE I MEET FEEL NOTHING.
“How do you know they’re not just numb? Ever heard of shock? Dying’s probably enough to unhinge the most well-balanced mind, even if just for a little while, and do you ever hang around to see what happens? Do you ever care?”
I CARE MORE THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE! DO NOT TAUNT ME! I GIVE YOU THE GIFT OF TIME, AND YOU MOCK ME!
The boy laughed a bitter laugh that rattled Death’s bones to their very core. “You gave me time to satisfy your own curiosity.”
THE INTELLECT IS ALL I HAVE.
“For all that intelligent life prides its intellect, you rarely see it use it. Face it, emotions drive you, emotions are what prove you’re alive. Emotions destroy you, but without them, you’re already gone! That’s the balancing act we all have to deal with, that’s what it means to be alive: to teeter on the knife-edge between greatness and insanity, and when it ends, it ends, because what cruel universe forces you to carry that burden forever? What sick gods would make you strain towards nothingness for all eternity and never let you reach even that one small peace?”
THIS IS NOT TRUE. THERE CAN BE JOY AFTER DEATH. THERE CAN BE MORE LIFE. I HAVE SEEN HEAVENS AND HELLS, REINCARNATIONS AND KARMA. THERE IS CONTINUATION, THERE IS MORE, THERE IS MEANING.
“There is nothing! And that scares you! The great destroyer, you call yourself, but you’re afraid, because deep down, you know what you’re bringing to others, you know that with each of your actions, you let the end of everything come one step closer. You help increase the entropy of this universe and never think to slow it down, because you tell yourself that is the way life works, and when it’s all over, there’ll be light and happiness waiting for everyone, but what if there isn’t? What if one day, you’ve extinguished all life, and with your job done, you fade as well, and then you find that there isn’t light, there isn’t anything waiting.”
I DO NOT NEED TO HEAR THIS! YOU ARE BUT A BRIEF MORTAL, WHILE I REIGN FOR ALL OF TIME! I HAVE ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE OF A VASTNESS YOU COULD NOT BEGIN TO COMPREHEND.
“Then why stop time for me? You’re curious, but you’re afraid to listen to what I have to say, because you’re afraid my words will be true. You’re scared, then fine, leave. Go! My five minutes are almost up anyway; you’re not killing me any faster. In fact, you’ve given me four minutes I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Run, proud immortal, and while you flee, you can feel good that you gave an insignificant creature the gift of four more minutes of suffering.”
I DO NOT RENEGE ON MY PROMISES.
“I free you from your promise!”
Death could feel his own will cracking, and with it went his strength to hold at bay the ravages of time. Time, such a dangerous companion Susan had chosen for herself, and now, it broke through Death’s floodgates at the command of one small boy whose will was greater than all the heroes he’d ever met, and its waters raged through the ship, accelerating the destruction and washing all his efforts away before it. With one loud crack, Death’s influence disappeared. Sparks finished their arcs, droplets of liquid metal completed their falls, and girders continued their collapse. The roar of the dying freighter pounded at their ears, and the boy smiled.
“You hold no dominion over me.”
WHAT IS YOUR NAME? Death strained to see the boy, but smoke poured in from the hold, obscuring both of them. He could hear the boy start wheezing. WHAT IS YOUR NAME?
“Do you really want to know?” the boy asked weakly, forcing the words out between hacking coughs.
YES, Death forced himself to say. He heard the boy collapse, thudding onto the ground like a dull weight, sounding no different from a falling sack of flour. Death leaned closer. I NEED TO KNOW.
The boy looked up at him, and though their faces were bare inches apart, the smoke still obscured most of his features. Death could see his smile though, and he could see the penetrating eyes that still retained their power even in his last moments of life. It was the smile that he remembered, though, the smile that never faded as the boy whispered, “I’m not going to tell you. And that... is my gift... to you.”
The boy went limp, his head dropping to the ground. Just as he lost consciousness, Death heard a distant sound, growing louder. It didn’t seem to belong on this crashing freighter, and it wasn’t a sound Death had ever heard before.
Vworp... vworp... vworp...
Death looked up and saw a blue box materialize out of thin air. Were these the friends the boy spoke of?
Death desperately wanted to pick up the boy and carry him into the box, but the consequences the boy had spoken of still burned in his mind, and he knew he couldn’t interfere.
HURRY, HURRY AND SAVE HIM, Death implored the box’s occupants, though he knew they couldn’t hear him. Rescue was so close and yet so far, and there was nothing he could do. In that moment, he had never hated himself more. Not even the day Mort and Ysabell had died did he feel so pained, for this boy had just torn down everything he’d ever known, everything he’d believed to be fact. They were all lies, even the numbers, because what were facts in the face of emotion?
NO, THIS CANNOT BE. I EXIST FOR A REASON... Death hesitated, wanting to leave, wanting to stay. The laws of the disc did not apply here, and he wanted to see the boy rescued, but he was afraid it wouldn’t happen. THERE ARE... RULES... I CANNOT FIGHT... And Death knew what he had to do.
He forced himself to take one step away from the limp body. The succeeding steps didn’t grow easier, but he made himself perform them, one after another until he was back in the cargo hold. He didn’t look back, because he knew that if he did, he would be lost.
With the last shred of self-control he possessed, he lifted the dice in one hand and the tray in the other, and before he could hear the door of the box open, he rolled the dice. He let chance have its say. Blue light engulfed him, and it was followed by the absence of sound and vision, of life and death and everything else that mattered.
There was nothing out here, not even the slightest twinkle of light from the closest star in the universe. Everything was complete blackness, and Death knew where he was; only in the furthest edges of the universe did space expand faster than the speed of light, and thus, no light would ever reach this point, not if he waited until the end of time itself.
DEEP SPACE, Death whispered to himself. DEEP SPACE AT LAST.
And the boy was right. There was no peace comparable to nothingness. His hands were still poised to pick up the dice and roll them again, but he had no will to do so. He decided he could afford to spend some time here. It wasn’t waiting, it was just rest. A true vacation.
I WILL GO BACK WHEN I AM READY, Death said. I WILL BE READY.
He would bring destruction to the universe once again, but not now. Not just now. Just this once, he would take a break from death.
Jamie waited anxiously. The Doctor was moving about nervously and wringing his hands. As soon as the TARDIS materialized, the Doctor hit the switch to open the viewscreen.
They were on a spaceship, and the spaceship was quite obviously on fire.
"Oh dear," the Doctor fretted. "Well, we certainly won't be staying here. Just let me set some new coordinates."
Jamie wasn't listening. Instead, he was staring at the viewscreen, trying to make out something he was sure had moved. "Doctor, wait, there's someone out there," he said.
"Jamie," the Doctor said sternly, "You are not going out there. You'd get killed."
"But we cannae jus' leave 'em!"
"I'm sorry, Jamie, but there's nothing we can do!" The Doctor looked clearly distressed at this, but he kept programming coordinates. "There! That should do it!"
Before the Doctor could press the button to dematerialize, Jamie dodged past him, pulled the door lever, and ran out. The Doctor's shocked cry echoed behind him and the smoke threatened to choke him, but he didn't stop. He put his sleeve over his mouth and nose and stooped low to breathe in as little smoke as possible.
He moved gracefully around various fallen wires and other debris. He tried to remember where he'd seen the movement. It occurred to him belatedly that it might've not even been a person--it could easily have just been something falling.
It was unbearably hot, and the smoke was making his eyes hurt terribly. It was nearly impossible to see. He stumbled over a piece of what looked like part of a control panel and caught himself on a chair. The metal it was made out of was scorchingly hot and he pulled his hand back, dimly aware that it was probably pretty badly burned. The still uncared-for wound of his arm ached, throbbing in time to the burns on his hand. He pushed the pain aside and looked around him, trying to determine where exactly he was.
He could barely make out the big, blue shape of the TARDIS through the smoke, despite it being no more than fifteen feet away. He turned to look straight ahead of him. He could barely make out more than basic dark shapes, some obviously controls or chairs, and some that were less easily identified.
Jamie knew he couldn't last for long. There wasn't much air, and constantly breathing in the smoke was wreaking havoc on his lungs. He coughed a few times and started off in the direction he thought he'd seen movement.
He'd moved barely more than three feet when he nearly tripped over something soft. Further inspection revealed it to be a person, though the smoke made it difficult to identify gender or age, or even whether or not the person was still alive, though Jamie guessed it was a young boy. He hoisted the person over his shoulder and started on his way back.
The heat increased. The pain in his palm and his arm increased. He couldn't see or breathe. He could barely move under the extra weight. Off to his right, something exploded. He winced as he felt the blast, felt the fire licking perilously close. Crossing the fifteen feet to the TARDIS seemed like crossing miles.
The whole room was shaking like crazy, and it was almost impossible for Jamie to stay upright, especially while he was overbalanced by the weight of the boy. Something else exploded, a little closer than the last one. Shrapnel flew past him, and he felt it cutting his legs and face. It stung, but none of the cuts felt very deep.
The TARDIS doors were, mercifully, still open, and Jamie stumbled in and collapsed instantly. The Doctor, who looked dreadfully worried, slammed the door lever down and ran over to him.
"Jamie, Jamie, why did you do that? Are you okay? Oh, who is this?" he said, all frantic movement as he helped Jamie sit up and then went about checking on the boy. Jamie tried to take too deep a breath and lapsed into a coughing fit. The Doctor shot him a worried glance and dashed over to where he'd already set out all the necessary medical supplies. He gave Jamie an oxygen mask, which Jamie took gratefully. Slowly he calmed down enough to slap the Doctor's worried hands away from his cuts and burns, gesturing for him to examine the boy instead.
"Oh, yes, of course," the Doctor muttered and switched objectives. The boy was unconscious, and his hair and clothes were dusted thickly with ashes. The Doctor strapped another oxygen mask over his nose and mouth and rummaged around for bandages.
"Is he going t' be okay?" Jamie wheezed after a few minutes.
"Well, he's suffering from smoke inhalation, of course, but his burns seem mostly minor. I'd say yours are worse, actually. If you'd just let me look--"
"No!" Jamie said, pulling back. "See t' him. I'm no wee bairn what never been injured before, I can do it myself."
"Well, alright," the Doctor said, giving him a slightly hurt look. As an after thought, he pushed the box of supplies closer to Jamie. "Do be careful, won't you?"
"Aye," Jamie mumbled, a little embarrassed by his outburst. The Doctor picked up the boy and carried him out of the console room, presumably to put him in his own room. Jamie stared at the floor and thought. About an hour later when the Doctor walked back in, he hadn't made much progress.
"He'll probably be fine, Jamie," the Doctor said. "I put him in a room near yours so you can look in on him later. He's still unconscious, but I've bandaged him up and he's breathing fine without the mask now. He should wake up in a day or so, I would guess." Jamie nodded, a little touched at the Doctor's thoughtfulness. The Doctor sat down next to him, a comforting and unobtrusive presence, silently offering his help if Jamie decided he needed any. Jamie stared at his feet for a while longer, then took a deep breath and swallowed his pride.
"Doctor, if ye would be willing, would ye maybe help me afterall?" The Doctor beamed at him.
"Of course, Jamie," he said.
To Chapter 6: You Owe It to the World
Back to Chapter 5: Fire and Brimstone
Summary: Continuing from the first Interlude, Discworld’s Death takes a vacation and finds himself aboard a burning freighter on a crash course for Earth.