Chapter 15a

When he contemplated his life several hundred years later, the entity that had been Erwin Packard felt a strange sense of emotion.

Not really.

Erwin Packard died. There was no ceremony to it, nor any ceremony following it. He was not special or unique or eternal. He was not science-fiction or a story to tell children. He was just an aging man who had lived his years.

Despite all the speculation on it, he had always been right. There was no chance that he would live forever or be in an way spectacular, despite what might have been beaten into him over those last few years. No, if his chances were one in four billion he might have had a shot, but his chances had been four billion in infinity, which reduces down to one in zero. It's funny how infinity, a number so large that it surpasses the bounds of numbering, has to be reduced to zero for that sort of calculation, he thought.

He slept while he could. He became very good at it. When he died, he did it in his sleep, sheepish and alone. His dreams never were quite what he wanted after that, as dreams rarely are, but he never stopped in his quest for them. He took what joy he could from them, even the nightmares, as he waited for death to claim him, hoping he would one day be claimed, knowing that he must be.

Then death did come for him, finally, while he was laying in bed, nuzzled into his favorite reality.

Death said to him, "Laudator temporis acti.

Fui quod es, eris quod sum.

Mors vincit omnia."

Erwin Packard was unmoved and unafraid. He was tired. He wanted to say, "Morte magis metuenda senectus," but he didn't know the words or what they meant. Besides, the whole event was, at least presumably, a dream (the last dream he ever had, assuming that he has no afterlife during which he could dream). What did Packard care what death had to say?

That was the moment he understood. When he stopped caring what Death had to say, or anybody really, for no more reason than that they were a dream, that was the moment. That was the very moment he realized he'd become too detached, too far removed and distant, to allow himself to exist.

What he did ask death was, "What was all of this for?" but Death, of course, did not have an answer. Erwin Packard slept soundly that night and did not wak up again. When he was gone he was buried, his belongings were removed, he was discarded to the sea of time where he would never be seen again.

There was only one fleeting speck of knowledge that hung in the air as Packard met Death's embrace. It was faint but present, a succinct last thought that answered and asked so many questions all at once that Erwin almost wanted to not die.

That was a silly idea, and he knew that even at the time. "Contra vim mortis non crescit herba in hortis," Death said as he wrapped his cold, frail arms around Erwin Packard.

Of course Erwin knew it wasn't real. He was perhaps a little crazy, that could be a fair assessment, but he had only gone off one or two deep ends so far. He still knew none of it was real. The dream world, the waking world, the world's he remembered and all of the ones he didn't remember, the ones that happened and the ones that haven't, he knew none of them were real. The math shows it.

Still, there was that nagging something. None can be real but one has to be, right? Maybe, if that's the case, they all have to be real. They all tie to a single thread, simply twisting out away from that, all of them, all of us, must be part of that.

One must exist for others to exist. Although Erwin Packard at that moment did not truly exist, he and his world still paradoxically did exist as he was experiencing them. The experience could well be simulated, he gave no credit to the validity of it, but even a simulation would have to be a real simulation for it to mean anything, right? Maybe not. Even in the last moment questions compound. There is no answer to most of them and the few that do have answers can't be deciphered in the time it takes to sink into the folds of Death's cloak.

The only thing left to say as bony hands that felt like a winter breeze between tomb stones clutched down on his shoulders and pulled him closer, pulled him in, "Vita ante acta." Even that answered no questions. Erwin Packard was maybe real, maybe his whole world was, but it ended at that moment. Real or not, it was no real enough to continue and had to start again.

Obtained key 14