HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Diving back into the universe (now that the universe is a finished object, boxed and ribboned from bang to bounce), Carlotta calculates ever-finer loci on the frozen ordinates of spacetime until at last she reaches a trailer park outside the town of Commanche Drop, Arizona. Bodiless, no more than a breath of imprecision in the Feynman geography of certain virtual particles, thus powerless to affect the material world, she passes unimpeded through a sheet-aluminum wall and hovers over a mattress on which a young woman sleeps uneasily.
The young woman is her own ancient self, the primordial Carlotta Boudaine, dewed with sweat in the hot night air, her legs caught up in a spindled cotton sheet. The bedroom’s small window is cranked open, and in the breezeless distance a coyote wails.
Well, look at me, Carlotta marvels: skinny girl in panties and a halter, sixteen years old—no older than a gnat’s breath—taking shallow little sleep-breaths in the moonlit dark. Poor child can’t even see her own ghost. Ah, but she will, Carlotta thinks—she must.
The familiar words echo in her mind as she inspects her dreaming body, buried in its tomb of years, eons, kalpas. When it’s time to leave, leave. Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait. Don’t get caught. Just go. Go fast.
Her ancient beloved poem. Her perennial mantra. The words, in fact, that saved her life.
She needs to share those words with herself, to make the circle complete. Everything she knows about nature of the physical universe suggests that the task is impossible. Maybe so . . . but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Patiently, slowly, soundlessly, Carlotta begins to speak.
Here’s the story of the Fleet, girl, and how I got raptured up into it. It’s all about the future—a bigger one than you believe in—so brace yourself.
It has a thousand names and more, but we’ll just call it the Fleet. When I first encountered it, the Fleet was scattered from the core of the galaxy all through its spiraled tentacles of suns, and it had been there for millions of years, going about its business, though nobody on this planet knew anything about it. I guess every now and then a Fleet ship must have fallen to Earth, but it would have been indistinguishable from any common meteorite by the time it passed through the atmosphere: a chunk of carbonaceous chondrite smaller than a human fist, from which all evidence of ordered matter had been erased by fire—and such losses, which happened everywhere and often, made no discernable difference to the Fleet as a whole. All Fleet data (that is to say, all mind) was shared, distributed, fractal. Vessels were born and vessels were destroyed; but the Fleet persisted down countless eons, confident of its own immortality.
Oh, I know you don’t understand the big words, child! It’s not important for you to hear them—not these words—it’s only important for me to say them. Why? Because a few billion years ago tomorrow, I carried your ignorance out of this very trailer, carried it down to the Interstate and hitched west with nothing in my backpack but a bottle of water, a half-dozen Tootsie Rolls, and a wad of twenty-dollar bills stolen out of Dan-O’s old ditty bag. That night (tomorrow night: mark it) I slept under an overpass all by myself, woke up cold and hungry long before dawn, and looked up past a concrete arch crusted with bird shit into a sky so thick with falling stars it made me think of a dark skin bee-stung with fire. Some of the Fleet vectored too close to the atmosphere that night, no doubt, but I didn’t understand that (any more than you do, girl)—I just thought it was a big flock of shooting stars, pretty but meaningless. And, after a while, I slept some more. And come sunrise, I waited for the morning traffic so I could catch another ride . . . but the only cars that came by were all weaving or speeding, as if the whole world was driving home from a drunken party.
“They won’t stop,” a voice behind me said. “Those folks already made their decisions, Carlotta. Whether they want to live or die, I mean. Same decision you have to make.”
I whirled around, sick-startled, and that was when I first laid eyes on dear Erasmus.
Let me tell you right off that Erasmus wasn’t a human being. Erasmus just then was a knot of shiny metal angles about the size of a microwave oven, hovering in mid-air, with a pair of eyes like the polished tourmaline they sell at those roadside souvenir shops. He didn’t have to look that way—it was some old avatar he used because he figured that it would impress me. But I didn’t know that then. I was only surprised, if that’s not too mild a word, and too shocked to be truly frightened.
“The world won’t last much longer,” Erasmus said in a low and mournful voice. “You can stay here, or you can come with me. But choose quick, Carlotta, because the mantle’s come unstable and the continents are starting to slip.”
I half believed that I was still asleep and dreaming. I didn’t know what that meant, about the mantle, though I guessed he was talking about the end of the world. Some quality of his voice (which reminded me of that actor Morgan Freeman) made me trust him despite how weird and impossible the whole conversation was. Plus, I had a confirming sense that something was going bad somewhere, partly because of the scant traffic (a Toyota zoomed past, clocking speeds it had never been built for, the driver a hunched blur behind the wheel), partly because of the ugly green cloud that just then billowed up over a row of rat-toothed mountains on the horizon. Also the sudden hot breeze. And the smell of distant burning. And the sound of what might have been thunder, or something worse.
“Go with you where?”
“To the stars, Carlotta! But you’ll have to leave your body behind.”
I didn’t like the part about leaving my body behind. But what choice did I have, except the one he’d offered me? Stay or go. Simple as that.
It was a ride—just not the kind I’d been expecting.
There was a tremor in the earth, like the devil knocking at the soles of my shoes. “Okay,” I said, “whatever,” as white dust bloomed up from the desert and was taken by the frantic wind.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait. Don’t get caught. Just go. Go fast.
Without those words in my head, I swear, girl, I would have died that day. Billions did.
She slows down the passage of time so she can fit this odd but somehow necessary monologue into the space between one or two of the younger Carlotta’s breaths. Of course, she has no real voice in which to speak. The past is static, imperturbable in its endless sleep; molecules of air on their fixed trajectories can’t be manipulated from the shadowy place where she now exists. Wake up with the dawn, girl, she says, steal the money you’ll never spend—it doesn’t matter; the important thing is to leave. It’s time.
When it’s time to leave, leave. Of all the memories she carried out of her earthly life, this is the most vivid: waking to discover a ghostly presence in her darkened room, a white-robed woman giving her the advice she needs at the moment she needs it. Suddenly Carlotta wants to scream the words: When it’s time to leave—
But she can’t vibrate even a single mote of the ancient air, and the younger Carlotta sleeps on.
Next to the bed is a thrift-shop night table scarred with cigarette burns. On the table is a child’s night-light, faded cut-outs of Sponge-Bob Square-Pants pasted on the paper shade. Next to that, hidden under a splayed copy of People magazine, is the bottle of barbiturates Carlotta stole from Dan-O’s ditty-bag this afternoon, the same khaki bag in which (she couldn’t help but notice) Dan-O keeps his cash, a change of clothes, a fake driver’s license, and a blue steel automatic pistol.
Young Carlotta detects no ghostly presence . . . nor is her sleep disturbed by the sound of Dan-O’s angry voice and her mother’s sudden gasp, two rooms away. Apparently, Dan-O is awake and sober. Apparently, Dan-O has discovered the theft. That’s a complication.
But Carlotta won’t allow herself to be hurried.
The hardest thing about joining the Fleet was giving up the idea that I had a body, that my body had a real place to be.
But that’s what everybody believed at first, that we were still whole and normal—everybody rescued from Earth, I mean. Everybody who said “Yes” to Erasmus—and Erasmus, in one form or another, had appeared to every human being on the planet in the moments before the end of the world. Two and a half billion of us accepted the offer of rescue. The rest chose to stay put and died when the Earth’s continents dissolved into molten magma.
Of course, that created problems for the survivors. Children without parents, parents without children, lovers separated for eternity. It was as sad and tragic as any other incomplete rescue, except on a planetary scale. When we left the Earth, we all just sort of re-appeared on a grassy plain as flat as Kansas and wider than the horizon, under a blue faux sky, each of us with an Erasmus at his shoulder and all of us wailing or sobbing or demanding explanations.
The plain wasn’t “real,” of course, not the way I was accustomed to things being real. It was a virtual place, and all of us were wearing virtual bodies, though we didn’t understand that fact immediately. We kept on being what we expected ourselves to be—we even wore the clothes we’d worn when we were raptured up. I remember looking down at the pair of greasy second-hand Reeboks I’d found at the Commanche Drop Goodwill store, thinking: in Heaven? Really?
“Is there any place you’d rather be?” Erasmus asked with a maddening and clearly inhuman patience. “Anyone you need to find?”
“Yeah, I’d rather be in New Zealand,” I said, which was really just a hysterical joke. All I knew about New Zealand was that I’d seen a show about it on PBS, the only channel we got since the cable company cut us off.
“Any particular part of New Zealand?”
“What? Well—okay, a beach, I guess.”
I had never been to a real beach, a beach on the ocean.
“Alone, or in the company of others?”
“Seriously?” All around me people were sobbing or gibbering in (mostly) foreign languages. Pretty soon, fights would start to break out. You can’t put a couple of billion human beings so close together under circumstances like that and expect any other result. But the crowd was already thinning, as people accepted similar offers from their own Fleet avatars.
“Alone,” I said. “Except for you.”
And quick as that, there I was: Eve without Adam, standing on a lonesome stretch of white beach.
After a while, the astonishment faded to a tolerable dazzle. I took off my shoes and tested the sand. The sand was pleasantly sun-warm. Saltwater swirled up between my toes as a wave washed in from the coral-blue sea.
Then I felt dizzy and had to sit down.
“Would you like to sleep?” Erasmus asked, hovering over me like a gem-studded party balloon. “I can help you sleep, Carlotta, if you’d like. It might make the transition easier if you get some rest, to begin with.”
“You can answer some fucking questions, is what you can do!” I said.
He settled down on the sand beside me, the mutant offspring of a dragonfly and a beach ball. “Okay, shoot,” he said.
It’s a read-only universe, Carlotta thinks. The Old Ones have said as much, so it must be true. And yet, she knows, she remembers, that the younger Carlotta will surely wake and find her here: a ghostly presence, speaking wisdom.
But how can she make herself perceptible to this sleeping child? The senses are so stubbornly material, electrochemical data cascading into vastly complex neural networks . . . is it possible she could intervene in some way at the borderland of quanta and perception? For a moment, Carlotta chooses to look at her younger self with different eyes, sampling the fine gradients of molecular magnetic fields. The child’s skin and skull grow faint and then transparent as Carlotta shrinks her point of view and wanders briefly through the carnival of her own animal mind, the buzzing innerscape where skeins of dream merge and separate like fractal soap-bubbles. If she could manipulate even a single boson—influence the charge at some critical synaptic junction, say—
But she can’t. The past simply doesn’t have a handle on it. There’s no uncertainty here anymore, no alternate outcomes. To influence the past would be to change the past, and, by definition, that’s impossible.
The shouting from the next room grows suddenly louder and more vicious, and Carlotta senses her younger self moving from sleep toward an awakening, too soon.
Of course, I figured it out eventually, with Erasmus’s help. Oh, girl, I won’t bore you with the story of those first few years—they bored me, heaven knows.
Of course “heaven” is exactly where we weren’t. Lots of folks were inclined to see it that way—assumed they must have died and been delivered to whatever afterlife they happened to believe in. Which was actually not too far off the mark: but, of course, God had nothing to do with it. The Fleet was a real-world business, and ours wasn’t the first sentient species it had raptured up. Lots of planets got destroyed, Erasmus said, and the Fleet didn’t always get to them in time to salvage the population, hard as they tried—we were lucky, sort of.
So I asked him what it was that caused all these planets to blow up.
“We don’t know, Carlotta. We call it the Invisible Enemy. It doesn’t leave a signature, whatever it is. But it systematically seeks out worlds with flourishing civilizations and marks them for destruction.” He added, “It doesn’t like the Fleet much, either. There are parts of the galaxy where we don’t go—because if we do go there, we don’t come back.”
At the time, I wasn’t even sure what a “galaxy” was, so I dropped the subject, except to ask him if I could see what it looked like—the destruction of the Earth, I meant. At first, Erasmus didn’t want to show me; but after a lot of coaxing, he turned himself into a sort of floating TV screen and displayed a view “looking back from above the plane of the solar ecliptic,” words which meant nothing to me.
What I saw was . . . well, no more little blue planet, basically.
More like a ball of boiling red snot.
“What about my mother? What about Dan-O?”
I didn’t have to explain who these people were. The Fleet had sucked up all kinds of data about human civilization, I don’t know how. Erasmus paused as if he was consulting some invisible Rolodex. Then he said, “They aren’t with us.”
“You mean they’re dead?”
“Yes. Abby and Dan-O are dead.”
But the news didn’t surprise me. It was almost as if I’d known it all along, as if I had had a vision of their deaths, a dark vision to go along with that ghostly visit the night before, the woman in a white dress telling me go fast.
Abby Boudaine and Dan-O, dead. And me raptured up to robot heaven. Well, well.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to sleep now?”
“Maybe for a while,” I told him.
Dan-O’s a big man, and he’s working himself up to a major tantrum. Even now, Carlotta feels repugnance at the sound of his voice, that gnarl of angry consonants. Next, Dan-O throws something solid, maybe a clock, against the wall. The clock goes to pieces, noisily. Carlotta’s mother cries out in response, and the sound of her wailing seems to last weeks.
“It’s not good,” Erasmus told me much later, “to be so much alone.”
Well, I told him, I wasn’t alone—he was with me, wasn’t he? And he was pretty good company, for an alien machine. But that was a dodge. What he meant was that I ought to hook up with somebody human.
I told him I didn’t care if ever set eyes on another human being ever again. What had the human race ever done for me?
He frowned—that is, he performed a particular contortion of his exposed surfaces that I had learned to interpret as disapproval. “That’s entropic talk, Carlotta. Honestly, I’m worried about you.”
“What could happen to me?” Here on this beach where nothing ever really happens, I did not add.
“You could go crazy. You could sink into despair. Worse, you could die.”
“I could die? I thought I was immortal now.”
“Who told you that? True, you’re no longer living, in the strictly material sense. You’re a metastable nested loop embedded in the Fleet’s collective mentation. But everything’s mortal, Carlotta. Anything can die.”
I couldn’t die of disease or falling off a cliff, he explained, but my “nested loop” was subject to a kind of slow erosion, and stewing in my own lonely juices for too long was liable to bring on the decay that much faster.
And, admittedly, after a month on this beach, swimming and sleeping too much and eating the food Erasmus conjured up whenever I was hungry (though I didn’t really need to eat), watching recovered soap operas on his bellyvision screen or reading celebrity magazines (also embedded in the Fleet’s collective memory) that would never get any fresher or produce another issue, and just being basically miserable as all hell, I thought maybe he was right.
“You cry out in your sleep,” Erasmus said. “You have bad dreams.”
“The world ended. Maybe I’m depressed. You think meeting people would help with that?”
“Actually,” he said, “you have a remarkable talent for being alone. You’re sturdier than most. But that won’t save you, in the long run.”
So I tried to take his advice. I scouted out some other survivors. Turned out, it was interesting what some people had done in their new incarnations as Fleet-data. The Erasmuses had made it easy for like-minded folks to find each other and to create environments to suit them. The most successful of these cliques, as they were sometimes called, were the least passive ones: the ones with a purpose. Purpose kept people lively. Passive cliques tended to fade into indifference pretty quickly, and the purely hedonistic ones soon collapsed into dense orgasmic singularities; but if you were curious about the world, and hung out with similarly curious friends, there was a lot to keep you thinking.
None of those cliques suited me in the long run, though. Oh, I made some friends, and I learned a few things. I learned how to access the Fleet’s archival data, for instance—a trick you had to be careful with. If you did it right, you could think about a subject as if you were doing a Google search, all the relevant information popping up in your mind’s eye just as if it had been there all along. Do it too often or too enthusiastically, though, and you ran the risk of getting lost in the overload—you might develop a “memory” so big and all-inclusive that it absorbed you into its own endless flow.
(It was an eerie thing to watch when it happened. For a while, I hung out with a clique that was exploring the history of the non-human civilizations that had been raptured up by the Fleet in eons past . . . until the leader of the group, a Jordanian college kid by the name of Nuri, dived down too far and literally fogged out. He got this look of intense concentration on his face, and, moments later, his body turned to wisps and eddies of fluid air and faded like fog in the sunlight. Made me shiver. And I had liked Nuri—I missed him when he was gone.)
But by sharing the effort, we managed to safely learn some interesting things. (Things the Erasmuses could have just told us, I suppose; but we didn’t know the right questions to ask.) Here’s a big for-instance: although every species was mortal after it was raptured up—every species eventually fogged out much the way poor Nuri had—there were actually a few very long-term survivors. By that, I mean individuals who had outlived their peers, who had found a way to preserve a sense of identity in the face of the Fleet’s hypercomplex data torrent.
We asked our Erasmuses if we could meet one of these long-term survivors.
Erasmus said no, that was impossible. The Elders, as he called them, didn’t live on our timescale. The way they had preserved themselves was by dropping out of realtime.
Apparently, it wasn’t necessary to “exist” continuously from one moment to the next. You could ask the Fleet to turn you off for a day or a week, then turn you on again. Any moment of active perception was called a saccade, and you could space your saccades as far apart as you liked. Want to live a thousand years? Do it by living one second out of every million that passes. Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a thousand years, subjectively; but a thousand years would flow by before you aged much. That’s basically what the Elders were doing.
We could do the same, Erasmus said, if we wanted. But there was a price tag attached to it. “Timesliding” would carry us incomprehensibly far into a future nobody could predict. We were under continual attack by the Invisible Enemy, and it was possible that the Fleet might lose so much cohesion that we could no longer be sustained as stable virtualities. We wouldn’t get a long life out of it, and we might well be committing a kind of unwitting suicide.
“You don’t really go anywhere,” Erasmus summed up. “In effect, you just go fast. I can’t honestly recommend it.”
“Did I ask for your advice? I mean, what are you, after all? Just some little fragment of the Fleet mind charged with looking after Carlotta Boudaine. A cybernetic babysitter.”
I swear to you, he looked hurt. And I heard the injury in his voice.
“I’m the part of the Fleet that cares about you, Carlotta.”
Most of my clique backed down at that point. Most people aren’t cut out to be timesliders. But I was more tempted than ever. “You can’t tell me what to do, Erasmus.”
“I’ll come with you, then,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not come along. It was a scary idea. But I didn’t let that anxiety show.
“Sure, I guess that’d be all right,” I said.
Enemies out there too, the elder Carlotta observes. A whole skyful of them. As above, so below. Just like in that old drawing—what was it called? Utriusque cosmi. Funny what a person remembers. Girl, do you hear your mother crying?
The young Carlotta stirs uneasily in her tangled sheet.
Both Carlottas know their mother’s history. Only the elder Carlotta can think about it without embarrassment and rage. Oh, it’s an old story. Her mother’s name is Abby. Abby Boudaine dropped out of high school pregnant, left some dreary home in South Carolina to go west with a twenty-year-old boyfriend who abandoned her outside Albuquerque. She gave birth in a California emergency ward and nursed Carlotta in a basement room in the home of a retired couple, who sheltered her in exchange for housework until Carlotta’s constant wailing got on their nerves. After that, Abby hooked up with a guy who worked for a utility company and grew weed in his attic for pin money. The hookup lasted a few years, and might have lasted longer, except that Abby had a weakness for what the law called “substances,” and couldn’t restrain herself in an environment where coke and methamphetamine circulated more or less freely. A couple of times, Carlotta was bounced around between foster homes while Abby Boudaine did court-mandated dry-outs or simply binged. Eventually, Abby picked up ten-year-old Carlotta from one of these periodic suburban exiles and drove her over the state border into Arizona, jumping bail. “We’ll never be apart again,” her mother told her, in the strained voice that meant she was a little bit high or hoping to be. “Never again!” Blessing or curse? Carlotta wasn’t sure which. “You’ll never leave me, baby. You’re my one and only.”
Not such an unusual story, the elder Carlotta thinks, though her younger self, she knows, feels uniquely singled out for persecution.
Well, child, Carlotta thinks, try living as a distributed entity on a Fleet that’s being eaten by invisible monsters, then see what it feels like.
But she knows the answer to that. It feels much the same.
“Now you steal from me?” Dan-O’s voice drills through the wall like a rusty auger. Young Carlotta stirs and whimpers. Any moment now, she’ll open her eyes, and then what? Although this is the fixed past, it feels suddenly unpredictable, unfamiliar, dangerous.
Erasmus came with me when I went timesliding, and I appreciated that, even before I understood what a sacrifice it was for him.
Early on, I asked him about the Fleet and how it came to exist. The answer to that question was lost to entropy, he said. He had never known a time without a Fleet—he couldn’t have, because Erasmus was the Fleet, or at least a sovereign fraction of it.
“As we understand it,” he told me, “the Fleet evolved from networks of self-replicating data-collecting machine intelligences, no doubt originally created by some organic species, for the purpose of exploring interstellar space. Evidence suggests that we’re only a little younger than the universe itself.”
The Fleet had outlived its creators. “Biological intelligence is unstable over the long term,” Erasmus said, a little smugly. “But out of that original compulsion to acquire and share data, we evolved and refined our own collective purpose.”
“That’s why you hoover up doomed civilizations? So you can catalogue and study them?”
“So they won’t be forgotten, Carlotta. That’s the greatest evil in the universe—the entropic decay of organized information. Forgetfulness. We despise it.”
“Worse than the Invisible Enemy?”
“The Enemy is evil to the degree to which it abets entropic decay.”
“Why does it want to do that?”
“We don’t know. We don’t even understand what the Enemy is, in physical terms. It seems to operate outside of the material universe. If it consists of matter, that matter is non-baryonic and impossible to detect. It pervades parts of the galaxy—though not all parts—like an insubstantial gas. When the Fleet passes through volumes of space heavily infested by the Enemy, our loss-rate soars. And as these infested volumes of space expand, they encompass and destroy life-bearing worlds.”
“The Enemy’s growing, though. And the Fleet isn’t.”
I had learned to recognize Erasmus’s distress, not just because he was slowly adopting somewhat more human features. “The Fleet is my home, Carlotta. More than that. It’s my body, my heart.”
What he didn’t say was that by joining me in the act of surfing time, he would be isolating himself from the realtime network that had birthed and sustained him. In realtime, Erasmus was a fraction of something reassuringly immense. But in slide-time, he’d be as alone as an Erasmus could get.
And yet, he came with me, when I made my decision. He was my Erasmus as much as he was the Fleet’s, and he came with me. What would you call that, girl? Friendship? At least. I came to call it love.
The younger Carlotta has stolen those pills (the ones hidden under her smudged copy of People) for a reason. To help her sleep, was what she told herself. But she didn’t really have trouble sleeping. No: if she was honest, she’d have to say the pills were an escape hatch. Swallow enough of them, and it’s, hey, fuck you, world! Less work than the highway, an alternative she was also considering.
More shouting erupts in the next room. A real roust-up, bruises to come. Then, worse, Dan-O’s voice goes all small and jagged. That’s a truly bad omen, Carlotta knows. Like the smell of ozone that floods the air in advance of a lightning strike, just before the voltage ramps up and the current starts to flow.
Erasmus built a special virtuality for him and me to time-trip in. Basically, it was a big comfy room with a wall-sized window overlooking the Milky Way.
The billions of tiny dense components that made up the Fleet swarmed at velocities slower than the speed of light, but timesliding made it all seem faster—scarily so. Like running the whole universe in fast-forward, knowing you can’t go back. During the first few months of our expanded Now, we soared a long way out of the spiral arm that contained the abandoned Sun. The particular sub-swarm of the Fleet that hosted my sense of self was on a long elliptical orbit around the supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core, and from this end of the ellipse, over the passing days, we watched the Milky Way drop out from under us like a cloud of luminous pearls.
When I wasn’t in that room, I went off to visit other timesliders, and some of them visited me there. We were a self-selected group of radical roamers with a thing for risk, and we got to know one another pretty well. Oh, girl, I wish I could tell you all the friends I made among that tribe of self-selected exiles! Many of them human, not all: I met a few of the so-called Elders of other species, and managed to communicate with them on a friendly basis. Does that sound strange to you? I guess it is. Surpassing strange. I thought so too, at first. But these were people (mostly people) and things (but things can be people too) that I mostly liked and often loved, and they loved me back. Yes, they did. Whatever quirk of personality made us timesliders drew us together against all the speedy dark outside our virtual walls. Plus—well, we were survivors. It took not much more than a month to outlive all the remaining remnant of humanity. Even our ghosts were gone, in other words, unless you counted us as ghosts.
Erasmus was a little bit jealous of the friends I made. He had given up a lot for me, and maybe I ought to have appreciated him more for it. Unlike us formerly biological persons, though, Erasmus maintained a tentative link with realtime. He had crafted protocols to keep himself current on changes in the Fleet’s symbol-sets and core mentation. That way, he could update us on what the Fleet was doing—new species raptured up from dying worlds and so forth. None of these newcomers lasted long, though, from our lofty perspective, and I once asked Erasmus why the Fleet even bothered with such ephemeral creatures as (for instance) human beings. He said that every species was doomed in the long run, but that didn’t make it okay to kill people—or to abandon them when they might be rescued. That instinct was what made the Fleet a moral entity, something more than just a collection of self-replicating machines.
And it made him more than a nested loop of complex calculations. In the end, Carlotta, I came to love Erasmus best of all.
Meanwhile the years and stars scattered in our wake like dust—a thousand years, a hundred thousand, a million, more, and the galaxy turned like a great white wheel. We all made peace with the notion that we were the last of our kind, whatever “kind” we represented.
If you could hear me, girl, I guess you might ask what I found in that deep well of strangeness that made the water worth drinking. Well, I found friends, as I said—isn’t that enough? And I found lovers. Even Erasmus began to adopt a human avatar, so we could touch each other in the human way.
I found, in plain words, a home, Carlotta, however peculiar in its nature—a real home, for the first time in my life.
Which is why I was so scared when it started to fall apart.
In the next room, Abby isn’t taking Dan-O’s anger lying down. It’s nearly the perfect storm tonight—Dan-O’s temper and Abby’s sense of violated dignity both rising at the same ferocious pitch, rising toward some unthinkable crescendo.
But her mother’s outrage is fragile, and Dan-O is frankly dangerous. The young Carlotta had known that about him from the get-go, from the first time her mother came home with this man on her arm: knew it from his indifferent eyes and his mechanical smile; knew it from the prison tattoos he didn’t bother to disguise and the boastfulness with which he papered over some hole in his essential self. Knew it from the meth-lab stink that burned off him like a chemical perfume. Knew it from the company he kept, from the shitty little deals with furtive men arranged in Carlotta’s mother’s home because his own rental bungalow was littered with incriminating cans of industrial solvent. Knew it most of all by the way he fed Abby Boudaine crystal meth in measured doses, to keep her wanting it, and by the way Abby began to sign over her weekly Wal-Mart paycheck to him like a dutiful servant, back when she was working checkout.
Dan-O is tall, wiry, and strong despite his vices. The elder Carlotta can hear enough to understand that Dan-O is blaming Abby for the theft of the barbiturates—an intolerable sin, in Dan-O’s book. Followed by Abby’s heated denials and the sound of Dan-O’s fists striking flesh. All this discovered, not remembered: the young Carlotta sleeps on, though she’s obviously about to wake; the critical moment is coming fast. And Carlotta thinks of what she saw when she raided Dan-O’s ditty bag, the blue metal barrel with a black gnurled grip, a thing she had stared at, hefted, but ultimately disdained.
We dropped back down the curve of that elliptic, girl, and suddenly the Fleet began to vanish like drops of water on a hot griddle. Erasmus saw it first, because of what he was, and he set up a display so I could see it too: Fleet-swarms set as ghostly dots against a schema of the galaxy, the ghost-dots dimming perilously and some of them blinking out altogether. It was a graph of a massacre. “Can’t anyone stop it?” I asked.
“They would if they could,” he said, putting an arm (now that he had grown a pair of arms) around me. “They will if they can, Carlotta.”
“Can we help?”
“We are helping, in a way. Existing the way we do means they don’t have to use much mentation to sustain us. To the Fleet, we’re code that runs a calculation for a few seconds out of every year. Not a heavy burden to carry.”
Which was important, because the Fleet could only sustain so much computation, the upper limit being set by the finite number of linked nodes. And that number was diminishing as Fleet vessels were devoured wholesale.
“Last I checked,” Erasmus said (which would have been about a thousand years ago, realtime), “the Fleet theorized that the Enemy is made of dark matter.” (Strange stuff that hovers around galaxies, invisibly—it doesn’t matter, girl; take my word for it; you’ll understand it one day.) “They’re not material objects so much as processes—parasitical protocols played out in dark matter clouds. Apparently, they can manipulate quantum events we don’t even see.”
“So we can’t defend ourselves against them?”
“Not yet. No. And you and I might have more company soon, Carlotta. As long-timers, I mean.”
That was because the Fleet continued to rapture up dying civilizations, nearly more than their shrinking numbers could contain. One solution was to shunt survivors into the Long Now along with us, in order to free up computation for battlefield maneuvers and such.
“Could get crowded,” he warned.
“If a lot of strangers need to go Long,” I said . . .
He gave me a carefully neutral look. “Finish the thought.”
“Well . . . can’t we just . . . go Longer?”
Fire a pistol in a tin box like this ratty trailer and the sound is ridiculously loud. Like being spanked on the ear with a two-by-four. It’s the pistol shot that finally wakes the young Carlotta. Her eyelids fly open like window shades on a haunted house.
This isn’t how the elder Carlotta remembers it. Gunshot? No, there was no gunshot: she just came awake and saw the ghost—
And no ghost, either. Carlotta tries desperately to speak to her younger self, wills herself to succeed, and fails yet again. So who fired that shot, and where did the bullet go, and why can’t she remember any of this?
The shouting in the next room has yielded up a silence. The silence becomes an eternity. Then Carlotta hears the sound of footsteps—she can’t tell whose—approaching her bedroom door.
In the end, almost every conscious function of the Fleet went Long, just to survive the attrition of the war with the dark-matter beings. The next loop through the galactic core pared us down to a fraction of what we used to be. When I got raptured up, the Fleet was a distributed cloud of baseball-sized objects running quantum computations on the state of their own dense constituent atoms—millions and millions of such objects, all linked together in a nested hierarchy. By the time we orbited back up our ellipsis, you could have counted us in the thousands, and our remaining links were carefully narrowbanded to give us maximum stealth.
So us wild timesliders chose to go Longer.
Just like last time, Erasmus warned me that it might be a suicidal act. If the Fleet was lost, we would be lost along with it . . . our subjective lives could end within days or hours. If, on the other hand, the Fleet survived and got back to reproducing itself, well, we might live on indefinitely—even drop back into realtime if we chose to do so. “Can you accept the risk?” he asked.
He had grown a face by then. I suppose he knew me well enough to calculate what features I’d find pleasing. But it wasn’t his ridiculous fake humanity I loved. What I loved was what went on behind those still-gemlike tourmaline eyes—the person he had become by sharing my mortality. “I accepted that risk a long time ago,” he said.
“You and me both, Erasmus.”
So we held on to each other and just—went fast.
Hard to explain what made that time-dive so vertiginous, but imagine centuries flying past like so much dust in a windstorm! It messed up our sense of place, first of all. Used to be we had a point of view light-years wide and deep . . . now all those loops merged into one continuous cycle; we grew as large as the Milky Way itself, with Andromeda bearing down on us like a silver armada. I held Erasmus in my arms, watching wide-eyed while he updated himself on the progress of the war and whispered new discoveries into my ear.
The Fleet had worked up new defenses, he said, and the carnage had slowed; but our numbers were still dwindling.
I asked him if we were dying.
He said he didn’t know. Then he looked alarmed and held me tighter. “Oh, Carlotta . . . ”
“What?” I stared into his eyes, which had gone faraway and strange. “What is it? Erasmus, tell me!”
“The Enemy,” he said in numbed amazement.
“What about them?”
“I know what they are.”
The bedroom door opens.
The elder Carlotta doesn’t remember the bedroom door opening. None of this is as she remembers it should be. The young Carlotta cringes against the backboard of the bed, so terrified she can barely draw breath. Bless you, girl, I’d hold your hand if I could!
What comes through the door is just Abby Boudaine. Abby in a cheap white nightgown. But Abby’s eyes are yellow-rimmed and feral, and her nightgown is spattered with blood.
See, the thing is this. All communication is limited by the speed of light. But if you spread your saccades over time, that speed-limit kind of expands. Slow as we were, light seemed to cross galactic space in a matter of moments. Single thoughts consumed centuries. We felt the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy beating like a ponderous heart. We heard whispers from nearby galaxies, incomprehensibly faint but undeniably manufactured. Yes, girl, we were that slow.
But the Enemy was even slower.
“Long ago,” Erasmus told me, channeling this information from the Fleet’s own dying collectivity, “long ago, the Enemy learned to parasitize dark matter . . . to use it as a computational substrate . . . to evolve within it . . . ”
“How long ago?”
His voice was full of awe. “Longer than you have words for, Carlotta. They’re older than the universe itself.”
Make any sense to you? I doubt it would. But here’s the thing about our universe: it oscillates. It breathes, I mean, like a big old lung, expanding and shrinking and expanding again. When it shrinks, it wants to turn into a singularity, but it can’t do that, because there’s a limit to how much mass a quantum of volume can hold without busting. So it all bangs up again, until it can’t accommodate any more emptiness. Back and forth, over and over. Perhaps, ad infinitum.
Trouble is, no information can get past those hot chaotic contractions. Every bang makes a fresh universe, blank as a chalkboard in an empty schoolhouse . . .
Or so we thought.
But dark matter has a peculiar relationship with gravity and mass, Erasmus said; so when the Enemy learned to colonize it, they found ways to propagate themselves from one universe to the next. They could survive the end of all things material, in other words, and they had already done so—many times!
The Enemy was genuinely immortal, if that word has any meaning. The Enemy conducted its affairs not just across galactic space, but across the voids that separate galaxies, clusters of galaxies, superclusters . . . slow as molasses, they were, but vast as all things, and as pervasive as gravity, and very powerful.
“So what have they got against the Fleet, if they’re so big and almighty? Why are they killing us?”
Erasmus smiled then, and the smile was full of pain and melancholy and an awful understanding. “But they’re not killing us, Carlotta. They’re rapturing us up.”
One time in school, when she was trying unsuccessfully to come to grips with The Merchant of Venice, Carlotta had opened a book about Elizabethan drama to a copy of an old drawing called Utriusque Cosmi. It was supposed to represent the whole cosmos, the way people thought of it back in Shakespeare’s time, all layered and orderly: stars and angels on top, hell beneath, and a naked guy stretched foursquare between divinity and damnation. Made no sense to her at all. Some antique craziness. She thinks of that drawing now, for no accountable reason. But it doesn’t stop at the angels, girl. I learned that lesson. Even angels have angels, and devils dance on the backs of lesser devils.
Her mother in her bloodstained nightgown hovers in the doorway of Carlotta’s bedroom. Her unblinking gaze strafes the room until it fixes at last on her daughter. Abby Boudaine might be standing right here, Carlotta thinks, but those eyes are looking out from someplace deeper and more distant and far more frightening.
The blood fairly drenches her. But it isn’t Abby’s blood.
“Oh, Carlotta,” Abby says. Then she clears her throat, the way she does when she has to make an important phone call or speak to someone she fears. “Carlotta . . . ”
And Carlotta (the invisible Carlotta, the Carlotta who dropped down from that place where the angels dice with eternity) understands what Abby is about to say, recognizes at last the awesome circularity, not a paradox at all. She pronounces the words silently as Abby makes them real: “Carlotta. Listen to me, girl. I don’t guess you understand any of this. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for many things. But listen now. When it’s time to leave, you leave. Don’t be afraid, and don’t get caught. Just go. Go fast.”
Then she turns and leaves her daughter cowering in the darkened room.
Beyond the bedroom window, the coyotes are still complaining to the moon. The sound of their hooting fills up the young Carlotta’s awareness until it seems to speak directly to the heart of her.
Then comes the second and final gunshot.
I have only seen the Enemy briefly, and by that time, I had stopped thinking of them as the Enemy.
Can’t describe them too well. Words really do fail me. And by that time, might as well admit it, I was not myself a thing I would once have recognized as human. Just say that Erasmus and I and the remaining timesliders were taken up into the Enemy’s embrace along with all the rest of the Fleet—all the memories we had deemed lost to entropy or warfare were preserved there. The virtualities the Enemies had developed across whole kalpas of time were labyrinthine, welcoming, strange beyond belief. Did I roam in those mysterious glades? Yes I did, girl, and Erasmus by my side, for many long (subjective) years, and we became—well, larger than I can say.
And the galaxies aged and flew away from one another until they were swallowed up in manifolds of cosmic emptiness, connected solely by the gentle and inexorable thread of gravity. Stars winked out, girl; galaxies merged and filled with dead and dying stars; atoms decayed to their last stable forms. But the fabric of space can tolerate just so much emptiness. It isn’t infinitely elastic. Even vacuum ages. After some trillions and trillions of years, therefore, the expansion became a contraction.
During that time, I occasionally sensed or saw the Enemy—but I have to call them something else: say, the Great Old Ones, pardon my pomposity—who had constructed the dark matter virtualities in which I now lived. They weren’t people at all. Never were. They passed through our adopted worlds like storm clouds, black and majestic and full of subtle and inscrutable lightnings. I couldn’t speak to them, even then; as large and old as I had become, I was only a fraction of what they were.
I wanted to ask them why they had destroyed the Earth, why so many people had to be wiped out of existence or salvaged by the evolved benevolence of the Fleet. But Erasmus, who delved into these questions more deeply than I was able to, said the Great Old Ones couldn’t perceive anything as tiny or ephemeral as a rocky planet like the Earth. The Earth and all the many planets like her had been destroyed, not by any willful calculation, but by autonomic impulses evolved over the course of many cosmic conflations—impulses as imperceptible and involuntary to the Old Ones as the functioning of your liver is to you, girl.
The logic of it is this: Life-bearing worlds generate civilizations that eventually begin playing with dark matter, posing a potential threat to the continuity of the Old Ones. Some number of these intrusions can be tolerated and contained—like the Fleet, they were often an enriching presence—but too many of them would endanger the stability of the system. It’s as if we were germs, girl, wiped out by a giant’s immune system. They couldn’t see us, except as a somatic threat. Simple as that.
But they could see the Fleet. The Fleet was just big enough and durable enough to register on the senses of the Old Ones. And the Old Ones weren’t malevolent: they perceived the Fleet much the way the Fleet had once perceived us, as something primitive but alive and thinking and worth the trouble of salvation.
So they raptured up the Fleet (and similar Fleet-like entities in countless other galaxies), thus preserving us against the blind oscillations of cosmic entropy.
(Nice of them, I suppose. But if I ever grow large enough or live long enough to confront an Old One face to face, I mean to lodge a complaint. Hell yes we were small—people are some of the smallest thought-bearing creatures in the cosmos, and I think we all kind of knew that even before the end of the world . . . you did, surely. But pain is pain and grief is grief. It might be inevitable, it might even be built into the nature of things; but it isn’t good, and it ought not to be tolerated, if there’s a choice.)
Which I guess is why I’m here watching you squinch your eyes shut while the sound of that second gunshot fades into the air.
Watching you process a nightmare into a vision.
Watching you build a pearl around a grain of bloody truth.
Watching you go fast.
The bodiless Carlotta hovers a while longer in the fixed and changeless corridors of the past.
Eventually, the long night ends. Raw red sunlight finds the window.
Last dawn this small world will ever see, as it happens; but the young Carlotta doesn’t know that yet.
Now that the universe has finished its current iteration, all its history is stored in transdimensional metaspace like a book on a shelf—it can’t be changed. Truly so. I guess I know that now, girl. Memory plays tricks that history corrects.
And I guess that’s why the Old Ones let me have access to these events, as we hover on the brink of a new creation.
I know some of the questions you’d ask me if you could. You might say, Where are you really? And I’d say, I’m at the end of all things, which is really just another beginning. I’m walking in a great garden of dark matter, while all things known and baryonic spiral up the ladder of unification energies to a fiery new dawn. I have grown so large, girl, that I can fly down history like a bird over a prairie field. But I cannot remake what has already been made. That is one power I do not possess.
I watch you get out of bed. I watch you dress. Blue jeans with tattered hems, a man’s lumberjack shirt, those thrift-shop Reeboks. I watch you go to the kitchen and fill your vinyl Bratz backpack with bottled water and Tootsie Rolls, which is all the cuisine your meth-addled mother has left in the cupboards.
Then I watch you tiptoe into Abby’s bedroom. I confess I don’t remember this part, girl. I suppose it didn’t fit my fantasy about a benevolent ghost. But here you are, your face fixed in a willed indifference, stepping over Dan-O’s corpse. Dan-O bled a lot after Abby Boudaine blew a hole in his chest, and the carpet is a sticky rust-colored pond.
I watch you pull Dan-O’s ditty bag from where it lies half under the bed. On the bed, Abby appears to sleep. The pistol is still in her hand. The hand with the pistol in it rests beside her head. Her head is damaged in ways the young Carlotta can’t stand to look at. Eyes down, girl. That’s it.
I watch you pull a roll of bills from the bag and stuff it into your pack. Won’t need that money where you’re going! But it’s a wise move, taking it. Commendable forethought.
I have to go too. I feel Erasmus waiting for me, feel the tug of his love and loyalty, gentle and inevitable as gravity. He used to be a machine older than the dirt under your feet, Carlotta Boudaine, but he became a man—my man, I’m proud to say. He needs me, because it’s no easy thing crossing over from one universe to the next. There’s always work to do, isn’t that the truth?
But right now, you go. You leave those murderous pills on the nightstand, find that highway. Don’t be afraid. Don’t wait. Don’t get caught. Just go. Go fast. And excuse me while I take my own advice.
First published in The New Space Opera 2,
edited by Gardner Dozois & Jonathan Strahan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Charles Wilson made his first sale in 1974, but little more was heard from him until the late '80s, when he began to publish a string of ingenious and well-crafted novels and stories that have since established him among the top ranks of the writers who came to prominence in the last two decades of the 20th Century. His first novel, A Hidden Place, appeared in 1986. He won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for his novel The Chronoliths, the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Mysterium, and the Aurora Award for his story "The Perseids." In 2006, he won the Hugo Award for his acclaimed novel, Spin. His other books include the novels Memory Wire, Gypsies, The Divide, The Harvest, A Bridge of Years, Darwinia, Blind Lake, Bios, Axis, and Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, and a collection of his short work, The Perseids and Other Stories. His most recent book is the novel, Burning Paradise. He lives in Toronto, Canada.
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