“You can't hold me forever, you know.”
“'Forever' isn't necessary. Just until we need you as a last resort again. Some were born to lead. Some to serve. You are a tool. A conduit to empower those above you. When you awaken again, society may be something completely unrecognizable to you. Perhaps, by then, they will have a way to put you to proper use.”
The most powerful being in the universe, they called her once. She didn't feel very powerful when the familiar darkness closed in.
Ros dreamed of awakening. The chamber doors whooshing open, so quietly they would be invisible except in absolute silence.
She thought about the world outside, the future eras that would pass her by. She remembered time spent in the science lab – how much? can't remember – listening to her crew ramble about groundbreaking technologies: self-mending nanomachine films draped over machinery like skin, engines that could bring a ship to lightspeed in an instant with barely a jolt, living computers kept eternal by the age-correcting radiation from the immortality inducers. She never saw them up close; their ship was a ramshackle thing, sneered at by all the visitors. She would never see the projects that made her colleagues' eyes sparkle, she supposed, only their distant descendents, something completely unrecognizable. If she ever woke up at all.
A needle in her back, filled with stimulants, pain so sharp and so dull at the same time. It was nice to feel something, even the echo of a dream of a sensation.
She thought about her crew. They had been peacekeepers, sworn to serve and protect, to find what had broken their society and make sure it never happened again. They found it, except they never did, not really. Every time they thought they were done, another conflict sprung up, like, like – Ros dragged up a memory, of Tezkhra trying to fix a broken sprawl of pipes, but every time he patched one the pressure burst another hole. Always another breach. Always something, always someone. Ros had known that since she first woke up to the flash of fire and scent of smoke.
The faint touch of fabric draped over her cold body. It felt funny. In the dream she imagined it was her old uniform, a white shirt with an electric blue overcoat. A memory stirred, and a strange thought occurred to her: did the colors symbolize anything? She never thought to ask, and now she never would.
Marie. Rami. Tezkhra. Neff. Chac. Alicia. Those were their names. Her crew, her… friends? They argued so passionately to keep her, but in the end they did nothing to save her. Maybe they knew it wouldn't make a difference either way. Everything was futile, no point in struggling. One person tried, and he just succeeded in blowing up the galaxy – and leaving them to clean up the mess. Despite herself, faces bubbled into her consciousness, smiling scowling laughing fighting. She wondered where they were now, swept up in the world beyond her. Were they hopping between galaxies, interfacing with fleshy computers, their old commander long since forgotten? The thought made her feel jealous, then guilty, before falling away to leave only despair.
She had had enough of this dream, she decided. Too many memories, too many things she could never have. She slipped back into oblivion.
The next thing she knew her eyes were opening with great effort, like her eyelids had been stuck together with glue. She flinched. Everything was an indistinguishable blur of light and color. She tried to move her hands, but everything felt like she was moving through jelly. Noises started up suddenly, unintelligible murmurs getting louder ever second. She groaned and tried to close her eyes.
Ros opened her eyes again, and reality hit her like a battering ram. She was lying on a table. The ceiling glowed with the ambient white of a medical room.
Not a dream, then. She was really awake.
“Oh God, Ros! A-Are you alright? Can you hear me?”
Ros turned to the source of the voice.
A familiar woman was standing over her, once again. Ros had lost count of how many times she'd greeted her after a revival. Her auburn hair was cut shorter than Ros remembered, and was straighter than the frazzled, spiky mess of before. It was curled neatly behind her ears to stop at her chin, framing her dark brown face. What had precipitated that? Did her new job require it? It was probably more professional than her old one. Or maybe she was just trying something new? Ros could hardly expect everyone to look the same after so long. She was biting her lip – concerned? Afraid? – but what drew Ros' attention the most was her eyes, which were –
“Ros?” the woman said weakly. “C'mon, say something. You… you recognize me, right?”
Ros mentally kicked herself. She was so used to having all the time in the world to analyze her surroundings that she had forgotten to pause.
Better say something, then. “I…” Oh, ow. It had never hurt to speak before. How long was she in there? Ros took a deep breath, and with a smile, forced out a full sentence: “I could never forget you, Marie.”
Marie just looked stunned for an instant, before her mouth twitched into a smile. She laughed, happily at first, before the laughs broke into sobs. She gripped Ros' arm like she'd lose her the moment she let go.
“A-Ah… you okay?” Ros croaked, surprised. Marie had gotten emotional before, but never this open, this vulnerable. As the security officer, there was always a distance between them – she had a duty to uphold, one that potentially included protecting the crew from Ros, and even in her downtime, she wielded snark and contempt like a shield. Had this been the real Marie all along? Or had her friend become something unrecognizable, too?
“Yeah. Yeah, I'm… fine,” Marie said eventually. “It's just. It's been so long. They said… after this much time, you might not… remember everything. Or, uh. Wake up at all.” She looked guilty, and moved her eyes away from Ros' gaze. “I'm sorry, I tried to get you out earlier, but they were so stubborn, and with everything else going on, I kinda… forgot.”
“'Sokay,” Ros said. Carefully, she rose to her feet – a little shakily, her muscles felt so weird – and pulled Marie into a hug. Unfortunately, it ended up more like leaning on Marie for support, but Marie smiled anyway.
“Careful – ahaha, you never did anything by half measures, huh? Alright, I'll show you around. We've… got a lot to catch up on.”
It was good to be back, Ros thought as she walked carefully at the door. But Marie…
Marie's eyes had the telltale glimmer of cybernetics.
Marie never used cybernetics. She didn't say a word about anyone else's, but she always refused implants, muttering something about wanting to stay “pure”. The Marie Ros knew would never voluntarily replace her eyes.
Well, she had said it had been a long time. With a sinking feeling in her gut, Ros started to wonder just how long.
“…But one day, they just stopped caring,” Marie explained as they walked through the lobby. “I was pretty surprised – one day I put up my token resistance and they're just like 'yeah, fine'. Maybe I finally managed to be annoying enough, heh. Not like there's much they could use you for now, anyway.”
That was weird. “What do you mean?” Ros said suspiciously. “There's always going to be conflict. You said that.”
Marie shifted nervously. “Yeah, well,” she started. “Um. That'll take a while to explain. Let's meet the others first.”
That got Marie smiling again. “Yeah! You think I'm the only one who wanted to bust you out? We couldn't all make it, but… Oh!” She pulled a small, bright green cylinder out of her jacket pocket. It was banded and segmented, with small clips branching off the sides, and, even in the bright light of the building, Ros could tell it exuded a faint green glow. “I almost forgot! You need an IX so you don't, like, die.”
Ros took the device and examined it suspiciously. It almost looked like one of the immortality emitters, but it was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, and green instead of orange. “What's 'IX'?”
“Oh, sorry, of course you wouldn't – it's the latest emitter model. You know how those big bulky ones from back when you were commander were called +ii? This is +ix. They pretty much perfected the tech a while back, but they come out with a new model every so often just for kicks. This one's so tiny everyone can get their own, and it's got nanomachines and other junk to keep cybernetics in top shape too. Supposedly it makes you even better than you would be normally, too. Apparently you don't even need to breathe with one of these things active, but I've never had to test that.” She laughed and waved her hand dismissively. “I don't know how credible any of it is, I'm no scientist. But the portability is handy. They're designed to hook into cybernetics, but that one's battery-powered. Just stick it in your pocket and you should be fine.”
Ros did so, but didn't feel any burst of vitality. “Uh, thanks.”
By now they had reached the door. Ros noticed that the people around the lobby looked a bit strange – their shapes were irregular, and at least one of them seemed to be flying. Maybe it would make more sense up close. Something to investigate later, perhaps; the people paid them no mind at the moment. Marie pressed a hand to the door, which slid to the side.
Ros stepped out into the light, gasped, and paused. She always felt a rush when she did, like waking up from a dream and into a new, crystal clear reality. The hustle and bustle around her slowed to a crawl until the view before her looked as still and fragile as a computer image. Leisurely, as she had countless times before, she analyzed every detail in turn, her brain whirring as reality stopped around her.
The expanse before her was like nothing she had ever seen, except… digging up a faint memory, she realized it almost looked like Earth. There were no walls, no dome, no cages, no constant reminders of an artificial environment. How did they do it? Was it holographic, maybe? Ros didn't care if it was an illusion – even the illusion of freedom was enough after eons in cramped spaceships. Cubes and blocks dotted the landscape – other buildings like the one they had just left, presumably, but painted in a dazzling array of colors. Surrounding the buildings – and flanking the path she was on, Ros noticed – were enormous, spiraling masses of green, plants larger than any Ros had ever seen before. Looking carefully, she could even see flowers blooming in white and yellow and violet, a beauty she had previously only seen trapped in computer screens.
In front of Ros was a stoic statue of some man she didn't recognize, placed in the middle of a pool that spewed jets of water at regular intervals – Ros would have to unpause to appreciate those, but not yet – and above, the… ceiling? was a deep dark blue, absent of the starlight pinpricks Ros was so used to. Except… straight above was a single, large white dot that hurt her eyes to look at. There was still so much, but she had to unpause to ask about all this.
The questions spilled out of her like the water of the flowing fountain, asking about the plants, the stars, the deep blue, the freedom. Marie smiled widely and giggled. “Must be a shock, huh? We're basically on, like… you can think of it as the inside edge of a huge planet. We built this thing to completely capture the energy of that star.” She pointed up, to the white dot. “There were plans for something like this before everything got wrecked, I hear. Neff says it's called a 'Dyson sphere' – you'd have to ask him for details.”
“That's a star?” Ros said. “But where are all the others?” Something clicked. “Completely capture… this is the size of a solar system?”
“Yep!” Marie chirped. “Pretty cool, huh? We managed some pretty impressive stuff once we stopped fighting and learned to get along. Who knew!”
“And these… things.” Ros pointed to the blooming trees as they walked along the path. “They look like the pictures of Earth plants you showed me –”
“Pictures can't do 'em justice!” Marie said, grinning. “Go on, touch one!”
Ros stopped like she had run into a wall. “They're…?” With extreme care, as if they would vanish the moment she touched them, she ran her fingers over one of the flowers. It felt as soft as cloth but smooth as plastic.
“They're not holograms!” Ros breathed in absolute wonderment. “Not artificial either – how did you…?”
Marie laughed awkwardly. “Wow. I forgot how crappy things were back then. It's… really been a while.” She took Ros' arm and kept walking. “I know you didn't have a very good, uh… first impression of Earth, but not all planets are that messed up. Most of them are totally fine, actually! We just had to get some dirt, mix in the right chemicals, and poof! We can grow these things no problem.” Her expression soured. “Of course, we blew up all the plants back on Earth, so it took a while to reconstruct the genetic codes, but turns out scientists can do incredible things when they're not spending all their time making weapons. Oh hey, speak of the devil!”
She waved to some people sitting by the fountain. One of them Ros recognized as Neff: the dark brown skin and close-cropped hair could belong to anyone, but she'd never forget the way he seemed to look at everything with inexhaustible curiosity and optimism. His face lit up when he saw Ros and called a greeting.
The… thing next to him also turned to look at them, but Ros didn't recognize it. When it stood to its full height, it towered over the rest of them. Ros' heart skipped a beat when its terrifying eyes (yellow-green, with slits for pupils – what kind of creature would have eyes like that?) fixed on Ros, but its face seemed curved in genuine mirth. And… surprise? Its skin glimmered blue, sparkling in the starlight, but that was nothing compared to what it was wearing. The garment looked like a parabolic cone, wide and open at its feet but tapered at the top to only cover her shoulders. It was an iridescent rainbow of colors, shimmering with every movement. The garment left its arms free, which it raised – oh goodness, all four of its arms, which each seemed to end in a bit more than just five fingers…
“Oh my god! You really, finally, actually did it, Marie?! I can't believe it!” the creature boomed when Ros reentered the normal flow of time, making her flinch back. The voice sounded feminine, and familiar in a way Ros couldn't quite place. Marie placed an arm on Ros' shoulder to steady her as the creature loomed closer.
“Hey, back off a little, Alice. You're scaring her.”
Alice? Did she mean…
The giant stepped back with an apologetic smile. “Oh, right, she got frozen back when I was still –”
“Alicia?!” Ros squeaked, louder than she intended. Marie's little sister was – well, human.
Marie groaned. “Sorry, Ros, I should have told you. We've gotten so good at genetics and stuff that you can plonk your brain into pretty much anything you want. Designer bodies have become this… fad. Alice's gone crazy with it, as you can see.”
“You're just jealous I look cooler than you now!” Alicia said, twirling. The colors of her garment shone and spun like multicolored flame.
“So then… is everyone doing this?” Ros looked more carefully at the people walking, and, yes, flying around. She saw one land clumsily, and noticed that there were white bird-like wings grafted onto his shoulders. It looked like he was having a bit of difficulty moving his limbs independently of one another. Ros pointed. “I thought I saw people flying earlier, and I guess that explains it, but… why?”
“Because it's fun! Who wants a boring old human body when you can be anything you want?” Alicia said, putting her lower set of arms on her hips. “Those guys”–she jerked her head to the winged man, who glanced at them once before moving out of sight–“base their bodies off of, uh, they call them 'angels', some creatures from old Earth stories. Apparently they have or had some huge cultural significance but I really don't care. Honestly I'm pretty surprised people still remember stuff that far back! I tried it once, but they never seem to get the wings right. See, extra limbs are really hard at the best of times and human bodies are too heavy to fly even with the same musculature as –”
Neff coughed, politely. It sounded oddly metallic.
“Oh sorry, Neff wants to talk to you too!” Alicia said, turning to him. “I went for body mods, but he went full robot! Tell her all about it, man!”
“What?” Ros said, blinking.
“Heh, I think Ros has had enough surprises today, Alicia.” Neff waved at Ros again, and – ah yes, up close Ros could see he looked different. His skin looked perfectly normal – maybe even a little too normal – but his eyes lacked irises, and the movements of his mouth didn't quite match up with his words. Cybernetic eyes and voicebox, then. Or probably more, given what Alicia said. “I am also glad to see you out of that tank, Ros!”
“Good to see you too, Neff,” Ros said. She'd never thought Neff would be a more grounding presence than Alicia. “How are you doing?”
“Good, good! Most people just sorta lounge around, but there's a lot of performance art stuff, maybe we can show you some time. Like Alicia said, we can do pretty much anything now. I can't laze around, though, I get restless! I'm always designing new computer systems, real complex stuff. Some people say we've plateaued, but I say there's always room for improvement!”
“I guess,” Ros said. “What about that virtual reality thing you were working on, during the war? We're not, uh, in it right now, are we…?”
“Oh! Uh, no,” Neff said, looking a bit embarrassed. “I got it up and running, but it never really took off. I think I was really just… scared of the war, and wanted to get away from it all.” He shrugged, and laughed awkwardly. “I still think it's pretty neat, but well, the war ended, and everything worked out, so people don't really need that escape anymore.” Something flickered across his face, and his joking expression suddenly became solemn. “Of course, a lot more people are interested now, since… uh…”
He stopped. Ros looked around for an explanation, but Alicia and Marie wouldn't meet her eyes. “Since wh–”
“Oh!” Marie said suddenly, adopting a forced smile. “You know what other cool thing we have now? Instantaneous communication!” She whipped out a computer tablet. “Chac couldn't make it 'cause he's in another galaxy right now, but look, we're not limited by the speed of light anymore, I can hook you up with him right now!”
“Chac's alright?” Ros said with relief. After the Shine, the blast that shattered the fragile peace established after the exodus from Earth, Chac had been the only survivor of his ruined ship, and his guilt and despair had dragged him into an abyss. Ros thought she had helped him, but she was always worried he'd lose the strength to keep going.
“Yeah!” Marie said. “Here, I'll let him explain – look, we've even got video on this thing! Hey, Chac! Guess who's here!”
“Hi?” Ros spoke into the screen. Chac appeared – like Marie, his eyes were augmented now, but Ros still recognized the angular lines of his face. When he saw Ros, he broke into an excited grin, eyes creasing from happiness. He had never been as expressive when Ros was commander; every smile seemed to run up against some invisible barrier, circumscribed by the sorrow behind his eyes.
“Commander!” came the familiar, gravelly voice. “It's been so long since I've heard your voice! I could hardly believe it when Marie said those fiends had allowed your release!”
That sounded a lot happier than the morose drawl Ros was used to hearing from him. She smiled. “It's good to hear from you too! But I don't think I'm a commander anymore…”
“Old habits die hard!” the old officer said, laughing. “I'm sorry I couldn't make it. I'm truly grateful for all you've done for me, but – well, I decided that after turning away from it for so long, I wanted to see the full breadth of the universe. There are more stars and planets than anyone could ever hope to catalogue, though some people are trying! I've seen so many beautiful things – let me tell you, you haven't really lived until you've seen the birth of a star! And there are so many plants… no animal life, though, despite everyone's hopes. But – ah, nothing can compare to an old friend! I really do want to see you again. I'm millions of lightyears away, but, I'll try to make it.”
“Well, I'm not going anywhere. Not this time, anyway.”
“Good! I'll leave you to it, then. I'm sure you have a lot to see! Things have gotten so much more exciting since you left off, Ros. But… I do hope you'll keep in touch.”
“I will.” Chac nodded, and the screen flicked off. “He seems to be doing well. I'm glad.”
“Yeah. Shame he couldn't be here,” Neff said. “I always liked the guy. I guess we all lost track of time… and space, I guess, heh.”
“Wow,” Ros said. “This is a lot to take in, but… thanks. I'm glad to see everyone's doing well. But, where are the others? Shouldn't Rami be here, at least?”
A pallor fell over the group again. Marie opened her mouth to say something, but instead she just sighed and looked away. Alicia stared intently at the ground and scuffed her shoe, all her previous energy and mirth drained away.
“Uh, you know? Doctor Ransend…?”
Silence. Then, quietly, Neff spoke up. “You didn't tell her, Marie?”
Marie bit her lip.
“What? What happened?”
“He's dead,” Alicia said flatly.
Ros felt like she had been punched in the chest. She could feel her breathing quicken, could feel everyone else tensing. It felt like the world had stopped, like in one of her pauses, but for once the world moved on without her. The fountain continued to trickle, people continued to mill about in the distance, the trees continued to sway in the breeze. She felt sick.
“What happened? Was it the war, did someone…?”
“No,” Marie said. “He… he killed himself, Ros.”
Ros couldn't manage a response to that. The look she gave them must have spoken for itself.
“Yeah, I… I didn't understand it either, Ros,” Marie sighed. “He said he was… tired of living. That… dying is the 'natural order of things', that he was 'supposed' to die. That even though we're immortal, everyone has a limit. And he had reached his.” She bit her thumbnail, and her voice started shaking. “I tried to stop him! I told him that was ridiculous, that he had to hold on for your sake, any excuse I could think of, but he wouldn't… it was like he had just lost all hope.”
“…'We're all composed of the same atoms that made the universe. So in a way, we'll all live forever.'” Neff said slowly, carefully enunciating each word. “That's the last thing he said to us.” He barked out a laugh. “I always thought that was… such a ridiculous thing to say. It doesn't make, like, actual, biological sense.” He wrung his hands, and was quiet for a moment before continuing. “I think he was just saying that to make himself feel better. Or us. I think maybe he just… didn't want to have to see the end.”
“What do you mean, 'the end'?” Ros said immediately. “Is something wrong with the emitters? I thought we were all supposed to live forever.”
No one would meet her gaze.
“There's something you're not telling me.”
“Ros,” Marie said quickly. “You don't – let's not – focus on the bad stuff right now. There's so much that's happened since before, there's so much good in the world, really, you don't have to –”
“But I do, don't I?” Ros pursed her lips. “Whenever something comes up, it's my job to –”
“NO!” Marie shouted, gripping Ros by the shoulders. “Ros, don't you get it?! I freed you, they don't own you anymore, you're under nobody's orders, you understand? You've never been free in your life but now you are and you're not obligated to do anything for anyone, okay? I just want you to… to do what you want to do!”
“This is what I want to do,” Ros said firmly. Marie scrunched her eyes shut.
“Ros,” Alicia said, bounding forward. “This isn't like before. You can't fix this. It's just gonna make you miserable.” She extended an arm. “Marie's right. You never once got a break in life, so just… be yourself, okay? You don't need to play hero this time.”
“No,” Ros said, shrugging out of Marie's touch, “but I'm never going to rest easy with some mysterious doom looming over my head. Tell me.”
Silence. Then, slowly, carefully, Neff stood up.
“Maybe it would be better to show you.”
The sky was a lot brighter than Ros remembered. A cornucopia of stars speckled the view above like pixels on a screen. It wasn't as uniform as Ros remembered, either; large globs of light appeared at irregular intervals, splayed across the cosmos like the shapeless failed experiments Ros had glimpsed in the lab of her birth. Everything looked so dense and so bright; there was hardly a speck of black to be seen, except in the very center. The stars stretched and distorted into a swirling ring around what Ros couldn't describe as anything but a hole in the world. The pinprick was impossibly black, darker than darkness.
None of her companions had looked up since opening the window to the outside of the Dyson sphere. Their heads were bent straight down, trembling as if a single glimpse of the sky would kill them.
“What am I looking at?”
“This is how it ends, Ros,” Marie said, voice barely above a whisper. “This is how everything ends.”
“What am I looking at,” Ros repeated.
The shutters closed, and the pleasant, uniform artificial light returned to the room. Ros glanced at the controls and saw that Neff was responsible.
“So, uh,” he started. “You know those notes we found, from that crazy guy who made the Shine? Turns out he, um… might not have been as crazy as we thought.”
Ros exhaled. “Oh,” she said weakly. “So this is the 'Big Crunch'.”
“Yeeep.” He paused to shuffle his feet before continuing. “Matter… all matter exerts a gravitational force, right? And more matter gets formed as the universe expands. At a certain point… the total gravity of all matter in the universe exceeded the force governing the universe's expansion. So now everything's…” He ran a hand through his hair, nervously. “…contracting.”
“So that's what he meant when he said the universe's expansion was 'consuming itself'?” Ros said. The notes had been so erratic, growing increasingly desperate as time went on. It had been so easy to dismiss them as the ramblings of a madman.
“Probably. By now, most of the universe has been smooshed into a supermassive black hole, and it's just going to keep getting bigger until… until…”
He trailed off.
“…Some people are trying to do something about it,” Alicia added, with forced enthusiasm. “Some people were even crazy enough to try another Shine, but they got shut down before any projects could get off the ground. The calculations say it wouldn't work, anyway. The alternative is, well, space is infinite, right? So if we piled everyone onto one spaceship and had good enough engines, we might be able to outrun the event horizon…”
“A second Breach?” Marie chuckled darkly. “We sure do love running away from our problems, don't we? But this isn't like Earth. There's nowhere to run this time. Space might be infinite, but fuel isn't.” Alicia dropped her gaze, defeated.
“You see, Ros? There's really nothing you can do this time. You can't punch a black hole in the face.” Marie forced a smile. “So just… relax, okay? Let's enjoy the time we have left. It's… all we can do now.”
Ros stared at her. It was a long shot, but…
“Where is Tezkhra?”
The despair filling the room instantly blazed into anger. Marie scowled and looked away. Alicia's head snapped up, her face contorted into a snarl. “What do you want with him?” she growled.
“Maybe he knows something,” Ros said. “Whatever else he was, he was smart, and he's been studying those notes longer than anyone else –”
“That's because he was crazy too,” Neff spat with uncharacteristic venom. “You remember, Ros. He just left, vanished into the black, because he was too much of a coward to clean up his own messes! I was the one who had to dismantle the Starkiller, the thing built with his tech, practically all on my own, even though I could barely make heads or tails of it! And after that big speech about scientific ethics and how oh-so-responsible he felt, too!” He threw his hands up in fury. “Because oh, Mr. Logical felt bad about his research being misused, so leave it up to everyone else to fix it!”
“True, that,” Alicia quipped. “I never liked him anyway. He always acted like he was so much better than us because he was so 'logical' and 'reasonable', even though it was obvious to anyone with ears that he was the pettiest of all of us.”
“And I always thought he was awfully quiet when those EROS guys were cackling over how many human rights their experiments were trampling,” Marie added. “And he sure spent a lot of time trying to find a 'logical' justification for all the shady stuff they pulled. We were all officially neutral in the war, but I think we all know what side he was really on.”
Ros rolled her eyes, and waited a moment. “Are you done?”
Alicia drew her lips back – were those teeth pointed? – and hissed, but Marie threw an arm out before she could verbalize anything. “What's your point, Ros?”
“Can't I just… want to talk to him, about this, one last time? I… do want to see him again. He's still one of us.”
“Maybe,” Marie grunted. “But it doesn't matter. You're not gonna find him. He's gone. We've tried contacting him before, and we got nothing. If he's still alive, he doesn't want to be found.”
Alicia snorted. “He's probably holed up somewhere all alone, driving himself crazy like the last guy. Don't waste your time, Ros.”
“What if Chac –”
“He's promised to tell us if he finds him,” Neff said, “but I wouldn't count on it. The universe is a big place. Even now.”
“Come on, Ros,” Marie pleaded. “Nothing… really matters anymore, but that's freeing in its own way. Just… forget about this. Please.”
Ros closed her eyes – “I can't just forget.” – and opened them again. “But… I think I understand. If we spend all our time worrying about the end, we'll never really live, right?”
“Now you got it!” Marie said with relief. “And that's basically what you've had to do all your life, so you've never really lived up until now.”
“Uh… I guess,” Ros said.
“It's settled, then. Live a little. I'll show you the sights.” Marie grabbed Ros' hand and pulled her toward the exit, a bit too quickly to be casual. “Now let's get out of this dreary place.”
Marie had been right. It had been hard to enjoy life with something hanging over her.
But for once, the answer had come to her.
To the one who can control time.
I have awaited your awakening. By now, you must know of the doom that awaits our universe. I can stop it, but I require your aid. Coordinates to my location are attached. Come alone. The others do not trust me.
Do not delay. Time is finite.
Well that sure was ominous. But it was the only lead she had, and the personal ID was his. A small part of Ros wondered if it had gotten any easier to fake that since her time, but she crushed it down. Live for the moment, right?
She ran toward the hangar as soon as she decoded the coordinates. (Marie knew she loved flying, and had registered a craft for her immediately.) The others didn't need to know; it would only worry them, after all, and besides, it didn't sound like they wanted to meet Tez anyway. She spared some consideration to shoot Marie a message saying she needed to step out and would be back soon as she blasted away from the sphere.
Predictably, the comm link flared to life almost instantly.
“Ros, what the hell do you think you're doing?! You think you can just walk out on me – on us, the moment we get you back? It's Tez, isn't it, he's too good to talk to us but not too good to spy on us and now that he knows you're out he's wrapped you up in one of his crazy schemes –”
“This is why I didn't tell you in person, Marie,” Ros sighed. “I'll come back, I promise. Don't stress.”
“Ros, I won't lose you ag–!!”
Ros flicked the screen off. Silence. A most cherished gift. No orders, no talking, no one telling her what to do. Just her, her ship, and the stars. Marie was right, maybe there was something to this.
One rest in her stasis tank later – Tez's location had been surprisingly far away, disconcertingly close to the black hole – and she was there. A quick check confirmed Marie hadn't caught up yet.
Her mapping system showed a very large, very dense object in front of her. Diagnostics said it was endothermic, slowly absorbing background radiation from the surroundings, but somehow self-contained. A Stardraw-based feedback loop. Tezkhra's signature design. Was he trying to create his own black hole?
Ros took a deep breath, and hailed the device.
She recognized the face on the screen immediately. Sickly alabaster skin was stretched thin over his sallow face, starkly contrasted by wild jet-black hair that looked even more disheveled than Ros remembered. He had the same ocular implants, though – ugly, bulky computers below and around his eye sockets. Despite possessing the same youth as everyone exposed to emitter radiation, something about him looked ancient. His electronic eyes didn't seem entirely there. They were looking at something older than Earth, older than the stars, older than time. It was a look Ros had seen from him before – he was always busying himself with strange questions about the nature of the universe, the underpinnings of reality itself – but now, it was as if he had one foot in another world.
“Ouranos,” he said, his once even voice cracking and wavering like warped steel. “So I called. And so, you came.”
“Hi, Tez,” Ros said carefully. “You uh, don't sound so good.”
“It's nothing,” he replied. “It has simply been… a very long time. In truth, I had almost lost hope that you would return to us.” His face suddenly broke into a manic grin. “But – now you're here, and it will all have been worth it. I can finally set everything right!” Ros waited for his expression to even out. He continued, “By now you know that the Shine's creator was correct. You have seen the black hole for yourself, yes? The universe, once uniform in distribution, has become clumped and discrete as everything condenses. Everything, all matter, will soon be crushed into a single point by the infinite density of the singularity. A 'big crunch'. Obviously, we will not survive this process, even if the galaxy collisions do not finish us first.” In a flash, he was suddenly bristling with indignation. “Everyone else has resigned themselves to oblivion, but I will not! We must live forever! There is still so much we have yet to do. To change, to grow, to command. We cannot wither away yet. We are the rightful inhabitants. We are the only inhabitants. It is our universe to control, and to save…”
“I know all this already. You're not thinking of making another Shine, are you?”
“No,” Tezkhra said, face returning to a stoic mask. “I have checked over the calculations… many times. It will not work. Even if I could guarantee no collateral damage, even if I could improve the efficiency, it would be only a stopgap measure. Entropy ensures that some energy would decay with each burst until we could no longer muster any resistance. However… I think I finally know where he went wrong. His error was in his fundamental approach.”
Then something strange happened. Ros could have sworn the lines of his face did not move a millimeter, but a change came across him nonetheless. A wicked gleam sparkled in his eye, and though he still seemed focused on Ros, she had the creeping feeling that he was staring at nothing at all.
“Do not push outward… but pull inward.”
Ros' face must have betrayed something. Tezkhra instantly snapped back to reality, looking troubled. “Allow me to explain!” he said quickly. “Triggering this device will draw all energy, all matter into one perfect, singular point of energy. And – that's the brilliant part! By performing the condensation in a single instant instead of a slow decay, we can survive! Our consciousnesses will be ripped from our physical forms at the speed of light and left behind in the void that briefly follows. And then!” Ros jumped as he moved with unexpected suddenness, sweeping his arm in a dramatic motion. He was staring at nothing again. “A second Big Bang will occur! The universe will bloom anew from that single point – but with our minds in control. Outside, looking in.”
Ros' heart sank as the manic grin returned. “Think of it! Think of how close to godhood we've already become! Already, we are no longer bound by the frail physical forms we were born with – our minds are adaptable, fluid! Our environments, our bodies, our experiences – all are completely of our own making! This is the apotheosis of humanity: not to adapt to our environment, but to adapt our environment to us. The only logical next step is to apply this to the universe itself! We can truly live forever!” Tezkhra paused, either expecting a response or lost in his own dreams.
Ros' mouth felt very dry. Shakily, she asked, “And how do I fit into this?”
“Ah! You, Ouranos – I cannot do this without you! I want you to be at the very center of the new universe, watching over all of us. Only your complex mind and control over time can keep the order of the universe in check. Under any other direction, the new universe will decay, just as it is now, and we will be right back where we started. Nothing will change. But with you at the center… an unseen caretaker of an entire reality. No more fighting, no more hate. You will have control over the laws, the beings, everything…” His hand reached against the glass of his screen, and his eyes alternated between staring at Ros and something else. “Ros Ouranos… I can make you into God.”
Ros blinked. “Make me into what?”
Tezkhra stuttered, then looked away, embarrassed. “Ah… an ancient Earth concept I was studying. Of course you wouldn't… no matter.” He shook his head. “It was the inspiration for my idea. Admit it: you find my plan hard to believe, do you not? It is physically implausible, I admit.”
“More like physically impossible.”
“Aha!” Tez waved his hand out, and adopted an expression of playful mischievousness, as if Ros had just handed him the winning move in some clever game. “But what if I told you that it has already happened to our universe once before? Have you never had the feeling of someone watching… looking in… controlling your every movement?”
Tezkhra froze like a broken computer program, his mouth slightly open, intending to vocalize a soliloquy that would never come. Eventually, his face twitched. “That.” He shook his head in a manner barely restrained enough to not be considered a spasm. “That is fine! Not everyone could agree. There were varying accounts, of one observer or multiple, with differing levels of influence… but the fundamental principle, our ancestors understood that! Across all cultures, there were accounts of some intangible, guiding presence. A presence that would grant them truth, salvation, atonement…”
“And did it?”
Tezkhra winced at that, the movement spreading until he had curled in on himself, slumped in his chair, his armor of stoicism crumbling as Ros watched. “…No. No, of course not. Not unless death to all but a lucky few was what they always intended, the… proper order of things. And I… don't want to believe that.” He perked up slightly, a desperate gleam in his eyes. “But that doesn't disprove it! It just means… something went wrong, last time, and they weren't able or willing enough to stop the chaos. We just have to try again… and do it right this time! And so I have chosen… you. It is… a perfectly logical outcome. With one move, we can create a perfect world… no more fighting, no more hate… a clean slate.”
“Ouranos, you have to trust me!” the haggard man pleaded. His smile was strained, now, his sallow skin seeming to pull away from his features. His eyes whirled through a terrifying range of emotion, fear and joy and hatred and… “Don't give up! Not like the others! We must at least try! Don't you understand? This is the only way. With this, we can save everyone! We can fix everything!”
Something inside those eyes fizzled and died like a fuse blowing out. Breathing heavily, he ran his hands over his face and through his hair, slowly. “Ouranos…” he tried again, his voice carefully even now. “Have you not ever considered it? You were created for some reason…” Ros' eye twitched. “…for some higher purpose.” Was he really going to…? “This is that purpose.”
To her surprise, he didn't seem to react to that at all. “What do you mean…?”
Ros stared at the man in front of her. How many times had she listened to him in his lab, regaling her with childlike wonder about each and every thing he was doing? How many times had she listened to him about concepts she knew she'd never comprehend, until one moment after listening so many times she realized she suddenly did? Everyone else had respected him too, at first. Their brilliant scientist, who just wanted to make the world a better place even as his research was stolen and abused. Their crewmate, who was always so helpful, even as the world spiraled into chaos around them. Their friend, who never gave up.
“…this is madness.”
Tezkhra stared straight at her. “No.” He grimaced, and Ros could see his hands were shaking. “No! What's madness, Ouranos, is – is giving up, and leaving everyone to die! Do you have a better plan?!”
“No,” Ros said, with calmness that surprised her. “Tez… Look at yourself. Look at what we've become. We're not worth maintaining. Even if your plan would work, I don't want this. I'm… tired. Tired of being caged up, told what to do, used like a tool… All the fighting, the orders, the destruction, chaos… what good has it done? What good have I done?” Finally, it was her turn to be unable to look someone in the eye. She shifted. “Isn't it obvious? I have no 'purpose', Tez. None of us do. There is no greater order to things. There is no guardian force looking out for us. There is no magic solution to this. We're…” She choked, but only for a moment. “We're going to die, and there's nothing we can do about it. Nothing lasts forever.”
“Then why not?!” Tezkhra shrieked. “If you really think we're going to die no matter what, then why won't you do this? You're not risking anything! The worst-case scenario has already happened!”
“No, it hasn't. Marie and the others… they were so happy to see me. They were still so happy, even knowing they were living on borrowed time. They just… enjoy life, no matter how long or short it might be. Don't you get it, Tez? You accomplish nothing by fixating on the end. Just… focus on today. Don't live a life of worry.”
“I CAN'T!” Tezkhra screamed. “Don't you get that?! How can you say that, like it's that easy?! How can I live knowing that one day, it'll all be for nothing, that I'll just be – erased, gone forever? I have to do this! I have to…” Ros expected him to say more, but he just stopped. His breathing slowed back to normal, and grim determination slipped over his face. But when he spoke, he sounded on the verge of tears. “Ouranos. If you won't do it… I'll just have to activate the sequence myself.”
Ros snapped back to attention. “No–!”
Tezkhra rose from his seat. “Do not try to stop me. I have to do this. I have to make everything right.”
He didn't even bother to break the comm link before jumping up to fiddle with consoles just outside of Ros' sight. Ros gritted her teeth and activated engagement protocols. Marie, bless her, had gotten her craft fitted with weapons like her old ones. She hadn't had time to test them, but hopefully the interface wouldn't be too different than what she was used to.
She had to destroy this thing. It was the only way to be sure.
With practiced dexterity, Ros blasted forward and pulled up her weapon interface at the same time. She rocketed towards the device, deploying a barrage of acid bombs as she flew across. Tezkhra only spared her a glance before continuing his work. His voice was weirdly devoid of emotion when he spoke: “I wouldn't do that if I were you, Ouranos. This device is so sensitive it could be tripped by the slightest jostle.”
“You were never a good liar, Tez,” Ros shot back as her computer scanned the device for weak points. “If that were true you wouldn't be taking this long. And you wouldn't have told me that.” She didn't pay attention to his reaction, pausing to look over the combat readout. Tez's Stardraw components were remarkably stable, and there'd be no point in trying to overload something designed to absorb the whole universe. But they looked to have a lot of energy trapped already. If she did enough damage or better yet, disrupted the control modules, the whole thing might burst.
–There! One of the Stardraw components was close to the surface. Ros fired a kinetic payload – she needed brute force, and she needed it fast. She saw something break off into space as the missile hit. In the corner of her eye Tez leaped across the room and flipped a switch –
– and Ros slammed face-first into her control console as alerts started blaring: GRAVITATIONAL ANOMALY DETECTED – DEPLOYING CORRECTIVE MEASURES. Her thrusters flared just before her ship could crash into the giant metal sphere. Ros cranked up their output, feeling like she was being crushed. Even just sitting up straight took enormous effort. She had to finish this now. Ros fired down (hopefully the counterforce would do something, at least) and her eyes flicked frantically across the readout before finding what she was looking for: a weak point in the system. Her blast had just opened a path in the wiring. Did she – yes, there was a hacking module in her weapon bay. The system was probably segmented, but this might slow him down at least.
Ros' craft shuddered as she watched the robot fall toward the sphere, praying it wouldn't get crushed by the gravity, praying it would connect and not screw things up worse. She spared a glance at the comm link and saw a door in the background she hadn't noticed before. The lock indicators along the sides were turning green –
– and then shut off, going dark along with the rest of the control room as Ros flew back, the intense gravity suddenly gone. The virus must have been stronger than Ros thought. The lights flickered back on after a moment, but intermittently. Tezkhra screamed and pounded on the door, locks switched back to red. “Ouranos, what did you do?!” He turned to a console and started typing frantically before tearing at his hair, a primal whine coming from his throat. “No, no, I can fix this, just stop…!”
Ros glanced at her screen, which was blinking warning notices. Energy readings told her the core was destabilized. One more hit and the whole thing would blow. The ship's computer highlighted a still-functioning containment unit. It was deep, but by now it was clear Tez hadn't built this thing to withstand a military assault. She easily maneuvered to her target and dropped a fierce payload – chemical weapons to dissolve the outer layer and a drill missile to hit the deeper components. She saw Tez's command station jostle a bit after the explosion, making him glance at another screen. According to her scanners the control unit was still functional, but now she had a clear shot at it. Ros locked on to the target, readied the biggest payload she had…
“Are you trying to kill us both? Stop, Ouranos!”
Take the shot, blow up the bad guy, save the universe. Same as she'd always done. Why was she hesitating?
Her hand shifted as she ordered the computer to do another scan. There was a shuttle in the hangar, probably Tezkhra's. He could escape, if…
“You… you've made your point, Ouranos! I'll stop!”
“Will you?” Ros wondered, half to herself.
“I… I shouldn't have run away, I understand that now. We can work together, try something different, something less… risky. Just let me contain this! It'll explode if you do any more damage!”
Ros looked at her viewscreen. Tezkhra was hunched over, pinching the bridge of his nose. Before she had thought he looked ancient, venerable. Now, he just looked exhausted.
“What will you do if I let you go? Will you stop doing this?”
Tez turned to look at her. “What… do you mean? Stop trying to save the universe?”
“I mean…” Ros shifted uncomfortably. “Look, what do you really want, Tez?”
He stared at her for a long time. “Isn't it obvious?” he asked, very quiet. “I want… to be a good person. To know that my life was worth something. I've made… so many mistakes. This is the only way I can…”
He trailed off and looked away. Ros watched him, unmoving.
“Ouranos. What… happened to you? You always said… you wanted to help us. To save everyone.”
“I know. But this…” Ros shook her head. “I can't take peoples' lives from them, no matter how short they might be. It's not right for one person to decide the fate of the entire human race.”
Tez's hand clenched into a fist. He turned to her, eyes filled with fear and hurt. “But that's exactly what you're doing! Listen to yourself! If you stop me… it's all over. You know that, right? Everyone else has given up. I'm the only one who still thinks something can be done. Everyone… everything… is going to die.”
“I know.” Tezkhra just stared at her, in horror. “But this was a decision made a long time ago. It's not my choice to make, or yours. It's… over. It was over from the moment this universe came into existence. We have to make our peace with that, now.”
“No!” he said desperately. “There is always a choice! We have to keep trying! I can't give up! Not like Ransend! Please… Ros. Just let me do this. I just…” He got up and shakily walked to the back of the room, placing a hand on the still-locked door before collapsing to his knees. Ros couldn't see his expression, but his voice was broken with sobs as he finished.
“I don't want to die.”
“I don't think anyone does,” Ros said quietly. “Not really. But… we can't always get what we want.”
Ros watched as the small, pitiful man continued to kneel there, trembling almost imperceptibly. The lights flickered and sparked. Eventually, his weak sobs quieted, but he still didn't move. How long had he been here, she wondered? How much of his life had he wasted, struggling against the inevitable? Was that even really living?
Slowly, pushing against some subconscious force, she moved her hand over to the weapon interface.
She was glad he couldn't face her. She didn't think she could do this while looking him in the eyes.
“Goodbye, old friend.”
In one motion she activated her reverse thrusters and fired the rest of her arsenal into the tear. Tezkhra let out a strangled cry and twitched toward her before she cut the comm link.
She didn't want to see him die.
Space lit up like a supernova while she was thrown back in her seat, and then it was over. She opened her eyes to a dizzying array of warning notices, but she didn't pay any attention to them. She closed her eyes and laid back, letting out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
She wasn't sure how much time passed before a beeping noise jolted her to attention. Another ship was rapidly approaching, and…
“Ros? Ros! Oh God!”
Marie looked terrified. “There was some huge explosion and now the radiation levels are off the charts! We have to get you back! Are you alright?!”
Ros turned to look where Tezkhra's device once stood. There was nothing there now; anything that hadn't been vaporized had flown off into the depths of space. Just the stars, and the blackness.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I'm fine.”
Ros stumbled as she stepped down from the ship. The gravity here felt stronger than she was used to, and it was even harder to get her nighttime darkness – she thought the stars would help, but they didn't. Marie navigated the ramp with ease, though, holding onto Ros to keep her steady.
“Remind me why we came here again?” Ros asked. Marie rolled her eyes.
“That question is exactly why!” she huffed. “Ros, you have no idea what a big deal this is! There were so many beautiful things on Earth and now I get to show them to you! I mean, this isn't Earth, and it's a few billion years late, but better late than never, I always say!”
“You don't say that.”
“I do now!” Ros scoffed in mock exasperation, but couldn't help smiling. “Over there!” Marie said suddenly, pointing at something Ros couldn't see through the darkness and vegetation. “There's a nice rock, we can sit there while we wait.”
“I can't see it,” Ros said, squinting.
“You'd see it if you got your eyes augmented like I told you! It's not even that dark, this is predawn glow.”
Following Marie's lead, Ros walked to a broken boulder and sat down, wincing at the harshness of the rock. “I still don't see why we had to come all the way out here.”
“It's not the same if you just see a recording,” Marie said dismissively. “The spheres and habs can replicate a lot of stuff, but… I dunno. There's nothing quite like being out here yourself. It's just… you, and nature, you know?”
“Nature, huh,” Ros mused. Marie and some of the other pre-Breach humans seemed to have a high regard for it, but it was a foreign concept to her. What was so great about being in such a chaotic, uncontrolled environment? The plants? Idly, she ran her hand along a low-lying fern. It came away wet. Ros scrunched her face in disgust and flicked the droplets away.
Marie laughed. “It's just water, Ros! All the plants get like that during the night.”
“Oh,” Ros said sheepishly. She couldn't think of anything to fill the silence, so she just stared up at the sky like Marie had told her to. By now her eyes were adjusting to the darkness – or maybe it really was getting brighter – and she could see a tangled mess of treetops below them. On the horizon were the dark, irregular shapes of mountains, resting beneath the darker and all-too-regular event horizon.
She sat like that for a while, before Marie broke the silence suddenly. “Are you sure you don't want to talk about what happened with Tez?”
Ros closed her eyes, and hummed. “It's… complicated. I think he was trying to do the right thing, but he didn't realize he was just hurting people. Especially himself. There's no way he survived that explosion, but… at least he's not unhappy anymore.”
“How… specific,” Marie grumbled. Ros glanced at her and smirked a bit. “I still don't know what could have caused the whole thing to blow like that.” Ros' smile dropped. “He told us over and over again how stable his stuff was.”
“Well…” Ros was looking anywhere but Marie. “Some of the components were damaged, I think. It looked like a really old system. He must not have thought it through.” Technically not a lie.
Ros felt Marie's gaze boring into her, but she didn't push it. “You know, it's nice to see so many stars out,” she said instead, changing the subject. “You could never get a view like this, back on Earth. We got so crowded that our electric lights drowned out the stars.” She sighed. It was definitely getting brighter now. The horizon was turning a lighter shade of blue. “…You know, is it crazy if I think the black hole looks nice too? It better not interfere with the sunlight, though.”
Ros looked up. The distortion around the event horizon was definitely disconcerting, but it was true that there was nothing quite like it. “I don't think it's crazy.”
They waited in silence again, but it didn't take much longer. The stars, nebulae, and even the event horizon faded to nothingness as the world brightened. Ros gasped as the bloom of pink spread across the sky – and purple, and red, and gold, and… She had expected more blue, not this amalgam of vivid colors.
“God, I missed this.”
Ros turned. Marie was staring straight at the horizon with a strange sheen over her eyes, as if the sunrise was her entire universe. Ros had never seen her look so happy… or so sad. She wore a small, contented smile, but at the same time looked like she was about to cry. Not for the first time, Ros wondered what she was thinking. She had memories of a time and place Ros had never truly known – and plenty of others had never been on Earth at all. For the first time, Ros wondered if she had any memories she'd cherish the same way. She couldn't think of anything.
Something tickled at the back of Ros' skull. “What does that mean?” she blurted out after a moment. Marie snapped out of her reverie and blinked at her.
“That… word you keep using,” Ros said awkwardly. “'God'. I… uh, heard other people use it too. It sounded like it was something important.”
“Oh, it's…” Marie stopped, and looked perplexed at her own confusion. “You know, I don't actually know. I'm pretty sure it, like… changed meanings over time? It meant something specific once, but that was before even my time, I think.” She gave Ros an apologetic smile. “Sorry.”
“It's okay,” Ros said, turning back to the sunrise. “I was just curious.”
Tezkhra had told her she could become a truly supreme being, the controller of the whole universe. But as she sat there with nothing but the brilliant sky above and sprawling earth below, she felt the most powerful she'd ever been in her life. No more orders. No more commanding. She was free. Maybe not from inevitability… but she could live with that. Still…
The sky was starting to fade back into blue as this system's star peeked over the horizon. On a whim, Ros raised her hand as if she was holding the light in her palm, and paused. The colors froze in a picture of perfect beauty. Ros knew she'd have to let go eventually – nothing could truly stop time, obviously, only slow it. But right then, for a single absurd moment, she wished this instant could stretch out into eternity.