It was Heaven.
N'buli was a part of everything and while he remained a distinctive and idiosyncratic slice of existence, he finally connected to everything else that ever was.
All the anger, and conflict, and fear seemed so ridiculous. This was bliss. This was Nirvana. This was Heaven.
It was where all life came from, and where all life goes, and it was everything.
That tiny part of everything that was once N'buli MacGregor gave thanks for his extraordinary life and shared it with himself. His work was done, his story was finished, and he could stay here now.
N'buli was at peace and it lasted forever.
Until someone dragged him right out of it.
The shock of his ego crashing back into focus almost outweighed the physical shock N'buli felt as he instantly became corporeal again. He struggled to take in a breath and sank to his knees, clutching the side of his head and moaning involuntarily.
He knelt there for another lifetime, getting it together, until the buzzing in his head subsided and his legs stopped feeling like they were made of cast iron. And then he felt the sun on his face and the dry earth beneath his knees, and N'buli opened his eyes.
He knew this place. It was where he came from – the plains of west Africa, somewhere in that vast continent. He recognised the smell and the way the trees in this part of the world bent away from the sun and even the rocks seemed familiar.
He was in the middle of a vast plain, with only a few stunted trees and endless dry grass all around him. Looking down, N'buli realised he was dressed in the loin cloth that had been his sole item of clothing when he was 12 years old.
'We thought you would be happier as… yourself,' said a voice behind him.
'I stopped being this person a long time ago,' said N'buli, incredibly pleased to hear that voice. 'And that’s a Prisoner quote.'
N'buli turned around and gripped Stevie in a tight bear hug, lifting the smaller man up off the ground. Stevie gave out a comical ‘oof’ as he struggled for breath.
'I may be dead, but I still need to breathe, my friend,' he gasped.
'Oh no,' said N'buli as he let him down. 'You really are dead, aren’t you?'
Stevie looked exactly like he had the last time N'buli had seen him alive, right down to the tiny metal Def Leppard badge that was discreetly pinned to his jacket. He smiled sadly – another painfully familiar gesture - and put his arm on N'buli’s shoulder. 'Yeah, I really am dead.'
N'buli’s head was still spinning in a thousand different directions at once, but the afterglow of his recent experience in that infinite light was fading fast, leaving only vague impressions.
He rubbed his eyes and sighed. N'buli suddenly felt very tired and very hungry. Looking back at Stevie, he winced. 'Was the loin cloth really necessary?'
'It comes with the view,' said Stevie, waving his arm around to indicate the sun-blasted desert. 'We didn’t bring you here, this is the place you always go to when it gets too much. You created this place.'
'I’ve been here before,' whispered N'buli.
'You’re here still,' said Stevie. He pointed back over N'buli’s shoulder. When he turned to look, he saw a very familiar young man staggering towards them, dressed in a filthy and cheap army uniform and bleeding from a dozen wounds.
'That’s not the only you in this place,' continued Stevie. 'You came here when the Things Behind The Wall almost ripped your soul off, and you’ll be here when the planet Neptune tumbles into the Oblivion Void and you barely get out alive. But it’s a big place, you don’t run into yourself very often.'
N'buli was starting to feel sharper. 'Can everybody do this?'
'Everybody does, all the time.'
'And it responds to my thoughts, and could be anything I want? And that’s why it’s the desert where I was a child?'
'That’s about it.'
'Then the hell with this. It’s hot and I’m half-dressed. Let’s go get a beer.'
Stevie smiled and the world dissolved around them, just as the 15-year-old Nbuli reached them.
There was a brief moment of everything, and then N'buli’s world came into focus again. It was that little pub he liked in Nottingham. It was sometime in the late afternoon in autumn, by the smell of things. The sun was shining in through the old windows and Stevie was getting the drinks in.
There were other patrons and bar staff, but every time Nbuli tried to focus on one of them, his attention would slip away and he could not see any details. Stevie was the only clear person in the pub and Nbuli could see him in perfect detail as he came to the table, carefully balancing two pint glasses.
'Here we go,' said Stevie, handing one over to Nbuli and taking a seat at the table. 'I don’t know what the beer is. It’s the local one, you can’t go wrong with the local one.'
'Why can’t I see anybody else in this bar?' asked Nbuli. 'It’s like they’re not really there.'
Stevie shrugged. 'They’re just background, N'buli. They’ve got all the soul of a computer game character. Why? Do they bother you? We could change it so you’re fighting super-ninjas while we talk. Would that help?'
'Not really. I’m a little bit sick of fighting everybody all the time.'
N'buli turned his attention back to his beer and drank half of it in seconds. The beer was cool and refreshing, but as he put the half-empty glass back down, he noticed something unusual about his hand.
'I’m shaking,' he said. 'I never shake.'
'I’m not surprised, dude!' said Stevie. He had barely touched his beer. 'You’ve just had your consciousness wrapped around the whole of living existence. You’re not supposed to go through that as a corporal being, you’re only meant to experience that after you die.
'Besides, you think you’ve got it bad?' Stevie held up his right hand, which looked grey and unhealthy, with thick veins showing through the skin. 'Producing an exact copy isn’t easy, and the results never last. I’ve got about ten minutes before this body gives out and I go home again.'
'Just the body. This is the part that always was and always will be Stevie Nabakov, son of Ivan and Valentina. C’mon, Nbuli. You are good at this. You were just there as part of the infinite. Can’t you remember how it works?'
N'buli took another deep drink of his perfect beer and considered what Stevie was saying. 'It’s all a bit fuzzy, to be honest.'
An odd little shadow, barely noticeable, spread across Stevie’s face, and his voice lowered even more slightly. 'Try and put it into words.'
N'buli closed his eyes and did what Stevie said. 'It was everything, wasn’t it? After I confronted the Goodsons, I merged with the motherfucking infinite, yeah?'
'Go on,' said Stevie.
N'buli sneaked a peek, but saw Stevie had his eyes closed too, so he continued. 'I can’t really put it into words, but it was like I was a part of everything, and it was all so obvious. We’ve all got the same soul, little bits of it igniting life in every living being. I am you and you are me.'
'And we are all together,' said Stevie.
'Yeah, exactly. But where I was, the place that we all come from, and the place we all go to, there is no time. It’s all now. That’s what the universe is for, isn’t it?' N'buli opened his eyes again and saw Stevie beaming back at him.
'The universe is where we go to experience time and growth and experience,' said Stevie. He was sweating hard and looked even greyer than before, but he was looking out past N'buli into forever. 'We put parts of ourselves into the world to generate novelty and narrative, to give ourselves stories.
'That’s the meaning of life, N'buli. Go out there and have fun.'
N'buli felt a bit sick, but felt a lot better after he drank the rest of his beer. He could only grasp the smallest sense of his recent experience, but he knew everything Stevie was saying was true.
It still didn’t make sense.
'But what is this all about, Stevie?'
'What? I just told you the meaning of life, Nbuli. What more do you want?'
'The meaning of my life,' said N'buli MacGregor. 'What am I doing here? What is LOVE all about? What are the Goodsons anyway? Why did they kill you? What’s it all about?'
'Oh man,' said Stevie. 'Those are some big questions. We’re going to need another beer.'
He drained his glass, took N'buli’s empty vessel, stood up and went to the bar. He was noticeably limping now and actually seemed to be struggling for breath. Even in all his confusion, even though Stevie was dead, N'buli still felt bad for his friend.
He concentrated on the wooden table in front of him. It seemed real enough, there were ancient gouge marks and strange little burned patches all over the wood. The smell of old beer and older sweat filled the air, and even though he couldn’t really see the other people in the bar, there was the low hum of regular conversation filling the air. He noticed he wasn't wearing a loincloth anymore, just his regular western clothes, and he felt grateful for that.
Stevie finally returned with the drinks and sat down in his seat with a comical sigh. 'I didn’t think it would go this quickly. I thought I had more time, but we never do. That’s why we keep going back.'
'Answer my questions.'
'One at a time, eh?'
N'buli took a thoughtful sip. 'What’s the deal with the Goodsons?'
'That’s a good place to start.' Stevie sipped his own drink and considered his answer carefully. 'They’ve always been here. They were the God-In-Skin when we still lived in caves, and the God’s Sun during the renaissance days.'
'That doesn’t help much.'
'Look, they’re like a direct conduit between the Everything you just experienced and the material world. Living personifications of our own collective self. A direct line to the Divine, interfacing with humanity. They’re always charming and always helpful, but there is a job they need to do.'
'LOVE?' asked N'buli.
'Love,' shrugged Stevie. 'Hate. Everything. They need to make things interesting, and most of the time that involves some sort of conflict, so they have to back both sides. They don’t really care who wins – though they like good guys like us the most – they just need to create novelty.'
N'buli didn’t feel like his beer any more, and he pushed the half-empty glass away from him. 'And that’s all we are? Novelty?'
'Don’t be stupid, you know what’s really important in life. Love and honour and all that crap. Experience as much of it as you can, so you can take it back to yourself when you join with yourself.'
N'buli was starting to feel sick again. 'I’m starting to feel sick,' he said.
'They have that company – Goodfun Distrubtors. They make their money by selling historical items, everything from Golden Age comic books to Tudor mansions, and that’s what they use to fund LOVE. And the bad guys. And the whole bloody shooting match.'
Stevie waited for N'buli to reply, but he really was feeling sick now, and all he could do was swallow back the nausea, so Stevie kept talking. 'It’s not that ridiculous. The universe. Some of us quite like it. Some of us are quite proud of it. And some of us are running out of time.'
His hair was grey and there were deep lines around his eyes. N'buli finally noticed, but it was too late to do anything. The feeble Stevie slid sideways off his chair and N'buli dashed around the table to catch him, his own sickness instantly forgotten. 'Jesus, Stevie! What is happening to you?'
'They wear out so fast when you use the exact template a second time,' He coughed, and then a familiar light appeared behind his eyes and he looked up at his friend. 'Don’t grieve for me, N'buli, there is a part of me that is always a part of you, and in all living things. No energy can ever be destroyed, it just goes some-'
Stevie caught his breath and died again.
N'buli cradled his dead friend in his arms for the second time, and couldn’t take it any more. He screamed, and the world exploded around him, pieces of reality falling away like huge shards of broken glass, leaving him along in the dark.
'Oh, come on, N'buli,' said two familiar voices, speaking in unison in that eternal darkness. 'All time is illusion, yeah, get over it. Concentrate on the here, concentrate on the now and make a place for yourself. Make your place in the world.'
As much as he did not want to, he could feel it.
'This is a room that is not a room,' said those voices, 'a single point of existence in an infinite void. Do you understand?'
'I’m getting there,' said N'buli.
Somebody, somewhere was laughing and he heard the thought: 'All of human history to choose from, and it takes a bush boy from the ass end of Africa to save the world.'
'I’m proud of where I come from,' said N'buli, and he was no longer in the dark. He was standing on a beach this time, some stony piece of shore that he did not recognise, looking out onto a stormy sea. There was no sign of anybody else, just endless grassy hills surrounding the shoreline.
N'buli sighed and sat down on the hard rocks. 'Can we get to the point now?'
'Of course we can,' said the two voices, speaking from behind him. He could feel their light upon the back of his neck. It was the Goodsons, finally here to face him.
He stood up, but he couldn’t turn around. He wasn’t paralysed – he could move his head from side to side and could take a step forward towards the water if he wanted to – but he just couldn’t turn around.
'So we’re just a game? Is that it? All we die for, and all we fought for, and it’s all just a novelty act? You can make me watch Stevie die for a second time, and I’m supposed to just laugh it off.'
'Well, yeah,' said Mr Goodson, from over his right shoulder. 'It hurts, but it’s no use getting angry about it. That’s like getting angry at your big toe when you stub it on the table. You just have to get over it.'
'Besides,' said Mrs Goodson, from over his left shoulder, 'you say that like novelty is a bad thing. We’re always after something new, that's why we do it. There is no time in the great beyond, so we make universes to grow an all-new existence of ourselves, and then we can pop in and out and experience it through all sorts of life. It’s nearly an infinite source of new experiences and new things. It's pretty obvious, buddy.'
N'buli took a step towards the ocean and felt the cold water come up over his bare feet. He only just realised he was wearing his best suit, and no shoes. 'So you fund the good guys and the bad, all in the name of having something interesting to do. Do you have any idea how much misery you cause?'
'Of course we do,' said Mr Goodson. 'We feel it all, because we’re a part of it all. But it was the only way to keep things pushing forward, before they stagnate.'
'But this is where everything changes,' said Mrs Goodson. 'We couldn’t wait to get to this point. We’re so sick of all the pain and violence. Time for something new.'
N'buli clenched his hands into tight fists, but still couldn’t turn around. 'If you are so sick of violence, why did you kill Stevie? Why did you make me jump through all these hoops for you?'
'You have to go on a journey if you want to get anywhere,' said Mr Goodson. 'You can’t wait for change to come to you, you have to go out and seek it.'
'Besides,' said Mrs Goodson. 'Stevie didn’t mind, he knows it was all part of the plan, and there is a part of us that will always be proud of that role.'
'See for yourself,' they said in unison, and shoved N'buli hard.
He staggered forward into the waves. The water was deeper than it looked and the ground beneath the surface dropped sharply away. He fell over and then the waves washed over him, and he was sinking into the water.
N'buli panicked and tried to cry out, but his lungs filled with water and then he…