Aaron swayed towards the railing, dizzy. His legs pricked and felt heavy. His heart struggled in the center of his chest. He pulled the oxygen tank up a step with a wobbly hand. He took another step up. He pulled on the tank. Sweat broke in beads across his forehead. Pain shot through his arms and he cried out, but there was no one left in the house but him.
Through teary eyes he looked up the remainder of the flight of steps from the garage to the living room. There were seven carpeted steps. Seven steps that he would have leapt down in his youth. Seven steps that he took in two when he would run to answer the ringing phone just thirty years ago. Seven steps that he would carefully carry laden bags of shopping up for his wife. But she was dead now, and there was just him. The seven steps stretched themselves upward, pulling on the dimension of space itself, with each step an infinite, insurmountable distance away.
He leaned down, and put his hands on the steps. The oxygen tank fell backwards behind him, pulling the plastic tubing off his face, and marking the loose skin on his neck angry pink. He put his cheek to the carpet, and realized it had long been in need of a vacuuming. He cried.
"Don't cry," said a woman's voice. It came from the top of the stairs. Aaron struggled to lift his head. A translucent woman floated above the top step.
"Don't cry," she repeated, with great kindness.
"Am I dying?" asked Aaron.
"Yes," she said smiling.
"Are you here to take me to heaven?"
"What? No, of course not," said the woman.
"I'm not? I'm--I'm going to hell?" Aaron felt a surge of panic.
"No, no," said the woman. "You humans sure have some funny ideas about death."
"Heaven and hell, reincarnation, ghosts, etcetera. Honestly, I don't know where you've all come up with it." She smiled angelically.
"I don't understand. Who are you? Why are you here?"
"I'm here to harvest you," she said, floating towards Aaron with outstretched arms.
"Harvest me?" Aaron pressed his back towards the wall with the railing. He tried to reach for the railing but could not get a grip.
"You have nothing to fear. It does not hurt in the least," she said, touching his face with warmth, with half-there fingers. A sense of comfort radiated from her touch.
"But, will I be with my wife again?"
"No, but you won't mind that you aren't."
"No. Now just close your eyes," she said, searching his face with her own eyes.
"This can't be," said Aaron. "Do I just...fade away? Is that what happens?"
"Is that what you would like to happen?" asked the woman.
"No. I don't know. I did not expect this."
"No one ever seems to. Not humans anyway."
"What happens when you...harvest me? What does that mean?"
"It means I retain your experiences. The experiences of corporeal beings is what sustains me."
"What are you?"
"A different type of being?"
"You mean, like a spirit?" asked Aaron. The woman laughed gently.
"In that I am non-corporeal, then yes. But the common human definition breaks down there. Humans that have passed down that information have seen glimpses of me, out of the corners of their eyes usually. They attribute many things to me, that I have not done."
Aaron thought for a moment, while the woman waited patiently for him.
"Are there others like you?" he finally asked.
"Not yet," said the woman, shimmering.
"No. I did not create what you call the universe either. We are both merely inhabitants."
"Oh," said Aaron. "I thought maybe..."
"No," said the woman, looking a little sad.
"And when you harvest me, do I still exist consciously?"
"No. Will you close your eyes?"
"What if I refuse? Will that prevent you from harvesting me?"
"No, it's just a more pleasant experience for you if you don't watch," she smiled again, then her mouth opened to reveal a tongue that glowed bright red. It stretched out of her mouth towards Aaron's forehead. He tried to back away, but she grabbed his neck with both hands. Aaron screamed. The tongue split in two as the woman's eye sockets turned deep black. The two edges of her tongue wrapped around his head and he became frozen, unable to move, unable to feel. Her body faded away, except for the two black spots that were her eyes. The stairwell faded, replaced by a field of stars. Ahead was a bright pulsing start. The black spots started to orbit it, as big as stars themselves now. He felt himself pulled towards the star, in a strong wash of vertigo--the only thing he could feel.
He tried to speak but could not. The star pulsed faster and faster. It started to spit out hot white material from its poles. It wobbled, and the black spots fell into the star, absorbed in great arcs of blue plasma. Then the star exploded, shedding a sheath of diaphanous white glow. He felt himself fading as the glow reached him, impossibly fast. He struggled not to slip from consciousness. He traced out the lines of his wife's face in his mind. He recited boring poetry he had to memorize as a child. He counted by primes. He recalled the each of the items in each of the rooms of his house. He thought of the seven steps he couldn't climb. He forced the steps to the very front of his mind. He saw the railing and the dirty paint of the stairwell, the grit in the carpet and each polyester shaft that held it. He saw the ember white core of the exploded star, floating six inches from the step above him. He felt stronger.
He forced sensation into his hand, and reached towards the ember, now just an inch in diameter. It vibrated before his hand. Somehow he knew it trembled with fear. He surrounded the ember with his hand, and pressed his fingers closed upon it. A flood of images and sounds and sensations invaded his mind. The experiences of trillions of beings, from Earth and otherwise, from bacteria to beings vastly more sentient than humans, were laid out in front of him, like the surface of a roiling sea.
His body prickled. He looked down, and saw his form transparent, floating above the surface. He moved across it. He saw beings on worlds of dust and sand, worlds of ice, worlds of water, worlds of verdant green and shocking pink. He saw stars in their infinite multitude, black holes eating up the centers of galaxies, and great ships traversing the voids between them.
He dove in, and listened. Then he heard it. He heard the voice of his wife. He swam towards her, and her voice grew louder inside his head. He found her experiences, and held them in his hands. He let her voice pull him inside her life as she lived. He experienced everything she ever did. He felt every pain and every joy. He saw the beginning of her contiguous consciousness, when she was just a few months old, all the way to the end of it, when she laid in a hospital bed, enrobed in scratchy cold sheets.
"Don't worry," he said.
"Aaron," she said, smiling weakly.
"Am I going to heaven?"
"No, but we will be together always."
"That's the same thing to me," she said.
"Close your eyes now," said Aaron, and he reached out towards her forehead.