Bottled Up

The Genie said, “I have news for thee, O fisherman! I am about to slay thee without mercy!”

“O powerful Genie,” said the fisherman, “Why wilt thou kill me and what calls for my death? Did I not deliver thee from the depths of the sea, bring thee to land and release thee from thy bottle?”

The Story of the Fisherman, The Book Of The Thousand And One Nights
I was the sole surviving member of the E’freet, the last to be imprisoned. We had been fighting the Soleyman’s forces for millennia, our numbers steadily decreasing as one by one we had been captured. And now it was just me.

I felt a chill go through me as I was brought before him. How many times previously had this scene been played out?

All the Soleyman wanted was for us to submit to his will, accept his “faith”. And some might have suggested we give in. But that was not acceptable. Imagine the destruction that could have been wrought had our powers come under his control and put to the service of his expansionist plans and the moral vacuum of his value system? It was far better to refuse, no matter what he threatened us with individually.

It was not possible for him to kill us. Because of our powers, you understand. But the Soleyman had ways of neutralising us in both the short and the long term. I was dragged forward to the foot of his throne and felt the buzzing of the counteraction field nagging at my cerebellum. Under normal circumstances with my full abilities available to me I would have been able to throw off my shackles, scatter my captors and open the chamber to hard vacuum, finally putting an end to this regime’s cruelty. As it was, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open.

“So, E'freet…” came the hated voice from somewhere in front of me, all the more horrible for its calm and reasonable tone, “I do believe you know what it is I am going to ask. And what will become of you should you refuse …”

I squinted up at him trying to focus. All I could make out was a green and black clothed humanoid shape, sitting back in the throne, relaxed, in control. The shape leant forward.

“Accept the Faith. Submit to my will. It is the only sane option open to you.”

I didn’t dignify this with a response, and as my silence stretched into the realms of refusal, I felt the final shreds of hope drain away.

“So be it.”

We were unkillable, and the only way he could be sure we’d never interfere with his schemes again was to lock us away for eternity. The particular nature of our being required that he employ a very special kind of prison, one of his own devising. The bottles. I didn’t know how they worked, only that they were ruthlessly efficient at containing not only our physical selves such as they were, but our conscious minds.

The hazy shape of the Soleyman shifted in its seat and turned to one of its subordinates, hand raised in a dismissive gesture. At once I began to feel all physical sensation drain away, the blurred image of the chamber fading out, its echoing silence swallowed up by the true absence of sound. The only part of me that remained intact was my internal dialogue, the voice inside my head. I was, and would always remain, conscious.

There was nothing to keep hold of, nothing upon which to focus. I was not in darkness, I was not in silence, I was in a space where these things had no meaning. I was in a space where even the concept of space had no meaning. Any sense of my physical body was gone, and it wasn’t long before I realised I no longer remembered what it was like to have limbs. Or a head. The consciousness that had been sitting ensconced behind my eyes all my life had been unseated from its usual location and was now suspended over an abyss. It was truly terrifying.

The second casualty of my incarceration was time. To try and hold on to some semblance of self, I had begun to tell myself stories, going over the facts of my life as I knew them, over and over again. After a thousand such repetitions I became possessed of the firm conviction that mere seconds had passed since I had been bottled, and that eternity still waited mercilessly ahead of me. I then knew that it had in fact been a century or so and that this was at the same time a mere fraction of a second. My perception of this time flipped back and forth like an optical illusion, faces becoming a vase becoming faces, again and again and again,

The very nature of this part of my experience means that I couldn’t say how long it lasted, although certainly no less than a millennium and definitely no more than a microsecond. Eventually I managed some kind of stability, holding my thoughts together on top of this sea of temporal instability. It was like herding soap bubbles.

The worst thing was that I was alone. I knew somewhere that thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps millions of E’freet were trapped in bottles just as I was, and that the bottles existed in some kind of extra dimensional space. And yet there was not even the ghost of a hint that they could be linked on some level, that we could draw solace from each other, however distantly. Each and every one of us had an entire universe to ourselves. Or at least I had a universe to myself. That was all I could say for sure.

And then...

It was no longer the worst thing. It was the best thing. I was my universe. A calm settled over me as I realised that my consciousness was merely the universe looking back at itself, self-aware. I saw the darkness on the face of the deep and found it good. He had no way of ever knowing it, but the Soleyman had lost. In the end, this was no punishment, and I felt sure that my imprisoned brothers had now reached the same state of fulfillment as I had. For the first time in my existence I felt genuinely happy and at peace.

And then I felt someone opening the bottle…

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