It's late on a sunny January afternoon in 2016 at the Mauna Loa Deep Background Observatory and Anne Poole and Mitch Calrus are sitting on the grass looking out over the island and the Pacific. They've finished their long, involved talk with the astronomers. The object depicted on the black and white printouts in their hands has gone through classifications from "LSEAT LocalSC 45-662ACE-199204/444KJ" to "Gray-Jordheim Object" to "Quasi-Quasarlike Celestial Object" and will shortly be reclassified as a "Supernova Stack Anomaly". It is not Oul. It is Oul's wake.
The United States Special Air Corps, formerly the Department for Special Flight Research, has almost a thousand Class VIs, a fistful of Class VIIs and who-knows-how-many stronger secret Powers on their side, enough to fight a near-silent, near-bloodless land war with nothing but radar support - not even medics, not even supply trains. They are hand-picked. They do good work. Overt work in bright uniforms. Some of them, as trained members of the coastguard, police and fire services, save lives at sea and catch criminals and rescue people from burning buildings. Some of them even speak. Nobody trusts them, except those who, with varying degrees of irrationality, trust them unconditionally. No other country has Powers. Nobody trusts the Powers. Nobody trusts the USSAC. Nobody trusts the US.
No, there are no Powers in the CIA. No, there are no covert Power missions. Provided that you listen to the official story and mentally blot out every international headline from the last five years.
No, the Middle East is not stable.
And those are the good supermen - the ones who were called forward on purpose, to help the world. The annuals? Those are still secret. Mostly. Partly. Not at all. Urban legend. Conflicting reports. No evidence. Faulty evidence. False evidence. There's Arika McClure (why would the Americans make a teenage girl be a Class VIII? UNLESS <increasingly ludicrous conspiracy theories>), and Arika McClure's story (partially substantiated, mostly denied by the SAC, plenty doesn't add up). Several people have connected the majority of the correct dots already, but the last dot that even they could possibly find is Rome, Year Twelve - since then, nascent annual Powers have been grabbed early, isolated and, through increasingly extreme measures, disposed of. They're still coming through, though. Despite every effort, they're still coming through.
"After Zykov killed himself I spent so long looking over my shoulder," says Mitch. "If he corrupted that many people's minds, how many others who I didn't even hear about? If he was dead, wouldn't I be home by now? Zykov had years. We know he went all over the world looking for talent. He locked out half a dozen vital techs that could have sent me home. And every year a new Power comes through, carrying his power with them. I thought it was just going to be a game of seeing how long before they became uncontainable.
"There's mind, and there's power. In that basement in Omsk I thought I was going to kill him. And it turns out I still haven't even seen the real Oul. I need all my power. Not these dribs and drabs spread over a million people who aren't me."
"We could brute-force the Script," suggests Anne.
There's a long silence.
Anne waits patiently while Mitch processes the enormity of her suggestion. The Script is sixty trillion bits long, but more importantly it is so informationally dense that nobody's decoded more than a few percent of it in all the years since it was discovered. Take a two-inch-thick chemistry textbook. Compress it to four pages of handwritten revision notes. Make a two-inch-thick textbook of the same density as those notes. Do all of this another dozen times and now you have the Script.
Mitch asks Anne how long it would take.
2017. It's past midnight, two thirds of the way down the 417-mile route that links the stupendously isolated hamlet of Flinke, Northern Territory to State Route 8 into Alice Springs. Mark and Sally Bryant aren't lost. It's a one-dimensional universe out here. There are only two directions, forwards and back the way they came, and their GPS is working perfectly. Nor are they as completely incompetent as Outback explorers can often be. They have enough food, water, fuel and survival training that by sunrise they could make it to Alice and quite a lot of the way back. It's not a bad vehicle to be driving and April's not a bad month for the trip.
But when the Jeep's head gasket gives up the ghost, and Mark has no choice but to declare their vehicle legally dead, they both get good and angry at one another. They were enjoying the experience of being further from civilisation than most people ever get to be, racing down the bumpy, barely-maintained "road" at sixty miles per hour with rocky sandy scrub surrounding them and the most glorious waltz of stars overhead (until a week ago neither of them had even seen the Milky Way, with naked eyes or otherwise), but that enjoyment was keyed to the fact that if everything went sideways they could, at any time, elect to leave the wilderness immediately and indefinitely.
Sally, fiftyish, has been married to Mark, fiftyish, for long enough that she can recognise the pattern of their argument. She quietly short-circuits it by skipping to the end, the point at which everything that can be said has been said, she is no longer cross, and she is in a position to dispassionately address the problem. Without a resisting force to rail against, Mark soon calms down too, and they begin to discuss what they are going to say when they radio the emergency services for a pickup.
A truck is dispatched from Alice. Given the circumstances - distance, urgency, preparedness, level of insurance - it'll take around three hours to arrive and cost them a couple of thousand Australian dollars. The fee is a problem. They really can't afford it. They will probably have to cut their holiday short. But being stranded is the immediate problem and cash is way off on the horizon. Mark says "It'll be fine" to Sally enough times that they both accept that it will, at some possibly-distant future time, be fine.
Eventually they get hungry. Sally climbs out of the car to retrieve food from the boot.
The emergency call is taken by Jacqueline Smith of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. Jacqueline is forty-five, has worked for the RFDS for more than half of her life, and has seen everything.
Mark Bryant is terrified but still, to his credit, coherent. "My wife's been bitten by something. I don't know what. You need to send someone here as soon as you can. She's catatonic and I don't think she's breathing properly and her ankle's swelling up like nothing I've ever seen. I can't-- there's a tow truck on its way already but they don't have a doctor with them and they're still hours out so you have to send a plane or something. We're talking minutes and seconds, not hours and minutes."
Jacqueline pushes the red button. "Give me your GPS coordinates."
Mark Bryant scrabbles for the satnav and rattles off a dozen digits of latitude and longitude, pinpointing their location in the desert to the east of Alice Springs.
Jacqueline Smith confirms every digit as it arrives and transmits the full coordinates to the airfield. "Okay, we now have an agent in the air bound for your location, estimated time of arrival is three minutes, ten seconds. If you have any large light sources, such as headlights, flares or flashlights, please activate them now so that you're clearly visible from the air."
"Did you say three minutes?"
"Yes, sir. Now please can you give me your wife's name and then describe her condition in as much detail as possible?"
"How can you possibly get someone here so fast--"
"Ms. McClure has a top speed of just over Mach 4, sir. Since she is not yet a qualified physician, she will retrieve your wife only, bring her to Alice Springs Hospital for emergency treatment and then return for you separately. Please tell me your wife's name and condition so we can prepare treatment for her."
"Does she need a runway?"
"No. What is your wife's name?"
Mark Bryant tells her his wife's name.
He is still describing symptoms when KOOM, something splits the air overhead and Arika McClure spirals in to land. She wears a green EMT's outfit with high-visibility stripes blackened by dust after the trip, and she's towing a sleek white single-occupant hypervelocity pod with a winking red signal light on top of it. Before Mark can react, Arika has the Jeep door opened and is carefully lifting Sally out head-first, forcing herself to move at minimum speed in order to avoid injuring her. This is the hardest part. The job is critically time-sensitive yet incredibly delicate, and she could do it in a fraction of a second if she simply relaxed for a moment.
Sally's entire lower leg is bright purple-black. She's unconscious and perspiring and her teeth are clenched, trapped in a painful nightmare. Arika's seen this kind of reaction a dozen times before, and it doesn't mean anything to her. Each of those patients received a different professional diagnosis, and a third of them died before they could be treated. Arika is not a medic yet. Being able to do an hour's studying in the space of fifteen seconds hasn't made her medical training any less tedious or difficult, and the simple years of experience she needs to become qualified can't be magically accumulated faster than the real world provides them to her.
Mark cries, "Is she going to be okay? I don't know what she was bitten by!"
"Don't talk to me. Talk to the doctors," explains Arika. She flips the HV pod's lid open with a well-practiced nudge of the foot, and straps Sally to the contoured couch inside it. She points at the radio in Mark's hand. "I'm just an ambulance. They know what they're doing." She ramps up in perceptual acceleration, studying his face. The man is shaking and close to tears. He's genuinely petrified and it's not because the poisonous creature (it was a snake, Arika knows from looking at the wound) is still around the place somewhere. It's because he doesn't want to leave Sally's side.
On an impulse, Arika strips off her wristwatch and sets it to count down. She puts it in Mark's free hand. "I'll be back for you in ten minutes. I promise. Get back in the car and stay there. Keep the line open."
She wraps a hand around the pod's steel towbar and levitates into the air until the pod is off the ground. She aims back down the track and within a second all Mark can see is the blinking red beacon. Another two blinks and there's nothing left. KOOM.
Mark gets back into the driver's seat and stares at the point in the sky where Arika and Sally were last visible. After a while he switches off the headlights so he can see better, but there is still nothing to see but the the Milky Way and crescent Moon.
Mark Bryant is one of the few people in the world who are watching the sky live when the Milky Way begins to erode, blackened out star by star by the rapidly pooling and merging black network of event horizons, as they enclose and coddle the Solar System.
Arika is moving down Route 8 at more than four thousand kilometres per hour when she feels the power begin to go out of her. She reacts instinctively and instantaneously, as if skidding on unexpected ice: she stops squeezing the mental trigger that accelerates her forward through the air and surrenders, as much as she dares, to drag, shedding speed and altitude. An instant later she realises that that's not going to do it and she splays herself across the front of the hypervelocity pod and starts actively braking it and forcing it to the ground as fast as possible, gee forces be damned. By the time the total celestial eclipse is completed and her last downlink from Oul's colossal cosmic energy reserves is severed, she is within a metre of the road - paved single carriageway, by this point - but still over the national speed limit.
She hangs onto the front of the pod as it ploughs nose-first into the concrete, bearing most of its impact herself. She continues to cling to the top for the first bounce, then loses her grip when it smashes down again a hundred metres further down the road. She hits the road separately and rolls, her power reserves evaporating and her cellular structure violently catching up with reality. The pod careens off into the crash barrier and comes to rest near the middle of the road, six or seven car lengths ahead of her, damaged but upright.
Seconds crawl past.
"I've lost power," Arika whimpers. "I can't fly." Nobody can hear her. Her radio is broken. I can't lift vehicles anymore, she thinks. I can't handle dangerous animals anymore. I'm going to have to buy food.
Arika can see Sally Bryant still safely buckled into her seat, illuminated by soft white interior lights. She sees no blood or obvious injuries, but from this distance, and having just hit the ground with her head (and shoulders, spine, ribs, hip and left ankle) that hard, Arika hardly trusts her own vision.
Even if the RFDS realises that her GPS tracker has stopped moving - or disappeared, which is more likely - and sends a plane immediately, it'll take at least thirty minutes for them to get to her last reported location. And even if the husband got out of the car and found the snake, there's no difference between a copperhead and a taipan when it's this dark, so there's no way of knowing what treatment to use. I can't fly anymore and Sally Bryant is going to die.
The red light flashes again. Arika realises that the real world is still moving at normal speed. She has spent the last twelve years automatically ducking into accelerated time whenever she needs a few extra moments to think about something. But that's another one of the million tricks that she'll never be able to use again. Minutes and seconds. Not hours and minutes.
Arika shakes the stars out of her head. Agonisingly slowly, she gets up. She walks towards the pod. Favouring her good leg and clutching her bad arm to stop it hurting, she manages a steady but wretched shuffle. She concentrates on the blinking red light on the pod, keeping it fixed in her gaze so each flash of the bulb imprints on the same point on her retinas, until she's near enough that she can collapse against the side of the pod. She reaches down - her cracked rib moves painfully and makes her wince - and prises open the equipment compartment with one hand. Two of the five trays of stored medical equipment slide partially out of their slots. Arika takes one of them and pulls it all the way out and onto the road. She is not a medic, but sometimes carries medics to emergencies when it's known that the patient can't be moved.
She slumps down with her back against the pod, and opens the box with her good hand. Inside it are a handful of individually wrapped syringes and two dozen small, cold bottles with extremely complicated labels. She finds the five that are labelled as snake antivenoms and reads them carefully in turn. She thinks about snake habitats and behaviour, envenomation symptoms and the controllability of side-effects. She takes an educated guess, and climbs back up the side of the pod for long enough to administer the injection to Sally's left upper arm. Then, light-headed, exhausted, lulled by the hypnotic winking of the red beacon, she lies down in the road beside the pod, and goes to sleep.
The tow truck finds them like that, an hour and thirty minutes later.
Sally Bryant lives. She is the two hundred and twenty-third life that Arika McClure has saved.
It's 2111, the very start of the era that'll eventually come to be known as "post-environment".
Anne Poole is fully clothed, but that's more of a concession to the legacy she represents than it is a concession to decency, or protection from the skin-searing, sand-blasting elements of the aftermath of the Hot War and the catastrophic Drop. When you are time's most remote outpost of humanity, everything you carry with you is significant. She wears clothes because humans wore clothes back when they existed. It's conceivable that a million years from now another intelligent species will arise on Earth and Anne will be responsible for communicating to them the fact that We Were Here.
That's all a sentient species can really hope to achieve, after all: to make a mark on the universe big enough to prove that there was a moment in history when there was a sentient species, in this vicinity, with the power to make that big of a mark. All that's left of the human race right now is Anne Poole, a network of fried, shellshocked cities gradually eroding down to stubs in the unstoppable sun-driven sandstorms and nitric acid rain, and some footprints on the Moon. It'll take time to erase all of it, but geology is a patient entity and astronomy ten times more so. Anne Poole has a lot of time on her hands.
There are still living creatures here and there on the cursed Earth. She has seen cockroaches and other insects scuttling about, and larger creatures with thicker skins which she hasn't been able to get close enough to properly identify, like the odd alligatory lizard. Whether they'll last out the radiation is anybody's guess. Whether they can survive the wind is anybody's guess. Three hundred miles per hour, the wind blows on bad days. They should call the world Venus II.
Of course, "anybody" is Anne Poole alone, now. And there's no "they".
She's tried to fly planes and helicopters but none of them are operational and she doesn't know how to fix them. She tries motor vehicles at random and sometimes they'll actually drive, but it's very rare that she finds a full mile of road that's intact and clear of debris. Sometimes, when a superhurricane comes along headed in the right direction, she builds a sail and wind-surfs. But for the remainder of the last N years, where N is a number she no longer remembers, Anne Poole has been picking her way east on foot.
There's no GPS, no electronic maps and precious little surviving paper. Now she's east of Germany, even the maps that are still legible aren't comprehensible to her, and there are no locals to ask for directions.
Still, she eventually makes it to Talmansk Raion. And she makes it to the city of Talmansk, and follows the beaten highway north through the hills, like a record-breaking quantity of construction vehicles and materials before her. She crests the final peak and spread out below her, largely immune to the elements, is the front end of a kilometres-long dome system, occupying the branching, concealed valley system like a complex fractal starfish, built of glassy ice-blue artificial diamond hexagons all tarnished a dusty black. The highway leads right up to its main entrance, which was closed and locked M years even before the disaster.
Its lights are still on.
She walks up to the airlock - two storeys tall, metres thick, with massive interlocking teeth - and begins banging on it.
Talmansk Arcology was international news. If there was still a living human anywhere in the world, Anne Poole knew it was going to be here. They have the vat-cloning technology she needs - the knowledge, that is. Maybe not the machinery, but that can be built. And in her backpack is a hardened storage volume containing six distinct backups of Mitch Calrus' brain. And if they're corrupted she knows where to go to get more: namely, anywhere. It was the most widely-distributed, intensely mirrored file in the world.
Anne keeps up the rhythm for most of a day, and at the end of the day, the airlock illuminates green and begins to grind open.
The Federated Shiftship Kardashev V passes the first advance warning beacon at a record-breaking velocity of almost one hundred and fifty thousand universes per second-- so fast that the second and third warning beacons are dopplering into its wake long before the ship's communications array has had time to decode, process and handle the first warning, let alone present it to the ship's captain for consideration and action.
All three beacons explain, in more than three quarters of a million distinct languages and in the most urgent possible terms, that Space As You Know It is about to run out, and that all passing shiftships should immediately begin braking to avoid running headlong into the solid far wall of the multiverse. That's a problem, though, because a regular shiftship is to the Kardashev V as a Honda Civic is to Thrust SSC. The KV was brought all the way out to its home universe's Oort Cloud to make sure that it didn't collide with anything else during its mission to circumnavigate the multiverse, and it's spent the last two years and a measurable fraction of the multiversal curve doing nothing but accelerate kata, and it's not able to brake substantially faster than it's able to accelerate. You might as well put a sign saying "Bridge out 1/4 mile ahead" in front of a train moving at half the speed of light. Captain Xaeyo and his crew of 332 have a little over eight hundred and sixty millionths of a second to live.
As luck would have it, Universe +1, representing as it does the last accessible universe on the entire multiversal strand, is where a lot of explorers fetch up. More frequently than not, these explorers reach this distance from home by employing the most fantastic science available in their home universes. Which means that this is where the fantastic technology accumulates, like driftwood. If there's anywhere in the multiverse that you'll be able to evacuate three hundred people from a distressed spaceship in less than a millisecond, it's here.
The MITT Array (it's a backronym) is an automated network of space stations distributed over an oblate hemihyperspheroid of 4-space centred on Earth +1, eight light years in diameter and fourteen universes tall. The beacon's warning, "An unknown ship is incoming at extremely high speed!", reaches MITT fractionally before the distress signal of the ship itself, and the portions of the array that will be needed to catch it are awake and operational just as the Kardashev V reaches Universe +12. Between +12 and +11 a MITT information agent negotiates access to the KV's encrypted information store, and from +11 kata it retrieves data in strict order of priority. It starts with the crew's mind-states. Each of the crew has a neural implant which performs a regular backup of their current mind-state to the ship's mainframe - "regular" being "once per second", meaning very little valuable life experience will be lost in the crash. Their saved minds can be resurrected electronically in pretty much any suitably approved virtual reality container, such as the five hundred or so bundled along with the mind-states.
Their physical bodies will be lost, unfortunately, so the next thing saved is the crew's genetic database. The ship will be lost too, but, in much the same vein, MITT is able to save its sensor logs and its blueprints.
MITT runs out the clock recording the live sensor feed as the ship hits the Wall, and many observers in nearby 4-space also tune in to watch what happens. Nothing this big's ever hit the Wall this hard. It doesn't penetrate, of course, but that doesn't mean there's nothing to learn from the explosion.
It's Sol Earth Gregorian Common Era Five Four Three Five. (It's probably a million other years, too, depending on where you're from and how you count them. Here at the edge of the multiverse, where all humanity eventually arrives, the popular epoch of late is the Yuur Unambiguous Era, in which the current year number is The Smallest Year Number Not Currently In Use Anywhere Else. It's currently YUE 189, but sooner or later a traveller is going to arrive whose own epoch was 189 years ago, causing YUE to conscientiously jump forward to 190 to avoid the clash.)
Universe +1 is the first of approximately 1.84E13 parallel universes arranged in a closed circle in hyperspace. Because most Earths are still, to within acceptable tolerances, firmly rooted to their original orbital track, stepping between parallel Earths is substantially simpler than stepping from planet to planet within a solar system, let alone crossing a universe to reach other stars. So even though many parts of the multiverse have FTL travel, the Earth-shaped core of the multiverse is where almost everything happens.
Almost every conceivable eventuality is happening out there on the strand somewhere, on some Earth. Every historical path has been taken, for better or worse. There is cross-universe communication, trade, cultural exchange, technological exchange, colonisation, invasion, conflict and war. There are perfect shining lights and completely extinguished graveyard universes which neighbouring Earths use for weapons testing. The skies above the more civilised, managed Earth-clusters are a blizzard of instantaneous flashes caused by shiftships travelling ana and kata along designated safe spacelanes, spending a fraction of a second in each intermediate universe in turn. Other regions of the multiverse, due to twists of fate, are yet to even discover multiversal travel, and patiently await first contact. Some of those uncontacted worlds are going to suffer when their neighbours come looking for gold, fresh water, territory, and room to dump their waste.
A very few Earths don't exist anymore.
Some of the Earths have adopted different names, "Eden" being the most popular choice, but most Earths are still called Earth. Some Earths have numbers, but most of the numbered ones number themselves 1 or 0, and go from there when numbering their neighbours. Which means that the first question Xaeyo is asked when he wakes up is not where he's from, but how far he's come to be here.
"I'm sorry. Where is 'here'?"
It's a freshly made bed in a clean white virtual hotel room overlooking a pool, a green lawn, a beach and an ocean. Xaeyo gets up, and he finds that he looks exactly like he's used to looking in virtuality: two metres tall, uniformed, broad-shouldered, with facial hair he's never quite figured out what to do with.
Virtuality is no problem to him; the only problem is that he's supposed to be on the Kardashev V's bridge.
The virtual man at the foot of his bed, a small, plump, older man with greying blond hair, explains what has happened to the Kardashev V and its crew, using diagrams and video footage.
"Please can you tell me how far from home you are?" he concludes. The man doesn't need to be asking this, because the information was pulled out of the ship with time to spare, but Xaeyo needs orienting.
"Almost four point seven trillion universes," he replies. "We were trying to map the whole multiverse."
The man nods. "That's correct. Well, you've succeeded as far as you were ever likely to. This is Universe +1. Unfortunately, it is impossible to travel beyond this point along the multiversal curve. There is a discontinuity in the multiverse. We believe that if you turned around and headed in the opposite direction, you would eventually encounter the same problem from the far side - there is almost certainly another universe, -1, there, confronted with the same conundrum as us. Captain Xaeyo, are you aware that there are walls?"
Xaeyo expresses polite incomprehension.
"There are walls surrounding and containing us. They prevent certain things from being possible. They block out certain features that the multiverse should have, but does not."
"Walls are built to be torn down," says Xaeyo, more or less automatically. He does not understand. And his feet itch. As a born explorer, standing still and not going anywhere always makes him feel like he is, in some way, wasting time.
"I agree. They nest, you see, and all of them contain this entire multiverse, as far as anybody knows. Except this one. It nests inside the others but it contains just one universe. Zero."
"And what's special about that universe?"
"We can't travel to it or communicate with it. Other than that, we don't know. Because we can't travel to it or communicate with it.
"There's supposed to be teleportation. Not the way we hack it, with deconstruction and reconstruction by nanobots; I mean true teleportation. And FTL communications. But they're walled off from us. Why? Well, this is why. Behind this wall is the reason.
"There's supposed to be an afterlife."
It was going to take twenty thousand years, using "brute force" (a subtle form of brute force, admittedly: an incredibly complex and unearthly powerful and mind-bogglingly resilient self-programming supercomputer), to unravel enough of the Script to successfully "earth" all of Mitch "Xio" Calrus' remaining power. Thanks to Zhang's sacrifice, humanity had now bought that time, and Anne Poole, for one, was almost certain to live long enough see the calculation through to the end. Mitch Calrus, though, was not. And Xio's mind had to be there, alive and operational in a capable shell, to receive the power at the end of the calculation. At that moment, the New Cosmology could be undone, Oul would attack, Xio would defeat Oul, and the story would be over.
So, conscious of his present shell's mortality, Mitch Calrus had himself backed up. Those backups were distributed as far across the world as he could finance. When Calrus inevitably died, which would happen hundreds of times before the calculation was complete, Anne Poole would arrange for him to be resurrected. In turn, whenever Anne Poole was abducted, buried, lost, stranded or marooned - and this, too happened dozens of times over the next twenty-odd millennia - Mitch Calrus sought her out, pulled her out of her prison using his four-dimensional powers and restored her mind to normal as well. And so they found one another, over and again. They kept one another sane, and together on their shared path.
In the mid-21st century, a series of more than a hundred nearly-identical, nearly-useless, linearly independent Script technologies had been discovered. Poole and Calrus built a device which could access, implement, plunder, abuse and overuse any of those eigentechnologies, such that each time it was activated, the Imprisoning God would take offence and wipe all coherent information off the face of the Earth to stop it. In metaphorical terms, the bomb was leverage; an altar upon which an aspect of science could be sacrificed in return for divine favours. A Ship of Theseus, it was completely replaced using spare parts more times than it was ever used, but in spirit it remained the same bomb throughout the calculation. Poole used it nineteen times altogether, at times when humanity came close to self-destruction, making sure, at great expense, that there would be something left to live happily ever after.
Anne Poole was immune to the bomb's effects, but Calrus and the supercomputers were not. Progress through the Script attack - critical to the endeavour, incredibly time-consuming to recalculate if lost, and most importantly quite tiny in real terms - was stored in the most resilient format practical, as binary data punched into metre-square plates of metal. Calrus' mind, weighing in at a cool pebibyte, was less easily duplicated - the volume of metal required would be measured in cubic kilometres. He was saved in secure bunkers, insulated and isolated as far as possible from the Imprisoning God's destructive reach.
The final Crash was instigated in 22730. It was significantly more powerful than expected.
Travelling solo, Poole visited bunkers in (regions previously known as) Lesotho, Mauritius, Mogadishu, the Bayuda Desert, the Arabian desert, Kazhakstan and two in Russia. The final and most secure was at the North Pole, on the very far side of the Earth, which she eventually reached four years after the Crash. Every copy of Calrus' mind-state had been corrupted. There was nothing left but noisy binary.
There was no copy of Calrus left anywhere on Earth.
In the early 21st century, very shortly after memory surgery first became practical but before it became cheap, two hundred and fifty people paid to have their mind-states stored alongside the battery of conventional scientific instruments on the TRIDENT space probe. TRIDENT was sent to observe Neptune and ultimately land on its moon Nereid. It would continue transmitting data until its radiothermal generator ran out, half a century later, and then lie dormant until it was destroyed by an asteroid, most likely billions of years later still.
Mitchell Calrus was one of those people.
And so, thousands of years later, Anne Poole went to Science City, set herself up as a God and created Empyreanism, the Religion Of Space, in which the sky and planets were Heaven, which humanity had to reach and visit in person in order to obtain salvation. At the expense of all other scientific and social progress, aerospace engineering and astronomy and their related disciplines became the only important undertakings in the world. "Go into space. God says you must. Nothing else matters." The first manned space launches happened within two hundred years. The Moon was reached ten years later and Mars twenty years after that-- most of that time being transit time.
It was during this time that Umbra's anomalous position (off-centre, nowhere near where the God-Empress directed her astronomers to search) and velocity (inbound towards the Sun, due to arrive in a matter of centuries) were discovered. It was also during this time that, in countries not directly under the God-Empress's control, the Empyrean Message became corrupted into, among other forms, the Trail Of The Indivisible Soul. The Sun became Heaven, Umbra became Hell, the duplication of human mind-states became a religious abomination punishable by death, and significant and inconvenient prophecies regarding Anne Poole, Umbra and the end of the world arose.
This is how close it was: The one-way manned mission to Neptune reached its destination on the same day that the invasion of the Empyrean Empire began. The shelling of Science City began fifty-five minutes before the download from TRIDENT did. The Empyrean Empire was overthrown and Poole herself was captured just hours later, and Calrus - despite disorientation from his journey across such an enormous span of time - escaped to the Underground by a margin of seconds.
From the passenger seat of their aircraft, Amarkaya directs Mitch to fly to a rendezvous point in Kaphir, a smaller settlement west-southwest of Science City, which was hit and overrun by invading forces days ago, and now stands deserted. On her instructions, Mitch lands the aircraft in the town square at the foot of the steps of a large pillared governmental building. Then he climbs out of the cockpit, scratches an Empyrean design in the dust underfoot, and waits.
Hours pass without incident. Mitch occasionally sips water from a bottle, and tries to shield his eyes from the setting Sun as it moves between the nearby shells of bombed-out office buildings. Amarkaya quickly falls asleep again. At dusk, bored, and having spent as much time as he thinks is reasonable holding it in, Mitch wanders away and takes a leak against the aircraft's rear landing gear.
As he's finishing up he hears a noise. He turns back around and there are two black-clad soldiers with guns pointed at him, having assembled silently like ninjas. (There are aspects of their uniforms and shoes which allow them to move so quietly, but Mitch never gets the chance to ask about them.) Mitch raises his hands, and half a dozen more soldiers in more conventional gear (and making a more conventional amount of noise) appear from behind walls and inside nearby buildings. They converge on the aircraft. One of them goes to the cockpit, opens the passenger door and begins rousing Amarkaya.
They don't look hostile, just pathologically cautious. "I think we're on the same side," Mitch suggests to them. But it seems like Amarkaya has been recognised, and she has begun to explain the story.
After twenty thousand years, it transpires that Anne Poole has learned how to create, inspire and arm an extremist religious underground.
The surviving network of Empyreanists is a powerfully-motivated, compartmentalised organisation of cells, roles and codenames. They're frighteningly hard-edged men and women (and children), capable of any act imaginable if it will bring the final two copies of Xio's mind - Mitch himself and the slab of metal Anne pressed into his hand in her last seconds of freedom - to the Antarctic calculation node. This is their purpose in life. Their world is ending and this is the only thing that can save them. That people will change radically under such extreme circumstances doesn't surprise Mitch, but these people are prepared. They've been training for this insane situation, putting together a network of transit vehicles and escorts and handoffs with the sole purpose of catapulting a single man from Science City all the way to Cape Town and then onwards to the South Pole as quickly as possible, at any cost.
Calrus' party's journey to the southern tip of the African continent is rough, eventful, difficult and time-consuming. Leaving aside the eternally disputed territories through which they are covertly attempting to travel, and the hostile presence of what seem to be entire armies and countries bent on the destruction of every aspect and inhabitant of the Empyreanist Empire, they are also pursued by heat. The journey takes weeks, during which the Earth falls millions of kilometres closer to the Sol/Umbra binary system. Earth is not spiralling inevitably into Umbra, because spiral orbits don't exist. A black hole is not a magical cosmic magnet; it can be modelled as a point mass like any other and the laws of orbital mechanics apply to it as much as any other object (outside of its event horizon). Earth is merely adjusting to a new, elliptical orbit with an intolerably hot perihelion.
There is no singular point at which a planet becomes uninhabitable to human life, but an absence of drinkable water suffices, and the average surface temperature at the Equator is going to pass boiling point before this is over.
Mitch ducks when he's told, and runs and shoots when he's told. He phases, reconnoitres and kills when his four-dimensional powers are needed. He watches himself do these things, disconnected. On many occasions he is called upon to assure himself and others: "I will be able to reset everything to normal. Instantly. Once I have my power back."
Their ship reaches the Antarctic coast days later than expected, in dangerous and unpredictable sea conditions precipitated by the unprecedented ramping-up of global temperature. Cold-weather gear is not necessary as they board the helicopter and continue to head south across rapidly liquifying ice shelf and enormous impassable white rushing rivers and, in places, exposed rock. Antarctica's body is sloughing away under the intensifying Sun. It is being blasted down to the bone.
When they reach the coordinates where the enormous granite geodesic dome is supposed to be located, it isn't there. The landscape has changed too much. The building has been carried away by moving ice. But it was always a complete sphere, not a dome, and it floated on the ice, rather than being built on top of it, allowing it to roll and drift with the flow - up to a point, anyway. It has left a trail wide enough to follow from the air.
A horizon north they catch up with it. It has fallen into an enormous rocky crevasse, where sharp outcroppings have dented and punctured its roof and destroyed its structural integrity. There's just enough of the granite shell left for Mitch Calrus to be able to see what the machine inside it was supposed to look like - all intricate golden and steel and silicon gears and cylinders, now bent and broken by the drop and impact. There are hexagonal granite pieces weighing tens of tonnes littering the floor of the icy canyon. There are plates of metal punched with holes. There are crushed supercomputers. The half-shell that's left is slowly filling with ice and icy water flowing into the crevasse from the south. It's a trainwreck. It's a broken, drooling egg.
Despairing, Calrus commands the pilot to bring them in through the huge hole in the dome's roof, and descend as close as possible to the hub at the centre of the shell, where four walkways radiate out at right angles towards the rim of the dome.
"Poole said you'd know what to do. She said it would be obvious," someone shouts over the aircraft's rotors.
"Obvious?" Calrus shouts back. "What's obvious about this? Other than the fact that the whole thing has been smashed to pieces? Look at the ice build-up. This can't have happened more than a few days ago. We were just late. I crossed millennia. I got out of Science City by the skin of my teeth. I came all this distance and worked for all this time, and you didn't get me here quickly enough. She spent two hundred and fifty years building a spacefaring civilisation to rescue me, and we were late." A million things which have cost him time race through Calrus' head. "I thought this dome thing was safe. I thought the calculation was finished and the result was waiting for me, I'd just have to say some magic words and it'd all be over. And I could go home."
"It is all over."
"Who are you talking to?" asks a third voice.
"Do you hear it, Mitch?" the first continues. "There's no such thing as time travel. Backward or forward. You can't get out of the trap like that, it's capped at both ends. Which means a point must come when you can't go forward in time any further. And you have to stop and turn back. Or die."
"Which one of you said that?" shouts Calrus, turning around and facing the other three occupants of the helicopter.
"Said what?" replies one of them. "Who are you talking to?"
"I warned you," says the first voice, still somehow behind him. "Do you hear it coming?"
The aircraft explodes. POOM.
Anne Poole, after a month of travel, has reached Umbra. Thanks to the enormous gravitational gradient, she cannot move. Her arms are clamped to her sides and her toes are pointed straight down into the black hole. Her capsule and restraints have long since been torn away from her and crushed into atoms by the same tidal forces. She would see momentary flashes of distorted light from the Sun and other captured photons above her, if her eyelids weren't held closed under tonnes of their own weight.
Anne Poole has no way of knowing what is happening on Earth, if the word "is" even has the usual meaning in a region of such intense spacetime distortion. She finishes up her magic spell. Still intact, immovable, she hits the event horizon at a respectable fraction of the speed of light, with her protected synapses still able to fire information at one other, even while semi-infinite gravitational forces try to prise her apart at the quark level.
And nothing gives. Spacetime screams contradiction and paradox, and there is an instant during which the laws of physics and even the Imprisoning God itself all drop into failure mode-- an instant during which an intelligent mind, suitably positioned, is able to make a decision about what happens next.
At the expense of her own life and a technology which, if allowed to grow to fruition, would have come to be known as Secondary Functional Singularity Modulation, Anne Poole chooses to dissolve Umbra. She disintegrates in an instant. The kink in spacetime untwists, the Solar System reconnects to the rest of the universe. Oul attacks. He blows up the Sun first; it's nearer. Then he loops in space and accelerates towards the nearest powerful beacon of intelligent thought, which is Earth.