He checked the system again, for the hundred-zillionth time. The master display registers were all green. Everything had been checked and double-checked; the tests had run, and the spells were programmed and compiled. There was nothing left to do.
Trilling claxons shrieked through the lab.
Even though he'd been expecting them, Tay's heart jolted to a thrumming sprint in his chest. Relief, anxiety, and excitement roiled in his stomach, sending the taste of bile burning up his throat.
The waiting was over.
Tay slapped the silencer buttons. 'Places, everyone! This is it.'
Without the wailing alarms, the air felt light, too light to breathe. He forced himself to suck in a breath, exhale, and gulp in another.
Beside him, Raize flicked switches, her blonde dreadlocks swinging as she tweaked dials and controls. In the over-light air, her hair seemed to seethe and writhe like fuzzy serpents. Tay remembered an old tale he'd heard about a snake-haired woman that turned men to stone. True, Raize had a certain stiffening effect on him, but he'd always taken the story as being more literal. Besides, Raize's snake-locks were each adorned with a different colored crucifix – an expression of piety as well as fashion. No self-respecting serpent would have tolerated that indignity.
With a jaw-throbbing hum, Tay's boots activated. The foot he'd raised clanged back to the metal floor.
'Raize, pull it back. I can't move.'
'Sorry.' Her fingers tapped in commands.
Ambulatory once more, Tay clumped to the control stations. 'We have atmosphere?'
'Confirm on atmo.' Freeloader's silver eyepieces glinted in the white halogescent lights as he surveyed the outputted data. His movements, like his speech, were precise; he wasted neither processing resources nor energy on flashy words or gestures. An ironic turnabout, he kept himself aloof from human emotions and foibles, his reserve only breached during the interface sessions he shared with the AI.
Next to him, Bomb nodded. 'Clear.' His voice rumbled low and gravelly through his barrel-wide chest.
'Countdown commencing,' the computer announced. 'Termination of the universe in 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . .'
Eight seconds until the end of everything. No Earth, no galaxy, no existence.
A cosmic joke or just bad math, there was a flaw in the makeup of reality that manifested every thirty-two thousand years. The rift was like a gap in the celestial highway, a pothole. When hit, it threw everything out of whack, shredding reality in its wake. But there was a fix: symbols, rituals, and equations older than the planet – maybe as old as the universe itself – that kept time and space from derailing over that bump.
Tay imagined Neanderthal men chanting around a fire while the world fell to pieces around them. Maybe the dinosaurs had been in on it, roaring and stomping the crucial symbols and sounds, safe in a leafy circle of protection. And before them, aliens perhaps, ancient consciousnesses performing the necessary structures and forms to smooth the universal pathway.
'Have we got visuals?' he called.
'I'm on it,' Raize said.
The viewer flashed up. Blackness filled the wide screen, punctuated by motley dots of light.
'6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . .'
The viewer snapped into focus, and the whole galaxy appeared. Spiraling galactic arms laden with starry matter sharpened into clarity. They encircled a central congestion of brightness spreading in waves from the nexus.
A sharp click sounded, and Bomb stuck his fist, thumb up, into the air.
'2 . . . 1. Termination.'
Tay felt a ripple beneath his feet as the field engaged and separated their self-contained dome from everything of the outside world. He was faintly disappointed. He'd expected the end of the universe to feel different: more spectacular.
'Look!' Raize pointed.
Overhead, a slash of carmine split the creamy stars. The rift widened, shivering off splashes of glowing orange and seething yellow.
'It's true.' Freeloader stared at the screen, his mouth slack. 'I didn't believe—'
'Mr. Freeloader, your station!' Tay snapped.
The ritualist's cap gleamed quicksilver as he scanned the scrolling readings. His palm stroked the tactile strip on the interface panel, the exchange of data reassuring computer and ritualist alike. 'Spells at normal parameters.'
In the viewer, the gash turned into a tear. Dazzling, white light overwhelmed the lesser, fiery shades until Tay's eyes watered.
'On it.' Just prescient enough to discomfit, she had anticipated him.
The viewer dimmed. In the center of the brilliance, a flicker of shadow obscured the wounded vista. It grew, tendrils of black spreading like a drop of ink in water, eating away the milky swirl.
Tay gripped the console until his knuckles whitened. The records had been vague on this part. But the protective spells, the runes and equations running in the computer, would keep them whole, isolated from the destruction or the chaos or the nothingness, whatever might happen. He hoped.
Raize dropped to her knees, tears streaming from her eyes.
'Holy Father of creation—' She abased himself before the viewer, a litany of prayers spilling from her lips.
'It's God!' she sobbed. 'Can't you see Him?'
The viewer showed the swelling black nothingness and nothing more.
'Freeloader, confirm our status,' Tay called.
The ritualist whimpered at his console.
Tay clomped double speed to him. 'What's the matter? Is it the binary cascade again? I thought I'd debugged it.'
'It's Him,' Freeloader moaned. 'The Great Destroyer, the Deceiver.' He covered his head with both arms.
The computer shrilled as the movement yanked Freeloader's interface connections free. A blue light blinked on the tower.
'Mr. Freeloader, attend your station!'
The ritualist giggled. 'My station.' He reached out. 'My damnation.' Tay lunged, racing to slap aside Freeloader's hand, but the other man was faster. One silver-tipped finger knocked into the little red switch marked with a simple 'O' on one side and an 'I' on the other. With a whine, the systems began powering down.
Electro-magnets released, and Tay's momentum took him past the AI station in a helpless spiral of freefall. Freeloader spun past him, cackling. Lunatic tears hung in the air, shed from his eyes and suspended like soft jewels in the zero gravity.
'Bomb, emergency reboot!' Tay writhed, struggling to catch hold of anything solid that would stop his spin.
The huge man stood with his thick legs braced against two bolted down consoles. He spread his arms in a wide embrace.
Tay thunked into a steel hub wound with slick cables and delicate fiber contacts. He seized a handful of strut and cord just as the lights went out – the only illumination now the viewer's luminous glow.
'Nirvana,' Bomb whispered. A beatific smile spread across the ugly man's face in the shadowed crimson.
Tay's breath billowed out in a mist of condensation. Despite all the insulation in the dome, the temperature was plummeting. To fall so quickly, it had to be cold as space outside. Was there an atmosphere anymore? Did the mountain the dome rested on still exist? He'd anticipated that heat and light, air, gravity even, might go haywire, so he'd programmed environmental safeties with multiple redundancies for each sub-system.
But the computer could only protect them if it was on.
Tay craned his neck to the viewer. The emptiness had eaten away more than half the image.
'We're damned,' Freeloader moaned.
Tay ignored him, his teeth chattering in the now biting cold. The AI station – power grid, manual ports, and hard boot switch – was across the room, with Bomb anchored between them.
'Out of my way, Bomb.' Tay gathered his legs against the strut and launched himself at the console.
Instead of ducking, Bomb turned, his arms still outstretched. Tay could neither slow nor turn. The giant man plucked him out of the air, like a child from a swing, as he flew by. Tay's momentum knocked Bomb out of his stance, and they drifted.
'Don't struggle,' Bomb murmured. 'Enlightenment comes with acceptance.'
'What are you babbling about?' Tay fought to break the other man's hold, but before Bomb had hooked up with Freeloader and joined the team, he'd worked the streets as an enforcer. Tay was outsized, outmatched, and outmuscled.
'It is Nirvana.'
'It's not, you thickwit. It's the end of the universe. Can't you feel the cold?'
'It is not cold.'
Tay twisted and strained, but Bomb might as well have been a stone block for all the effect it had.
'Listen to me! Raize and Freeloader are hallucinating. We have to power everything back up and convince the AI to come online.'
'The AI is not offline,' Bomb said. He swiveled Tay like a rag doll until he faced the viewer. 'Look.'
The blackness continued to eat a swath through the galaxy.
'It's growing! We're running out of time.'
Bomb held him tight, pressing Tay against his chest. 'How is the viewer powered?' he murmured.
'Huh?' Tay blinked. The viewer, of course, was also linked to the AI. How could it be on with the computer down?
As soon as he thought the question, the lights shuddered on, splashing them with bright white. They fell, dragged down by their powered boots.
Bomb rose to his feet and returned his attention to the viewer.
'What's going on?' Tay asked.
Bomb neither turned nor answered.
The delicate ting of metal striking metal brought Tay twisting around. Behind him, Raize was on her knees tearing at her hair. Several of the little crucifixes had come loose, pulled down by the floor's magnetic field.
'Forgive me, Father,' she sobbed, rocking back and forth. 'Forgive my sins.'
Behind him, Freeloader's voice rose in a ragged cry. During Tay and Bomb's collision, the ritualist had pulled off his coverall, leaving him naked save for the metal implants mottling his body. He pressed himself in a frenzy against the computer's tactiles. The computer's warning lights flashed as its sensors overloaded.
'Mr. Freeloader, what the hell are you doing?'
'Fuck off.' Blood dripped from thin gashes in the ritualist's face where he'd dragged the metal tips of his fingers through his flesh.
Above him, a face appeared in the viewer, filling it. Eyes that bubbled and overflowed with tears of brackish pus glared out. Jaundiced skin writhed. Boils erupted, sprouting maggots topped with human features. Horribly, the faces were familiar; they wore the likenesses of people Tay had known: his mother before a cancerous tumor had sucked her life away; the last pusher he'd cut a deal with, spiky derma-implant patches bristling from his temple; the counselor in the institution with the sad, disappointed eyes.
Twisted lips parted, revealing a mouth filled with rows of needle-thin teeth surrounding a spiraling void. The mouth opened; it was going to devour them.
Tay threw his arms up and fell against Bomb.
The larger man steadied him. 'Nirvana,' he said.
Tay peeked at the viewer over his forearm. The face was gone, replaced by the spreading abyss.
'Father, why have you forsaken me?' Raize's voice was thick with sobs. She tried to crawl, but her heavy boots pinned her to the floor like an insect half-mashed by a careless giant.
Tay stumbled to her. He buried his face in her hair and felt her shudder.
'Raize, baby, shush. We're all hallucinating.' He held her, breathing her vanilla and cloves perfume.
She went rigid. 'Sinner!' she screamed. She thrust him away, knocking him off balance. Tay sprawled, his feet still plastered to the floor.
'It's because of you that God doesn't love me.' Her eyes were wide, frenzied. A slender data stylus appeared in her hand. 'God won't forgive me!' She launched herself at Tay, the stylus pointed at his groin.
He struggled to roll, but his boots glued him in place.
Bomb was there. He caught Raize mid-air and held her as she kicked and screamed. The stylus clinked to the floor.
Tay dragged himself away with shaking arms. The hatred in Raize's face – he turned his head so he wouldn't have to see it.
In the viewer, the scene had changed, monopolized by a new image. Bursts of lightning rayed out from a woman's face wreathed by a crackle of ozone-limned hair. It was a familiar visage, achingly dear and terrifying; it was Jandi, his wife.
Huge, colorless lips curled into a sneer. 'It's all your fault, you know. I'd still be alive if it weren't for you.'
Tay shook his head. This wasn't, couldn't be real. It couldn't be.
Tears burned his eyes. How could he believe he'd be able to pull this off? The fate of the universe entrusted to him, the junkie, the loser; he hadn't even been able to save his wife.
He pressed his face to the floor. It really was preposterous. More likely that the whole thing – the cause, the calling, everything – was some drug-spawned delusion. After all, that last ride had almost killed him, forty beads of uncut tempt. Maybe he'd never come down. Maybe this was an elaborate fantasy and he was in a med facility, trapped in the dreamscape of his mind.
Bomb hummed a tuneless melody.
Tay lifted his head. The lightning-maned goddess was gone. The black rift was back, cutting across the galactic view.
Around him, the room was in relative calm. Raize sobbed in Bomb's arms while Freeloader writhed against the computer's tactiles. The computer flashed red, erroring from the brutalization. Freeloader was raping it.
The viewer was a sliver of starlight away from complete black emptiness.
Tay closed his eyes. He'd always known, deep down, that Jandi blamed him. If only he could have kept his job. If only the AI industry hadn't gone bust.
She'd been so sick, in so much pain, and they couldn't afford her meds anymore; they could barely afford to eat. The pain had brought her screaming awake at night. His beautiful, fiery Jandi thrashed and shrieked her life away as he stood by, helpless.
And then there'd been the day he'd taken the last of their money and bought tempt, two vials worth. Rec drugs were cheap, cheaper than food. He fed the tiny red pills to her, one by one, and held the water glass to her lips.
She hadn't needed them all. He'd held her in the darkness (no money for light), wrapped his arms around her, inhaled the scent of her skin. Then she was gone and Tay left behind.
If the universe ended, his desolation and grief would stop. Why was he fighting it? He'd yearned for this, slumped in alleys and on park benches, pursued it as he embraced his new love, murderous and merciful tempt.
'Tay.' It was Jandi.
He opened his eyes. His wife's face filled the viewer, but it was no longer terrible. It was just Jandi with her butterscotch hair and the dragonfly tattoo over her cheek.
'Remember our wedding vows?' she asked.
'Yes. No. Darling—'
'I promised to love you forever and ever. Remember?'
He in a silly penguin suit, she in a gossamer white dress by the simulated waterfall with holograms of waving willow trees in the background.
'Yes,' he whispered.
'If the universe ends, so does forever, and without forever, there's nothing left of us.'
'But what if this isn't real? What if this is just some junkie dream?'
'Does it matter? Does it matter more than what we had? We were real.'
'I miss you, Jandi. Every day, every hour, every minute. Oh God, I miss you.'
'We loved as we lived, sweetly and well. It was good. And it ended as all things do. But one day, in another time and place, we will love again.' Jandi's brow furrowed, the way it always did when she was perplexed by one of Tay's rambling treatises. 'Won't we? Or is this truly goodbye?'
Jandi's image disappeared.
Tay screamed. No one paid any attention as he clambered to his feet. He couldn't lose Jandi, even if all he had were memories and a promise of another life's reunion. Even if it was a tempt dream, he wanted the universe back.
'C'mon, think,' he panted.
In millennia past, a tradition passed down from thirty-second millennium to thirty-second millennium, the spells had been spoken, the symbols painted. People, aliens, unimagined consciousnesses had used rituals to set the universe back to rights. And Tay had converted these rituals into equations for the computer.
Tay stared at Bomb. He was the only one unaffected by hallucinations. But maybe they weren't hallucinations, maybe, protected as they were in a dome that contained the only reality, they were being affected by the only things that could touch them – Raize and her shame, Freeloader and his hedonism, and Tay himself with his guilt and grief.
'We're making reality,' he whispered. 'Us. Instead of concentrating on the symbols and words, we're wallowing in the depths of our dysfunctions.'
'Nirvana,' Bomb said.
Tay squeezed his eyes shut and put his hands over his ears. He envisioned Freeloader the ritualist, sane, calm, dressed, maintaining the computer operations like he had in all their simulations. He believed it. For Jandi, he believed it. He thought of Raize as she monitored readings and adjusted sensors, saw her fiddling with dials and buttons.
The computer stopped its plaintive distress sequence; the hum of normal processing replaced the high-pitched beeps. Freeloader sat at his station, eyes fixed on the displays. Raize tapped queries into her console.
In the viewer, a glimmer of light – no more than a speck – smoldered at the center of the blackness. As Tay watched, more spots of light began to emerge in a familiar pattern of stars and galaxies.
The universe was coming back.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Eugie Foster. All rights reserved.