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."
impractical." Cellophane wrapper crumpled in Paul's hand.
late-time strategery sessions were bronzed with a nicotine aftertaste.
or nothing. That's the deal."
lock across distances deeper than a tabletop, a war machine.
"Fine. We'll get her. Any other requests for your strike
two more. Relatively easy."
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."
scratch, click. Paul inhaled, talked through the smoke's exit.
placeWhy'd you bring me here?"
waitThe 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.
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
we're going to make this work, there are things about me you
have to accept."
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.
Something." But in that expanse, silence seemed the most
that, not here. There's no way you could, not here."
out of my head."
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,
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"
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."
god. A fucking god here."
over two, up one.
wiped the face, his own, "died in my arms. Do you still
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
stood, dribbling blood and flecking fragments to the ground.
Steam. One simple flash and his claws had repaired. Grabbed
both gloves in one hand.
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
can't know that."
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 faceYou're becoming integral."
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."
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.
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.
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 hadfused
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.
they were. Veritable sausage-fest. West, Reynald, Hank, Sam.
The twins were elsewhere. The bear lacked balls.
is he?" Reynald accented over the three words, the tension
materializing in the acute angles of his fingers.
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."
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.
sights, new sounds?"
certain Tunguska, 1908, fourteen-seven."
File under 'sneaking suspicion.' Next?"
tertiaries on 1994, 1998 lines, fourteen-seven."
but no surprises. Next?"
meteor impact, 2047."
touch our target. Fucked thirty-three over, though. Moon collision.
Forget it, let's run the nineteen naught-eight probables and
feed it to the maths. Get on it asap. Target completion"
is the day we fight."
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."
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."
there's a problem, Jud. Al. Whoever the hell you are today."
to bring it to the group, or are you just going to smack my
table around some more?"
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.
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
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."
scoffed. "We all do, girl. But more than thatThat
shit's getting into his head. He ain't no good to us in there.
If we're gonna"
believe he met with Reynald yester-day
did." Jean Reynald's voice wasn't nearly as unafraid as
he'd hoped. "It was... I don't know."
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
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
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."
Hank... I'll try to be better about this. Try to get him in
paused. "He needs to get his shit together. That's why"
lives in the silver? It ain't right, girl. He ain't right no
working on it."
never learned how to swim.
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
grew angrier with breathing.
pool seemed deeper in those final days, and not being able to
swim (or floateven 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.
that first breath, he sometimes forgot to take another.
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.
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.
felt a hand.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
looked into the newcomer, had questions but didn't ask. The
older version had answers but didn't offer them.
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
me your Omega."
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
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.
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.
crashed in the back. Paul jumped.
link was dead. It was supposed to show the president.
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.
to be people here. Simon and Maggie, Joseph and Helen, S"
does it all end?"
with a bang than a whimper."
Paul struggled over concepts. "Me. How does it end?"
developed a germinoma around your pineal gland at age twenty-four."
died of an overdose of anti-seizure medication at age twenty-seven."
Omega smiled, an expression that reminded Paul of war. "That's
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.
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
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
wantedmaybe deserveda new calculus you never invented.
scaring people, and that's why they leave.
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.
weren't a sympathetic character."
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.
do I fix it?"
Omega shrugged. "You were a flawed machine, and it only
ended once Ionce 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."
asking me to"
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."
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."
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.
lives are cursed." Teeth gritting, speech barely escaping,
a graveled whisper.
you have to"
all" a stutter, frustration flaring across the edges
all Earth buh" A simple, passionate fury.
all Earth be a grave."
sad. The Omega shook his head. "All Earth? Or just the
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.
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.
lesions can lead to the infamous 'alien hand syndrome.' It cleaves
the mind, ruptures, rends it in half. Splits presence. Gives
voice to id."
right hand swept over the edge and slammed the tabletop.
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.
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
nodded. It was a gesture pulled to one side.
roared from the back room.
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."
been behind all of this, the betrayals, making people leave
for" his eyes looked out across Seattle"this?"
bringing the pieces home. She hopes you'll follow."
shook his head in rejection. His fists settled into a bleak
and horrifying surrender.
her down. You've quite a group of friends waiting out there
for you, fictional and non."
along the conversation, the shaking had calmed.
started pure, until you started writing into her. Can't take
Jud out now, but you can prevent something deeper."
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."
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 youjust to keep you alive long enough."
enough for what?"
is the nearest unsteady light;
a heart can only break so many times before you start
to lose the most important pieces of yourself.
statement didn't so much flop as leap to the floor and grope
around, seeking meaning.
it?" West's face was steel and stubble.
don't expect a simple apology to"
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."
Alina reached out.
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."
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"
can show us the way."
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."
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"
don't know what to think, boy."
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."
has been a good commander?"
done her best."
you've expected more from her?"
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."
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"
percent." Reynald's fingertips dropped from his subdermal.
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
you have a miracle, now's the fucking time, boy. If you learned
anything in the pool, you better teach us right fucking now."
he was silver.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
she hadshe 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.
kill a god. Yes. Another. The god that gave voice to all others.
Divinity is layered, and at the bottom, the Author.
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.
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.
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 thenthen she could rewrite the Enemy
in her image. Delete.
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
hands before them, flickering and yearning. A flash, and they
were his hands again, simple, too-big hands of callus and hangnail.
said anything. The fear in the room was palpable and cloying.
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
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?"
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."
it's" Reynald had leaned back in his chair, as if
six additional inches could protect him. "We're unshielded.
Why isn't it"
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."
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.
surrendered to it. It's so beautiful." His form shifted
further toward total mercury. The static became audible, the
more the silver consumed him.
Alina whispered, her fear soaking through and emerging through
colorless eyes. "Come back."
asked for a miracle," he growled. "Now you've got
it. Afraid, Jud?"
lie to me." He walked to Alina's side, crouched down so
that his face was at her level. "You're afraid. You should
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."
reached to caress her cheek, his hand shifting back to flesh
and bone before surfacing. She felt its warmth, its utterly
normal, familiar warmth.
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."
could take time to recall the forces containing the"
them home. Bring them all home."
sir." Reynald went through the motions of belief.
and West stood and walked from the chamber, West casting one
backward glance. Paul nodded without emotion. He knew there
could be no understanding.
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.
know what I have to do now."
didn't respond to him, just pulled her top closed over banana
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.
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 shiftsomething
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.
do love you."
wasn't looking at her.
but not seeing
thinking of the thought (itself)
breathing, but not living
stirred his coffee.
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?
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
He spilled some coffee as muscles twinged.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
another cigarette and stirred the coffee again.
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.
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.
are machines of a horrible beauty.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
door spiraled open. She knew it was him.
I come in?"
walked from the door and slinked into her chaise. Paul could
differentiate the habits of the women combined in Alina.
looked on in silence.
me talk to Jud."
looked hurt. "Something you don't want me to hear?"
let her out."
eyes narrowed a huff, but she relented. A static flash, and
Paul knew she'd been buried under the god.
to see you're out of the pool, Paulywog." Jud grinned with
Al's rabbit teeth.
need a pilot."
nodded slowly. "Well, thanks to your time taking a dip,
pilots are in short supply."
have one in mind."
been able to find Naught-Four or Simon."
And Lilith? Not exactly Judith or Judas material, kid."
sat up at that. "Me?" She was suspicion and frown.
we're going after Maire, I need someone to pilot"
have your pick of the rides, Hughes."
let the statement soak in. Alina's face broadcast Jud's incredulity.
"Pilot you? Pilot you?"
sound, no motion.
I missed something being underneath Miss Becky Bananaboobs all
this time, I don't follow."
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.
need a pilot." His voice was static and distortion. It
was still a growl.
Jud's voice was calm, and he could feel pieces of Alina shouting
can use Sam's shell. With Al in the pilot's chair, with you
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.
is your chance to kill Maire." He shifted back to skin
and hair and scars.
scoffed. She couldn't look at him.
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."
never meant for"
know." She swallowed back the rest of her words.
Follow you on this crusade? Watch you lose yourself in that
that's what it takes."
didn't have a response.
a part of her still does."
was never mine." The heart is unable to unravel memory
was yours, but the silver got you."
bit back disappointment. "We merged so I could protect
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."
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
give her back. Come with me. Be my pilot."
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.
with me." Paul put his hand on her shoulder.
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.
smiled. Continue the assault. The willing enslaved populations
of the Enemy mind-essence obeyed.
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.
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
West lay half crushed underneath the gauntlet interface chandelier.
of sputtering silver web draped her.
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?"
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.
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.
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."
late. Jade's droptroops were among the first to go."
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
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.
motherfucker." The bear sparked to static and disappeared
back into Judith ME.
howled with rage.
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?"
didn't have an answer.
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?"
was Alina." He hadn't meant it to cut, but it did.
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."
you were too busy locked in your chamber with Al to notice."
sorry, Sam. Sorry that I took her away from you for so long."
don't need to apologize for"
I do. It wasn't fair. We got tangled up in each other. But now,
well, she's all yours."
yours for the assault on the Delta bleed. I want her to be your
pilot. Our pilot."
I missing something, Mr. Hughes?"
face was caverned and ancient. His eyes looked nowhere. "You
know I've looked up to you for as long as I can remember."
assumed that's why you brought me in."
been a mentor, an inspiration. You listened even when you didn't
know I was talking to you."
right hand shuddered violently. He put it under the table. "If
we're going to end this, we need to merge."
coughed a laugh. "Not like that."
have the vessel structure. I have the silver. Together, we can...
Maire will never have seen anything like it."
I get to stick around for the drive?"
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
sipped slowly, and the motion evolved into a nod as he lipped
tea from his mustache. "I was wondering when you'd make
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 meI can't pay that back. But I can set
you free. Let you out of this. Maybe it's time for you to go
sure about this, son?"
combined laugh was sad and knowing.
then," Sam stood and walked around the table, "no
time like the present."
stood. He shook with the fear of letting go. He extended his
hand, and the solid shake became a bear hug, all slapping and
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?"
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.
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
he woke up, he missed Sam, but he knew that there are some trips
you have to take alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
sat next to West, rolled the marble across to Paul.
couldn't get Jade's." The bear spoke as he settled into
a chair. "There wasn't much left of the droptroops."
eyes reached across the polished wood with an unabridged fury.
saying that a lot, lately."
knew the risks."
Paul let the word echo. "They weren't."
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?"
snuffled back a drip of silver. His hands were under the table.
He kept turning to the right.
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.
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
don't need Maggie."
was part of the deal."
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 possibilitieseither Maire's found them
already, or they were never really the focus to begin with."
need as many ships as we can"
taking one ship."
drifted, not enough to conceal the shimmer.
to be a hell of a ship." West reached to steal a smoke.
Maybe it would help the moment.
will be." Inhalation, exhalation through words. Paul wiped
a line of argent blood from the corner of his mouth. "Trust
are you planning, son?" Reynald took the cigarette from
West's offer, coughed through. He knew already. "I see
Sam's not here."
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.
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.
veils of dream we weave around ourselves, never knowing for
certain, but knowing enough: this is all we have.
flying. Al's my pilot. Everyone else, you'll be there for the
show. Don't worry."
lit another smoke. Eventually, they all did.
can go home. All of you. If you want."
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,
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.
and Reynald flanked him. West's hand rested in wait on his back.
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.
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.
heartsher heart sped a rhythm she resented, but it's not
easy to forget better times and versions.
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.
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."
families?" A voice spoke out from the mass. "Most
of us have nowhere to go!"
rumbled assent. Paul felt them slipping, all of them innocent,
each soul the work product of his madness.
run." West growled across the plain.
multiplied. The middle C of uncertainty, a resounding seiche
wave of fear.
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."
ship? The unspoken concern was tangible.
one ship. Me." Paul's chest hitched with his body's rejection
of the silver.
cries of outrage drowned any hope for hope. Alina gripped herself
tighter, feeling it all fall apart.
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!"
din was painful. Paul had never suspected such resistance to
his plan, but
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 imageMaire's
erasing the image."
begin loading the cache immediately." Reynald scratched
his temple; another three lines appeared. "Best of luck
to those who stay behind."
sorry," Paul managed as best he could. His hand went to
the throb of his cardiac shield. "Please believe that."
left the birth fields, the author limping along between Jean
and Adam, Alina's hand on his shoulder.
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
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.
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.
gave her an idea.
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.
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.
Richter." Her grin was fangs and dimples. "Welcome
to my future."
wretched phased silica onto the floor. He tried to crawl to
his hands and knees, but squeaked back down in a weak, naked
looked up at her. "Hope?"
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.
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.
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.
sat on the edge and still said nothing. Their hands were still
close enough to hold.
feet dangled down over the universe.
said, "It was good."
said, "I know."
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
can count down our final moments in the stillness between another's
can search for a perfect moment and realize that we've already
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
reached out, withdrew. They looked down at existence. He coughed.
turned back to the bubble's center. "I think they're ready."
looked. Judith Command was empty, except for them. There was
wind, and it was cold.
looked into each other's eyes for the first time in months.
Years. Time had no meaning at the edges.
held out his hand.
smiled. Her eyes were wet. He was bleeding metal.
took his hand and jumped off the edge.
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.
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.
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.
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 on the wind
in the autumn
please remember me
interface webs dug into her.
I loved you. Know that I loved you.