It's March 2017, two hours after Mitch Calrus left, not that he was ever really there, and John Zhang is sitting on a park bench in a deserted Moscow backstreet, building an Alcubierre drive.
It would be difficult to tell just by looking at him. Most of the drive's components are software; intangible machines built from structured patterns of information interlocking and whirring inside the confines of his brain. A sufficiently detailed model of reality is indistinguishable from reality. The only physical manifestation of the drive is a cubical gold box, two centimetres on a side, which is suspended in the air in front of him, gently rotating on one vertex. There's nobody around. It's freezing cold, as it has been all day, and the Sun's going down and the street lamps are turning on. The world is concrete grey, deep blue and brilliant orange. Oul's approaching trail of destruction is plainly visible in the darkening sky. He's due to arrive in ninety-four hours.
It is known that matter and energy warp the shape of spacetime. This is why, for example, objects in space fall into curved orbits rather than straight lines. The Alcubierre metric is a highly unconventional shape into which spacetime could, hypothetically, be warped. All it would take is a suitable arrangement of matter and energy, but there are two obstacles. For one, the matter must be exotic "un-matter", a substance which, while perfectly consistent with the laws of physics, only even exists hypothetically-- except, of course, for within the fertile and dangerous imagination of Eka Script savant John Zhang. The other is that the amount of energy must be enough to literally bring the farthest stars closer together; more energy than the entire observable universe has output in its lifetime; more energy than the Big Bang itself brought into existence. This second obstacle has been the more difficult to overcome.
But not substantially.
Zhang's information-energy exchanger is the third-simplest of the four dozen or so virtual components in his brain; a simple pipe with some control structures attached to it. He hooks one end up to the processor which will weave the exotic matter into the geodesic bubble he needs. And into the other end he simply feeds the tail end of the Script itself, a maximally dense information resource which in its full, incomprehensible length describes the entire Structure and everything in it.
And before the universe can pull Zhang back from the edge of self-destruction, he wraps himself in the bubble, causally disconnects himself from the rest of spacetime and begins accelerating towards Beta Virginis at three, twelve, fifty-one times the speed of light--
"We got her."
"I hear you--"
"No, Kcko, we got her! Yes!"
It's thirty-six hours after the coup, and Anne Nicola Poole, heretic, is being dragged out of the building by two tall, heavily-armed male Adherents to the Trail of the Indivisible Soul. The rest of the squadron creates a perimeter. They all have thick, dark hair in the same copycat style and neat uniforms with small, memorable, brightly chromatic insignia and, if they didn't know that it was impossible, they would have shot Anne dead right there in the Hall and they'd be dragging her corpse. Anne, now that she has been pulled out of the wreckage, is diminutive, silent and unassuming. Her hair is disarrayed and her clothes are torn, but she is not dazed, injured or frightened. She has done this, or rather, had this done to her, so many times that she has lost count.
There are thousands of protesting people waiting outside behind the cordon, but when they see her brought out they surge forward and scream as one, nearly breaking through. There is absolutely no reason to protect Anne Poole from mob justice, so the Adherents carry her to a high place and hurl her into the crowd. They fall on her like wolves. She's kicked, beaten, knifed and shot. The melee is so intense that the rioters are soon injuring each other quite badly in the futile attempt to hurt her. After a bullet ricochets off her forehead and kills a sixteen-year-old fanatic bystander, the Trail's Adherents decide to step in again. They drive the crowd back with warning shots and reclaim her.
There are eight launch sites within an hour's drive of Science City. Three of the platforms are hosting rockets undergoing preparatory procedures for space launch. Two of those are scheduled to launch to geostationary orbit in the next six hours. The Adherents - a religious order Anne Poole founded herself sixty years ago - wrap her in manacles and stuff her in the back of an armoured truck and set off for the further of the two.
A black bug-like aircraft lifts off from the roof of the Hall. For a moment it hovers, as if considering its options, then it accelerates to the west.
Mitch gains height as quickly as he can because what little he can see of the City looks like a warzone. The rioters in the streets are one thing - this far up in the air he is out of their reach. But he also sees big dust-brown military vehicles built like bulldozers, and squat crab-like things with four giant wheels and tank turrets, crawling down the wider thoroughfares spitting gunfire and shells seemingly indiscriminately into the nearby scenery. Yes, it's hot, that's mainly because it's noon and it's equatorial Africa, but much of the city is also on fire.
Something white-hot zooms in from a battleship way below the eastern horizon and hits another nearby waiting launch vehicle, about halfway up its external solid fuel booster. The entire thing goes up like a firework, total destruction in a fraction of a second - fragments of fuel tank and support gantry are hurled a mile into the air or a mile across the city. Once the fireball fades the shattered remains of the rocketship collapse in on themselves in that horrifying slow-motion way that only truly gigantic structures can manage. The shockwave rocks Mitch's aircraft. He fights it, and wins.
There are other aircraft here and there on the skyline, all of them moving like helicopters, mostly clustered in flocks. Mitch sees them from the cockpit and he sees them on the shrilly-beeping radar. They're lit up green, but Mitch doesn't know if green still means "friend" in the space year 22985 so he avoids attracting their attention and plots a course west away from the gunboats, hopefully out of their range.
All that and no hospitals. It's 22985. Mitch doesn't even know how to pronounce that number. Half an hour ago he was succumbing to the anaesthesia in a hospital in the south of France and he thought he was ready for anything.
Fifteen minutes and perhaps thirty kilometres later, Mitch manages to find what he has been looking for. The temple is difficult to miss because of the enormous gap it cuts into the network of artificial canyons. While impressively tall, with an attendant forest of towers and minarets, it is surrounded and overshadowed by vastly taller skyscrapers and decrepit launch towers. Its grounds are half a kilometre wide, walled off and paved with polished red and black tiles. The tiles make up an octopoidal Julia set fractal with the temple at its core, a steep and roughly octagonal pyramid built of reddish stone.
The chopper is powerful but the controls are clunky and imprecise. Mitch has to fight to keep it under control as he guides it into a landing. He lands in the square, in front of what he assumes is the main entrance. He pulls the chunky black plastic key out of the dashboard, which cuts power to the rotors. He climbs out of the cockpit as they wind down and runs around the front of the aircraft to collect Linisd, still unconscious, from the passenger seat. While vast, the square is deserted.
He hurries across the shimmering marble as fast as he can with Linisd in his arms. The archway leading into the dome is tall and wide enough that with some skill he could have flown right inside.
The interior is like a Stone Age cathedral. It has the recognisable features of a religious establishment: seating, a stage, a sizeable balcony with more seating, raised speaking platforms, altars, iconography, certain acoustic qualities. The roof's supporting columns, five metres thick at the base, are not Gothic or Roman, but crude round blobs of red rock, bloated at the bottom and tapering as they rise, as if made of slowly melting wax. The walls are decorated with murals which resemble cave paintings elevated to the scale and scope of Renaissance art without any improvement in artistic materials, tools or technique: while vast in size and fantastically detailed, they are simultaneously scratchy, angular, stylised and pointillistic and use a very narrow range of pigments outside of red-brown, black and white. Where Mitch would expect to see decorative masonry and intricate gold detailing, there are wooden sculptures of people and creatures, all elongated and exaggerated in proportion, as if sculpted by some alien who had only ever heard them described, and never seen one. Mitch sees feathers, leopard pelts, spears. Natural light pours in from a few dozen vertical slots carved towards the ceiling of the hall.
Even in the main auditorium there is nobody around. "Is anyone here?" Mitch shouts, his arms beginning to wear out. "I need help!" His appeal echoes out, unanswered. The temple, too is deserted.
In fact, this entire district of Science City has been evacuated. Mitch hasn't pieced it together yet, but he's standing in the quiet wake of an invasion. Miles to the west, there's a column of refugees streaming out of the city on foot and in motor vehicles and aircraft, while to the east, the invading forces of the Indivisible have already conquered more than half of Anne Poole's core network of vast Halls and Laboratories; her Science Citadel.
The temple's "hospital" continues the theme-- it looks like a Stone Age facsimile of a modern hospital ward. It is simply a long, low room full of haphazardly-arranged lumpy straw-filled mattresses covered with thick black blankets. The beds are empty. As Mitch crosses the room the unpleasantly biological smell of the room becomes drowned out by an even stronger chemical stink, something like ammonia. At the far end of the room he finds sinks, cupboards, an extinguished fire with a tripod poised over it, and even some refrigerated storage.
He lays Linisd on the nearest bed.
This is the pharmacy, then, but Mitch finds almost nothing resembling medicine or medical equipment. What he does find, in a few pots and refrigerated bottles and tubs, is pungent, labelled with inscrutable symbols rather than conventional chemical names, and therefore as good as poison from Mitch's perspective. Still, there are bandages, and water. He winds Linisd's arm in a sling of sorts, and then sits heavily on the bed opposite. He drinks, and allows himself one long blink. He feels exhausted, and he feels homeless.
Linisd eventually wakes up. Mitch asks her, "What's wrong with the sky?"
She replies, "The Sun is being consumed by a black hole."
Mitch looks up out of the window behind him, and the swollen, unhealthy Sun stares back. The black hole, invisibly small from this distance, is obviously well inside Mercury's orbit, angrily raiding the solar corona for plasma and linear momentum. He digests this information rationally, and does not panic. It was going to be his first guess. "Is the Earth falling in as well?"
"Yes. We have about six months before the planet becomes uninhabitable.
"Our universe contains two stars. The Sun, you see right above us. The other is Noct, the Far Star, which rises when the Sun sets and sets when the Sun rises, which follows us around the Sun in a way which defies the laws of gravitation. Other than the Moon and the planets, Noct is the only thing in our night sky. The planets orbit the Sun and the Moon orbits the Earth but Noct is always opposite the Sun from us in space. Which is impossible.
"It took us hundreds of years to realise what the Far Star actually is. It took us that long to build radio transmitters powerful enough to broadcast all the way around the universe and back and receive our own signals on a four-day echo.
"Noct is also the Sun."
Mitch Calrus doesn't know what that means.
"It means that if you go far enough in any direction you will come back to where you started. It means that this universe is a closed hypersphere with a circumference of just under seven hundred astronomical units. There is the Sun and there are the planets and moons and asteroids. The Sun is Heaven, from which all good things come. And the only other thing in the universe, Umbra, is a black hole, which is Hell, into which all evil will ultimately fall."
"That's how they'll kill her," Mitch says. "They're going to throw Anne into Umbra. Even though she's indestructible. Completely immobile in time."
"An immovable rock, and Umbra is an irresistible force," Linisd summarises.
"So what's going to happen when she hits the event horizon?"
"That very much depends on who is more powerful; the mysterious force which protects Anne Poole, or the mysterious force which created this universe and all its fundamental physical laws."
And what forces would those be?
In the time he has at his disposal, John Zhang knows that there is no way that he can save the world. Not alone. But the greatest discovery that anybody ever made was that even the Imprisoning God obeys laws.
So he manipulates God into doing it for him; he performs an act so abhorrent and dangerous to the underlying structure of nature that the universe itself has no choice but to step in, like a terrified parent removing a loaded firearm from the hands of a toddler. He plugs the entire infinite Structure into his brain, and as punishment, and precisely as planned, planet Earth and everything else within a 48 light-hour radius of Sol are placed into solitary confinement; dropped into a pocket universe of such infinitesimal relative size that there is no SI prefix to describe it. Alef is physically divided in two, with Umbra as the junction point where the two parts meet, a bottleneck in spacetime. The sudden disconnection from earth stings Oul to the quick, and the wavefront of an outbound gravitational wave alarms him, in as much as he is capable of any emotion other than raw hunger for destruction. When he arrives, just seconds behind the sterilising light of several dozen dangerously local gravitationally-induced supernovae, all there is left of his adversary's home system is a three-mile-wide event horizon. And after the brief delay while the Imprisoner rearranges the Solar System just the way humanity likes it, the Earth continues its path around the Sun, and the Moon continues its path around the Earth, and life goes on.
John Zhang is enveloped and then annihilated by impossible lightning somewhere beyond the orbit of Jupiter. The New Cosmology investigation never finds him, but does, after some years, confirm that it was he and he alone who saved the world. The information, along with a great deal more besides, does not survive Hot War I. And as for the rest of humanity? Yes, there were known terracompatible planets out there, but nobody realistically expected to reach them. From a pragmatic viewpoint, the universe never amounted to much more than scenery and nothing of value to anyone but astronomers was lost. Besides, Earth has always had enough problems of its own. What good are pie-in-the-sky dreams? Flying cars and jetpacks and cities on the Moon? We should fix our home planet before we can start thinking about that kind of thing. It's the only one we have, and it goes on. Why won't you get some perspective? Life goes on...