Eternity

 

c. 35,000 CE

The caravan made its weary way across the plains, the grass sere in this season. Men cursed as they pulled the great wagons, creaking and lurching on the irregularities of the superficially flat terrain. Guards with their spears and axes paced on either side, and scouts with their dogs took point, fanning out ahead.

On the horizon, under the grey sky, mountains thrust up, a faint scatter of snow on their peaks. The men of the caravan knew that the foothills offered shelter to brigand bands, even this close to the city, only another day's haul to the north, where they would trade their load for goods brought from over the water.

Three miles away, watching with the aid of a very plain telescope, Nancy and Carolyn crouched in a patch of scrub on a rise above the trail of dust that marked the caravan.

“I'm told that this is typical of the era, or better. There's a busy maritime empire here, and that caravan is taking wool, rabbitskins and hemp to one of the major port outposts. In your day, that port would be Christchurch, the new Venice, or perhaps Phoenicia, is where Sydney stood.

“We're now further from our time than we were from the cave painters of Lascaux, and the last of the Neanderthals. There is only the hidden genetic legacy to tell that these people are descended from the stay-behinds who declined to join my ancestors in space, and the survivors of Indonesia, and leavenings of the many seafaring races in the millennia that lie in-between. Time and isolation have bred a new race — that almost imperceptible fiction on the genetic level — that is as different as the black, white, or oriental races of your day, and unlike any of them. There is nothing in their speech to connect them with any tongue of our times.

“They lack any useful beast of draft or burden other than themselves. Metal is rare — the old cities have been mined out, and the newer ones, and rust and wear have dispersed it. Bog iron is the richest source around. At least humans are thin enough on the ground that wood is abundant enough for their needs.

“The Most High have only the most tenuous contacts with the world in this time. Soon they will be gone entirely, down their rabbit holes, pulling the holes after them. But the long slow afternoon of homo sapiens will continue beyond that. I don't know how long it would endure, but there is something that the Ascended hint of, beyond the exhaustion of interest in this physical cosmos that is a trigger for their departure. It comes to me in wordless thought, but I suppose you could frame it as the Mad Mind.

“They are evasive about it, but I suspect that it may be some botched or aberrant Ascension. It may be the trigger for the same events as played out thirty million years ago, that wiped out the last civilisations that filled this part of the Galaxy.”

She paused.

“And not only those that were starfarers themselves. It may be that the end of this story is in fire from Heaven, as came to other worlds.

“And megayears hence, perhaps the next wave of starfarers will stumble over strange relics of this era, as I did of those who went before.”

She turned to face Carolyn, away from the telescope.

“I said, didn't I, that I was exiled from my Clan. And all from stumbling over a trinket left from some such nigh Transcendent scourge, that had been cast upon a world little different from this one, whose people were at that time no more masters of their planet than those wretches below are of this tired Earth. Such a little thing, that did indeed subvert, or at least contest, my will, that drew me out of safety and sanctuary.

“And so I am here today, in this era, with you, in this fashion…”

The sun had been noticeably westering, the scattered white sparkles of noontide on the blue waters over which the island sailed now resolving into a definite track of gold. Nancy was a silver statue of Artemis, silhouetted against the bright ocean, standing looking out to sea, as Carolyn sat on one of the raised outcrops of stone, a glass of the drink in hand.

“Time to start the descent, now?” Carolyn was not looking forward to the return, the knee-joint punishing effort of spending the potential energy so hard won as inelastic losses in tendon and cartilage that was always the worst part of a climb.

“Go back down?” Nancy turned from her meditation on the ocean. “No, we're not going down. There's no need for that. There's nothing there of ours. In this age of grace, we can travel unfettered by things. All we need is information.

“No. Like Dante, we have climbed the mountain, though his mountain had the trees and garden only on the summit; and like him we do not return the way we came. Now prepared, refreshed to leap up to the stars.

“So we're going to see what life is like out there, how the other half lives?”

“Not that. A different tour. I was quoting the last line of Purgatory, before the leap from Earth into the old Ptolemaic cosmos. I've been granted access to other gates, other times, and the suggestion has been made that you see them too.

“It is not a thing to lightly decline. To carry the analogy further, it is willed where will and power are one. Whether I am your Virgil or your Beatrice, you will have to decide.”

“Sorry, he's another dead white male I've never read, peddling his creed of patriarchy and pie-in-the-sky acquiescence of the status quo, however you frame it. Being good to one another was the first tenet to be discarded in hair-splitting.”

“Indeed, one jot, one literal iota, by its presence or absence in an unknowable credo caused bloodshed in Byzantium and made mock of loving one's neighbour, let alone one's enemy. But all the same, the various strands of that faith are the soil in which your culture has its roots, gives me the only language I have to talk of these things, though perhaps a few decades earlier, the detail would have been more widely known.

“And whatever your opinions on his beliefs, Dante was a poet. A daring man, who in his own way approached closer to Transcendence in his writing than any of those writing in your time, the Vinges and Brodericks and all the rest. Perhaps simply Dante's was the simpler, more human-sized an Ultimate. And his depiction was by far the more widely known.

“To explain the analogy, Beatrice was Dante's guide in Heaven; Virgil was his guide in Hell. You must judge which it is we shall be shown.”

So saying, she waved her arm as if to indicate something. Carolyn shifted round to see what she might be pointing at, and saw a misty arch rising from the far edge of the summit, and through it, a scene of sere wasteland. Nancy stepped over to the empty picnic hamper, and drew out a squat white tube with binocular eyepieces.

“Primitive optical aid, but effective for all that.”

With the telescope in one hand, she extended her other to Carolyn. She in turn stood, dusted the dry grass and earth from her thighs, and took Nancy's hand, copper to her silver, and together they stepped through into the future.

“…in this fashion, rather than being with my sisters who will have taken the long way to this epoch. Everyone I knew, save few who have been lost to the hazards of existence, will now be ancient and terrible, but look exactly as I knew them, unless they weren't yet full grown.

“Down there,” she indicated the caravan, “things look little changed, either, though the actors change from season to season, treading much the same path each time. Another of your dead white males posited a history where the future was a boot, stamping on a human face, forever. In many ways that has come to pass. But the boots march on, rising from obscurity, to strut a brief while and then fade again. Even the Pharaonic empires that have arisen from time to time over the myriads of years have faded or been brought low by outsiders after but few kiloyears.

“Is that enough of a reason for you, to convince you to help me bring on the Ascension, to make it universal, this time?”

“Is there any more to see? Sights like that one might be found in Africa in my day. What is the rest of the world like?”

“I do have some control over where we look. Step back through the gateway, and I'll steer it to other places, then.”

Picking up the telescope, they stepped back to the peak.

“Watch.” The viewpoint swung round, from plain to mountains, then in a brief confused flash, they approached, and were gone. Open ocean swept past, then slowed. More slowly, it moved towards land, to where a bay was a harbour to a great fleet of sailing ships of all sizes.

The ships were all sleek and elegant in form, often catamarans, but all were wooden. The docks around the ships were a hive of activity, cargoes being loaded or unloaded, streaming commerce into the surrounding city.

For the most part, the structures were low, mud brick of soft red colour, sometimes whitewashed, but here and there, spires — minarets? — of greyish stone thrust above the huddled skyline. In a few places, trees showed, or gardens of some sort. For all the bustle of the port, there seemed an essential poverty about the place, like some North African backwater, facing a Europe that no longer existed.

“Behold Rodnadok, the mightiest city of the age. She has yet to find an Augustus to turn her brick into marble, but in time she will be fairer than this. And after, fade again.

“Did you wish to walk her streets?”

“I…”

“They keep their women veiled, and hobbled, which would conceal my colour, if not your height.”

“Fuck, no! I could do that sort of thing in Iran, and at least there, I'd feel it was paying off colonial guilt or something. But here?”

“It's not the benighted place it seems. Their technology may be resource limited, a ceramic composite age that Earth had never known in your time, but their natural philosophy is on the whole as good as Europe's say three hundred years before your time. Some things stick, enter the folklore — practical things like the circulation of blood have not been lost. They have kept more than the basics of barefoot doctoring.”

“And this is different from Iran how? What was it you said about the gear you were wearing when we met, that you would rather walk London's streets as a dog?”

“Exactly so. Check to be sure. I'll bring the gateway down to a suitable size to spy, and then hover it over the city. Use the scope.”

The misty arch pulsed, contracted to a bare hand's span across, leapt forwards towards one of the towers, then twisted around to look out over a busy square and streets. Faintly, the hubbub of the city rose through the window, human voices, the yapping of dogs, the raucous cries of birds. In the square, people seethed, most men dressed in simple attire, though some were clad in richly dyed robes, adorned with shells and beads, with elaborate headdresses. Here and there, young boys slipped through the crowds, indulging in equal measure, it seemed, play and petty larceny. Few were the heavily draped figures of women and young girls, often to be seen trailing after some brightly clad man, carrying packages balanced on their heads.

For some minutes, Carolyn watched the city, then stood back.

“I've seen enough.”

What point was there in human history, in the efforts she had made, if in the end it came to this? If she could be sure of what she saw, then seeing was enough to believe in.

“Some perspective,” Nancy stepped behind her, placed a hand on her shoulder-blade, “Watch.”

The city shrank as the viewpoint gained altitude, became a map, and less than a map, the coastline showing itself indeed Australia. The rusty desert slid beneath, and the continent sank below the curve of the horizon. Ocean, striped with cloud, and where revealed, sparkling in the morning sun. Land again, creamy desert, Arabia, and green the coast of North Africa in the dawning. Descending now, to the river running to its delta, and opening to its former scale.

There, casting a long shadow in the early light, a long, green hill, like the barrow of a Titan, with sheep or goats grazing its slopes..

“A barrow, indeed. The grave of mighty Kings. This tumulus was once, great ages ago, the Pyramids. Time fears them no longer.”

~1e6 CE

Dark City” Carolyn breathed.

Beyond the portal now, empty open space, and floating in the immensity, a circle of buildings, the size of a small city. But unlike in the film, the city was surrounded by a disc of dust-covered rock, not ocean. And rising over it, not a friendly, familiar, yellow sun, but a hard spot of blue-white brilliance, surrounded by a patch of barely visible glow that faded into red and darkness away from the spot. It cast harsh shadows across the sprawl of construction.

“It,” Nancy's voice sounded choked, “It's home!”

Having left the pyramids, their herds of bleating sheep with clacking wooden bells, Nancy had steered the portal further north and west, across the Mediterranean, over Italy, to ice that spread over the Alps. Tundra covered France, and where Albion was once more joined to the continent. The flight halted where the wan light of a waning Moon shone on a river that flowed steaming through snow-covered marshland.

Not a sign of habitation, no relic to sign that once had an Empire on which the Sun could never set been commanded from that place. Not even the relics that had been left Egypt.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Carolyn quoted, “Is that the point of the show, that this is all essentially pointless? This is as much a pitch for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement as anything else.”

“No, that would be even more pointless. There is a more cunning solution. If you don't know what the point is, what the meaning of Life is, then the resolution is not to yield the struggle, but to build something that can answer the question for you. Something smarter, or that makes you so. You almost had the answer by yourself, in what you were doing. You could have found the answer simply by using the mental prosthesis of the Internet, even before I started to add to it.”

With a wave of her hand, Nancy banished the doorway on to lost London. The misty tangle of its boundary shrank to a knot, then turned itself inside-out, into a sheet of darkness.

“The first one looked enough like the ghost of Christmas Future. What could this one be?”

“Even further future. We get to see the whole show, I think.”

“So now we're looking when the Sun has burned out?”

“This is much sooner. Only a megayear. This far in the past, there were many almost human species, something that would be very new out of Africa. At this point in the future, there are none.”

They crowded close up to the darkness, to see what was to be seen. At first, nothing; then as the eye adapted, the sight.

“Castle Wolf. And this is the very centre of the Galaxy! There was always the unspoken assumption that we would get there some day. Not so much to look at with the naked eye, but integrated, or in the infra-red, where the dust doesn't hide so much…

“I wonder…yes.”

The dark mass drifted closer, the viewpoint sliding into the plane of the terrain surrounding the castle, and stopped a few yards from the wall.

Nancy stood back, a strange expression on her face. She sighed, and wiped the back of her hand across her eyes, then turned away. She knelt at the picnic basket, and this time drew out two large bricks of stuff.

“The environment will be harsh. We'll need to suit up. Vacuum and hard radiation.” And she offered one brick to Carolyn.

The extra mass of material swept over Nancy, coating her in a glossy sheen, like grey glass, smoothing her outlines as if a centimeter or so thick, and only broken by dark bug-eyes. Carolyn followed suit, as best she could, and hurried after Nancy as she stepped through the arch.

She felt a moment of panic, of suffocation, as the smart material reconfigured itself, and then realised that except that her feet were anchored to the dry ground, she would be floating.

Nancy was now at a door in the wall. She grabbed at the old iron handle, and twisted it. It came free in her hand, the main substance of the door crumbling into an expanding cloud of dust. The iron frame swung inwards, streaming more dust, and leaving chunks of matter hanging unsupported.

Nancy swept them out of her way in an explosion of dust, stepped over the threshold, into the darkness beyond, and waited, holding out a hand. Carolyn took it, and there was sound again.

“Not good. There's been no power, no shielding, for a very long time. And we're moving at a fair clip — well over 2% of c, and heading in from well out of the galactic plane. We could have drifted here from where I left her in the time we've had, if the vector was right. Where did we go in the intervening years?

“I had hoped… This is a tomb.”

“Then why is this gateway here? How, come to that, if the Ascended have fled?”

“How is easy. This end of the wormhole was sent on a long loop out of the Galaxy, away from the regions that the Perversion affected. As to why, my own guide, the pseudo-memories that waken as I see these futures, is silent. Perhaps this is to signify the last vestiges of humanity, a scant collection of artefacts lost in interstellar space. Perhaps there is a deeper significance to be found.

“Do you have any ideas?”

“What? Me?” Carolyn felt taken aback, startled at the sudden change of rôle. Nancy's self-assured pose had been rattled by this place, she was sure, but that much?

“Maybe, maybe it's carrying a message for you. Perhaps your family will have left something that you were expected to find. Or that any family member would know how to find.”

“Well, we could try the Grand Hall, or Upside Control. Even though I never formally moved out of my rooms, I doubt they'd've been kept in reserve for kiloyears, especially if numbers kept on increasing at the same rate. The place is bigger than I left it, but not that much.”

“Do you still know your way around? Is it really that little changed after so much time? London…”

“The general layout is unchanged, more so than the streetplan of the City. And there are landmarks. The main problem will be the sheer passage of time. At least the keel has been taking the brunt of all the interstellar crud we've been ploughing through. Bad enough that this place was older than history when it was abandoned, without all the extra wear and tear on the structure.

“I'm going to take a chance on this all being stable enough in free fall that we can risk staying inside. Plus I'll be bringing the gateway along for light.

“I've programmed your suit with thrusters, and slaved it to mine. Plus radio, so settle back and enjoy the ride.”

It was not so enjoyable. Nancy jack-knifed, and with a crackling sound, started to float along the corridor that they had entered, and Carolyn's suit took its cue from this, the crackling here being felt as a series of little proddings, as well as the sound that had carried over the audio channel.

After a few seconds of this, they came to a stairwell, and plunged down it in a dizzying series of undulations, crackling and popping to nudge around anything in the way. Behind them, the gateway, reduced to about a foot across, poured daylight into the ancient dark, revealing a scene of dust-greys, and soft golden stonework.

“How much of this do we have to do?” Carolyn asked after she had lost count of the wiggles, maybe a dozen flights down.

“Not too much more. Then we'll be at the transit levels. I'm hoping there won't be too much dust fallen inwards under the local micro-gravity. At least the keel itself will be sound; solid rock shouldn't notice an only barely geological span of time.”

They emerged into a T-junction of larger tunnels that Carolyn guessed were all horizontal when there had been gravity. Here was also the first strong colour she had seen here; on the dark-greenish walls, stripes of blue, gold, and red banded with white. On the floor, dried and cracked like mud, the blue-white of the moving walkways.

“Death and decrepitude!” Nancy swore in a fashion indicating something had startled her, though Carolyn could not at first make out the cause. “These squiggles must be writing.” She indicated some adornments on the stripes that had some quality reminiscent of Hindi or Thai script. “Things certainly did change before the end. I don't know if I'll be able to understand any message, if we find one.”

And so saying, plunged down the tunnel that formed the stem of the T.

16:45 UTC, 24 May 3342

“That was depressing.”

Nancy huddled in the afternoon sunlight on the hilltop, looking drained.

The flight to the centre of the network of tunnels under the castle, and then ascending the central vertical was uneventful. Though there were some long streaks of accumulated fine debris coating parts of the walls and obscuring some of the signage there was not enough to block the way, and they had left it behind soon after making the turn.

For a brief while, there were archways in the side of the shaft, and then just smooth metal, before it ended. Rising out of the shaft, they faced an open doorway, leading into a cavernous space. As light fell there, Carolyn could see that the part-open doors were inches thick. They drifted very slowly forwards; Nancy's hesitation was clear as they ascended the ramp, into the center of a dome. Around them, in a ring about half the diameter of the vault, thrones, facing outwards.

They've moved a lot of stuff out. Nancy's thought carried a quiet dread. Carolyn realised, with a start, that this was her way of speaking in whispers in a cathedral — or a crypt — only more so; that those thrones might not be unoccupied.

She was left floating there at the centre, while Nancy performed a slow circuit, waiting for some horrific discovery. Eventually, after a full circle, Nancy returned, shaking her head.

“Nothing, not even dust. I think even after a megayear, there would still be mummies.”

And then they were off again, down into the tunnels, a brief zig-zag, and up again into something looking like cloistered halls, a great cathedral-like space of soaring stone pillars and tall windows, some dimly showing the light outside through milky nigh opacity. The sunlight through the gateway scanned like a searchlight, and fastened on something at the far end.

As they approached, Carolyn could see that it was an emblem of some sort, a diamond-shaped national speed limit sign, with a stylised animal head on each of the white bits. There was writing below it, several columns of names, and dates.

“Is this a memorial?”

“Of sorts. Yes, look!”

And she could, now they were hovering just in front of it, read some of the first column: Lindisfarne, Starbow, Luthien, Heartward, Toehold — by now the dates had reached the 2800s, and the script was starting to be hard to read.

“Wyvern, Cimmaron — that takes us to my time, Forest, Span, 4218–4763, if I'm interpreting the figures right. That was a good innings. But the next one, I can't read. The numbers are in five figures, and I think this slanted stroke is a one…”

To Carolyn, the date seemed to start with a K, with a slanted upright.

“…but whether the next is a two or a four… Seven kiloyears at least. We could have gone to the Magellanics in that time. What did we become?”

“Illegible, for sure. How come? I mean when we started finding all this not quite right stuff, it starts to look like some weird mirror image, and you start to expect bearded evil duplicates to start appearing. Well, not literally bearded.”

“Letter forms mutate. Your capital letter A is about halfway between a picture of an ox's head and this—” Nancy pointed to the name she had read out as Span, at a deformed T, a -\ shape “—while this looks antique to me, like uncial might to you.” She indicated Lindisfarne and Starbow.

“But I would have thought…”

“Everything is soft, as one of the Greek philosophers wrote. Gutenberg didn't freeze vocabulary or typography, as well you should know, even over fractions of a lifetime. With systems to translate and transcribe old texts on demand, and much composition by voice or by pen, playback being adaptive, the barriers to change are as low a thousand years after your time as a thousand before.”

She paused, inscrutable in her suit.

“I'm sorry, I'm babbling. I'm trying to block out what this is, was. Let's go back.”

And the gate had swept them up, tumbling them onto the grass under the late afternoon sun. The carapace that had protected Nancy peeled away, and Carolyn signalled hers to do likewise, then on hands and knees moved to join her, to hold and reassure her. All the while her thoughts were confused, thinking ‘Just last night, watching her shed her burkha crept me out.’ and ‘How can I be of any use?’

Nancy sat silently, withdrawn, looking away, over the treetops, over the ocean flashing in the sunlight, past the wheeling seabirds, into infinity. ‘Christ Almighty,’ she swore to herself, “the most powerful woman in the world and she's gone into thousand yard stare. Now what do I do?’ So she sat down next to her, put an arm round her, to hold tight, and wait.

Minutes passed, and then at last she spoke, then returned the embrace with desperate strength.

“I'm sorry. That one was personal. The bastards were showing me a very painful version of what Game Over means.”

“Is that it, then? Things just running down and dying?”

Hardly.

Carolyn looked round sharply. The cat was sitting on a rock across the hilltop, looking effortlessly superior. Guiltily, she loosed the embrace, but Nancy held on as she turned to face it.

That was just an eyeblink and less in the life of the cosmos. Watch!

In the gateway, a montage of images, forest, tundra, steppe, savannah, and with them the sound of birds or beasts, a faint mix of scents.

Earth at the same time as your visit to Castle Wolf. You have to trust that it is representative — the same absence of Mind could be pretended by a suitable selection of sites even in your most crowded epoch. But on a larger scale, essentially unchanged.

The vision pulled out, back, to show a broadly familiar globe, streaked with cloud, ice at each pole, and beyond, the same old Moon..

The continents have moved, but no more than you could comfortably walk in a day. The rest of the Galaxy is no better off.

There was another flickering of images — waves breaking in the sunshine on rocks on a red shore under a dark blue sky, broken towers on a grey cratered plain where harsh light cast coal-black shadows, ice grey-green and glassy under a pale grey sky, rosy dawn light falling on mountains of cloud in an azure sky, hills covered with something like lichen where rows of cumulus marched overhead in a perfect spring sky, a rock floating in darkness, crusted with spires and arches.

Only on airless, dead worlds are the vestiges of mind obvious. But in time, it will bloom again.

The Earth again, the globe turning as she watched, and now, under a slight haze, the land showed, and moved, Africa crushing the Mediterranean, Australia ploughing into Asia, Siberia detaching to meet North America, while Central America tore into an archipelago. Suddenly, the motion froze, clouds returned, and the viewpoint moved into night. On some part of Earth, a chain of lights.

Eighty-five million years. There are starships in orbit. After a long fallow period, civilization has returned. The damage wrought by, or against, the Mad Mind, was slower to heal than the previous War in Heaven, at least on the strand of history charted by our probes. And within a few tens of millennia, Night falls again.

The continents resumed their march as the viewpoint reached daylight again. The Atlantic closed up, Antarctica drifted north, and soon there was one sprawling continent, desert red across the equator. It drifted, rotated, and came apart, leaving no vestige of familiar geography. The pale blur of cloud grew thicker.

Another pause. The view swept down to an island by the edge of night. A glorious sunset coloured the clouds over a sandy beach. Winged things swooped and sang. Small creatures scurried about under the bushes, and tufts of grassy vegetation. The smell of the sea came to her.

One last perfect day, about four hundred million years from now. The Sun shines just a little brighter now. The plants cannot survive with any less carbon dioxide in the air, but even with levels far below what they are now, the greenhouse is beginning to close in.

In all that time, no one has nudged the Earth, or stirred the Sun, neither in our time, nor any of the three later times when this planet has been peopled. Trivial engineering, but slow, that would keep this world green for gigayears longer.

Late Stelliferous (about 1e14 years)

“So, how does it feel to be half the sentient life-forms in the observable Universe?”

It wasn't the sort of question that Carolyn could answer. It wasn't something she could feel in her guts.

It looked from where she stood that they could equally well be somewhere slightly exotic on Earth. They stood on a slight rise, in an area of open grass-like greenery, with broken ribbons of larger, darker, more treelike growths, much as it had been for the last hour. The most obvious difference was the quality of the light, not as bright as a warm summer day with full sun ought to be; more like good old-fashioned incandescent lighting.

They resumed their run, the long grass tickling gently as Carolyn strode through it. She wrestled with the question, idly plucking strands of grass and shredding them as she went.

“It makes me wonder what the point of it all is. Here we are so far into the future, and it's all just running down.”

She thought about the vistas of the future she had been shown; the declining number of new Earthlike worlds as increasingly dust-filled nebulae collapsed only into Jupiters, the old ones succumbing as Earth itself had. Then the slow, majestic smashing of the Andromeda Galaxy into their own, burning brightly as new stars formed, and splashing great streamers into the void, before finally settling to leave a featureless globe of stars, and only a very slow trickle of new worlds. The wider Universe was now diluting to a point where only a handful of galaxies remained visible, the rest torn from sight by accelerating expansion.

Mind still flickered briefly into being, but less and less often, billions or tens of billions of years apart, as the stars guttered and only feeble red stars remained.

And finally this, one of the last handful of living worlds, circling one of the last few million suns, where the night sky was empty blackness, a world that still felt home-like.

Nancy turned to her, and laughed.

“This is seriously deep time; if we mapped the time from the big bang to your life so far, Earth was habitable for about ninety minutes late on your first day. This planet has been around for a couple of days, now. And it's still got a while left. There's enough time left when a visit like this would be comfortable, unprotected as we are, for the whole history of genus homo to rattle around in.

“For the moment, just enjoy the exercise!”

And she jogged off again, towards the nearest belt of trees. As she in turn followed, Carolyn felt the easy stamina of her new chassis, feeling for the first time in her life that a marathon might be an trivial thing to achieve, and that it was effortlessly sure footed on this tussocky ground, ankles recovering from any slight twisting.

The trees, when they reached them, looked more like half-woody house-plants, green stems, large flat leathery leaves, and aerial roots looking like thick twine. There was a sweet dankness to the air, and enough shelter from sun and wind to leave a stillness with sullen heat.

And as she approached the far side, Carolyn saw something that wasn't just vegetation. Grey, half-concealed in another band of trees a hundreds yards ahead. Nancy was clearly making for it, out in the open again.

Coming closer, she could see that it was some sort of pavilion, a slightly domed roof, maybe fifteen or twenty feet across, supported by eight or so slender columns, shading a table and chairs. One side, almost edge-on, was walled.

Tall glasses, with ice floating in, and dew beading their sides, stood on the white tabletop.

“Time for a coldie!” Nancy declared, picking one of the glasses, and dragging a chair away from the table. Sitting herself down, she took a long draught, then set the glass on the table by her elbow.

The drink was indeed welcome, Carolyn felt, as she took her place, half-facing Nancy. It refreshed on the familiar, primitive, level, but also on the refined and subtle senses that monitored her condition.

“Not quite a restaurant, not quite the end of the universe. More a tea-house at late afternoon, the end of a summer's day.”

“How late?”

“Past there being anywhere in the Universe you'd be comfortable staying. This is fine for a visit, but you wouldn't want to live here. We're in close enough to the star that only one side faces it, and this continual afternoon would get wearing.

“And it is old, its inner heat leaking out, and the renewal of land and atmosphere grinding to a halt. As the cycles fail, the planet will become a larger, warmer, version of Mars, fading over billions of years, while the star continues shining, weakly but steadily for a hundred gigayears and more.”

“But what about the real end?”

“We're coming to that.”

High Degenerate (about 1e20 years)

Pasta, cooked just al dente, in a simple, savoury meat sauce, pleasing on the palate, reassuring in the belly. Spinach lightly poached and buttered, rich and slightly bitter. A complex, fruit-laden red wine, as of grapes ripened under a fierce sun.

Carolyn savoured her meal. Across the table from her, Nancy sat contemplating her own glass of wine, which glowed deep ruby in the candlelight.

Beyond was blank darkness, just the hint of a dome above. The floor here was slightly fuzzy, like carpet. A few yards away, as she had seen when they had arrived through the door in the pavilion's one walled side, beyond the transparent dome, a lunar surface stretched beyond the reach of the light. The darkness above was almost palpable, as if they were inside a cavern.

“On the previous scale, we've come as far as the interval from our time to the dinosaurs. Rescaling, the Universe was no longer habitable after two minutes, and Earth for less time than it takes to say.

“The stars have all gone out. Occasional close encounters have flung most of the dead stars out into the void, scattering their planets, too. Over time, these wanderers have been caught up in the Hubble flow and isolated. The rest have fallen into the central black holes. Any hard binaries remaining from all that have radiated enough energy as gravitational waves to spiral together.

“From here it's all just simple physics, and well known by your time. Matter slowly decays to leave a mist of positronium, and the black holes evaporate, over such slow Æons that the process doesn't end until times when our current era is less to it than a Planck time is to the current age.

“And it's all a colossal empty waste.

“With just a little simple engineering, the Universe could sustain life for longer Æons yet, as long as matter lasts, herding the dead suns before they are dispersed, and slowly feeding them into the black holes.”

“So, is that what you want me to do? Help keep the Galaxy together?”

Nancy stopped, turned, and looked at her. She had that far-away expression again.

“No.” She laughed. “Humanity is extinct, gone in the brief afterglow of the creation. All intelligences in these physics are gone, were gone in the last time we visited. There's no point in tending the last fires, huddling over them, eking them out over the ages. We just come to visit the shores of night.

“There is a better way. Getting people — everyone — out of this downhill race, which we'd all lose in the end. Everyone going where the Most High have gone, into the arche, beneath this set of physics. That's the idea. That's what I want, and need your help in setting in motion.”

“RK? Or it it R-care? What's that?”

Αρχε, Greek, as in archetype. The fundamental stuff, beneath the pregeometry that eventually makes up space and time, in that ensemble of all possible times and spaces that I told you about, back on the Secret Rose.

“There are other ways of viewing that limitless substrate, ways unlike our own worlds, where computation can proceed without limit.”

She pushed her plate away, and it soon started to dissolve into the tabletop, and sat, waiting quietly. For her part, Carolyn continued to enjoy the food and wine.

“Did you want any dessert?” Nancy asked, as she was mopping up the last scraps. Carolyn paused, considering. She had achieved satiety, though not anywhere near being full-to-bursting. She could eat more, but there was no incentive to. It could be an aesthetic experience. If she could think what to have — but she was coming up blank.

“No,” she decided, “I'll pass tonight.”

“Coffee? Psychoactives?”

“Sure.”

The remaining dishes started to dissolve into the tabletop, to be replaced with a caftière, decanters, and accoutrements. Nancy flipped the lid on a box, and took out a long slim cigar, held it up for inspection.

“Do you mind? A filthy habit, I know, but at least not one that is toxic to either of us now.”

“I don't think I'll enjoy passive smoking any more even if it's not a slow poison.” She paused, thought a while. “If tobacco smoke isn't toxic, what about alcohol? Can I still get drunk?”

“Sure. Drunk, stoned, whatever. That's pretty essential for sanity. Even small children get dizzy for much the same reason their elders get lit up. You have an emulator layer, where things that affect human brain chemistry are monitored and applied. But if you need to, you can switch it off and sober up in seconds. And you won't be hung over as such.

“Shall I pour coffee? It would be a waste not to, as it's been built with local resources.”

“Sure.” Carolyn pushed her cup over, and opened the decanter that looked like it held scotch, sniffing the aroma appreciatively, and pouring herself a generous measure. Taking cup and glass, she stood, wandered over to the doorway.

“Yes,” Nancy nodded in emphasis. Carolyn opened the door, back to the pavilion, propping it open with one chair, sitting on the other. A breeze stirred the warm air, like silk against her skin.

In the darkened dome, Nancy tapped one end of her cigar on the table, then drew on it, exhaled with a sigh.

“Time to be getting back, when we're done here. Holiday over. I'll be dropping you back the same evening you left, so you'll be able to arrange things for me to speak — let's call it tomorrow, for convenience.”

If the sight of all things — apart from vague notions of the Ascended — running down had been depressing in its own way, it was too remote to feel. This news was depressing in its own immediate fashion, the imminent resumption of a burden she could not put aside.

20:30

Through the rain, the lights of London spread out before her. Carolyn gathered her outfit into a raincoat with a hood, picked up her handbag, and started to descend towards the darkness of Regent's Park.

For now, at least, she had some measure of freedom of action, after the conducted tour. She drew a deep breath of the chill air, and sighed.

After the last of the drinks, and a little pause beyond, Nancy had emerged from the remotest end of time into its afternoon, then, together, they stepped through the gateway back to the mountain-top, where evening was falling, some stars — those ephemeral sparks of the first rush of creation — already beginning to show.

Now, there was a stairway leading down into the heart of the island, light shining out. They descended several turns of the spiral, first through a shaft just wide enough to fit the stairs, then through open space in the centre of a storage space full of blue and white canisters hung from iron-dark racks, to a floor level, where Nancy paused.

“This is where I have to leave you, for a while,” she said, “while you go home and organize things so I can address your conference in the morning. I will meet you there in good time, but for the moment, I have other work to do.”

“So this is it. Back to the beginning, without a sight of what happened to the ones who got away.”

“Out among the stars, now? A bit like this…”

A tumble of images. A castle in morning light by the seashore, on craggy cliffs, mountains in the background, capped with snow, a pale arch of light rising from them. A city of massive soaring towers, pure white in blazing sun, deep shadowed canyons, and broad plazas, teeming with pedestrians. A small town of pastel, low-rise buildings, softly lit by early dusk, where serious folk sat under trees at pavement cafés. A tranquil bay at night, the gentle slap of the slight swell against the small boats at anchor, lights scattered overlooking the shore, and on islands in the bay, and over all, a sky full of patchy nebulosity. A vast structure of toroids and latticework turning slowly in space near a banded blue world. Human figures pedalling ornithopters inside a cylinder of city and parkland. And more, and more, in a torrent.

“There. Is that what you wanted?”

She wasn't sure. The overwhelming flood had been even more fragmentary than the trip to the end of time. And yet, underneath it all, there was emotional content. Filtering the restlessness that seemed to characterise Nancy's journey, of which that had been a synopsis, there was an underlying sense of tranquility, of a world where want as she knew it was a thing out of history. Was this really so bad a thing, especially if it involved most of the humans that would ever live? But it ended. And earthly paradise a thousand years hence was no better than religion.

Carolyn found herself just standing there. This was the bit where the poor bloody infantry got sent off to do or die to advance some small facet of a plan that made no clear sense to her even after all she had seen.

“Don't worry! Death is very low on the agenda, especially now I've fixed you up, and yours is not a small part. On the other hand, taking over a planet is not easy to do single handed. As you might imagine, I've stirred up a bit of a hornet's nest, so there's some fire-fighting needs doing.

“You take that door, back onto the Secret Rose, and follow the signs to the escape capsules. I've put your things from your handbag in the first one, and it should drop you back in London. It's stealthed, so you should have no unwanted attention.”

“That's all?”

“For tonight, yes. Don't worry, you're not going to get any mystic bafflegab; I don't work that way. Now please do get along, I have a number of decapitated armies that are going into the brigand business to deal with, plus a far-right coup attempt in the US to squash.”

And so she had gone alone through the door, and followed signs. The escape capsule was a tiny thing, just big enough to curl up in. Her handbag was there as promised, with her mobile, wallet, other junk, cards and more cash than she remembered. While she was checking, the door had closed, and a voice announced that she was about to be launched.

The walls enfolded her gently, while small clattering sounds rattled through the capsule. And then thrust, pushing her into the form-fitting substance. Coasting, then, for several minutes, then a rollercoaster ride of re-entry. Drifting, and then the impact of landfall.

The pod split open, and she stepped out into the rain of a London night, looked around, and found herself on Primrose Hill, the metropolis spreading before her. Home; or at least only about half an hour's walk from home.

And so she started down from the summit, as the escape pod smoked, crumbled, and was washed away by the rain.

21:15

Shutting the front door behind her, Carolyn headed into the kitchen. There were a couple of bottles of wine on the shelf along with other provisions. They wouldn't be there much longer.

She had been careless, too lost in all she had seen, just taking the shortest route through the streets between Camden Town and the Euston Road. With the rain easing up, her thoughts had turned to discharging her obligation. There were calls to make, arrangements to set in place before the evening was too late. So she had gotten her mobile out, and was checking that it still worked as expected, as it looked like it should, when her attention was caught by a voice in front of her.

“Uh?” aware that something had been asked, but not what.

“The fuckin' phone.”

Three lads, maybe twenty at the oldest. Handing the mobile over would probably be the cautious response. But tonight, she didn't feel cautious.

“I warn you, I am trained. Now why don't you all fuck off home like good little boys.”

“The fuckin' phone, slag.” The leader had a knife, the sight of which, she was sure, was enough to obtain co-operation in the usual hold-up.

Carolyn sighed. “I did warn you,” she said, dropping the phone into a pocket that sealed itself, and settling into a ready stance. As she did, she felt a couple of ambers on her status — fight-or-flight turbocharge. The night gained an incredible clarity, and a calm settled on her as she breathed in and out with measured rhythm.

The leader jabbed the knife in her direction. No, he wasn't trained, just working on instinct. Lazily, it seemed, she reached out and grabbed the arm, helping him on his way, taking the knife off him as he went.

Number two was big, but soft with it — junk food and beer, she guessed — and just lunged at her. Too busy playing ogre, he hadn't even adopted the default male fighting posture. She snapped out a kick, and watched his fierce grimace turn to horror, as he spotted the oncoming toes, and then agony as the effects of the brief impact reached the brain.

She spent just a moment too long admiring the results of her handiwork. More amber on the board — pain in upper left arm — as the tension went out of her handbag strap. The third of the band trying a cut-and-run.

Spinning on her heel, she launched a scything kick that cut his feet out from under him. He went flying, his knife skidding along the pavement. Abstractedly, Carolyn realised that this had to be a duplicate handbag — the strap had been severed, but the bag itself had simply welded itself to her coat.

Still in a crouch, the first knife in hand, she edged to where the second had fallen. Nearby, a convenient drain. She kicked the loose knife so it tumbled into the water below, then dropped the one she held after it.

Cars went by. The few other pedestrians were crossing to the other side of the road. Two of the attackers were starting to pick themselves up. The third was curled up, retching.

“Want some, eh? Want what fatboy had, huh?”, she jeered at them.

She realized she wasn't even breathing heavily, but when she had spoken, her voice was unusually gruff, masculine, even. The tone seemed to have the desired effect, the two who had just been tumbled picking up their companion between them, and edging cautiously away, keeping casting worried glances in her direction, as Carolyn stood, watched, waited, slowly straightening her posture.

The unusual clarity faded, along with the alerts.

When the lads had turned a corner, she took the opportunity to examine her arm. Where it had been cut, or at least scraped, felt hot, but not tender. As expected, despite the cut, her clothes were unblemished, though the ends of the handbag strap needed to be brought together before it rejoined.

Figuring the arm would manage without immediate attention, she turned, and crossed the road, heading back on herself a bit to reach the main road down to Euston. As she took the first corner, she changed the pale raincoat she had chosen for black leather, and cap, just to look different if reinforcements came looking for a rematch. None happened, though she was still walking very warily until she reached the station concourse, which was well lit, and, more importantly, patrolled.

Taking refuge in the Ladies, she stopped to check the arm. It didn't look cut, or even scratched, but rather sun-burnt — red and hot, but not tender. There was just a faint suggestion of a scar at the center of the reddening. This was an upgrade worth having.

Well, she thought, no getting away from things now. Rearranging herself, she returned to the main concourse, and, leaning against the Tie Rack booth, dialled.

The ring tone went on enough that she was beginning to think the 'phone was switched off, and then

“Hello. Carolyn? Where are you? We were expecting you at the reception.”

“Sorry, Simon, I got waylaid on the way home to change.”

“You all right? Not hurt? Where are you? Did they take anything?”

Concern in the voice, over the background chatter. Carolyn felt a moment of disconnect, before spotting Simon's misconstruction.

“No, no, nothing like that. I'm calling from Euston, as a safe place on the way. No, I got stopped by a VIP who's interested in our cause, wants to get involved, and has serious resources to commit.”

“Who? Is it a politico? The Development Secretary?”

Carolyn grinned to herself.

“Not political, technology. It's all a bit hush-hush — no one knows they're in the country. As a quid pro quo for dinner, I've agreed to free up the keynote slot tomorrow for an extra item.”

“Who is it? Gates? Ellison? Torvalds?'

“That sort of calibre. But for the moment, it's on the QT. So that's why I'm phoning you. You're on the spot there, and can try to soothe ruffled feathers. We can trim a few minutes off the breaks and run on a little more. Or we might have a drop out. Have to warn catering of a slip if we don't.”

“Thanks a bunch, Carolyn. So while you've been enjoying the high-life, we've been soldiering on. The do's going OK, as you can probably hear.”

“You're a hero, Simon. I don't know what I'd do without you. I'll be in early tomorrow — our surprise guest was a bit vague about turning up, but will expect to find me.”

“You can leave it in my capable hands. Go sleep off the fine wines. See you in the morning.”

Typical man, she thought, but useful for fire and forget business. Now she had an appointment to keep, with a good stiff drink. Which might as well be at home.


© Steve Gilham 2002
© Mr. Tines 2002


Chapter 4 — Empyrean

Chapter 6 — Avalon

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