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The Zoo at the End of the Universe

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Na-Ri-Rn-Sx isn't a bad station, really. I think even you would agree with that. It has a good living habitat; a good research facility; well-organised docks; a good transit lounge. In the middle of the complex, under a substance I call light-glass that manages to shine on the people below while still portraying the stars beyond in brilliant clarity, there is a wonderful zoo.

Well, objectively wonderful, as I understand the purpose of zoos. I guess you were entitled to a different opinion from behind the glass.

We had plenty of differing opinions when the Chmo brought you in to be housed with me. They went through the routine of familiarising us gradually: letting us see each other first, monitoring our responses. The first thing I said to you was, "I won't hurt you." I knew you had just as much power to hurt me, of course. It wasn't about physical strength. It was just that after months by myself, barely making progress on the sub-formal language of the Lwelkian junior in the habitat next to mine, seeing you blew my mind. It was kind of like love at first sight, except for trust. It was overwhelming.

Later, I did wonder if they'd enhanced my reactions with hormonal tinkering, because there were a couple of odd spikes, but mostly they're good about drugs and autonomy and authenticity. I can run pretty sophisticated analyses on my own biochemistry; I'd know if I were too far outside baseline. And all the physics I know also tells me that the Chmo shouldn't be able to access my expanded-space memory dump, so I have a record to check that doesn't vary with my mental state.

Of course, you didn't understand me when I spoke to you. Not at first. You were from a point fifteen hundred years behind me in our civilisation, and you didn't have all of my upgrades. It wasn't until you started talking that I could re-acquire your language and establish what words we might both understand.

You'd seen my kind before, travelling up through the centuries, but I'd never seen yours face to face. An entirely gendered person! It took us time to settle on mutually acceptable terminology. To you, I was the first model of the bioform that replaced humanity entirely. Practically an alien. You used some pretty hurtful words.

But it was as stark to you as it is to me: we are the only ones left.

I know you know that. That wasn't why you rejected this place. If it had been - if you'd wanted to break out to find kin who are somehow, somewhere out there - I wouldn't have helped. And you couldn't have broken out of here without my processing. You made the intuitive leaps, but I filled in the gaps, going into meditation for days on end to complete the calculations.

"If you had a choice, would you change anything?" you asked me. We hadn't yet established a rapport; I was sure there was a test in the question. Even so, I had no strategy in what I said to you.

"No," I said. I missed us; I missed our people. No calculation I could run would tell me what might have extended humanity's life span, preserving us in some meaningful way before the first Ascension and Regression, the second Ascension, and every step beyond that that took us away from a definition I understood.

"Neither would I," you said. "That's the problem. That's why I want to be out there."

Your mission had been to take a light-speed vessel and explore out beyond the stars. Time passed slowly for you, and swiftly for Earth. You went out and back, out and back, ageing years for Earth's centuries, the speed of your travel enhanced in leaps and bounds for every leap you made back to us, beyond every bound we'd previously imagined.

During a period of two hundred years in which you didn't return on schedule, I was commissioned. I wasn't the only one, of course. But I have reason to believe I'm the only one of that generation now.

If there were others out there, the Chmo would probably have found them.

The Chmo, after all, found both of us and brought us together. It is a wonder worthy of the world's end that we should meet, after more than three thousand years in which we've leapfrogged each other through space and time. The Chmo have instantaneous travel. Well, not perfectly instantaneous travel: it's vast on our scales, but there is a distance limit, and a lag beyond it. that's the only nod they make to light speed.

I'm sure they found me first, but I'm sure their capture of you was calculated in line with my acclimation here. Having resigned myself to my situation, I was meant to provide a steady model for you. Of course, you didn't acclimatise.

"Why do you want to go back out to the stars?" I asked. "There's no one left to report to. There's no one left to share your discoveries with. Maybe the Berdael," I continued, making a devil's advocate argument to myself, as I'd often done to amuse myself out on my solo missions. The Berdael had shared a period of fifty years' peace and exchange with humanity, and they had rejected Ascension; it was faintly possible you and I might find a home among them. Of course, the Berdael bowed to the Chmo, and we were in the Chmo's care; the politics might be troubling.

You shook your head. "I want to know for myself," you said.

It seemed the loneliest idea possible to me. I pointed you at the educational materials provided by the Chmo and left you alone with them, while I amused myself in my favourite part of the habitat: a jungle gym set in long grass. The Chmo had noted my preference, and kept this part of the enclosure stable, while varying other parts of the habitat within a repeating cycle of Earth structures and flora. I wondered if they classed architecture and plants under some similar heading.

You emerged glowing with inspiration. "I'm beginning to understand this place," you told me. "I think I can get out of here - really out of here, not just out of this enclosure. I think I can learn to pilot the Chmo's vessels."

"And go where?" I asked you again.

"To the Surface," you said. It was your craziest idea yet. The surface of last scattering isn't a place, it's a moment, from which we are ever falling into the deeps. "You don't understand," you argued with me, "what instantaneous travel means." And maybe I still don't.

"That's beyond light," I argued back. "Beyond the resolution of matter. You won't exist there. How can you go, let alone return?"

"I have some ideas," you said, and then you gave me some factors to run calculations on that didn't ever make sense, whatever output they generated. "Your inbuilt parameters are getting in the way," you told me.

"I can only trust you," I said drily.

The Lwelkian, now a senior, helped too. On the day when you pulled off the escape, he was distressed, but he did not alert the Chmo. Neither did I.

I told them where you'd gone, of course, and how. They have truth-reading technology that would make dishonesty pointless. But I didn't sabotage you; I genuinely meant for you to have the best head start you could.

I don't blame you for leaving. And I don't blame myself for wanting you back.

I believe that's how this will end; the Chmo will find you long before you reach the galaxy's shores. But every day that passes without you gives me hope - for your cause, if not for mine. Surely the Chmo will either return you promptly or not at all.

And perhaps they are not chasing you. Perhaps the Chmo have come to understand the impulse that drives you outwards: that leads you to believe you are only truly human when you are engaged in discovery.

I hope they don't. My definition of humanity requires company, and community, and a greater good that is not abstract, by that can be measured in others. So wherever you are, my hope for humanity lies with you.