a sample chapter from Broken: A Plague Journal
by Paul Evan Hughes

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  S I L V E R T H O U G H T




"If we're going to do this," Jean Reynald paused to snuff out the unfiltered cigarette between his fingertips and the ashtray glass, "I want my ship back."

       "That's.. impractical." Cellophane wrapper crumpled in Paul's hand. Next, foil.

       These late-time strategery sessions were bronzed with a nicotine aftertaste.

       "We've looked for—"

       "Maggie or nothing. That's the deal."

       "I can't just—"


       Eyes lock across distances deeper than a tabletop, a war machine. "Fine. We'll get her. Any other requests for your strike team?"

       "Only two more. Relatively easy."

       "Let me guess—"


       "And pilot?"


       "Of course."

       Reynald's silvered eyes narrowed as he sipped the last of his monkey-picked oolong. "Son, I know there are places you don't want to go, and people you never thought you'd be asked to bring in. I wouldn't ask you this if I didn't know that we need them. That's the cold truth of this: we need them."

       Flick, scratch, click. Paul inhaled, talked through the smoke's exit. "I know."

* * *



       "This place—Why'd you bring me here?"

       The wait—The weight of being whole draped the winter plains with a tougher skin than dustings of snow could provide. He'd dreamt worlds into realities, and this was how he now regarded the ghost space: more Minnesota January than Michigan February. He'd been to neither place, now never would.

       The work-shined leather gloves were warmer than they'd ever really been. The realizations of ghosts were in the details of perception. There were trees on those edges, timothy spines interrupting the cadence of the frozen ground's rises and falls. Grabbing and tearing one of the winter hay stalks without gloves would have been painful; the way timothy snaps, inserts itself into the palm when grabbed, when dry. Under gloves' pressure, there was no danger, a buffer between red-stitched palms and infection. Ground those now-weeds into chaff. Alfalfa barely broke the snow's surface; it was pliant, without will, bending to the white pressure and hiding until rising again, desiccated, in the thaws.

       "If we're going to make this work, there are things about me you have to accept."

       Alina walked to his side, faced the small snowed stone, one of dozens (hundreds, thousands?) across the ghost space. Glove reached for glove, but his hand was slack, not returning her attempt at reassurance through pressure. That place contextualized a particular, peculiar fear: he's gone already, no hand in that glove; this is how distance feels, tastes of wind.

       "Say something."

       "What do you—"

       "Anything. Something." But in that expanse, silence seemed the most appropriate discourse.


       "Not that, not here. There's no way you could, not here."

       "Get out of my head."

       It hung there.

       The glove under her grasp grew a framework of bones and action as it pulled away. He knelt before the stone, swept away the sugared surface. She thought of childhoods she'd not known spent building forts in the snow, a sunny day lying warmth, hardpack bleeding into snowpants, numbing knees and afternoon hot chocolate before suppertime. Snotty noses frozen solid. What semblance of a childhood she'd survived had had alternate definitions of forts, bleeding, and freezing.

       "Know this: this man beneath me, this boy, he died because I chose typing over listening. Stayed home to finish writing a book and never looked at his warnings. Spent years trying to convince myself it wasn't my fault, but I know... If I'd listened—"

       "Paul, you—"

       "And this one?" His bad knee locked upon attempts to rise, limped with a dragging right diagonally one row, one column. "She wasn't nearly as passive a departure. Forced her away, murdered her in time. There's a murder that allows the victim to persist. And persist," he wiped the rock face, "she did, never knowing that she'd died. From the inside of a life based on lies, it's easy to confuse continuation with happiness."


       "A god. A fucking god here."

       Stumbled over two, up one.

       "Paul, it's—"

       "She," wiped the face, his own, "died in my arms. Do you still want this?"

       "—not your fault."

       Pulled the gloves off, clenched hands to fists, smashed both against the ground. Compound fractures, each finger. Echoed across skeleton trees. The wind had stopped. She'd felt the impact across twenty silent feet.

       He stood, dribbling blood and flecking fragments to the ground. Steam. One simple flash and his claws had repaired. Grabbed both gloves in one hand.

       "I refuse to be the end of you," stood in place, yet she walked toward his speech, "but if we do this, there's no other way."

       "You can't know that."

       "I can't," another line burned across his temple, "but I do. I'm asking you to leave. Right now. Don't be a part of this. I can almost see your face—You're becoming integral."

       Proximity. Saw silver crawling behind his muddied eyes. Alina thumbed the new burn, allowed her palm to rest against the unshaven cheek. "I'm not leaving."

       He grabbed her wrist, considered removing her touch, but held her hand closer. Mouth played over appropriate sentiments, found none to voice. Some communications are solely internal approximations of external poetries.

       Love is, after all, sacrifice, whether borne out in bitten tongues, arms wrapped around and stifling fears, nighttime combat over sheets and vying for higher percentages of a bed's square footage. No one will admit to the fraction of hate rippling under love's frozen surface, because to acknowledge that dichotomy would undermine the hesitant interplay that defines desire. Love is, after all, defined by loss.

* * *

Staff meeting.

       West noted the unfamiliar, growing steadily more familiar, silence whispering out of the stillness of the birth chambers. The ratcheting and slams of a million billion artificial canals had been replaced by the echoing nothing in which you could park the moon, if you were in fact driving it, ever since Judith had—fused with Alina, the new woman walked in and took her place at the table. She still answered to Alina, Al, Cap'n Crunch, sweetness, but she was more. The god Judith had found home, and that home was somehow less mousy-haired, less banana-titted. She'd grown freckles for every transgression that she wore mostly on her shoulders and the back of her neck, a scatter across gently angled cheekbones under upturned eyes. As she slid into her chair, utilitarian (the chair, completely, the woman, mostly), Reynald cleared his throat, and she raised her hand to preempt.


       And they were. Veritable sausage-fest. West, Reynald, Hank, Sam. The twins were elsewhere. The bear lacked balls.

       "Where is he?" Reynald accented over the three words, the tension materializing in the acute angles of his fingers.

       "Detox." Her term for the silver chamber. Quickening, they all knew. More and more time in the mercury sea, leaching out, leaching in, a Chinaman's attempt at karaoke. "Let's hear it."

       "The Lettuce Brothers report A/O lock at eight under, hovering on Delta." West let the glass tink the tabletop. Things were falling in the space outside of time.

       "New sights, new sounds?"

       "Fairly certain Tunguska, 1908, fourteen-seven."

       "Good. File under 'sneaking suspicion.' Next?"

       "Bleedthrough tertiaries on 1994, 1998 lines, fourteen-seven."

       "Interesting, but no surprises. Next?"

       "Lunar meteor impact, 2047."




       "Didn't touch our target. Fucked thirty-three over, though. Moon collision. Sixth extinction."

       "Kink... Forget it, let's run the nineteen naught-eight probables and feed it to the maths. Get on it asap. Target completion—"

       "Wednesday is the day we fight."

       "'Thursday is the day we fade, to live a life unfiltered, mirrors of the ways we smoke to graves, we are ghosts,' et cet-era, et cetera. Don't quote him. Not here."

       A rubber can only hold so much, and Hank finally came. He slammed his palm down on the resin tabletop, pulled off his hat, looking strangely pathetic given the tousled strands of surviving white hair sticking straight up from his head, falling in slow motion back into place, a high red rudding his nose and cheeks. His jaw working up to: "Goddamn it, just stop this shit."

       "Problem, Mr. Cowboy?"

       "Yes there's a problem, Jud. Al. Whoever the hell you are today."

       "Care to bring it to the group, or are you just going to smack my table around some more?"

       There is an uncomfortable dynamic that develops when dams break, when dikes leak, when a group of people share something and must present it to an uninitiated brunt oblivious to the conflict. This dynamic evidences itself in diverted eyes, sudden attention gifted to the mundane: a hangnail, the right angle at a paper's corner, evidences in the until-then suppressed urge to clear a throat or cough. The assembled hierarchy of Judith Command, at least those possessing balls, now all looked to Hank while Alina leaned back into her chair and interlocked her fingers with a confidence that could only have come from Judith herself.

       These men were not cowards; know that. They just didn't know how to tell god she was wrong. They were each fictional characters, but they left it to the fictional character twice removed from reality to voice their concerns. Hank, as a character within a television show within a novel, had a disconnect that they couldn't.

       His gun hand shaped itself into an all-fingers representation thereof and pointed at the young woman at the table's head. "You," he chose words just before speaking them, crafting each into viable concepts, "need to get that fucking boy out of the silver and into this room."

       "Miss him?"

       He scoffed. "We all do, girl. But more than that—That shit's getting into his head. He ain't no good to us in there. If we're gonna—"

       "I believe he met with Reynald yester-day…?"

       "He did." Jean Reynald's voice wasn't nearly as unafraid as he'd hoped. "It was... I don't know."

       "That ain't the point, and you know it. If we're gonna finish this, he needs to be a part of it. Can't all be worked out by you two."

       "We," Alina's face stuttered over a smile, "have things in hand." A jump cut reduced to a fraction of a frame, for an instant, Hank saw Judith looking out from Alina's eyes. "Don't you trust us?"

       "'Us?' No. Alina, yes. Paul, yes. Jud, you scare the shit out of me. He wrote me. You're just along for the ride, and I don't rightly appreciate you taking over while he's swimming."

       "Listen, Hank... I'll try to be better about this. Try to get him in here and—"

       "You do that."

       She paused. "He needs to get his shit together. That's why—"

       "—he lives in the silver? It ain't right, girl. He ain't right no more."

       "We're working on it."

* * *

He'd never learned how to swim.

       He'd never trusted meditation, relegated it solely to the province of those unshowered non-Western types who embraced yoga and feng shui and ate Thai to make themselves feel worldly. He didn't meditate in the silver pool; he thought, too much, simple as that.

       He grew angrier with breathing.

       The pool seemed deeper in those final days, and not being able to swim (or float—even with the requisite remainder beer belly, he had a hard time floating), he walked into the tideless, tideful mirror lake until the surface tickled his lips, plugged his ears and slid into his nose, his eyes above the surface until the alien crawled into and through, his too-long hair a shawl on the silver, grasped and pulled under by a trillion trillion reaching robots, giving himself to the pull and disappearing under the sealing, untouched glass.

       After that first breath, he sometimes forgot to take another.

       It wasn't meditation; he wouldn't allow the word to stain him, so imbued with past hatreds and connotations of loss. He thought. Tried to wrap his mind around a solution: they were slowly losing the war. Maire's nightmare forces, combinations of silvers, bleeds into all realities, were gaining non-ground quickly, urged forever onward by the great archives of knowledge stored in Hope's and Whistler's stolen patterns. Forts were burning, out on the periphery of core reality. Maire was strong, getting stronger. He was weak. She was coming for him, cutting straight for the heart of him, and he was tripped up more by his insecurities than a shattered knee he'd not yet lived through. The silver was the only place the outside non-world didn't scream at him; his children, the trillion trillions, whispered, sang in voices beneath perception. It was a cold embrace, but it gave him purpose.

       The singing, bodhisattva drones, the tender tickle as they erased farmer tans, tweezed an ingrown hair from his jaw, twisted cancers from purchase in his lung and prostate, tenderly, tenderly aligned a spine, sloughed dead cells, slowed a racing heart, closed ducts and reassured, the singing, the drones.

       He felt a hand.

       Paul spun, lashed, feet pushing the bottom away, rising above the surface in motion, slowly, noting the returning droplets of the splash, the drone lapsed. He gasped, fearful that he wasn't alone, treaded toward the shore, hands shifting and eyes burning at the prospect of com-bat.

       Another back breached the surface, the body arcing from one edge, familiar, un-beautiful and fundamentally same. A scar across the chest, code burns on left fore-arm, the white mark of Cain blaring less obviously from the right temple.

       The figure stood, bent to the right: shattered knee. The figure stood, slicked with silver, unnaturally-large hands, hardened sculptures of bone and obtuse angle, brushed the liquid metal from arms and chest. The teeth were the same. The jib was cut more of brass than silver. It extended a hand.

       "Shake my hand, brother." And he thought of the cold war of the end of his youth, a father extending a hand to a brother, the same admonition, met with refusal. "Shake my hand."

       Fundamentally same, but.

       "Come with me."

* * *

They sat at the edge of the silver pool, Indian-style, both slumped forward for the weight of their torsos. They'd once been described as unique constructs: chicken legs, barrel torsos, the longest arms and biggest hands. Not well designed. Unique. Pieced together from leftover parts. Mistakes given life.

       Paul looked into the newcomer, had questions but didn't ask. The older version had answers but didn't offer them.

       Whereas Paul was an image of a specific point in history, the post-college unraveling of muscle, a jowl, a gut, hair past his shoulders (he'd let it grow out since Hope had—) and a beard, full, (he'd let it grow out since Hope had—), the other was a study in evolutions and counterpoints, the face better-defined under taut skin, the hair cropped short, now lit with a disconcerting array of pure whites on the side, a clump, Whistler-esque, growing in at the line. Deeper canyons flanking the eyes, the mouth's edges forced a little deeper down by years. Two gray flecks marring the brown-green surface of the right eye, rendering it blind. The torso wasn't smaller, the arms not shorter; the legs were still chicken. Gray insinuated new patterns into the chest.


       "Paradigm shift."

       "Office talk."



       "Call me your Omega."

* * *

"Is this better?"

       The silver pool had disappeared, replaced with the Cafe Bellona. Paul noted a sign on the counter: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. A bus ground to a halt at the stop down the street. The brakes sounded like screaming.

       "Not better. Different."

       The coffee shop was empty save the two time-offset versions of the same man. Paul thought he heard a rustling behind the counter, through the door leading to the inner sanctum, coffee filters and the cash box and mops. Presumably, New Management was back there. Those hidden sounds were more frightful than they should have been, the creak of a floorboard, the swish of fabric, the clearing of a throat.

       "Where is everyone?"

       The Omega let the question hang and fall. He gestured toward the great windows at the shop's front. There were people passing by, eyes as downcast as the day was overcast, no one diverting attention to Bellona.

       Something crashed in the back. Paul jumped.

       The link was dead. It was supposed to show the president.

       Most of the tables' chairs were still turned upside-down on their tops. The lights were off. Maybe it wasn't open yet? Maybe Bellona had new hours of operation? The chair legs obscured the corners in dozens. Paul noticed that theirs was the only set table.

       "Supposed to be people here. Simon and Maggie, Joseph and Helen, S—"


       "How does it all end?"

       "More with a bang than a whimper."

       "No." Paul struggled over concepts. "Me. How does it end?"

       "You developed a germinoma around your pineal gland at age twenty-four."

       "Brain cancer?"

       "You died of an overdose of anti-seizure medication at age twenty-seven."

       "And you?"

       The Omega smiled, an expression that reminded Paul of war. "That's me."

       "I don't understand—"

       "—and that's the problem. You're sitting there setting all these events into motion, having to retype the number 6 because your keyboard's broken, not as badly as you, and I know, I know that you saw those things, never did the research, fought with the fact that no one believed you. I know you saw things before they happened and wrote them down, uploaded them, and everyone thought you were looking into places you shouldn't, that your predictions were just snooping or luck, the falling towers, a hanging, a wedding, the silver. I know that.

       "You've written things into existence, and I know you've struggled, tried to undo the damage done. And I know you'd sooner waste yourself away, surrender, than hurt the ones you loved again. I know you've seen the terrifying weaponry, the holland and hills, that you've walked beyond return to that edge, and you've tasted it, looked over and wondered. I know that. You've spent countless nights replaying the scenes in your head, wars fought between the worlds, great machines built of silver and light, the savage echo of billion-barreled shatter arrays, the silences, and there aren't words for what you've seen; no typing can convey that.

       "I know you were basically a good man made bad by the departures of others, unable to grasp the concept that you weren't integral, were never integral enough to include, and the mathematics never worked: you wanted to be constant in a variable existence. You wanted—maybe deserved—a new calculus you never invented.

       "You scared people.

       "You're scaring people, and that's why they leave.

       "I know you tried to fix it, the distance and the pills, hiding from the world while broadcasting the substance of their fear, flirting recklessly with their expectations of you, pushing away and surrendering, again, to your hate. You are a creature of hate. No forgiveness. When the world reacted negatively, you worked to dismantle it and rebuild it in your image. You fell into a place where no one could ever begin to understand.

       "You weren't a sympathetic character."

       Paul had been studying the city outside Bellona. People dissolved between ghosts. The sky darkened, an upload spire crashing to purchase in the distance, farther off, the orbital gun rising from the water, firing blinding phase slugs into the future. The sounds from the back settled dreamlike into a rhythm, a pounding heartbeat. A shiver worked its way up his spine, settled along his jawline.

       "How do I fix it?"

       The Omega shrugged. "You were a flawed machine, and it only ended once I—once you decided to silence the misfiring synapses. It'd been getting worse, the shaking, the thoughts at night. You were consumed, consuming yourself. A spectrum of innocent histories dredged into existence, trillions dead. Because of you."

       "You're asking me to—"

       "No. I'm just the end point of a statistically-significant percentage of histories. I'm not asking you to end yourself. You constructed characters, turning everyone whose hand you shook into fiction. You unlearned presence. You wrote people into plotlines and barely registered their realities. You filtered everyone through pasts. I'm asking you to recognize that you're not the episiarch, assembling realities. You're a character who doesn't know how the book ends. You're distracting what limited audience you have left with flowery language, never offering substance. They want resolution, a dogfight, a gun, not self-analysis buttered with delay tactics. Write the fucking book. Get it done."

       "You're confusing them."

       "And that's why I'm dead now. You don't have to be. If I could take it all back, the vengeance, the worlds shunted into existence, I would. What you have to do is separate your realities. These characters aren't the people you love or your mailman or the cashier at Price Chopper. Stop living inside of your book and start finishing it."

       It manifests itself in one side of the face, the body, the head turning to the right, that side's eye clenching as closed as a fist, the subtle, uncontrolled flail of an arm against the table and its retreat to the lap, the foot tapping, not a symptom of boredom or nervous energy, just a manifestation of the worm that's gripping his brain.

       "Some lives are cursed." Teeth gritting, speech barely escaping, a graveled whisper.

       "Paul, you have to—"

       "Let all—" a stutter, frustration flaring across the edges of attack.


       "L—let all Earth buh—" A simple, passionate fury.


       "Let all Earth be a grave."

       Slow, sad. The Omega shook his head. "All Earth? Or just the exile city?"

       Paul snarled inadvertently, the clenched jaw and upturned lip baring a V of teeth, giving him a decidedly deranged glare. Half a person shook with rage.

       "You might be interested to know, you have a lesion in your corpus callosum, a precursor to the pineal growth. Should have stopped smoking, son." His smile was a mixture of pity and resignation.

       "D—Don't call mmm—"

       "Such lesions can lead to the infamous 'alien hand syndrome.' It cleaves the mind, ruptures, rends it in half. Splits presence. Gives voice to id."

       Paul's right hand swept over the edge and slammed the tabletop.

       The Omega regarded it blankly. "There were compelling studies that suggested we have little control over action, that the body begins to take action against stimuli before it decides to tell the brain what's happening. Not just reflex responses, burning or injury, but more complex reactions to a range of situations. Our sciences proved our divinity. Your flat affect was nothing more than an emotionally-autistic withdrawal response to precognition. You had a reach and couldn't deal with it. Stuck in a feedback loop.

       "You want an answer for the loss? Want a target? Don't blame the boy who killed himself, the girls who left you for the exile city. And don't blame the city, Tzee-tzee-lal-itc or Sealth or Seattle, the little place where people cross over. Fitting title, considering the when and where of my crossing. Want a target?"

       Paul nodded. It was a gesture pulled to one side.


       Noise roared from the back room.

       "You couldn't write her out of the picture if she got to you first. She does, eventually. She was there, whispering into an ear the day before your twentieth birthday. She pulled a love away from across three thousand miles. Helped secure the noose. Walked a step behind you each moment since the day you first typed her name. Extrapolate exponentially: in a Red Mount laboratory thousands of years from now, in a place that was once the focal point of your hate, a fourth-generation clone of a man named Michael Balfour, a former L-level Styx, will build a machine that will ensure the survival of the species. Maire will find it. She'll use it to unravel everything. You're responsible, having typed her into existence. She owes you a fundamental debt, but she'll do anything to stop you from writing her out. She'll do anything she can to widen the Delta bleed, to merge these two realities. She'll combine the strength of the Purpose and the silver, and you'll never be able to stop her. This is where it has to happen, right here, this innocent point of commonality between all possible realities, a little city on an insignificant rock in a backwater When no one cares about."

       "She's been behind all of this, the betrayals, making people leave for—" his eyes looked out across Seattle—"this?"

       "She's bringing the pieces home. She hopes you'll follow."

       Paul shook his head in rejection. His fists settled into a bleak and horrifying surrender.

       "Hunt her down. You've quite a group of friends waiting out there for you, fictional and non."

       Somewhere along the conversation, the shaking had calmed.




       "She started pure, until you started writing into her. Can't take Jud out now, but you can prevent something deeper."


       "Don't you dare write reality into her. Keep her here. Don't see another in her. If you do, Maire will get her claws into her, and that's it. Three strikes. You can't control your real future. Just live with it."

       "You didn't."

       "Paul, I'm just a character in a book. A meditation. I'm the alien hand, or maybe the lesion, or maybe the tumor. But I'm not here to hurt you—just to keep you alive long enough."

       "Long enough for what?"

       "To win."

* * *

Grasping, reaching, screaming.

love is the nearest unsteady light;
a heart can only break so many times before you start
to lose the most important pieces of yourself.

       "I'm sorry."

       The statement didn't so much flop as leap to the floor and grope around, seeking meaning.

       "That's it?" West's face was steel and stubble.

       "I don't expect a simple apology to—"

       "You're damned right you don't expect. You've been in that fucking silver for so long, we didn't think you'd ever come out. Didn't think you'd ever finish writing."

       "West." Alina reached out.

       "And don't you start, god damn it. Every minute he's spent in that pool is another minute we've lost a ship, lost a fort. The bleed's picking up speed, no thanks to the hours or months or fucking years he's spent swimming."

       "We can fix—"

       "Alina, the Delta's at ninety over. Maire's gained a lot of ground since the last confrontation in Seattle. Since we lost Hope and brought in the Lettuce Brothers. We need new modular calculus. She's had a lot of time to infect both the Alpha and Omega lines. The code's spilling everywhere." Reynald pushed his glass forward across the table. It glowed with Delta gains. "We might be at a point where nothing we can do can—"

       "Judith can show us the way."

       "She can show you the way, inside looking out." West studied the window looking out onto stagnant birth fields. "And truth be told, I don't trust you any more than I trust him." He pivoted his head toward the author, met his gaze with no apology. "Hope was just the first to go. We can't fucking find anyone out there anymore. Hunter and Lilith? Whistler and Hank tried sniffing them out for months. If anyone could lock those lines, it would've been them. But the Whens are emptying out. Everything's blurred. Silver."

       "What do you want me to do? How can I make it up to you?" Paul spoke through clenched teeth. "You think I was in there for the hell of it? You think—"

       "I don't know what to think, boy."

       Reynald cleared his throat. "I think what Adam's trying to say... We've been sitting here too long. Losing too many good people to Maire's armies. Waiting for a miracle to walk out of that pool. You. We've done what you asked, looked for more characters to bring in, reinforced the lines. We've done everything we could to seal off the merges. But none of it's been enough. We've been waiting for a miracle, and you've been swimming. We've lost faith."

       "Alina has been a good commander?"

       "She's done her best."

       "And you've expected more from her?"

       "I've expected more from you, Author." Reynald was cool. "Fewer words and more action. We've held the line as long as we could, but we're losing. Maire's only growing more powerful, the more her forces consume, with each break between the lines she finds. Her forces are pouring through, and the war's not just out there. We're all fading. I don't know who I am anymore."

       "That neat little battle we saw at the initial bleed?" West remembered Frost's fleet, the beauty of their easy victory over the Enemy assembly. That insertion had been the first hint at something fundamentally flawed in the timeline, the Judas and Enemy in a time and place they shouldn't have been, a fragmented, shattered procession of reality from beginning to end starting to collapse upon itself, a blending of at first two distinct universes. "We've been losing steadily since. No matter who we bring in. All the main characters, all the forgotten plot points. None of it seems to matter. We're out of options. No more fresh meat to bring in." He picked Reynald's glass off the table. "Delta's propagating out of control, and we need to stop it now. We're only holding on to ten percent of existence, and—"

       "Eight percent." Reynald's fingertips dropped from his subdermal.

       West just shook his head, and Paul could see the wetness of frustration glinting in his eyes. "Eight fucking percent. What's that? Another three forts along the timestream? Another hundred fifty vessels?"


       "If you have a miracle, now's the fucking time, boy. If you learned anything in the pool, you better teach us right fucking now."

       "I did."

       And he was silver.

* * *

Maire was pleased.

       She realized she'd lived a lifetime of lie and hypocrisy. She'd embraced everything that formed the core of her hatred and attempted to manipulate it to her own ends. After the revelation, after encountering Michael Zero-Whatever in the Seychelles Drift, the tiny machine of night with its encoded civilizations that she could have held in her broken hand, after learning the nature of silver, she'd taken that possibility and used it to initiate the Forever Dust. She remembered Hannon's collapsing vessel and a war machine named Gary and the gorgeous dissemination of silver powder throughout everything, everything, but perhaps the most poignant memory as her body ungrew, as she stood a child dissolving into infancy, was the sight of Hunter Windham and his gun, that beautiful gun so like her own, and the phased slug that had sheared off the side of his head, leaving his body to collapse next to the love of his life, the spent and murdered Lilith. In that moment, she'd experienced the base loneliness of the final survivor of her existence, but she knew it wouldn't last. The child Maire, the infant Maire, grasped the Zero-Four probe in her palm, thought it to life, ushered it into silent expansion, gave meaning to loss and ruin.

       They whispered through her now, the trillion trillions of uploaded souls, merging with her, feeding yet sustaining, outside of times and places. She was a galaxy; she was everything.

       There had been a moment of abject solitude in the wake of Hunter's parting shot. She struggled against her child mind's instinctual reaction to sob, to plop down on that barren plain and grind tiny fists into the open sores of her eyes. She suspected that his body had held the possibility of immortality, if she could have gotten to it in time. Lying dead on the dust as the vessel collapsed around it, the corpse mocked her ambitions. She suspected a grin if there'd been enough face left to sculpt one.

       Great slabs of metallish flung down through the silver cloud, drawn gravitationally toward center, against the outward tide of her eternity of tiny machines. The hunks of vessel frictioned red and shot apart with rends that burst her eardrums. The child Maire calmly toddled to Hunter's body, to Lilith's. A slick lost in that cacophony, and she split Lilith's chestplate, gutted her down. The child reached into the still-warm torso to her shoulder, searched, finally withdrew her crimson arm, her fist clenched around a tiny silver marble. The child smiled and grew up.

       She knew there were survivors. Had to be. The universe is too rich, too fecund an expanse to allow the extinction of it all. She remembered heaven and Michael: "I need you to kill a god."

       And she had—she had, but she knew that it hadn't been the god Michael had intended. She'd used the ocean of tiny machines to wage her war on Judith, and she'd succeeded, for the most part, but she'd left her existence a barren machine plane. She hated the stink of internal betrayal, the way she had used the machines to erase their darling, humble Jud. A wash of unreality and she heard in every fiber of her a word that meant nothing: Kilbourne. She felt an affinity, a sisterhood, with a concept she could never understand.

       To kill a god. Yes. Another. The god that gave voice to all others. Divinity is layered, and at the bottom, the Author.

       Because you must understand that her life of war had been lived with the distinct ambition of escape and manipulation. She had survived torture to exact revenge. She had forced herself to continue for the sole purpose of taking back all that had been lost to the machines and their collaborators. She'd seen the silver of the trees, the great black forms in the Drift, and she had known a higher purpose. Some people are the focal points of histories, and that realization was what had kept her always forward, always struggling. Weaker creatures would have given up, but hatred inspires. Maire was the embodiment of an intricate vengeance, a network of possible outcomes overlaid on an empty universe. When given the opportunity to take her jihad to the stars and across time, she welcomed the Enemy into her hearts, fusing them, reshaping her entirely, becoming something distinctly alien and alone. She felt a stronger Purpose than any those simple souls could dream.

       She would be their Omega. She would give voice and drive to their hive desires. They wanted to upload every possible When; she wanted an end, of sorts.

       And now it was happening. Those first forays into Alpha had whet her appetite; she'd eaten Hope Benton's soul and had seen the break in the author, that god, that target of her new war. After his mental collapse and retreat, her forces had raided the timeline, pushing Delta further, slaughtering Judith and Judas before them. With Paul awol, it was only time, only time, before Maire rewrote all of existence, every possible, fragile strand, in her own image. And then—then she could rewrite the Enemy in her image. Delete.

       She had gathered an infinite number of strands and pulled them together into a cohesive plan of action. She had tasted the pattern cache, sampled its inhabitants, judged them beautiful and given them voice. She was more powerful than a god. She was

* * *

silver hands before them, flickering and yearning. A flash, and they were his hands again, simple, too-big hands of callus and hangnail.

       Nobody said anything. The fear in the room was palpable and cloying.

       "I've absorbed it. The silver." Something crawled behind Paul's eyes, something dark and brilliant, in sum horrifying. Alina's hand had gone to her chest, as if simple flesh and bone could have protected her from her lover's silver. "I've overcome it."

       "Paul..." West was as disturbed at the display as any of the others, but he was the only observer brave or stupid enough to speak. "The silver's inside of you?"

       The author shifted again. "No." His hands sparkled to translucence, and the fade crawled up his arms. His transformation was a visual assault of static and stark, frigid light, a billion frames a second. "I am silver."

       "But it's—" Reynald had leaned back in his chair, as if six additional inches could protect him. "We're unshielded. Why isn't it—"

       "I've surrendered to it. I let it in. At the first Delta bleed, we saw I could kill it. And now it's a part of me. I can sustain it. It can sustain me."

       Nobody responded to his smile. They weren't used to smiles of any sort from him, and that smile was particularly disconcerting, one of madness and barely-controlled fury.

       "I surrendered to it. It's so beautiful." His form shifted further toward total mercury. The static became audible, the more the silver consumed him.

       "Paul." Alina whispered, her fear soaking through and emerging through colorless eyes. "Come back."

       "You asked for a miracle," he growled. "Now you've got it. Afraid, Jud?"

       "No, it's just—"

       "Don't lie to me." He walked to Alina's side, crouched down so that his face was at her level. "You're afraid. You should be."

       "Paul, please." Alina blinked back something. She recoiled from him, as if his touch would be fire, the coldest fire, one assembled from zeroes and ones, old gods forged from gold and alloys, universes of souls. "Come back to me."

       He reached to caress her cheek, his hand shifting back to flesh and bone before surfacing. She felt its warmth, its utterly normal, familiar warmth.

       "I never left you." He stood, palming a glass from the table as he walked to overlook the birth fields. "Assemble the remnants of the fleet. We're assaulting Delta."

       "It could take time to recall the forces containing the—"

       "Bring them home. Bring them all home."

       "Yes, sir." Reynald went through the motions of belief.

       "Now." Stern.

       Reynald and West stood and walked from the chamber, West casting one backward glance. Paul nodded without emotion. He knew there could be no understanding.

       He was left alone in the room with Alina. It was the kind of occupation that rooms don't forget, the tangible fear and confusion of impending battle or love gone tragically wrong.

       "I know what I have to do now."

       She didn't respond to him, just pulled her top closed over banana cleavage.

       There was a winter fuming from him. He turned to her, and she studied the black glass on the tabletop. She had nothing more to say.

       Because even the most passionate, ardent loves become unseated from passion and reality, replacing the underpinnings of possibility and hope with fragile experience. To see him shift—something had changed more than the underlying molecular layout of his physical form. Hearing his voice was like listening to every voice ever uttered screaming. They were inside him. He was plural. He was lost in the silver, the archive of lives he'd written into existences. Her fear manifested itself in an inability to speak out loud. His new, silver form resonated through the space, and she didn't know if her fear was her own or purely Judith's, if she was reliving a million Judith deaths or simply precognizing her own.

       "I do love you."

       He wasn't looking at her.

       "I know."

       She didn't.

* * *

staring, but not seeing
thinking of the thought (itself)
breathing, but not living

       He stirred his coffee.

       What are the odds that we'll find the right person out of six billion people? What are the odds that we'll find anyone at all?

       There was a quiet desperation to his madness, as quiet as the rhythmic clink of a stainless steel spoon against ceramic can allow. The sound was lost in the chaos of the place, orders shouted and steam escaped, the various startup beep-boop-beeps of laptop computers and the omnipresent tide of cell phone rings. Maybe a talent strummed a guitar in the corner. Maybe the world was falling apart.

       Sip. He spilled some coffee as muscles twinged.

       It was the wrong coast, the exile city, the embodiment of that place within us all, that darkest and most hidden place, the snarling, echoing graveyard hacked deeply into the most shielded hearts. He lit a cigarette and no one noticed. He hadn't written them to notice.

       He felt the silver crawling through him, the ocean of machines still replacing flesh with metal. The body is strong and reluctant. It fights to the final beat.

       But he suspected that there was a measure of surrender in his being there, Cafe Bellona on those days and in those times, the intersections of impossible histories, the unbelievable coincidences. He had to see. Had to know. Maybe he didn't know how to live if he couldn't tear himself apart. Maybe it's not really living if the heart is intact.

       He was beginning to feel the approach of the ending, knew that soon the machines would have finished their purpose. He wanted to see the bleed before it was gone. Needed Seattle, that coffee shop. Needed to know. Needed something, anything, to show him that this war was worth fighting.

       Reached into his pocket for his lighter and inventoried the contents, a glass ring, a blue, cracked marble, a tiny wooden puzzle piece shaped like Michigan. A silver bracelet he could no longer wear, couldn't because he needed no gripping, constant reminder of loss.

       Lit another cigarette and stirred the coffee again.

       President Jennings was on the link. Joseph Windham walked in from the rain, brushing the wet from his black leather trench as he surveyed the establishment for Helen Lofton, who waved to him with one gloved, shielded hand. Simon Hayes was engaging in a lively discussion of Hesse with Maggie Flynn. Michael Balfour read the entertainment section of a newspaper. A headline: Hank the Cowboy Gets the Boot. A child walked by, carrying a Honeybear Brown. Helen Lofton looked up and through Helen Lofton, holding Hunter's hand, Hunter's hand holding Honeybear. Uncle led a parade of little boys; angels escorted the shielded Lilith child. James Richter and Hope Benton paused outside, long enough for James to point down the street and recommend a restaurant. Simon Hayes stumbled by, almost knocking into Hope, his mind working over one word: Brigid. Jacob guitared in the corner. Susan and her drummer came in. Her pants were covered in paint; his pants were stitched with Kente cloth. She grabbed a job application from the basket on the counter. Susan stood behind the counter and smiled at her. She merged with the poet, who stood behind the counter, who walked in, talking to old friends from Sussex and someone new, a stranger Paul couldn't see but hated with what he had left. There would be a slam. She would win. Alina stared at him from behind the counter, and his heart was broken.

       He saw himself run by again, run by with West and Hope, on their way to locate the bear. Honeybear was under the couch. Hunter and Helen were dead. Hope's cry echoed from a cave a world and lifetimes away as Maire murdered her. Alina grasped his hand.

       We are machines of a horrible beauty.

       Love is, after all, sacrifice, whether borne out in bitten tongues, arms wrapped around and stifling fears, nighttime combat over sheets and vying for higher percentages of a bed's square footage. No one will admit to the fraction of hate rippling under love's frozen surface, because to acknowledge that dichotomy would undermine the hesitant interplay that defines desire. Love is, after all, defined by loss.

       Suddenly you're looking back and a week is gone, a month or a year, five, a decade, a lifetime, and it feels like a lifetime, a decade, five, a year or a month, a week, a day, hours, minutes, you're here, seconds, you're here and we're together, instants, you're here, moments, here, now, you're here, now, here forever, here, walking together down thin paths into broken futures and todays and

       They'd all left him, all ended up here eventually, and he knew why, now. The bleed was palpable, the merging of everything he'd tried to write, from the adolescent crap a decade on to his last book. There's danger in writing reality into fiction. It was time for him to unravel it all.

       Dregs. He still stirred. The rhythm and consistency of the sound just barely grounded him to that reality, a faint beacon as everything inside split apart and rewrote itself.

       And it was gone, the people and cell phones and hissing machines, and again the Bellona was the silence it had been with his Omega. The wind picked up across the empty city outside, and something was in the back room, scratching and crashing and coming.

       Everything he'd built, everything he'd erased, it'd all come down to this imperfect solitude. He thought of the poet and Alina, tried to separate the two, failed. He'd written her into fiction, or, worse, into nothing at all. Silences, silences. And in the perfect silence of the cafe, he knew how he'd end those universes of war.

       An instant, a perfect moment of sound, the echoes of the dead, the enemy and the end, all those he'd let inside, all those who'd left. He heard their voices and knew that madness is beautiful.

* * *

Alina's door spiraled open. She knew it was him.

       "Can I come in?"

       She walked from the door and slinked into her chaise. Paul could differentiate the habits of the women combined in Alina.

       She looked on in silence.

       "Let me talk to Jud."

       Alina looked hurt. "Something you don't want me to hear?"

       "Just let her out."

       Alina's eyes narrowed a huff, but she relented. A static flash, and Paul knew she'd been buried under the god.

       "Good to see you're out of the pool, Paulywog." Jud grinned with Al's rabbit teeth.

       "I need a pilot."

       Jud nodded slowly. "Well, thanks to your time taking a dip, pilots are in short supply."

       "I have one in mind."

       "Nobody's been able to find Naught-Four or Simon."

       "Not Michael."

       "Hunter? And Lilith? Not exactly Judith or Judas material, kid."


       Jud sat up at that. "Me?" She was suspicion and frown. "For why?"

       "If we're going after Maire, I need someone to pilot—"

       "You'll have your pick of the rides, Hughes."


       She let the statement soak in. Alina's face broadcast Jud's incredulity. "Pilot you? Pilot you?"

       No sound, no motion.

       "Unless I missed something being underneath Miss Becky Bananaboobs all this time, I don't follow."

       He grabbed her hands. The shift was frigid and instant, the silver working out through his pores as it rolled behind his eyes. Jud hissed an inhalation as Alina's hands grew colder, pins and needles, the screaming, reaching need of the machine sea. The silver latticed up his arms and paved his shoulders, neck. He was growing. Increasing. Multitudes. Plates of metallish slammed down to define lines and planes. His form melted into something shiny and terrible.

       "I need a pilot." His voice was static and distortion. It was still a growl.

       "Paul..." Jud's voice was calm, and he could feel pieces of Alina shouting through.

       "I can use Sam's shell. With Al in the pilot's chair, with you there..."

       Jud stood up, pulled her hands from his with a tacking slurp. Head shaking, arms wrapped securely around herself, she walked to the window that looked out on the vacant birthing fields.

       "This is your chance to kill Maire." He shifted back to skin and hair and scars.

       Jud scoffed. She couldn't look at him.

       "You deserve that."

       Another bark of scorn, this time, the edge of a sob. "Deserve what?" Her hand swept out across the fields. "This? What kind of a life is this? Cycling through millions of bodies just to survive—" She wiped her hands on her sides and thighs. "Just to survive that fucking silver. And now you've let it in. I've already died once, kid." She finally looked at him. "You're killing yourself, and you know it. Nobody deserves this fucking life. And you've become everything we brought you here to destroy."

       "I never meant for—"

       "I know." She swallowed back the rest of her words.

       "Help me."

       "How? Follow you on this crusade? Watch you lose yourself in that metal?"

       "If that's what it takes."

       "She loved you."

       He didn't have a response.

       "And a part of her still does."

       "She was never mine." The heart is unable to unravel memory from lie.

       "She was yours, but the silver got you."

       "You got her."

       Jud bit back disappointment. "We merged so I could protect her."

       "From me?"

       "From you. And the silver. Should have never learned to swim. She's safe with me. It's always been there, the silver, and it's always worked its way through you. Writing people together. Should have kept her safe. You had a god damned obligation to keep her out of your head."

       "I tried."

       "Not fucking hard enough. Couldn't you have seen her for who she is, just Alina? Such a sweet, kind girl. Half-crazy, sure, but. Maybe not much to look at, but beautiful. But the second you started merging her with others, that's when you really lost her."

       "Then give her back. Come with me. Be my pilot."

       Jud stood silent. A billion empty birth chambers, a billion lives now impossible and fading. She'd been a god once, buried at the center of a planet. She'd been a god once, consumed by the silver contagion. She'd never felt so helpless.

       "Come with me." Paul put his hand on her shoulder.

       Jud nodded.

* * *

The Judith Mara smashed lazily into the winter plain, shearing both nacelles from its superstructure. The control hub bounced twice, three times, came to rest in a mile of drifted snow.

       Maire smiled. Continue the assault. The willing enslaved populations of the Enemy mind-essence obeyed.

       Her war was big. Across the solar system, galaxy, across the entire universe of the Alpha line, Enemy forces spidered on silver webs, consuming every soul that had been left behind. She had been hoping to catch one of Jud's inner circle, but this kill would taste just as delicious.

       A dozen Enemy were already on the hub, cutting, prying apart the smooth black of it. They stood aside so she could clamber in. The hole was tight; she ungrew a decade until she was in the command chamber. She smoothed her jet black swathe of hair behind her ears.

       Sapphire West lay half crushed underneath the gauntlet interface chandelier.

       Loops of sputtering silver web draped her.

       "Children waging wars," Maire said as she walked closer to the mess and grew back to her choice age. "They're really running out of options, aren't they?"

       "Fuck you." Sapphire coughed a mist of blood. Her chest was crumpled under metallish black. Her left hand still hung in the air, suspended by her gauntlet. Maire tenderly released the mechanism and helped Sapphire's arm to the floor. The girl was tangled in interface web.

       She reached immediately to her cardiac shield, fingers skittering over the surface, trying to pause and log out. Maire swiftly crunched down on Sapphire's hand, feeling the bones of her break beneath. The girl didn't scream, but two lines of tear were coaxed to the surface and out.

       "He's sending little girls to do his job for him." Maire bared her silver fangs as she crouched down to Sapphire's tangled pieces. "Don't cry, child. You'll be with your sister soon."

       "Don't you fucking—"

       "Too late. Jade's droptroops were among the first to go."

       "You motherf—"

       Maire tore into the girl, her claws slicing into the cardiac shield and cleaving her breast into halves. Sapphire lurched, but she was trapped under the weight of the dead Mara's umbilicals. She tried to scream, but a simple flick, and her vocal cords were split. Maire gutted her, the foul internals steaming out into the frigid air. She reached into Sapphire's chest, groped around, and plucked a tiny silver marble from its resting place. She admired its design and saw movement from the corner of her

       Honeybear Brown smashed the side of Maire's head with a hanging interface line, but teddy bears don't have much strength. The impact elicited a quick jolt of pain and a bark of surprise from Maire, who whirled on the toy. He jumped at her throat and clawed there, but his paws were plush. Before she could throw him off, he scrambled down between her breasts and wrenched Sapphire's marble from her hand. He landed on the floor with not much of a sound at all, tumbling to rights and activating his shield.

       "You motherfucker." The bear sparked to static and disappeared back into Judith ME.

       Maire howled with rage.

       Children and toys.

       The war continued.

* * *

"Does Adam know?"

       Paul nodded.

       Sam sipped tea, replaced the cup and leaned forward, hunched with arms hanging limply over his knees. "Did you ever think it'd come to this? That it'd all fall apart?"

       Paul didn't have an answer.

       "You had to have some idea that this was coming. That Maire would use everything Hope knew. That she'd incorporate it into whatever Program the Enemy's on now— Seven? Fourteen? Fifty-fucking-three?"

       "I wasn't thinking."

       "Neither was Alina." He hadn't meant it to cut, but it did.

       "I should have known, but... We forget the basics when we're broken. Maybe a part of me knew that Maire'd upload Hope's ME. Maybe I was afraid to think of what could happen when she did. That everything Hope knew, about our forts and maths and Judith Command, all of it would suddenly be crystal-clear. Maybe I didn't want to believe that Hope could be the end of us."

       "Maybe you were too busy locked in your chamber with Al to notice."

       "I'm sorry, Sam. Sorry that I took her away from you for so long."

       "You don't need to apologize for—"

       "But I do. It wasn't fair. We got tangled up in each other. But now, well, she's all yours."

       "I don't understand."

       "She's yours for the assault on the Delta bleed. I want her to be your pilot. Our pilot."

       "Am I missing something, Mr. Hughes?"

       Paul's face was caverned and ancient. His eyes looked nowhere. "You know I've looked up to you for as long as I can remember."

       "I assumed that's why you brought me in."

       "You've been a mentor, an inspiration. You listened even when you didn't know I was talking to you."

       "Go on."

       Paul's right hand shuddered violently. He put it under the table. "If we're going to end this, we need to merge."

       "Are you implying—"

       He coughed a laugh. "Not like that."

       "It's the silver."

       "You have the vessel structure. I have the silver. Together, we can... Maire will never have seen anything like it."

       "Do I get to stick around for the drive?"

       The hand pounded against the underside of the table. The echo bounced in the empty construct. "I think it's time you get out of here, Sam. Maybe it's time for me to take over. To let you rest."

       Sam sipped slowly, and the motion evolved into a nod as he lipped tea from his mustache. "I was wondering when you'd make this decision."

       "It's not that I want you to go. Alina loves you. Everyone does. I do. But maybe it's time that I stand on my own for once. Everything you've done for me—I can't pay that back. But I can set you free. Let you out of this. Maybe it's time for you to go home."

       "You sure about this, son?"


       Their combined laugh was sad and knowing.

       "Well, then," Sam stood and walked around the table, "no time like the present."

       Paul stood. He shook with the fear of letting go. He extended his hand, and the solid shake became a bear hug, all slapping and gripping.

       Sam pushed him back and grabbed his shoulders. His gaze was direct and forever. "You do this. You win this." His hand went to Paul's stubbled cheek. "And you take care of Al for me, okay?"

       "I will."

       Another hug, but it was something deeper; Sam's beard tickled as Paul shifted into the silver, reaching out and snapping Sam's phase tethers, the intricate web of memory and possibility that held him securely in the construct. Paul shook and coughed as he consumed Sam's pattern, the silver coursing through the broken collection of them, the oceans of machines dismantling and uploading the strands in a flash, in static, and silence.

       Paul fell gasping, alone, to the floor, silver spilling out of him, a splash and a rebounding recall. He lay there into the night, categorizing and learning the complexities of the vessel. At some point, his breathing slowed. At some point, he pretended to sleep.

       When he woke up, he missed Sam, but he knew that there are some trips you have to take alone.

* * *

He had that cigarette musk in his mouth. The touch, the feel of cotton wads jammed into his ears with a pencil tip, straight through into the decay. He had that taste of blood wrapped around his tongue, the muzzy veil of waking up. He had that indistinct disconnect that only comes from revision and abject fear.

       He cycled open the door to Jud's chamber, saw Alina on the chaise, comforting a sobbing Honeybear Brown. His heart sank as his eyes slid to another silver projector marble in the bear's paw.

       He half expected West's blow, and that half allowed it to connect, knew that it had to. His jaw rocked away, feeling unhinged, locking as he reeled a stumbled step or three, righted, met Adam's second swing with a steel grip and threw the larger man to the floor. He stood over the fallen soldier. He worked his jaw until the grating of bones and intricate workings released. A tooth was loose, three. He pried them from sockets with his tongue, let them fall to the floor as new grew.

       West's chest heaved; his teeth were clenched in a snarl to match his eyes. Paul walked to the conference table, joined the remaining Judith Command. West stood slowly and sat across the table, kneading his hands back to feeling from the impact.

       Alina sat next to West, rolled the marble across to Paul.


       "I couldn't get Jade's." The bear spoke as he settled into a chair. "There wasn't much left of the droptroops."

       West's eyes reached across the polished wood with an unabridged fury.

       "I'm sorry, Adam."

       "You're saying that a lot, lately."

       "They knew the risks."

       "They were my—"

       "No." Paul let the word echo. "They weren't."

       "Just another merge." Reynald spoke from behind a stack of glass. He threw them to the table, a faint crack splintering the bottom display, a triangle of it spinning lazily toward Paul. Before it sparked out, he read: elta bleed 96-over. [A/O reports 04%. "Not his daughters, no. Not from the AE-line. Does it matter?"

       Paul snuffled back a drip of silver. His hands were under the table. He kept turning to the right.

       "Any luck finding your ship, Jean?" Alina had pulled Honeybear from his seat. Her arms were around him, stroking his sweatshop plush. His cardiac shield barely contained his broken heart.

       Reynald's code burns flickered and rearranged across his temple. He barely noticed anymore; Maire's siege of the Timeline rewrote histories faster than they could be lived. "We've not been able to survey deep enough. With all the traffic in the stream, we can't get into the target Whens without Maire knowing. Hope was a close reader."

       "You don't need Maggie."

       "She was part of the deal."

       "The deal doesn't matter now." Paul lit a cigarette and let the smoke cloud the stillness between them. "They're gone, Simon and Maggie. Hunter and Lily. We all know that. We would have found them by now if they were integral to the calculus. That leaves two possibilities—either Maire's found them already, or they were never really the focus to begin with." He ashed.

       "We'll need as many ships as we can—"

       "We're taking one ship."

       Smoke drifted, not enough to conceal the shimmer.

       "Have to be a hell of a ship." West reached to steal a smoke. Maybe it would help the moment.

       "It will be." Inhalation, exhalation through words. Paul wiped a line of argent blood from the corner of his mouth. "Trust me."

       "What are you planning, son?" Reynald took the cigarette from West's offer, coughed through. He knew already. "I see Sam's not here."

       "He's here." An instant, a stark flash of reveal, and they saw Sam pressed into Paul's eyes. An illusion, a lie, it was gone before it registered.

       Alina fumbled with the box of Marlboros. The battered gold Zippo ignited. She smoked as if she had before. Jud looked through her eyes but said nothing.

       These veils of dream we weave around ourselves, never knowing for certain, but knowing enough: this is all we have.

       "I'm flying. Al's my pilot. Everyone else, you'll be there for the show. Don't worry."

       He lit another smoke. Eventually, they all did.

* * *

"You can go home. All of you. If you want."

       The birthing plain pods were retracted, the sea of openings now closed forever, the expanse not worthy of a pin drop: a million or a billion, more, a trillion, more, everyone, everyone was there, all the possibilities he'd written, everyone who was left. Some near him sat. The shifts from foot to foot in anticipation alone was deafening, added to the murmur, but when he spoke, they heard.

       He shook. Wracked with coughs. The silver blood, once a trickle, was now a torrent. He wrote a faded blue handkerchief into the dream and mopped the corner of his mouth.

       West and Reynald flanked him. West's hand rested in wait on his back.

       Another ripple passed through the assembly and a few thousand characters screamed away in bursts of silver. Somewhere out there, Maire's army was reaching for them. The spaces filled in.

       Paul watched the empty. Alina grew concerned; his eyes were somewhere long ago. He was bending, collapsing. West held him up as silver pattered to the closed lid of a Jud cocoon. He regained his footing, wiped, straightened.

       Her hearts—her heart sped a rhythm she resented, but it's not easy to forget better times and versions.

       "You can go home," he whispered, but it carried. Another staggering ripple, seven million more disappeared. He could feel Maire out there, the grip of a projector marble slicked in blood, the windswept ice of the merge.

       "We're collapsing the Timeline," Reynald shouted across the metal and dust. "Dismantling this foothold. We'll use the last resources of Judith Command to fuel one final assault on the Delta bleed. Anyone who doesn't want to come with us, your time here is done. Go home to your Whens and wait it out. You've all made a remarkable sacrifice to be here. We can't expect more of you. Go home to your families."

       "What families?" A voice spoke out from the mass. "Most of us have nowhere to go!"

       A rumbled assent. Paul felt them slipping, all of them innocent, each soul the work product of his madness.

       "Then run." West growled across the plain.

       Whispers, multiplied. The middle C of uncertainty, a resounding seiche wave of fear.

       "Those of you who choose to go with us," Reynald continued, "will be loaded into a pattern cache aboard Alina's ship. Our combined mind-essence will power the largest silver vessel ever..." he looked sideways at Paul, "assembled."

       One ship? The unspoken concern was tangible.

       "Just one ship. Me." Paul's chest hitched with his body's rejection of the silver.

       The cries of outrage drowned any hope for hope. Alina gripped herself tighter, feeling it all fall apart.

       "We're taking the war to Maire. One last shot. One ship. As many of us as want to go." West stepped forward, let the author stand alone as he choked something smoky and snarling back down. "We need to end this now!"

       The din was painful. Paul had never suspected such resistance to his plan, but—

       "You cowards." Jud's knife-edged voice cut through Alina's tongue. "You fucking cowards!" Her words could have enraged the crowd, but a silent truce sputtered to life across them. "What else do you have to live for? If we lose this, there won't be much living at all, kids. If Maire breaks through entirely, you think you'll be safe? She's erasing both the Alpha and Omega lines. This isn't the Enemy rewriting history in their image—Maire's erasing the image."

       "We'll begin loading the cache immediately." Reynald scratched his temple; another three lines appeared. "Best of luck to those who stay behind."

       "I'm sorry," Paul managed as best he could. His hand went to the throb of his cardiac shield. "Please believe that."

       They left the birth fields, the author limping along between Jean and Adam, Alina's hand on his shoulder.

* * *

"Gotcha," Maire said, and Michael Zero-Four's body streamered across the steel floor of the launch command center. The city's trunk shuddered below as Enemy forces quickly put an end to the pathetic civil war between tribes that had necessitated the launch of the zero-four probe.

       She gutted him with a mechanical precision, popped his marble into her mouth and bit down. The sweet internals of the device pooled between her teeth and gums, and she knew. She knew.

       Dozens of miles away, the probe erupted in its Gauss tube. Maire's Enemy companions flickered for an instant as their physics attempted to make sense of never having existed. Timesweep. She buffered them. She held them in place.

       Which gave her an idea.

       She walked quickly, eagerly to a console on one wall of the command, reached into the display and activated the upload link. Somewhere in the bowels of the room, a churning began. The display confirmed: there was a full pattern trapped in the buffer. Someone's soul hadn't made it to the probe.

       She cooked him.

       Hours passed, and she threw the download tank's hatch open. A tall, gray-eyed man crumpled to the floor with a splash and a thud.

       "James Richter." Her grin was fangs and dimples. "Welcome to my future."

       Richter wretched phased silica onto the floor. He tried to crawl to his hands and knees, but squeaked back down in a weak, naked pile.

       He looked up at her. "Hope?"

* * *

       "Walk with me?"



       Judith Command was being systematically dismantled around them, the billions, trillions of soldats perdus uploaded into a pattern cache that Paul would carry. The bubble around the non-place had developed great cracks on its periphery, and in places, the blackness of the unknown beyond shined down through.

       They walked to the edge, the place where they could look down into the Timestream. The Alpha Point sparked an eternity below them. As they walked, his hand was close enough to Alina's so that she could hold it, if she wanted. We know the distances between us; we test the lines and hope someone crosses.

       Theirs was a heartbroken silence built of everything that had gone wrong, all the fights over nothing, the context of them, the place and time out of time in which they lived. They were both machines built from life's flickers.

       They sat on the edge and still said nothing. Their hands were still close enough to hold.

       Their feet dangled down over the universe.

       He said, "It was good."

       She said, "I know."

       A thousand other lives tried to crawl into that moment, a thousand other faces, but as he sat there dying, Paul looked only at Alina. The angle of her jaw, the patterns of her freckles, the flare of her nose, eyes that smiled, upturned, even when she was crying. A thousand other faces tried but failed to replace her.

       We can count down our final moments in the stillness between another's heartbeats.

       We can search for a perfect moment and realize that we've already lived it.

       We can ravel a ball of silver, wear a filament of it on our wrists. We can hear the music across the water, the stars falling above, and we can dance, reach out for a hand. The world falling apart around us, and none of it matters. Life is a series of moments, of splendor, of misery, the finest line woven between. We can sit on the edge with the love of our lives and not say anything at all.

       He reached out, withdrew. They looked down at existence. He coughed.

       She turned back to the bubble's center. "I think they're ready."

       He looked. Judith Command was empty, except for them. There was wind, and it was cold.

       "Are you?"


       They looked into each other's eyes for the first time in months. Years. Time had no meaning at the edges.

       He held out his hand.

       She smiled. Her eyes were wet. He was bleeding metal.

       There were echoes.

       She took his hand and jumped off the edge.

       They fell, but in that scale, they were motionless. Judith Command raced away above them, the bubble's edges cracking and releasing, great plates of metallish shattering down toward them, the whole of the last fort erupting and falling. And they flew, hands held, eyes open, as shards of Command danced around them. They wove, hands held, between the pieces.

       They pulled toward each other, arms frantic, grasping, bodies shuddering to relearn their symmetries, to reseat the way they fit together perfectly. They tumbled, hands held, down into the past, into the deepest night, the places hidden away for lifetimes.

       Paul wrapped his arms around Alina, couldn't hold her close enough. He pulled back, looked into her colorless blue eyes, remembered the taste of her, gone so long now, tumbling, hands held, end over end, a dizzying, frightening descent, picking up speed, whirling, faster, faster, and Command was nothing above them, a cascade of countless fragments running alongside.

       He never looked away. Reached out, one hand shimmering, one hand clasping hers, so small and perfect. It was a beautiful hand that he couldn't see, enveloped in his own, but he could feel it, contact, reached out, one hand shimmering, and called the silver to him, the detritus of Judith Command, and it came, an ocean of metal, swarming, singing around them, wrapping and protecting, enveloping, consuming. He would protect her. He would hold her close. And it formed around them, hands held, silver forming and reforming, merging with him, the finest silver web spidering through him. She didn't look away from the horror of him as he shifted, merged, became something else. She was caught in an expanse within him. She was encapsulated inside of him, a ship, a living ship of silver, the last of Command, the machine sea, and an ancient silent song. She looked up and saw the last of the light before he closed around her, the pattern cache falling into place above, sparking to almost-life, his hand changing, snaking, draping. His face a distended mess of metal, and then flat, and then nothing. It was dark inside of him. It was quiet. She was cold. He never looked away.

remember me
remember me on the wind
in the autumn
please remember me
the reflection

       The interface webs dug into her.

       and I loved you. Know that I loved you.

       They fell.





Copyright © 2005 Paul Evan Hughes

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Paul Evan Hughes writes in Philadelphia, NY.

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