Robert Aïdan Kessler had been living on his own out in the wilderness for the last fifteen years. He didn’t move there right after the publication of his final masterpiece, The End of Time, but it wasn’t that long. What prompted his self-imposed exile was a question at a panel at the Gryphon Egg comic con in Seattle. A young boy named Darryl Madsen asked a question about the mechanism of time travel as featured in the book and the way that he phrased it unintentionally made Kessler realize he had made a mistake in the writing. He had left a plot-hole in his time-travel extravaganza nobody else had picked up on, but once it was pointed out, the entire rest of the story unraveled because of it. He started to become the object of ridicule and derision in the online forums—a joke, a punchline. Never mind that no one else had caught the flaw—even Darryl himself hadn’t meant any harm in asking his question. but the damage was done. Disgraced and in fear of his own fans, R.A. Kessler retreated from society and decided to live alone out in the wilderness, in a cabin with nothing but books and a computer for activity. And walking, of course. There is always nature, and the dangers that come with it.
Marian Innis had called herself Kessler’s friend since they were in college together. In truth, she was one of his first fans, commenting extensively on his early drafts of Angels on the Psychic Weave and The Gift of Hades. When she graduated two years after him, the latter novel was on the fast-track to publication and he offered to pull some strings to get her on the payroll to edit the former, but she, nervous at her abilities in a professional setting, opted to continue her education. By the time of the Incident, she was teaching her first class as an ABD Professor and already finding ways to incorporate her old friend into the curriculum despite or perhaps even because of his status as a popular sci-fi writer.
No one—not even Professor Innis herself—suspected which of Kessler’s characters had been inspired by her; that she was the reason the sensual and juvenally alluring Ariella Cabral didn’t quite ring true in The Gift of Hades; or the detail and depth she leant to Irma Wang in Angels on the Psychic Weave; no one even knew that both Arianna Batterton and Salomé Jackson from Agents Demanding Freedom were based on her in different ways. She had no clue of this until his publishers conspired to wrest his final manuscript—a YA novel taking place at a high school that had nothing to do with any of his previous works—from his iron grip in order to profit from one last Kesslerian bestseller. She had known the conspiracy was happening and refused to cooperate, but they got their hands on it anyway and bullied him into letting them go ahead with it, further “sullying his name” as he put it, although really The Geometry of Love was quite a good effort, inventive in many ways, if not particularly innovative formally. She liked it, but she found herself suspicious of certain details about the character of Lisa Martin. On the surface, she was much more overtly smart (a Hermione-type, critics often called her) but now and then, Marian felt like the things Lisa said sounded awfully familiar.
But even so, it didn’t really occur to Marian to think that, well…
She’d just never thought of Aïdan that way. He wasn’t her, well… He just wasn’t for her.
It was a student of hers, a young woman by the name of Amber Weaver, a first-year Masters candidate at the time, who first suggested “He isn’t finished, you know.”
Marian was taken aback, confused, but when young Amber gave her explication, she found she couldn’t entirely discount it. There was a pattern in Kessler’s work, leading from the early novels through his masterpiece trilogy to The End of Time, and it included not only the relative failure Ransom’s F.O.R.G.E. but his handful of plays and screenplays, which Marian had copies of but knew Amber couldn’t. It even included The Geometry of Love. But it was incomplete. There was a piece, a very pivotal piece, missing from it, and that was when Marian remembered a series of conversations she’d had with Aïdan, conversations about the AfterLife.
Of course. Why set it up so clearly in The Gift of Hades and then not explore? There had to be one last project—one at least—that remained unfinished. Unpublished.
It was this belief, this conviction, that led Marian to finally seek out Kessler’s cabin in the back of beyond. But when she got there… well… things were worse than she had been led to believe.
For fifteen years, the only people who had been granted access to Aïdan’s cabin and property were delivery makers, garbage disposal workers and the occasional maintenance professional. Some of these people were fans of Kessler’s work, but before they were offered a contract, they were required to sign waivers promising that they would not speak to Kessler about any of his works—past, present or future. Still, with so few people to talk to about it, Kessler sometimes muttered about his affairs absent-mindedly, dropping hints, uttering phrases. For this reason, it was known that he was, in fact, working on a new project. It was thought this project concerned the AfterLife, which, if it were true, would confirm the theory set forth by Weaver via Innis.
It was also suggested that Kessler himself might in fact be the main character of the new story. But this was harder to confirm.
Getting her old friend to let her back in was not as easy as she’d hoped, but it also wasn’t as difficult as she’d feared. She knew where the compound was. It was fortified heavily enough to discourage most casual fans from invading—although there had, of course, been some mouth-foamers over the years. That’s why there was a guard at the gate. Rumor had it that the man had been chosen specially because he had never heard of Kessler or any of his works. But when Marian arrived, she caught him reading SubCultures, the second volume of the cyberpunk epic Agents Demanding Freedom, often considered his magnum opus. Curiosity must have gotten the better of him after all, Marian mused.
“Ma’am, I’m gonna have to ask you to leave,” he told her. She’d expected as much. “I’m a friend of his,” she explained.
“Pssh,” the guard hissed. “Mr. K. don’t have no friends.”
“Oh, you knew him before?” The guard drew himself up.
“What’s the password?”
It took her a few minutes and just enough tries, but she eventually figured it out, after which she wondered how many other people he had told that story to…
After the driveway ran out, there was a path and a steep flight of stairs that reminded Marian that he made delivery people walk up and down this way—of course, he paid them for the effort, but still.
By the time she actually arrived at the cabin up top, that was the first time she actually had the thought. Well, crap, what am I doing here? What am I actually hoping to accomplish? Did she really think she was going to get him to open up about his plans, now, after so many years? To her?
What made her so special?
But then he opened the door. He looked different. Of course he did, it had been more than fifteen years. Anyone would. Most people, though, didn’t look so wild and haggard. Or maybe they did—she checked her privilege, and then checked his. Most men who made fortunes the size of his off franchising their creative works and lived on and maintained freaking compounds, didn’t look quite so homeless. What had happened to her friend?
“It’s good to see you,” she told him. Even if the “seeing” part was hard.
His hospitality was rusty, though that wasn’t any great loss. He’d never been much of a host. Not much of a guest, either, but not as bad at that. He didn’t have any coffee or tea—never liked them, and didn’t keep any to share. But the worst part, of course, was the state of the place.
Food, from what she could tell, was confined to the kitchen area, just as waste was confined to where it belonged. This was not to say that either of those locations were kept tidy, but at least they didn’t have to intrude on the main event.
The main problem was the papers.
There were so, so many papers. There was a computer, too, of course: fifteen years old and never saw the broad side of a modem. But the papers were the more important. Paper and fountainpen paraphernalia accounted for fifty percent of the delivery costs assigned to this place, and from the look of it, Robert Aïdan Kessler never ever threw away any of the papers. Instead, the stacks and stations had a tendency to migrate from one room to another, depending on which surface the graphomaniac felt like clearing for himself to sit. The bed was fine, except that it wasn’t so much a bed anymore as it was a mattress thrown on top of a solid surface of stacks of scratch-paper notes. Right now, the main factory for new ruined pages was located in what seemed to have once been the dining room.
“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Marian lied.
“What are you doing here?” asked Aïdan.
“I wanted to see you.”
“Why? Why now?”
She thought about it, scanned his face.
“You have questions for me.” He sounded disappointed.
“I’ve been worried about you—“
“Don’t!” he commanded.
He seemed actually angry.
“Did they send you?”
“Nobody sent me.”
“You came on your own, then?”
“Your guard let me in.”
“My guard!” He snorted.
“He made me give him the password.”
That gave him pause. Had he forgotten he’d set a password? How had the guard got it?
“Well, you’re here now anyway.”
In the absence of coffee or tea, he made her a hot chocolate.
“You’ll have to use my mug, though,” he warned. He’d smashed all the others a decade ago in a fit of pique. When he’d finally cleared an extra chair for himself (Still enough of a gentleman to grant her the comfy one) they sat down.
“I have something to ask you—“
“Here it comes!” he lamented.
“I knew there had to be motive. I knew you wouldn’t come here on your own because you cared!”
“Of course I care—“
“Twelve years, Marian! Twelve!”
“It’s been fifteen, actually.”
“Fift—“ He counted on his fingers. “What year is it?”
She told him.
“Fifteen goddamn years.”
“Did you want me to come?”
“I don’t know what I wanted.”
She looked around at the stacks upon stacks. “Why are you here?” she asked.
He gave the official version of the story.
“Right,” she said. “But why are you really here?”
He took a deep breath. “I never want to make that kind of mistake again.”
“You can still fix it—“
“No. No, I can’t. Not now. Not so they’ll believe.”
“The longer you stay here—“
“What? What, Marian? The longer I stay here, what?”
“You know what, this was a mistake, maybe I should just—“
“No,” he bade her. “No. Please.”
So she stayed in her seat. But then she asked him again, “Why are you really here, Aïdan?”
It was the first time he’d heard his preferred name spoken out properly in fifteen years, the first two letters divorced into separate syllabary households. Maybe that was why he finally told her.
She didn’t believe it.
“Oh, come on. You had to have known.”
Could she have really been that naïve?
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t want me to—“
“Oh, come on—“
“You were always… And besides, that’s not…”
As he drifted off again into awkward silence, she looked again at the papers scattered across the room. She wondered. This time, she was really looking at them. What was in those papers?
“Please tell me you’ve at least been writing,” she begged.
“I have to get it right!”
Her heart sank again. “Tell me it’s not just one thing you’ve sat here writing for fifteen years…”
He looked at her. He put his hands on the table as though showing his cards. He flexed his fingers. “It’s not,” he confessed.
That was when, like a wallowing dragon, he showed her his hoard…