"There goes the Sun."
The swollen solar disc begins to dim, areas of its surface switching off in ugly black blotches as wide as worlds. Out of the sabotaged star shoots an actinic blue pinprick, arcing around to bear down on Earth, currently host to some one point zero five billion souls. Moving at a respectable and increasing fraction of the speed of light, he'll arrive in just minutes, hitting the Antarctic first, hard enough to punch a hole right from one side of the planet to the other. The shockwave from the supernova will follow a few minutes later. There'll be nothing left but ionised plasma.
Anne Poole is dead. There is no Calculation, no Script Solution, no Power. A war which spanned twenty millennia, and inexpressibly gigantic tracts of hyperspacetime besides, is accelerating to its conclusion. Humanity-Zero is over.
Mitch hits the catwalks feet-first, but it's icy and on an angle and he slides uncontrollably. Shards of exploded helicopter rain down around him. If it was ever time, it's time--
London St. Pancras International looks brand new, and compared to other London rail terminals it practically is. All tasteful modern concrete, interactive customer information screens, champagne bars and expensive book stores. Clean, bright, spacious, airy-- all in stark contrast to, say, its sister station King's Cross, just over the road, whose low, dark ceilings have been soaking up industrial pollution for a century and a half. You can get to Paris on the Eurostar in less than two hours and that's exactly what Ching-Yu Kuang is intending when he runs into Mitch Calrus, changing trains on his way to Edinburgh to see friends.
It turns out that they both have time to kill. There's a pub in the station, and ironically its only real failing aside from the unavoidable crowding and impersonable, transient clientele is that it, like the station, is brand new. Pubs are difficult to build old, though.
They steal a pair of stools at the bar and order a pint apiece. "It's you, then," Ching begins. "Still here? Coping?"
"It gets easier to tolerate," says Mitch, "but I still get the dreams about the rest of the Structure. Anne helps me with it. She understands it better than anybody else I've met."
"Anne Poole. I never mentioned this?"
"The Anne Poole? The one who lost her mind."
"I've helped her find it again. So we have a comfy symbiosis going on," explains Mitch. He glances at Ching, and frowns, puzzled.
During the pause, they drink again.
"Are you still trying to find a way home?" Ching asks.
"I just don't know. I mean, Oul's got to still be out there somewhere, or this whole mess would have dissolved by now. I just don't know where on Earth he could be, or how I could find him."
"I was thinking about that," says Ching. "I study the Script. It's all anybody studies these days. But the amount of stuff locked out to us is becoming unpleasant. Everybody knows that trying to implement these designs always ends in death for anybody involved, but they keep trying it on, with compartmentalisation and remotely-controlled automated fabrication. Did you hear about this exec in Spain who's on trial? It turned out that he had about two hundred and fifty people working on parts of a single supertechnology and none of them had any idea what the full picture was. They were having fatal accidents. More than a dozen of them. And they were just working on the smallest, most innocuous pieces of the puzzle. You get nowhere, now.
"Science is over, do you see? Roadblocked. Until we can send you home. Teleportation, replication, antimemetics. There will never be FTL. Even if it works once, it'll break right after."
Mitch Calrus has been getting visibly uneasier as Ching has been speaking. "I've never heard of antimemetics."
"An antimeme is the opposite of a meme. A meme is any idea with a self-replicating property, a hook which causes people to disperse the idea to other people. Any world religion is a meme. Memes can be attached together, they mutate, and they reproduce, like genes do. An antimeme is the opposite. It's an idea with self-censoring properties. An idea which is repulsive. People who have the idea discard it. They don't share it. They try to prevent it from spreading. Secrets. Scandals. 'The public must never know about this.' 'We don't talk about X.'"
"But something that simple is a supertechnology?"
"Oh, sure. You could weaponise it. It'd be completely different from brainwashing or mind-wiping or censorship. You could make a device which could antimemeticise anything you wanted. Or anyone. And then nobody would give a second glance to that person. They'd be an unperson. A ghost, drifting through the world. Even close family would forget that that person had ever existed. They'd just mentally edit him out of their memories and experiences. They might even disappear from photographs and videotapes and public records. And nobody would ever notice."
"That sounds like a terrible thing to do to somebody," says Mitch. "Ching, are you okay? You... look ill."
"I'm fine. You're right, it was a terrible thing to do. Because someone was erased. Not a thing, a person. Antimemetics were locked out years ago, but it took me years to see through this 'magic eye pattern' and see the extra Script Amendment which had been hidden there in plain sight the whole time. You see, the victim might still exist in some way. If somebody really had been erased from the universe like that, their only hope of being found again would be if someone spontaneously decided to look for ghosts. They could be right here in this room, unable to get anyone's attention no matter how loud they shout. Don't get up."
Mitch, who has hurriedly picked up his backpack and started to leave, freezes in his tracks. Ching hasn't moved and isn't even looking directly at him. "I'm going to miss my train," says Mitch.
"You are not going to miss your train. I have some questions for you." Ching drinks. Casually. Mitch turns and sits back down, as if being forced by an unseen hand. He places both his hands flat on the bar, framing his half-empty pint glass, concentrating. There's something wrong with your brain, he thinks. Or mine.
Once Ching has put another finger of beer away, he continues. "Why am I the only person who remembers the name Thomas Muoka?"
"I don't know who that is," says Mitch.
"Of course you don't. That's not what I'm asking. There were five of us on the roof of the Medium Preonic Receiver that night. You remember four. You, me, Seph Baird and Mike Murphy. We saw you do magic that night. But Muoka was there too. And that's the last thing that happened before antimemetics dropped out of the Script and Tom Muoka dropped out of the universe, like neither of them ever existed. Why do you think that is?
"Here's another. I do know Anne Poole. Actually, I've been following her case quite closely. I knew you two are involved together. How did Anne Poole recover her mind so fast? The sensory deprivation specialist, Srin Shapur, said that she was going to be vegetative for decades. How come her recovery began right after you volunteered to work with her? How come, after just a few years, she's as articulate and powerful a physicist as she ever was? And she's working for you now?
"And another. We saw impossible things. We shared a vision of the Structure and your war. And we all believed you when you told us your story. That's wrong. We had what amounts to a religious experience, but we didn't test it. We just fell into line and started working for you, trying to send you home. Why didn't we challenge you? We're supposed to be scientists.
"Mikhail Zykov was smart, manipulative and powerful. He surrounded himself with scientists who knew more than he did and politicians with more power than he had and he brainwashed them into helping him achieve his goals. He created false ideas and put them into other people's minds. He was a telepath. Does this sound familiar, Xio?
"What did Muoka see which we didn't?"
"First of all," says Mitch, "you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. Second, I have enough mental control over these sheep that I could kill you right now in front of them and never serve a day--"
Scintillating white light coruscates from one of Ching's hands. He has a blue-black metal cube clenched in one fist, and the light is escaping through the cracks in the box's welds and the gaps between his fingers.
Mitch stumbles backwards, tripping over his stool and holdall, and tries to run for the door, but Ching catches his arm. "There's no use running. This thing has a range measured in miles."
Mitch stares wide-eyed at Ching for a moment. The man's mind is a locked door. His face is a picture of calculated fury. But the pub is full of people (none of whom have noticed or reacted to the detonating weapon of mass destruction in Ching's hand). And the station outside is equally densely packed and King's Cross Station is fifty yards away and there's a major Tube interchange below the two as well. "You'd kill thousands," he says. "You're bluffing. Feet, at most--" Mitch tries to phase his arm through Ching's grip. It doesn't work. Suddenly, instantly, he is properly frightened for his life.
He charges forward, effectively picking Ching up and slamming him against the wall where it meets the bar. For a moment Ching is stunned by the blow to the back of his head, then there's a struggle and he swiftly has Mitch in a rudimentary headlock. Mitch kicks off the wall, but by now the light is so bright that neither of them can even see what's actually happening and they trip over the tipped stool. They hit the floor hard, Ching mostly on top. Mitch recovers fractionally quicker and tries to scramble out from under Ching, smashing his head into the bar as he does so. For a split second he manages to completely free himself from his opponent's grasp. During that split second, the box goes nuclear.
When everybody in the bar can see again, there's a metre-wide circle of scorched wood flooring where Ching was.
Where Mitch was, which is centimetres outside of the blast radius, there's still Mitch.
It's a legitimate problem.
The prison in which Alef is suspended is impregnable and inescapable in all known conventional and unconventional spatial directions and, any time another path is discovered and tested, another, narrower set of walls is erected to block those off. There was a time before the walls existed, but the prison is now capped at that end, too - no time travel, no closed timelike curves, no possibility of escape via the singularity at the origin of the universe.
There will also be a time after which the walls cease to exist. Eventually, there will be an instant of total entropy, the Omega Point which no finite energy resource can stave off eternally and beyond which nothing coherent will ever exist. A point when all Alef's intelligent life - cosmic or otherwise - will have passed; when the walls are no longer necessary and the Imprisoning God, task completed, will have expired too.
It is towards this point that Ching is hurled, clinging to his osmium cube, tossed and dragged down the frothing white timestream like an unmanned rubber raft. He accelerates to more than eight thousand five hundred years per second before the Imprisoning God catches wise to what he is trying to do and rips Standing Wave Time Suspension out of Alef's configuration. Ching coasts for a decade as the timestream evaporates and then drops back into real space, crash-landing over the course of a six-week span of late 230th-century London. The impact is devastating, but the build-up of radiation and vibration preceding it means that the surrounding portion of the city has long been evacuated by the time Ching lands. He arrives in a city as ancient and storied as any of this era, seemingly built alternately from hundred-metre-tall skyscrapers and giant redwood trees, the two species of structure interlocking and competing with one another for sky.
After things cool down, Ching is recovered from the blast zone, frazzled but alive. The locals speak to him in sophisticated variations of languages which are utterly alien to him and which he does not speak, but he quickly realises that he can simply look into their heads and pull out the word/idea combinations he needs. The biggest obstacle is pronouncing the unfamiliar syllables back to them. His first attempts are at the "lost tourist with phrasebook" level, but after a solid week doing nothing else his only problem is a bizarre accent and a tendency to stumble over implosive consonants.
Travel across this future Earth is difficult. There is a vast amount of pre-existing road and rail infrastructure, up to and including a pressurised submerged maglev tunnel crossing the entire North Atlantic Ocean, but the state of repair varies from "good" to "nightmare-inducingly dangerous" depending on the terrain and the distance from civilisation. The North Atlantic Crossing is broken in dozens of places. Modern humanity seems to be not long out of the Stone Age, and still tied to what Ching would call naive conceptions of the origin of the world and all the wonders in it. They have notions of machine health, and machine spirits. They regard transit infrastructure as a circulatory system of a living planet. At almost every junction is a minor or major monument to a different guardian angel of travel, the God of Market Square, the God of the Former A20, the God of the Flooded Chunnel (Coquelles Terminus). Many of the monuments have memorials or burnt offerings beneath them, and every time Ching switches from one mutant vehicle to another, or from one principality to another, it involves at least two of a blessing, a chant and a toll.
Collecting information, by comparison, is easy; disturbingly so. Ching consciously tries to exercise restraint but the alternative is to become overwhelmed by a world he no longer remotely understands. Just asking "Why?" is enough to cause the true answer to condense out in the mind of the person he's asking, so fast that Ching often loses interest and stops listening to the oversimplified, misleading or simply mendacious verbal explanation. Even so, it takes him an extraordinary amount of time to uncover any kind of truth about the circumstances leading to the present situation of the human race. It is a blind spot in history, and all he can do is explore its edges.
The trail leads him south.
This is all the result of a dire miscalculation.
He had hoped to catch hold of Calrus and ram him headfirst into the far wall of the timestream. Calrus would be crushed in the attempt, sieved out of spacetime, leaving behind Ching and the rest of the human race. With Calrus dead, there would be no reason for the Imprisoning God to continue to exist, the walls would collapse, and humanity would be able to continue onwards, alone, to their rightful destiny. Ching reckoned that the Imprisoning God would be primed and waiting on a hair trigger; that its intervention would occur within a year of travel.
Without Calrus in tow, though, the threat of the escape attempt was drastically lessened and God took tens of millennia longer to react. Ching knows that there is still a temporal wall looming some time in the future, but it could be anything from hours to decades away. And a glance at the (unexpectedly starless) sky reveals that decades are not available.
And then, as he travels towards Empyrean territory and he encounters the minds of more knowledgeable astronomers and theologians he comes to understand the truth: the universe has been sundered; Oul is real; Oul is still alive.
He was wrong.
Mitch hits the railings. He hangs on. The drop below him is a hundred metres into an abyss full of frozen, tangled mechanical equipment and broken rock. The railings are iced up and almost impossible to get purchase on.
"She was an agent of the Imprisoning God," bellows Ching from far above Mitch's head. Ching is standing on air, radiating stolen heat and light, dumping waste Power. "So you broke her brain down and rebuilt it yourself so that she would spend an eternity serving you and then kill herself so you could win the war. Where should we be? After twenty thousand years?"
"I was never your Adversary," Mitch screams back. "You made a mistake. How can you argue with that thing in the sky? It would have exterminated your entire species if I hadn't saved you. I saved your whole world from itself! A dozen times!"
"You saved yourself! I don't think you understand the scale of what we've been denied! We could have taken every star. We could have circumnavigated this universe. And this is just the lowest rung on the Structure. But all possibility of salvation was taken from us as soon as we knew it existed, before we could comprehend the magnitude of its implications, before we even had a chance to process the colossal theft which was happening in front of us. We should have lived forever, but the door to an uncountable infinity of possible afterlives was closed to us because of a single, petty, stupid creature which decided we were acceptable collateral."
The sky is dimming, as if night is falling. The malevolent blue pinprick in space is right overhead and growing in intensity. They have seconds at most. Mitch screams that killing him will not save anyone. Ching replies that he knows. The rage radiating off him is palpable, washing over Mitch's mind so powerfully that it makes it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Mitch can only hang onto his slippery railing with both hands while white light, heat and noise saturate his senses. He feels electrostatic charge building up in the catwalk and hairs rising on his arms. Soundlessly, unable to tell whether he is even moving his mouth properly, Mitch asks Ching what he should have done. A few seconds pass.
"You're going to want to watch this," Ching replies, his voice cutting effortlessly through the building scream.
In an eyeblink Mitch is a mile away, watching a brilliant yellow humanoid accelerate into the sky on a lightning bolt's zigzag course, rising to meet Oul at an altitude which surely won't come to more than a few light-seconds. "Xio!" shouts a human voice behind him, and he turns to see his three soldiers and helicopter pilot, rushing forward to meet him. "What happened to you? What happened to us?"
"Someone got to the Solution before it was destr--" is all Mitch can say before the noise of Ching's launch catches up and flattens them all.
The first thing Ching does is overclock his brain, pushing the virtual control all the way forward until it breaks. He's a hundred thousand kilometres above the Antarctic and still accelerating and about to hit Oul fist-first at a combined velocity which he would need a Lorentz transform to accurately calculate. Still, Oul has the upper hand in terms of sheer speed, and a simple application of the law of conservation of momentum has them both hitting the ground again within a matter of two more seconds. Ching has that long to end the war.
Each superhero was twice as powerful as the last. This went on for twenty years, and then...
Oul is humanoid, and this is the only thought that Ching has time to process before absorbing the entirety of Oul's opening seven attacks, all of them energy-based and equivalent to titanic, tightly focused nuclear weapons. In an instant Ching is improvising and constructing force-field shields to protect himself-- force fields being an entire technology which he had no idea even existed before he ramped up his intellect. He retaliates with a half-formed attempt at a force-field punch, flanked by multidimensional energy attacks of his own and a steel-sharp mental directive which, all things being equal, should eviscerate Oul's brain of all intelligent thought, leaving him docile. This does not work. Oul not only shrugs off the blow, but starts breeding secondary offensive units. Ching instinctively does the same and rapidly loses track of the war. With further attacks converging on him and absolutely no idea what he is doing, Ching grants some autonomy, a lot of intelligence and a monumental injection of firepower to his external pawns and the fight instantly blossoms to a hundred times its original diameter. Then Oul finally physically collides with him, so hard that Ching's physical manifestation momentarily disconnects from his perceptual centre - he is borne back down to Earth so fast that he can barely keep up with his own body.
Ching senses that he is losing the initiative. There are people on the rapidly rising continent down there - he clenches one fist and moves them out of the way, not knowing or caring how, but causing two dozen more minor Amendments to switch on at the tail end of the Script. With the loss of mobility, the war among the pawns at the interface between him and Oul becomes noticeably slower and simpler to follow. That will work as a battle-level tactic, Ching thinks. Use and abuse. Take away all his aggressive outlets.
But that will take away all of mine. Ching manages to gain the upper hand in the tussle, turns, uses Oul as a live shield and switches every particle of Antarctica from "mass" over to "energy". ("No," warns the Imprisoning God, in stern, blunt Eka: "In this universe, you do not pull stunts like that. There is a limit. You are racing towards it.")
The sparkle, flash and catastrophic outrushing shockwave from the detonating continent will easily be enough to wipe out all life on Earth. But there'll be a critical delay before the shockwave starts hitting inhabited countries, and now that Ching has used this trick, Oul can't use the same on the planet itself or the people on it. Ching locates the null spot in Oul's energy wake-- the point directly behind him where all his shields neatly intersect with one another-- curls into a ball and rides out the shock. Oul, caught off-guard, bears the brunt of the entire explosion. Easily. Then turns, and resumes the fight, with negligible damage, yet greater aggression and the same furious purpose: EVERYBODY DIES NOW.
It has no mind - that's how it withstood the first kill-command. All it has is firepower. Even within punishing and rapidly contracting constraints, Oul is unimaginably stronger. The thought occurs to Ching that the two of them could battle until they were invisible points fighting for control of a zero-dimensional universe, and he would still be hopelessly outclassed. Xio and Oul were both of effectively infinite capability. But there are levels of infinity. That was how this all began in the first place.
I'm just thinking faster. I'm still stupid. Did I even have a Plan B?
So that's the full two seconds elapsed, and Ching hits ground zero like a kinetic harpoon and keeps going, driven into the molten crust and then the Earth's mantle by Oul at his back. He shapes his shields into something roughly hydrodynamic so that he can slip relatively smoothly through the kilometres of black liquid rock but it's an ugly dive and his defences are still being torn away in thick layers as they carve downwards. How do I beat this creature? Does it even have weaknesses? We held it off with a black hole. It can't violate SR. But functional singularity modulation is gone.
Gravity. Gravity is its weapon.
"No. That is not something you can do."
He has milliseconds before real human lives are going to start ending. And, under this much pressure, short of directly asking for divine intervention to finish the fight for him, there's nothing else he can think of.
Ching raises one hand ahead of him and delivers a series of complex commands to the fabric of reality. At first it looks like nothing has resulted, but then they pass through the interface between the lower mantle and upper core and erupt out into what is now a seven-thousand-kilometre-wide bubble of vacuum that Ching has torn in the centre of the Earth. Freed from the rock, Ching accelerates forward out of Oul's grip, stretches and re-establishes as much of his shield array as he can. Oul screams and pursues him, drawing gravitational power from the aether to defend itself. But Ching gets there first, taking hold of the still-contracting globule with both hands, pivoting around it and coaxing the superdense material into a handgrip. Above them, planet Earth begins to implode.
Oul is too late and begins decelerating while Ching wrenches the impossible spinning zettatonne weapon around to face it. Spacetime twists and cracks and light and energy bend with it and the rainbow firestorm around them dims and shuts off as self-defence takes priority. Oul's image wavers and changes size as it tries to construct a gravitational sink intense enough to divert the attack elsewhere, but Ching can see reality changing and simply waits until all the graphs meet before firing a bullet with the mass of the Moon at his opponent.
And that's the moment. The walls come down. The Script opens up. The End.
There are parallel universes.
Agents from those that are immediately ana and kata around the multiversal curve arrive in Alef within microseconds. The surface of the rapidly self-destructing planet Earth-Zero is swept molecule by molecule for intelligent human life and evacuated with time to spare. Quite a lot of the more historically significant features of its surface are saved too, for sentimental reasons and future study. The whole collapse can't be prevented - a full hour's warning would have been necessary for that - but it goes on the scientific record, every moment of it. So does the supernova, which always makes great entertainment.
There is FTL now. There are pan-stellar civilisations. There are pan-universal civilisations. There are uplifted humanities crawling up the pillars of the Structure towards Upsilon layer, for whom Multiverse One was just the cradle. There are timelike loops and solar sails and bifurcations and antigravity and honest-to-God laser blasters. For the bewildered or homesick the lost Earth is rebuilt in virtuality in perfect detail. There are worldtrees, space elevators, Dyson swarms, replicators, space stations, terracompatible planets and cities on the Moon. There are halos, AIs, brains in jars, Jacob's Ladders, Singularities, infolectricity and superlight. There are people from the future and people who can fly and people who can't die--