John Zhang returns to consciousness.
"I think I have been asleep for a long time," he murmurs.
"You have been asleep for a very long time," says Mitchell Calrus, who is the only other person in the room. Zhang is comfortable under the covers of his bed, propped up by mountains of pillows, but the air on his face is cold. The room is painted cabbage green, except for small white ceramic tiles covering the lower walls, a white window frame (with frosted glass), and some old, dull, vomit-brown plastic chairs, in one of which Calrus is sitting. There's a drip running into Zhang's left arm. The fluid is colourless.
"Zykov is dead," says Calrus.
Memories churn in Zhang's head. They feel like they're further away than they should be. "I think... I think I already knew that."
"He killed himself. It was just a few hours after you were captured. You might have felt his influence go out of your head while you were sleeping. Zykov was a creature of chaos and destruction. Sending you to one of the most densely populated areas on Earth was a logical way to continue that theme. That's why he sent Kosogorin to New York City..."
"This is too cold to still be Brasilia," observes Zhang.
"Yes." Calrus flips over a few pieces of paper in the ring binder that he has open on his knees. "Yes... humm. When you were captured in Brazil you were placed under sedation. The following morning, you were revived in the Brasilian police's custody, for questioning. Before any questions could be asked, you had a mild seizure and tried to activate your Klick device, which was being held for forensic examination in a locker in a neighbouring building. The locker had... well, I don't speak Portuguese, but judging by this photograph, it imploded on itself by the time you were sedated again. You were awake for less than ten minutes.
"You were taken to a Brazilian military hospital, where you were put into a controlled comatose state and connected to life support. You were moved to Cuba, then Russia, then to the United Kingdom and then back to Russia while international law tried to figure out what to do with you. It was eventually determined that you had been compelled to act under the telepathic control of Mikhail Zykov and were not responsible for your actions. Six months after your capture you were revived for the second time in a specialised clinic in Switzerland, sixteen hundred miles from your Klick device, where..."
"I made it. It's a Zhang device."
"...where you caused a mild earthquake and almost brought the clinic's roof down on yourself. Evidently, Zykov's post-hypnotic suggestions were... convincing. And persistent. You were put back under.
"You've been under for a total of almost eight years."
Zhang rolls his head and squints at Calrus. "Who are you?"
"I'm Mitch Calrus. Mr. Zhang--"
Zhang winces at Calrus' mispronunciation, "Just call me 'Zed'. Am I dying?"
"Am I ill? No?" Calrus shakes his head. "So why risk waking me?"
Calrus opens the rings in his binder and hands over a stapled pair of double-sided printed A4 sheets, covered in dense scientific notes and graphs. Most prominent are two graphs which, Zhang eventually determines, display data recorded by a major neutrino detector in the Netherlands. "This was our first hint that something was wrong," explains Calrus. "Those two spikes represent a single anomaly in the background neutrino field. This report is from August 2015." He hands over another report. "This report is from October of the same year. Note the increasing size of the spikes.
"This is a false-colour photograph of an extremely tiny region of sky in the constellation of Virgo. This was taken from a space telescope called LSEAT LocalSC on 1st January 2016. The point source in the upper right of the photograph was discovered by backtracking the trajectories of the anomalous neutrinos. It was determined to be somewhere between three and five distinct supernovae, coincidentally occurring in the same approximate region of the sky. It was hypothesised that some huge interstellar event had triggered several stars in the same region of a distant galaxy to collapse at about the same time. Both natural and artificial explanations were proposed - a cosmic string, a quantum singularity, a Q-ball, an immense experiment." Calrus turns over more false-colour photographs. In these, the point source is brighter. "This picture is from two days later. This one is from four days later..."
"Where are my glasses?"
"I..." Calrus inspects the room, including the bedside table and its drawers. "I don't know. I think they might have been lost. I don't think anybody knew you were supposed to have glasses. I'm sorry. The... the next two pictures show more supernovae exploding in front of the previous ones. An interstellar engine, almost, firing every few days. This picture is the last one that LSEAT LocalSC took before the object became impossible to focus on.
"This is an image taken in April 2016 by the TALOS A-B binocular space telescope system. TALOS was designed mainly to directly image physical features on other planets inside our solar system but also has some deep space IR observation capability. By now the phenomenon has a nonzero angular diameter and we know that there are at least ninety distinct supernovae in the stack - possibly thousands more, with the most recent half-dozen drowning out the rest. These eight images were taken from a ground-based observatory in Hawaii three months later still. We watched a supernova happening live from an unprecedented close range. These are the pictures which went public, along with the finalised blue shift and angular motion calculations.
"I'm concerned about how calmly you're taking this, Zed. You've spent almost a fifth of your natural life asleep--"
"Why are you here?" demands Zhang.
Calrus pulls out a laptop computer and puts it in front of Zhang. "This is a photograph of the sky which I took when I arrived in Moscow at three o'clock this morning. I took it with the camera in my phone." He starts clicking buttons. "This is footage from a riot in Rome, two weeks ago. And Hanoi, last week. Baghdad, also last week. Washington DC; this one is a live webcam. This is a transcript of the U.S. President's address, given two days ago. This is a speech given by the Pope; another by the Dalai Lama; another by Ahmad Qureshi, the nineteenth Power. This is an official joint statement from NASA, ESA and four other major space agencies stating that, with all the resources in the world behind them, faster-than-light space travel will not be possible before 2025, and a full-scale evacuation of Earth will not be possible before 2125." Calrus catches Zhang's eye and decides he has pushed this as far as he can. "Zykov is dead," says Calrus. "Oul is not dead.
"Zykov didn't have enough power. He used arcane Script technology to put together what modern science would have no recourse but to describe as a magic spell and tried to summon the rest of Oul into his own body. He got it wrong, and instead Oul's fragmented power or soul or 'essential attributes', or whatever you want to call it, starting striking people at random. First in Russia, and then all over the world. The word 'summon' means 'call forth'. Specifically, it means 'call something or someone which is over there to come and appear over here'. Why did he get it wrong? Oul's power isn't locked up in some extradimensional cloud, like mine. It's here. In reality. Oul - all of him - is in this universe already. He's just not here.
"He's not even in this galaxy yet.
"We've known he was coming for fifteen months. We've got no plan. Nothing. Nobody who knows the Script like you do is still alive. Zykov and the Imprisoner saw them all off, in one way or another. Teleportation is locked out, so we don't have lightspeed transposition. We don't have time travel. If we knew what we needed we could replicate what we need, but subnucleonic replication is gone. FTL comms are gone. Klick's Exit - heaven - is closed. Chorus Injection is closed. We don't have space arks. We don't have Orion. We don't even have the Space Shuttle anymore. We're down to spam in cans.
"Zykov did all of this deliberately. He was trying to make sure that humanity never left its planetary cradle. He didn't know me personally until the last moment; he was trying to keep us all in one place so that this oncoming disaster would befall all of us simultaneously and wipe out both my mind and all possibility of my being resurrected. He doesn't need to come closer than a hundred light years; a supernova at that range would strip most of the Earth's ozone layer instantaneously and it'd be the Ordovician-Silurian extinction all over again. Human life would be over in two years and so would 95% of all other species on the planet. That's the best-case scenario. But the calculations say he's coming straight here, and if he's coming straight here, there'll be no Earth left afterwards, just a fragment of metallic smoke.
"Nobody knows the Script like you do. Hood, Kosogorin, Davies, Murphy, Baird, Kuang, Akker, Nkube, Ashmore, Klick - all dead or missing, presumed. Your box manipulates exotic matter. It's the only hammer we have. Make this problem look like a nail, and then hit it."
"I can tell you now that there's no way you can kill Oul with what you know and what you've got. We know what that would take, and it would take hundreds of years of calculation. Maybe even millennia. No. Just do something to buy us the time. Take us to another galaxy. Take me to the other side of this galaxy, that would be enough. Make a region of spacetime where time passes a million times faster than normal. I don't care."
"Exotic matter can't do what you want," says Zhang. "And besides all of that I need my focal point. I need--"
Mitch Calrus holds out a small cubic box made of gold. "The Zhang device could have punched a hole in the world. You are not speaking to me, because I am not here. You have four days."
John Zhang is the only person left in the room. He tugs the wheeled stand from which his drip is suspended, and goes to the frosted window (he's wearing loose white hospital pyjamas, he discovers) and manages to prise it open far enough to look out. A lot of cold air breezes in, raising the hairs on his arms. It's a brilliant white day. There're more hospital buildings below, a loading yard with a couple of trucks parked. In the distance there's a city, and he sees pale grey smoke rising, like someone decided this was the perfect day for mist and decided to manufacture some. He listens, and just about catches the sound of an emergency siren or two. It's Year Twenty, he realises. There's soon to be someone out there with the strength of a million men. What nationality? Zhang wonders. What nation will they surely choose to conquer?
He laughs, and puts the golden box on his bedside table and picks up the sheaf of paper that's left there, and the cheap clipboard and the cheap ballpoint pen. He smiles to himself, a smile with a vague doubt behind it. Like he missed a paragraph in the book he was reading and now everything is making slightly less sense than it should.
John "Zed" Zhang begins to sketch his plan: the New Cosmology.