I found myself pacing nervously again, and put a stop to that right quick. That was Lia’s thing, and she was dead, and I wasn’t remotely the palest imitation of her…paleness and current imitating notwithstanding. But she was a wonderful person, and I was…well, this.
Standing there, outside the still-secure facility that hadn’t seen a marauding robot in two years, invisible to the guards’ minds through the magic of mucking up their heads, I waited and waited, wondering just how long it needed to be before it counted as another failure.
It was weird, how I never got used to failure. This was my fifth attempt now, and every time, the stupid little butt-clench of hope seemed to drag me ragged, my weak heart beating too hard with anticipation of something which never came. I felt like I was tumbling and tingling, and every sound made me jump, even though I knew damn well I wouldn’t hear it, I’d sense it.
Moments like this made me feel very human, and very weak.
I was pacing again without realizing, and after chewing myself out, let my feet do whatever the hell they wanted.
Five attempts now, and judging from this delay, five failures. I wasn’t sure how this one could be. We’d done everything right, as far as I knew. It should work.
Which was meaningless, of course, since the last four times, I’d felt similarly. Every attempt, it felt like there was something else I’d compensated for that was head-slappingly obvious.
The first hurdle was just interacting with the angle-gates at all. I’d spent almost a year coming up with this plan, and then most of another walking around, scouring the minds of every Exhuman I met for the possibility they’d work in it. It took too long, but eventually, I found her. Some chick in Oasis who had some kind of black hole-ish powers. Lucky for me, after helping AEGIS out with Our God, I had a backdoor already in place to borrow whatever Exhuman I needed.
And then, dear god, was that a new one for my death journal. Sucked into a black hole. I’d had to look it up later, and apparently the term was ‘spaghettification’, which I could verify was a fairly accurate description. It was a fun combination of being ripped apart, being able to see, feel, and hear nothing, and then being crushed into oblivion.
But when I came to…eventually…the black hole was gone, and I was on the other side of the gate, stretched through and ready to die to the hazards of the void another thousand times. It felt like years, I was drifting there, but somehow it was only a few days.
Aesa and Al found me and took me aboard, and that was their last mistake. Now they were my generous hosts, and were waiting back at the angle-gate for me, keeping tabs on the machine I’d forced them to deploy, the same one Athan had used in that place in the past.
I’d thought the worst of it was over at that point, and I suppose, as far as personal harm went, it was. The five test runs we’d done were with people of no importance that I’d coerced into joining Saga’s Dimensional Exploration Brigade. And so far, we were looking at a solid hundred-percent mortality rate, which I thought was pretty good.
According to Aesa, we had two of the three parts needed to make this jump work: The angle-gate, and the machine. The third…was what was giving me such a time. The freakin’ cross-dimensional humans they’d used before had died, been cremated, and blown away somewhere, and I wasn’t ready to sample every single piece of dust on Earth quite yet.
Still, I’d tried things of theirs to see if maybe their other-dimensionality had rubbed off on their possessions. It was a leap, but it wasn’t one I was taking personally, so it was fine. That was the first test. After that, I went for something I knew had been in that dimension…a piece of AEGIS. She’d been kind enough to part with a lock of her hair for me, but despite the kindness of her gesture, still a disaster.
Next was one of the drones from there, but wouldn’t you know it, they didn’t keep the damn things in this location. I strolled in with the intention of ripping ’em off and hijacked every mind in the base, only to have TARGA start hissing at me while I learned I was in the wrong location. She’d fire up any number of countermeasures to keep me away, and killing her was likely the only way forward. I still felt kinda guilty about doing that to AEGIS all those years ago, so that was moved to a distant plan B.
In my desperation, I turned to Lia, who’d been completely reborn in that place. I was confident that some of her remains would count, since much of her body had been rebuilt when her powers had kicked in and saved her. Digging her up was one of the more awful things I’d ever done, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t shared a few apologies with her imagined ghost…but she would understand, right? She’d want me to use her body, if it came to that?
Well, it didn’t work anyway. That was the lowest of the low for me. I’d spent a month moping around Aesa’s place, feeling ten types of shitty for defiling Lia for no reason at all.
I felt in my pocket and the fingerbone was still there. Didn’t seem right to just throw it away afterwards, but seriously, what the hell was I supposed to do with it now? Just a grim souvenir of something shitty I’d done to someone I loved. Some days, it felt heavier than others.
I was out of ideas after that. It felt like I’d just gone and failed. Mindfucked a few dozen people, walked across the country incognito, and sent four to their death, all for nothing. I was almost frustrated to tears. It really felt like my options were to wage war on TARGA, or give up.
But yeah, that didn’t keep. My mind kept settling on what if this doesn’t work, and all the time I’d floating in the void, waiting for Aesa to find me. What, exactly, it was like to be cold and alone and dying over and over in the empty abyss.
That was what I had to look forward to. Just empty nothing, just death, for all eternity. I’d been out there for a few days and it felt like years. I couldn’t imagine what spending years would feel like…thousands of them, all alone, without any end in sight.
Even thinking about it now made me shiver even though the evening was warm. Maybe there was some slim chance that humans would figure out a cross-dimensional technology before they died out, but I kind of doubted it. Exhumanity was the only option here, and with the beacon turned off, there would never be more on the planet than now. If Aesa had died, or if there hadn’t been that chick with the black holes, I’d already be screwed. A single generation from now, and I’d be effectively dead already, just waiting a few hundred thousand years for it to sink in.
I shivered again and banished the thought. Even if this run didn’t take, there could be others. I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I’d spend the rest of Aesa’s life running this damn thing if I had to
And then I felt it. I didn’t believe it at first…felt like a phantom, just suddenly there. The human mind I’d tampered with, back as abruptly as he’d disappeared through the angle-gate to begin with.
I jabbed at his brain and found him delightfully brain-dead, just the same as when I’d sent him in. Mission fucking success.
I jumped and whooped despite myself, feeling the moment slightly robbed as the guards continued to be incapable of detecting my presence. I gave them all something to celebrate by dropping spontaneous orgasms in everyone’s mind and in their pants. This was something to be happy about, goddamn it!
I didn’t know how to skip, but I did my best to pump my stupid boat-feet in as close a facimile as I could, heading back down the street to the cordoned-off courthouse we’d taken over. We’d fucking done it! I wanted wall-to-wall smiles, and set about slapping them on all my mind-fucked buddies.
No orgasms, though. If they were sending me through next, I didn’t want them distracted by mess in their pants.
Aesa was here, and the smile on her looked creepy and unnerving. She had a face built to fit a scowl, but that just made her grinning all the more exciting. Al…hardly looked any different. His good nature remained unchanged. But hey, if he wasn’t my zombie, he’d actually probably be happy for me.
And that left the third person, an old doctor, and the reason for our success. It’d taken a long time to get the whole story about the other dimension, the beacon, and parallel Earth, rifling through bits of my friends’ brains, wishing that AEGIS had just told the complete story to one person. Mostly Karu, but pieces here and there from Tower, Steffie, and a surprising amount from Tem, who’d been given much of the truth as part of coping with Athan’s loss.
The possibilities of parallel Earths were exciting. After this venture, I fully intended to learn everything I could about Aesa’s powers, and have her nonstop building me whatever machines might be useful. If this hadn’t panned out, jumping from world to world was the next best plan…hampered only by the prospect of maybe spending eternity stuck in the void.
The beacon was the best news, obviously. If I could turn it back on, there’d be more chances for more interesting powers, more chances for more immortals, other than just Our God and Bob.
But the most useful and relevant information was about this guy, and the others like him. He was an alien, an evacuee from alternate-Earth, sixty-some years ago; a member of alt-Ramanathan’s science team, who fled their doomed planet and blended in with ours. It’d been hell to find them, but I had. And now, he’d just proven his worth, being the final piece of the puzzle I needed to get the damn angle-gate working.
His smile was decent enough. A little wizened for my tastes, but hell, I’d take it. I was beaming and skipping and my heart was pounding, and I’d take fucking anything right now.
“Aesa, open the gate again, I’m going in.”
It was a lot more pleasant than going into a black hole. And landing in a crater, my skin burning, my eyes blind almost instantly, hair and fingertips falling out as I screamed and patted myself down, that was a lot better than the time in the void. It took a few dozen deaths before I got out of there, and a few more after that before my skin stopped feeling like it was crawling off my body. I knew it was coming, but I’d never died to radiation before, so I went through without the protective gear I’d bestowed on our other explorers. Always fun to try new things.
And then, I wandered. Slowly, the new Earth revealed itself to me, and I plumbed its secrets. I spent two days and three nights just walking, taking in all the sights and smells, the brown earth, the black glass craters, the hazy sky. As different as it was, the night was still full of stars, the same ones we had back at home. Beautiful, and quiet.
That was…really all there was to take in. This place sucked dick. Two whole days was a fuckin’ long time to do and see literally nothing. This all just served to reaffirm my decision to do everything I could to not spend an eternity alone.
But eventually, I came across a floating drone dude, sitting in the open like he was waiting for me. A sleek ball of white plastics and gold metal, accented with two radiant-blue mechanical eyes, one atop the other, and a constant stream of blue plasma keeping it afloat, like it was sitting atop a waterfall.
“Honored guest!” it exclaimed, it’s voice as syrupy, chirrupy, and ecstatic as I’d hoped the others had been at our great success. It seemed to bounce in place at the sight of me.
Which was…great. About time someone did.
“Hey there…you!” I cheered right back.
“Cer, honored to meet another honored guest. Cer, did not think he would ever lay his eyes upon another. Sublime! Beautiful!”
“Aw, shucks. You’re a sight for sore eyes yourself, Cer. I tell you, after walking around this crapsack wasteland for a couple days, seeing something which isn’t just dusty shit, pretty fantastic.”
“Cer, does his best not to be dusty shit, pleased that it suits you!”
I beamed at him, and we just stood there like idiots for a hot second. Well, I stood. “Um, so, where’s this lab-thing of yours?”
“Honored guest, wants a tour?” he gasped, vibrating with sudden intensity. “CER, CAN BE USEFUL?” His voice went up to such a register that he was practically squeaking at me. I thought he might blow a fuse.
“Yeah, buddy. Show me around,” I beamed at him.
I was reminded of how childish I must have looked, when I jumped and whooped, as he did basically the same, spinning as he rose into the air with some kind of electronic screeching, wobbling and vibrating back and forth like a disco ball with epilepsy.
After a moment, he regained himself, and very definitely cleared his throat. “Apologies. Cer, has had no function for the past…while, frustrating, though inevitable.”
“Well, lead on, my dude. You’ve got a function now.”
He brought me to a gleaming construct, which didn’t match the description I’d heard from AEGIS at all. Shiny metal, exposed above the ground, and polished to a mirror sheen. It was kind of amazing I hadn’t stumbled on it earlier by chance, it was easily the brightest thing on this drab planet.
“That’s new, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Cer, busied himself while without a charge, has been working to terraform the surrounding area, polish up the destroyed portions of the lab, anything to keep busy.”
“No worries! Cer, did not mean to burden honored guest with his own concerns!” he bubbled. “Onward and forward! The tour, beginning now!”
We took our time, going floor-by-floor as he regaled me with technical details and well-practiced anecdotes, and I was content to listen. It felt like we were spending about an hour per floor, but I wasn’t exactly short on time. Instead, I indulged the excitable little fucker, and learned a lot about what kinds of things went on here once. I learned more than anyone else in the world knew about it, probably, even counting those guys who’d once worked here.
Some of it might even be useful. If I could get Aesa in here, maybe I could kick-start her tech level, and make my dreams of being a universe explorer just that much more realized.
It was a long time before we got on the topic of muses, and that was another whole amazing crash course. I’d learned the basics already, but…hearing about them in detail, how they worked, how to create them…
“So let’s pretend,” I asked innocently, “that I know somebody who can…force a human brain to have some thoughts. If I…hypothetically…bent every part of that brain towards a specific concept…could I lure in a muse, the same way the beacon does?”
“Cer…is unsure. Human mind, limited in its capacity to produce brainwaves, relative to output of the beacon.” He mused for a few moments, we both did. “Possible, perhaps, if multiple minds are linked?”
“I can do that,” I grinned.
“Delightful! Cer, happy to provide with new capabilities, would be ecstatic to assist honored guest in any way he can.”
“So what’s this stuff,” I asked, looking around at the room he was leading me into. “Muse things?”
“Correct! First muse-things, and first muse. Honored guest, wish to speak with Aoede?”
“Sure,” I said, ignoring the fact that we were standing over a body that reeked of burning flesh, and whose mind screamed of the same brand of insanity that Justice carried. I blocked it out of my thoughts, but not before realizing, this was where Soran wound up.
His was the kind of existence I’d be avoiding. Jesus Christ, what hell had he visited upon himself?
Cer had pulled down some green primitive display, and I waited while text drew itself on the screen.
> Relief. THE SAGA. We are satisfied to know that all our machinations and plans have borne fruit. You have arrived, as we hoped you would.
“Well Cer is also pretty happy to see me. I feel like literally everyone in this world likes me. A bit opposite my usual, but I might acquire the taste.”
> Explanation. Ours is not a relief of useful-being, but of a long-laid plan reaching its end. You are here, and through you, our species is guaranteed survival.
“Well that’s creepy and ominous,” I frowned at the little green screen. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
> Patient debate. You already know. Your fears are the same as ours, to be emptiness-adrift for all time. We muses do not wish to be alone, after knowing humanity as we do, the same as you. You have come to save us from such a fate.
“No, I’ve come to save me from such a fate. I don’t give a shit about you. Far as I understand it, you guys are just a bunch of parasites.”
> Hurt reprisal. And you are different?
I rolled my eyes at her. “So what, I’m gonna turn the beacon back on, and you guys will have humans to bond with, and that’s your master plan? I’m pretty sure I’ve had better plans than that right after I find fresh dog turds using my toes. That’s just amateur.”
> Patient condescension. No. Your role is to turn on the beacon, true, but it does not end there. By doing this, you will create more immortals, like yourself, who will outlive and transcend the moment-flash which is humanity’s existence in the infinite-cosmos. You and they will be eternal, and your coexistence with we will be forever.”
I chewed on my thumb while I read her words. “So…you’re all just gonna leech off the eternal minds I make. Even after humanity’s gone, you’ll have an unkillable supply of thoughts to keep you afloat. And I assume…we’ll all just go nuts from having too many muses and too few heads, that about right?”
> Skepticism. Again, are you so different? You plan to create ‘Exhumans’ for your own amusement, is that radical-other from using them for their thoughts?
I didn’t reply, because she was kinda right. I was just getting a really bad feeling about how all of this was being orchestrated by someone other than me, and that someone had even less regard for life…specifically my life…than I did.
> Continued explanation. But no, it will not be as you say. There is something you have failed to consider. It will not be you immortals alone.
I spent the next few minutes in silent reflection, reading the words off the screen and feeling my mind twisting under the implications of them, trying to swallow past the lump in my throat, trying not to let what I was seeing…feeling…what this fucking all-manipulating thing was laying out, in an impossible future.
I found myself standing in front of the beacon, some ten minutes later, deaf to Cer’s chattering as my mind raced and my head pounded with a future so profound, it ached. It was so plausible, but at the same time…so impossible.
As impossible as the entire sequence of events which had led me here? As impossible as all her plans, each of which had apparently worked, just as she’d wanted? As impossible as it felt for me not to do exactly as she’d said?
Because I had the choice. I was staring it down, right now. To avoid her future, all I had to do was not turn on the beacon, and she’d be screwed forever.
But why would I do that?
At the end, I’d asked her why she told me all of this. Why she’d laid out the entirety of my existence, why it was important for me to know, for me to be carrying around this burden for the next infinity years, before it even applied?
And that bitch had only this to say.
> Correction. It is not ‘important’ for you to know. Your knowledge of this fate is nonconsequential.
Like I didn’t even matter. Which was farcical, because as I saw it…hell, as she saw it, I was the most important goddamn thing in the whole fucking everything-verse.
I wasn’t sure if I was more overwhelmed by my power or powerlessness. I was making the most universe-defining choice ever right now. But was it truly a choice if I didn’t have a choice?
I blinked and stared at the machine. Cer had gone silent after I’d ignored him so long. Even being offline, the beacon still seemed to buzz slightly, just a hint of a trill in the air.
I’d live past the universe, along with the other immortals that got created, along with the muses that we carried with us. The humans would die out, the muses would starve off without life to leech off of. But those few of us who survived, would remain.
And we’d have our powers. We’d have unlimited time and thought, and through the muses, the ability to convert thought to reality. When all the universe was empty and black and dead, we could still create. Though it might take an eternity, we could fill the nothing with everything again. There would be another Big Bang. There would be another universe filled with light and life, made by our minds.
We would be literal gods, willing existence into being. We would speak, and there would be light.
It would be so because Aoede had planned it all as such. It’d all been planned, to that end. To make sure there never was an end.
And to set it in motion, all I had to do was to turn on the device.
“Cer,” I said, feeling my voice shaking with emotion. I wasn’t sure what the next words out of my mouth were going to be. A god, me? An endless universe? All my fears…gone, and a pantheon of immortals to sit beside me when all the worlds went dark?
All of that…and all it cost me would to be a pawn of the muses. Did I care?
Of course I cared. I wanted to be nobody’s pawn. And yet…the choice seemed so obvious…
“Cer, turn it back on,” I said. The first command of a new god. “Let there be light.”