Brian tensed, anxious but not afraid. Not now. He realized his breathing had become rapid and forced himself to slow it. The tall black man watched him, waiting, the patience of eternity reflected in his clear eyes.
“No tricks,” Brian said, a little harsher than he’d intended. He softened his tone. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for some straight answers.”
“And if those answers frighten you?” Bata asked.
Brian remembered those conversations with Dave, when the old man had implied that very thing. “I’ll deal.”
“Very well.” Bata rose. Brian saw that the impression of the man’s stature had been no illusion. In fact, the strange man stood even taller than Brian had estimated. Bata took a few steps, gazing upward. Brian followed. Bata pointed. Brian now noticed what he had failed to see upon entering the chamber. Far above, hidden from sight until one stood underneath it, the pinnacle of the pyramid opened into a skylight. A square of bejeweled night sky hovered just beyond the opening, appearing just out of reach, so much closer than it had seemed outside on the desert plain. Moon and starlight seeped inside like rain trickling down the walls.
“What do you see?” Bata asked.
“The sky,” Brian answered. “Stars.”
“And does it have an end?” Bata asked.
“The sky, the stars, this galaxy,” Bata said. “Everything beyond. Does it have an end?”
“I don’t know,” Brian said.
“What do your modern teachers state?”
“Uh, I guess that the universe doesn’t have an end,” Brian said. “I never really paid attention in science class.”
“But it had a beginning?” Bata prodded.
“I guess so,” Brian said. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You must understand the Universe to understand your place in it,” Bata said. “Now tell me, what was there before this beginning you speak of?”
“I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.”
“No. Not ‘nothing.’ The opposite of everything.”
“Huh?” Brian’s expression conveyed a mixture of confusion and irritation.
“That which came before,” Bata said. “The Other.”
“Other what?” Brian said. “Look, I said I wanted some straight answers.”
“You must not merely see, but perceive,” Bata answered. “Tell me, can light give birth to dark? Can positive yield that which is negative?”
“Positive energy can never produce negative effects,” Brian said, repeating the words he’d heard Dave speak. He stared, his attention turned inward.
Bata nodded. “Indeed. How is it then that the Other came to be?”
“So what you’re asking me,” Brian said. “Is how could good, what, create evil? Is that it?”
“Yes,” Bata said. “If all had a beginning, was created, then how came the Great Lie to be? Was it also created by the Truth?”
“Dave used that word. The Truth. Do you mean God?”
“Both are only words,” Bata said. “Words which can never satisfactorily convey the idea, the conception of the greater fact.”
“Okay,” Brian muttered.
“Answer,” Bata said.
“How did God create evil?” Brian said. “That’s what you’re asking me?”
“Well, if everything was created, then evil had to have been created too, right? Only good can never produce evil, or so Dave says.”
“You understand the question,” Bata said. “Do you have the answer?”
“No,” Brian said. “I don’t.”
Bata smiled down at him. “The answer is this,” he said. “Evil was not a part of the Creation. Evil was before the Creation. Evil has always been.”
“Before God?” Brian asked.
“Before the Act,” Bata said.
“Yeah. Okay,” Brian said. “I guess I can buy that. Sort of. But if it’s true, why is there evil in the world?”
“Evil has always been,” Bata repeated.
“Different planes of reality?” Brian asked.
“Of reality and beyond reality,” Bata said. “Yet you understand well enough. Follow.” He walked over to one of the walls, running his hand over the hieroglyphics etched into its surface. “These tell a story,” Bata said. “Do you see?”