6010 words, short story
The History Within Us
On a wrist-mounted computer, Betsy Haadama watched a six thousand-year-old silent film. It was grayscale, overexposed, two-dimensional, and chronologically jumbled. On the film: a mustachioed man doting over his young son at a crowded zoo. A woman vigorously combing the boy’s white hair beside a large piano. A family eating a large meal, candles burning on a table, men wearing yarmulkes, bodies shivering in prayer. A river, people swimming, women in white bathing caps and full-body suits. Men on rocks by the shore, pipes in mouths, smoke drifting lazily upward. A park, the boy looking down at a dead pigeon. Staring. Staring. Father picking him up, kissing him. In the sky, a bright sun.
A young sun.
“Pardon my intrusion in this time of ends,” a Twirlover said, startling her. The Twirlover’s six separate, hovering pink objects—like human knuckles—danced a looping, synchronized pattern in the air. “If it pleases you, will you share with me why you watch that flickering device so incessantly?”
In some parts of the galaxy one could be killed for being human. Betsy wasn’t sure if this Eluder Ship was such a place. But death was coming for all soon enough. So why fear it now?
“This is an ancient film of my paternal ancestor,” she said defiantly.
Puffs of air beat against her face as the Twirlover spun. “An ancient film? Indeed, such a rare treasure, an artifact of the past! If it pleases you, may we watch a portion together?”
She was about to tell it no, that she’d rather die alone, contemplating what might have been, when the alarm trilled down the cavernous halls of the Eluder Ship. A cold shiver ran down her spine as a cacophony of voices warned in ninety languages simultaneously, “Gravitational collapse imminent, my beloveds! Please take your positions inside your transitional shells!”
Angry rainbows flared across the floor and ozone and ammonia soured the air, warning those who communicated by color or smell. Betsy’s mind skipped and stuttered like the ancient film playing on her wrist as a warning to the telepaths skirted the fringes of her consciousness. Still more warnings she could not perceive with her natural senses no doubt flooded the chamber now.
Hundreds of creatures ran or flew or poured inside their transitional shells, strange cocoons fitted to their variform bodies. The Twirlover tumbled away as Betsy closed the cover of her shell. She hugged her knees and shivered as the glass cover sealed her inside with a hiss and a confirmation beep. A lifeboat or a coffin? She’d find out soon enough.
Transitional shells filled the gargantuan chamber of the Eluder Ship like arrays of soldiers preparing for battle, their noses pointed toward the red-giant star looming outside. Maera—“The Daughter Star”—one of the few still-burning stars in the galaxy. It seethed before all, a conflagration as large as a solar system, turning everything the color of blood.
This was a pitiful end, but it was this or slow starvation, privation, death. The galaxy had been laid sere. No planets to grow food. No stars to keep warm. It wasn’t fair. None of them deserved this. But then she remembered Julio, and what she had done to him at Afsasat.
I left you to die, Julio. And for that I deserve this.
Soon now, Maera’s heart would cool by a fraction of a degree, and billions of tons of matter, no longer kept aloft by nuclear winds, would plunge towards its gravitational center at the speed of light. The star would collapse, go nova, and in its tortured heart the universe would tear. A singularity would form, a black hole, and Betsy Haadama and the thousands of others on this Eluder Ship would ride that collapsing wave into another universe. Their matter and energy, transmuted into pure information, would seed a new creation, the World to Come. Their consciousness, over long eons, would push matter into form, coerce dust to life. In some strange new way they would live on, gods reborn further down the corridor of infinity. And they had been doing this forever, would be doing this again and again until the end of time.
Or so the litany went.
The story soothed troubled minds. But the science behind the technology was just a theory. It could be proven only by first-person observation. Any object which crossed a black hole’s event horizon could never communicate with the universe again. Just as easily, she might be annihilated forever. To those witnessing from the outside, there would be no difference.
She tried not to peer up at The Daughter, though its ember light corrupted everything with its hellish glow. Instead she watched the film on her wrist: men in fedoras, women in ostentatious hats at an airport, people descending a stairwell from plane to tarmac. A baby hoisted in the air. Smiles. Laughing. Cut to a park. The boy looking down at the dead pigeon, staring. Staring. Father picking him up, patting him on the shoulder. The boy, crying.
Why do you stare at the bird? Betsy thought. What are you thinking?
She looked up at the seething star. So beautiful, terrible, immense. A wonder that such a thing existed. A horn bellowed and Betsy screamed.
“False Alarm! Beloveds, the imminent collapse was a false alarm! Spurious readings caused us to make an erroneous conclusion. We estimate at least six hours before stellar collapse, based on present readings.”
The voice announced the message in multiple languages, simulcast with aggressive rainbows, smells, alien sensations.
I’m alive! she thought. I’m still here! It felt exhilarating, for a moment. Then she remembered she’d have to do this again.
Slowly, shells opened and creatures emerged. Betsy scanned the motley lot of them as her cover retracted. A zoo of sentient species escaping from their cages, creatures made of every color, texture, and temperament.
So much life, she thought. Snuffed out by the Horde. Crimes beyond forgiveness. And made all the more vile because the Horde had been the progeny of the human race.
Betsy activated inositol in her bloodstream via thought command in order to suppress her panic/flight response. It soothed her, but only just enough to notice the hairs on the back of her neck rising from an electrostatic charge as the Twirlover returned.
“That was exciting!” it said.
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Betsy said.
“To be so close to annihilation and then to come back again. It renews the sense of life!”
“Or the dread of living.”
“But the dread, if you explore it,” the Twirlover said, “reveals the miracle of existence out of nothingness. From out of horror comes life.”
The litany again. “Or out of life, horror,” she said.
It tumbled quietly for a moment. “Sometimes.” It moved closer to inspect her film. “That’s a child of your species, is it not?”
She glanced down at her screen. “No, that’s a rhinoceros.”
“Ree-Nos-Ur-Us. What a marvel of composition, all those rolling mountains of flesh. Does it still exist?”
The Twirlover whistled a mournful, descending arpeggio. “Like so much life in the galaxy. Like the once-glorious stars.”
The Horde had obliterated stars by the billions. They had wrapped the Milky Way inside a bleak cocoon of transmatter so that nothing, no ship, no signal—not even light—could pass. And then they vanished, leaving the galaxy to rot. Such was the legacy of humanity.
She wondered if the Twirlover would kill her outright if it knew what she was. Death by physical means might be preferable, she thought, to being flash-baked into quantum-entangled gamma rays. Six in one, really.
The film cut to a boy in a crib, bouncing. His mother lifting him, smiling for the camera. The boy laughing.
“That’s one of us,” she said. “My paternal ancestor.” Surprising herself, she felt pride.
“Ah, such wonderful protuberances!”
A wisp of dust coalesced above Betsy’s head. Winking diamonds swirled in yellow clouds. An aeroform creature. For a moment she glimpsed her own face of colored sparkles reflected back at her. But the aeroform being soon spiraled away, only to pause a few seconds later before a group of fronded Whidus who turned their mushroom-like eyes in her direction. Maybe they recognized her, knew what she was. Maybe they were plotting her demise.
A second, identical Twirlover approached Betsy and said to the first, “You know, my bonded-one, that we are about to die, do you not?”
“I was about to come back to you, my flesh-bond,” the first said. “And tell you about my sharing with this creature.”
“Indeed you were. I saw you tumbling towards me with great haste.”
“My flesh-bond, just take a good look at her smooth, auburn skin, the fine black threads that emerge from her head, the little valve at her peak where she modulates her words with a bacteria-laden pink muscle! And on her upper-left protuberance, that metal device which flicker-flashes with strange images. She watches it incessantly. She is curious, is she not?”
“There is something curious here, certainly.”
“My love, let us join so I can share my thoughts with you.”
“Indeed, I look forward to it!”
The two tumbled together into a single dancing, twelve-piece ring. Knuckles hopped, bounced, tumbled over each other. Music piped and whistled in byzantine harmonies. There arose a great shriek about them, and soon after they separated again into six-pieced individuals. Betsy thought they might have interchanged pieces in the process.
“Not fair!” said the second. Or was it the first? Betsy couldn’t tell them apart anymore. “You playful trickster! You gave me your segment, so now I know your thoughts. But then, you sense my emotions too.”
“What joy it is to share mind with you, beloved! Yes, I feel your misplaced jealousy. And so much of it! What a waste of energy. Don’t you see? This creature is alone and needs to share with someone!”
“Perhaps, but does it have to be you?”
“Not me alone, but us together!”
“In this last hour, you would defile us?”
“Please!” Betsy interjected. “I’d prefer to be alone anyway—”
“One must never be alone!” the first said. “Share with us! Let us merge gloriously with your words.”
“Indeed, tell us,” the second said, “Did you have a bonded-one who abandoned you, who wandered off to have intercourse with strangers when you need him?”
’Intercourse?’ she thought. Perhaps there was more to the Twirlover concept of sharing than she realized. “Actually, I left him.”
“Of course you did,” the second said. “Like attracts like.”
“Where did you abandon him?” the first said.
Interesting, the way it had interpreted her words. “I left him at the first nova,” she said. “The Mother Star. Afsasat.”
“You were at Afsasat and you didn’t go through the event-horizon?” the second said. “I don’t believe your story! Beloved, look how she defiles this union!”
“Surely,” the first said, “you are joking, trying to please us with paradox? Why would you do something so idiotic? Why not escape through Afsasat when you had the chance?”
She sighed and turned her attention to the film on her wrist. Mustachioed father and blond-haired son walking down a path. Father, smiling. Boy running, falling. Crying. Father picking him up, kissing him. All better. All better.
“Did you hear our questions?” the first asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s just that it’s a very long story.”
“Our lives are stories. We are empty without them. Fill us so we may fill you.”
Strangely, she had stopped shivering. She even felt a little warm. If this was intercourse, then she was determined to be a good lover. “This film is part of ‘The Biography,’” she said. “A record of my ancestors’ lives that was encoded within my genes.”
“Such joy! I have heard of this technology, the sharing of such immensity,” the first said. “How far back do your records go?”
“About six thousand years.”
The second squealed.
“I told you, beloved,” the first said. “She is share-worthy.”
Her mother had told her the story in the quiet hours while drifting under the ash streams of the decimated Magellanic Clouds, or over stale, thrice-brewed tea, while the ice-blue rings of Cegmar rose above the horizon, or while her mother gently brushed her hair and chills trickled down her spine. When he turned seventy, the boy in the film digitized his aging childhood reels and then gave them to his son. His son added films, photos, and memorabilia and passed the collection to his offspring. His children added more history and passed this collection on again. This continued for generations. Eventually his descendants decided to encode this amalgamated history within their DNA, so it would never be lost or forgotten. Every child was thereafter born with the memories of their parents, and theirs before them, and theirs before them. And also in their bodily archives were the early records—the films, photos and keepsakes that started the tradition. The Biography was an ancient and unbroken chain that began with this black and white film playing on her wrist. The first.
And now the last.
“It’s so large!” the second said.
“Excuse me?” she said.
“Your story,” the first said, “To carry all that history within you!”
“It’s not in me anymore. Julio and I stripped all of it, every last base-pair, from our genes. I recall only my personal experiences now. This computer . . . it holds the last copy. This is the Biography, now.”
This fragile, solitary thing on her wrist.
“But why?” Moans and tweets. “That must have been an immense loss!”
The answer was complex, full of shame and guilt. Instead she offered the highly edited version. “Because we wanted to enter the World to Come without a past.”
The Twirlovers tumbled noisily, screeching.
“I put the Biography on this ancient computer,” she said, pointing to her wrist. “It belonged to my grandmother, five hundred and eighty years ago. Julio and I parked our starsloop in orbit around Afsasat and we stowed this wrist-player in our shrine-room. We said goodbye to our past and then we flew over to the Eluder Ship. Our starsloop and the Biography within would be destroyed when Afsasat went nova.”
“But Afsasat took its time. So I explored every corner of the Eluder Ship. I discovered that none of my species were there. That meant Julio and I might be the last of my kind in existence. And that meant the Biography was the last of its kind too.”
A duet of whistles in a major key.
“I used to recall the smell of my great-grandmother’s hair of twenty-three generations ago as her lover leaned in to kiss her pink lips. I knew every defect in the bathroom tiles of the beach house where my ancestor Rhindi lived four thousand years ago. I could hear the gulls cry as they flew in the colored dawn as the four suns rose, one green, one orange, one yellow, and one blue before Eleanor left her family for war, to die in deep space, but not before she had a son to pass on the memory. I once remembered the joy Yalta felt toward his seventeen lanky daughters, all born in zero-g, all tall, graceful, beautiful, with eyes like blue giants. These weren’t others’ lives. They were mine. I had lived these lives too.”
Seven long, high notes.
“So many people had once lived inside of me. Even these memories that I’m telling you about now—they come from this device! Not from me! I’m silent inside. And I realized that if I let the Biography die I would be murdering billions. Just like the Horde.”
A very human gasp, then a precipitous pause.
“So I changed my mind. I decided I’d bring the Biography with me into the World to Come. My ancestors deserved that much. I was about to retrieve it from our starsloop, but Julio held me. Afsasat could go nova at any moment, he said. And . . . he wanted to sever us from the past. I disagreed.”
Betsy started shaking again as the moment became clear in her mind. She remembered his exhausted, pleading eyes, his unruly black beard.
“Did you forget what they did?” Julio had said. “Did you erase that memory too? The Horde, the progeny of the human race, stole our children! And you want to bring their history with us? We decided we wouldn’t allow that. The Biography has to be destroyed.”
“I know what we decided, Julio!” she said. “But I can’t let all those people die!”
“They’re already dead, Betsy!”
“I can’t believe you just said that.” Her face grew hot. “They’re not dead! They once lived within us! They gave us our lives, and we owe them our memories!”
“I don’t feel that way at all.”
“Julio, how can you abandon them so easily?”
“They led us to this place of death and horror. I sever myself from the past for that reason alone.”
And in the end, it was she who had abandoned him.
She swallowed down her tears as the Twirlovers squealed and beckoned her to continue.
“I told Julio I wanted to wander the ship alone, and instead I snuck off to fetch the Biography. Maybe he knew where I was going. I’ll never know. I reached my starsloop and was ready to return when I heard the alarm. Afsasat was collapsing. One minute to nova. Not enough time to return safely. I panicked. I had to save the Biography, all those lives, from destruction. Nothing else mattered. I powered up my ship and fled.”
For weeks she had wondered, did Julio search the Eluder Ship for her? What did he feel when he realized she had left him? Like the thoughts of the boy in the film, she’d never know. He had entered a black hole, and nothing could cross that dark horizon.
The Twirlovers cried out, a piercing shriek. Perhaps they orgasmed together. Eventually, the second said, “What a dirty tale! So much abandonment. I feel defiled. A sinner! This is the kind of sharing you wanted, my beloved?”
“But in fetching her Biography she returned to her people!” the first said. “Don’t you see? Isn’t sharing so much more rewarding after a long absence?”
“You twist words easily, my bonded-one! Her story was . . . acceptable.”
A large Perslop sloshed towards them. The creature was amber, a gelatinous three-limbed starfish with translucent skin and dozens of eyes like upturned brown bowls.
“Do you wish a comforting invocation?” the Perslop said. A slit tucked into one of its armpits burped open to reveal hundreds of tiny white teeth, and its warm breath reeked of dead seas. “I know rituals from a thousand faiths. Or, if you wish, you may teach me one.” Its voice was like wind blowing over ruins.
“Blessings, smooth-skinned pleasure to behold!” the first Twirlover said. “We welcome a fourth to share!”
“No we do not!” the second Twirlover said.
“My flesh-love, please!” the first said. “Do not be rude.” Then to the Perslop: “Instead of an invocation, my finely contoured friend. Will you share a story with us?”
“Incorrigible!” the second said, tumbling furiously.
With the moist end of one if its arms, the Perslop inched towards Betsy’s wrist. The tip opened into a tripod of three small fingers, with diminutive brown eyes capping the end of each. The eyes wiggled nervously above the ancient film. “What is this?” it asked.
“It’s her people’s history!” the first said. “From six-thousand years ago!”
“Interesting,” the Perslop said. “Your race hasn’t changed much.”
“That’s a duck,” Betsy said. “Extinct.”
“So, that’s you there?”
“No, that’s a walrus. Also extinct.”
“Then whose history did you say we are watching?”
“My race. They’re at a zoo.”
“A ‘zoo?’” the Perslop said.
“A place that housed animals in cages.”
“So they could observe them without danger to themselves,” she said.
“Another act of separation!” the second Twirlover said. “Such a barbaric, dirty race!”
“Her filth notwithstanding, keeping something caged is not barbarism,” the Perslop said, its moist arm dangling an hairsbreadth from Betsy’s face. “Before the Horde destroyed my brothers, I used to travel with my colony to a fecal press, where we severed one of our limbs and tortured it in a cage until it released a small amount of feces. We then burned that feces as an offering to the Absent One. They were profoundly holy events. And I miss them very, very much.”
The second Twirlover squeaked loudly three times.
“You see, my beloved?” the first said. “This is the joy you have missed by withdrawing from union all these years!”
On Betsy’s wrist the film played on, men in white shorts and shirts playing handball. Women sitting on the sidelines bringing smoky cigarettes to their lips. The young boy, a few years older, standing on a porch, talking to a beautiful girl.
“You simplify my thoughts!” the second Twirlover said. “I take no joy in the suffering of others. If I did, I would find pleasure in the atrocities of the Horde. But those are stories I never wish to hear again. If I could, I would erase them from history like this creature erased this Biography from her genes!”
If only that were possible, Betsy thought. To rewrite history. If so, she’d go even further back, to the creation of the Horde, more than three hundred years ago. Humanity had been evolving rapidly for generations. They had augmented their consciousness to the point that the body became irrelevant. Flesh was now a temporary abode, while the mind was free to explore and play in infinite space. Epic works of art, science, and philosophy were commonplace. Physical suffering had been eradicated. It was a true Golden Age of humankind.
But the Hagzhi, a prideful, stoic and gargantuan species that had once peacefully abided humans, became fearful of humanity’s growing power over matter and began to spread lies and sow seeds of mistrust. Later, the Hagzhi began to systematically exterminate humans as a way to prop up their own faltering galactic hegemonies. Humanity was nearly destroyed in the wars that followed, but after that tumult, humans vowed that they would never let such a catastrophe happen again. Through heroic feats of research they discovered the secret folds of negative time and learned the simple mystery behind the origins of consciousness. They learned how to, with a thought, create a sun. And with another, destroy it.
The Hagzhi race vanished from existence in a day. One hundred and seventy planets, moons, outposts and stations erased from the universe. Later, for no reason anyone could discern, other races vanished. Races which had never threatened humanity. The Onyx Horde, as this force came to be known, acted without cause or reason.
Not all humans accepted the rise to supra-consciousness. Not all humans wanted to change. The Horde slaughtered those who resisted. Those who hid were found, tortured, and killed. And there were those, like Betsy’s ancestors, who had made a deal and were spared.
“Keep the Biography in your genes,” the Horde had commanded her ancestors. “Keep your physical human form. Do this and you will not die.”
And her ancestors agreed, and survived, even prospered, while the rest of the galaxy was ruined. When the other races discovered that there were humans who were spared the Horde’s madness, that the Horde were the progeny of the human race, the long dormant seeds of doubt that the Hagzhi had planted re-sprouted, this time across the entire galaxy. Humans were slaughtered without remorse, and the Horde did not come to save them.
If I were given that choice now, Betsy thought. To live or die by their rules, I would have chosen death. I’d rather die than live under their darkness another instant.
On the film, a crowded beach. People swimming. Large umbrellas casting shadows. Wisps of cloud in the sky, all under a bright sun.
A young sun.
The Twirlovers stopped twirling. The Perslop leaned in closer to see.
“Such a young sun,” the Perslop said. “Bright and warm. The sight fills me with sadness. No longer do such stars burn in the Milky Way. Here we orbit this dying star in a dead galaxy where only a few cinders burn in a quiescent sea. And all about the universe a hundred billion galaxies dangle forever beyond our reach. The Onyx Horde has sealed us forever from their glorious light. May their souls be stripped from eternity!”
On the film, a party. People laughing, dancing, hands on hips, forming a human train. Cone-shaped hats.
“What are they doing?” the Perslop asked.
“A party,” Betsy said. “A new year’s celebration.”
“And why do they bounce up and down?”
“Do you remember, my soul-union,” the first Twirlover said, “how we danced for three ascensions of the Hagic Moon with the birth of our tumble-litter?”
“I shall never forget!” the second said, squealing. “Our many tumblers, searching for their bond-sisters. How they merged and separated a thousand times before they joined the sisters to complete their soul!”
“May they find the path to the Glory Star that resides at the center of creation.”
On the film, the blond boy in the corner staring into the camera eye. I’d always assumed that one day someone would look into the Biography and see me. But I’m the last, aren’t I?
“Your children, are they dead?” the Perslop said to the Twirlovers.
“They were living on Ental,” the second said. “It was obliterated by the Horde.” A hiss like a distant wave crashing on an empty beach.
“I had nine offspring,” the Perslop said. “Three died in the disastrous attempt to pass through the galaxy’s transmatter shell. Three died of malnutrition. Two died in an experiment to create a new star.”
“That’s only eight,” the first Twirlover said. “And the ninth?”
On the film, an elderly couple in formal clothing sitting beside a bright window. Their bodies in silhouette. The woman, Bessie. The man, Oser. Betsy’s oldest ancestors in the Biography. She and Julio had named their children after them. A boy and girl. Twins. She remembered their puffy, newborn faces, their eyes hungry for life.
She and Julio and her children had been living on the temperate moon of Aeoschloch with one hundred other Biography-carrying humans, far from the wars and the suspicions of the other races. And one morning, as the swirling black eye of the gas giant Ur rose above the distant hills, as she was breast-feeding her twin children, she was swept away.
She could not see or hear or sense anything, even her own screams, but she felt a presence probing her, scanning her, reading and rereading the Biography within her as if it were the most important thing in the universe. And she knew this presence, remembered it from the Biography and the memories within.
The Onyx Horde.
Then the Horde spit her and a hundred other humans out over the sandy coastline. Some people did not rise from the cold beach. Their eyes stared lifeless into the starless sky. Some had organs missing or were merged with others into horrible grotesqueries. Some went mad. Some had reappeared in the ocean and drowned. And the children, all the pre-pubescent ones, had vanished. The Horde had taken them. Every one.
Oser and Bessie, two months old, barely enough time to open their eyes and learn their parents’ faces. Gone.
The seventy surviving colonists were wrecked, devastated. Should they have more children? No, they decided, the Horde could just as easily take them again. Should they try to forget and live out their lives on this backwater moon? No, how could they ever find joy again, knowing that the Horde could come again at any time? Then the colonists heard about Afsasat, the Eluder Ship being built there and a possible way to escape the Horde forever.
And so it was decided. The colonists would end their history on their own terms. They would attempt to enter the World to Come, but without the Biography inside of them. They would excise it from their genes, shedding themselves from the thing which the Horde seemed so desperately to desire. Shedding themselves of humanity’s sordid history. It would be, in their own small way, revenge.
But they’d have to get to Afsasat first. The Eluder Ship was being constructed in a quadrant of space that was rumored to be tolerant of humans. But the colonists would have to navigate through large quadrants of dangerous space. So they traveled in many ships, by multiple circuitous and zigzagging routes. Betsy and Julio arrived safely. When Betsy walked around the ship, looking for other humans, she found none. They were the last two.
And now, on this second Eluder Ship, there was only her.
Outside the windows, lightning the size of a hundred dead planets forked across Maera’s surface. The star looked ancient, tired, ready to sleep forever. The aliens throughout the chamber paused to stare up at the star.
Her wrist flickered like the star outside. On the film, the mustachioed man. The woman with the beautiful black hair. Another party. A different day. A cake with five flames. Eyes reflecting candlelight. The boy, blowing the flames out. Smoke and applause. Silent cheer.
“You said you wanted a story,” the Perslop said, “Well I have one. A few weeks ago I confronted a group of wandering Ergs. One told me that he’d captured a human—”
Betsy started in her seat.
“The Erg said the human was an ugly, repulsive thing,” the Perslop continued. “With dark hair covering most of its carbuncle head, and liquid leaking from its odious eyes. It pleaded for its life. And the Erg, a compassionate being, decided ultimately to let it go. But afterward he became terribly distraught. He said he’d missed his opportunity to destroy a creature which had caused so much of the galaxy’s pain. For a long time I considered this Erg’s position.
“I once had a vast starship. I found a bore-worm nibbling in my refuse berth. I believed in the sanctity of all life, and decided to let it live. Six weeks later, my ship was infested with bore-worms, and no one would dock with me for fear of having their hulls eaten. I had to incinerate my ship. You see, I let one worm live, and thousands returned to ruin me. Is it not the same with humans? If we let one live, do we not give them the chance to destroy us again? I told the Erg that he did the righteous thing, but I truly did not—do not—believe it myself.”
The Twirlovers chirped quietly.
“Where did he find this human?” she blurted. “How many weeks ago was this?” Dark hair covering its head? she thought. Julio, is he speaking of you?
The first Twirlover said, “Please, tell us more, beloved! This is wonderful!”
“What more is there to tell?” the Perslop said. “We may be reborn in a new universe, but if we carry that worm along with us, do we not risk infestation again?”
Betsy stared into the Perslop’s tripod eye-cups. It knows, she thought. It knows what I am. Then she remembered the aeroform creature studying her and the Whidus staring at her and the Twirlovers’ odd behavior around her.
They all know, she thought. Every one of them knows!
“Do not fear, human,” the Perslop said. “I’ll not kill you. I define myself by being what you are not. I let you live even though every pulse of my hearts says you should be squashed between my arms like vermin.”
Betsy stared at the Perslop, shivering. Weakly, she said, “Was your story about the human true?”
Outside, a brilliant solar flare leaped from Maera and grew angrily out into space. The Daughter, shedding her last vestiges of life. Soon now.
The Perslop gestured to her screen. “Is your story true? Is not history filled with lies and obfuscations?”
On the screen, a beach, waves crashing silently. Umbrellas casting large shadows. A beautiful young woman smiling shyly at the camera. The future wife of the boy. A burning ball of light in the sky. Everyone watched the screen.
“So beautiful,” the Perslop said. “And gone forever . . . ”
Silence. Even the Twirlovers went still.
“Please!” she said. “Tell me! Was it true?”
“Why?” the Perslop said. “Why should I tell you? Why do you deserve an answer?”
She took a deep breath. “Because someone I love might still be alive,” she said. “To me, that’s everything.”
The alarm trilled, startling her. “Gravitational collapse imminent, beloveds! Please take your positions inside your transitional shells!”
“No!” she cried. “Not yet!”
The Perslop began to move away.
“Wait!” she screamed. “Please tell me!”
The Perslop paused but did not turn back. “I am the last of my kind,” the Perslop said. “I came over here to tell you that you are not.”
The Twirlovers shrieked and suddenly merged. They tumbled madly, yelping, barking, while the Perslop left for its transitional shell.
Ninety seconds to collapse.
Maera flickered and angry waves rippled across its surface, but Betsy could not summon the will to close her shell. On her viewscreen, the park, the blond-haired boy skipping, scaring away pigeons. Dappled sunlight. A breeze through trees. A dead pigeon on the dirt. The boy, stopping, staring. Staring.
Suddenly, she understood why the boy stared at the bird for so long.
This is the first time you knew death! she thought. You knew the bird would never rise again. And you knew that one day you’d fall too, that everything falls! That’s why you gave these films to your son. You wanted him to remember you, forever!
The Perslop had been right, she thought. I could be polluting the new universe with this history.
But all those lives, erased? I can’t kill you, great-great grandfather. You are the first. Without you, we would be nothing. My ancestors, without all of you, I am nothing.
The fourteen billion-year history of this universe had already unfolded. But for the World to Come, the story had yet to be written. Maybe the World to Come was a lie, but then again, maybe there was new life on the other side of the event horizon. Maybe they truly had been doing this forever and ever. A flower gone to seed.
She jumped out of her transitional shell, took off her grandmother’s computer from her wrist, and placed it inside the shell. Then she pressed the button to seal it inside.
She’d send the Biography, its mammoth history, with its eons of joys and sorrows, through Maera. She hoped that in the next universe, humanity would be different. Better. What every parent wishes for her children.
“Goodbye,” she said.
The Twirlovers still tumbled together in the air beside her, as wild as a radioactive atom. The alarm continued to wail. “Get in your shells!” she screamed. But they ignored her.
She ran to the rear of the chamber and leaped into an escape pod. She pressed the emergency activator and in an instant she was hurtling away from the Eluder Ship at a large fraction of the speed of light. In the window behind her, Maera blinked twice, like two eyes closing, then began to fade. The star shrunk to half its size, and a moment later the sky filled with white light. The ship bleated a thousand warnings as Betsy closed her eyes.
“I’m coming, Julio. I’m coming for you.”
She had watched the ancient film so often that it still played in her mind, projecting on the back of her eyes like a movie screen. The boy in the park, running, laughing. Falling. Scuffing his knee. Father picking him up, kissing him, comforting him. Above them, a sun.
A young sun.