Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 55

  “No one,” Olmy said.

  “Good. Then we can speak our minds. This trip is useless.” She turned on the twins, who floated like casual accent marks on some unseen word. “They’ve chosen you because you’re inexperienced.”

  “Unmarked,” Rasp said brightly. “Open to the new.”

  Karn smiled and nodded. “And not afraid of spooks.”

  This seemed to leave Plass at a loss, but only for a second. She was obviously determined to establish herself as a Cassandra. “You won’t be disappointed.”

  “We visited with Number 2,” Rasp said, and Karn nodded. “Ser Ry Ornis insisted we study it.”

  Olmy remembered his own encounter with the vividly glowing figure in the comfortably appointed darkened room. It was not terribly misshapen, as he had anticipated before the meeting, but certainly far from normal. Its skin had burned with the tiny firefly deaths of stray metal atoms in the darkened room’s air. It had stood out against the shadows like a nebula in the vastness beyond Thistledown’s walls. Its hands alone had remained dark, ascribing arcs against its starry body as it tried to speak.

  It lived in a twisted kind of time, neither backward nor forward, and its words had required special translation. It had spoken of things that would happen in the room after Olmy left. It had told him the Way would soon end, “in the blink of a bird’s eye.” The translator relayed this clearly enough, but could not translate other words; it seemed the unknown figure was inventing or accessing new languages, some clearly not of human origin.

  Plass said, “It’ll be a mercy if all that happens is we end up like him.”

  “How interesting,” Rasp said.

  “We are fiends for novelty,” Karn added with a smile.

  “Monsters are made,” Plass said with a grimace, clasping her Bible, “not born.”

  “Thank you,” Karn said, and produced a forced, fixed smile, accompanied by a glassy stare. Rasp was obviously thinking furiously to come up with a more witty riposte.

  Olmy decided enough was more than enough. “If we’re going to die, or worse, we should at least be civil.” The three stared at him, each surprised in a different way. This gave Olmy a bare minimum of satisfaction. “Let’s go through our orders and manifest, and learn how to work together.”

  “A man who wants only to die again—” Karn began, still irritated, her stare still glazed, but her twin interrupted.

  “Shut up,” Rasp said. “As he says. Time to work.” Karn shrugged and her anger dissolved instantly.

  At speed, the flawship’s forward view of the Way became a twisted lens. Stray atoms and ions of gas within the Way piled up before them into a distorting, white-hot atmosphere. Rays of many colors writhed from a skewed vertex of milky brightness; the flaw, itself a slender geometric distortion, now resembled a white-hot piston.

  Stray atoms of gas in the Way were becoming a problem, the result of so many gates being opened to bring in raw materials from the first exploited worlds.

  The flawship’s status appeared before Olmy in steady reassuring symbols of blue and green. Their speed: three percent of c’, the speed of light in the Way, slightly less than c in the outside universe. They were now accelerating at more than six g’s, down from the maximum they had hit at 4 ex 5. None of this could be felt inside the hull.

  The display showed their position as 1 ex 7, ten million kilometers beyond the cap of the seventh chamber, still almost three billion kilometers from the Redoubt.

  Olmy had a dreamlike sense of dissociation, as always when traveling in a flawship. The interior had been divided by its occupants into three private compartments, a common area, and the pilot’s position. Olmy was spending most of his time at the pilot’s position. The others kept to their compartments and said little to each other.

  The first direct intimation of the strangeness of their mission came on the second day, halfway through their journey. Olmy was studying what little was known about the Redoubt, from a complete and highly secret file. He was deep into the biography of Deirdre Enoch when a voice called him from behind.

  He turned and saw a young woman floating three meters aft, her head nearer to him than her feet, precessing slightly about her own axis. “I’ve felt you calling us,” she said. “I’ve felt you studying us. What do you want to know?”

  Olmy checked to make sure this was not some product of the files, of the data projectors. It was not; no simulations were being projected. Behind the image he saw the sisters and Plass emerging from their quarters. The sisters appeared interested, Plass bore an expression of shocked sadness.

  “I don’t recognize her,” Plass said.

  Olmy judged this was not a prank. “I’m glad you’re decided to visit us,” he said to the woman, with a touch of wry perversity. “How is the situation at the Redoubt?”

  “The same, ever the same,” the young woman answered. Her face was difficult to discern. As she spoke, her features blurred and re-formed, subtly different.

  “Are you well?” Olmy asked. Rasp and Karn sidled forward around the image, which ignored them.

  “I am nothing,” the image said. “Ask another question. It’s amusing to see if I can manage any sensible answers.”

  Rasp and Karn joined Olmy. “She’s real?” Rasp asked. The twins were both pale, their faces locked in dread fascination.

  “I don’t know,” Olmy said. “I don’t think so.”

  “Then she’s used her position on the Redoubt’s timeline to climb back to us,” Rasp said. “Some of us at least do indeed get to where we’re going!”

  Karn smiled with her usual fixed contentment and glazed eyes. Olmy was beginning not to like this hyperintelligent twin.

  Plass moved forward, hands clenched as if she would hit the figure. “I don’t recognize you,” she said. “Who are you?”

  “I see only one of you clearly.” The young woman pointed at Olmy. “The others are like clouds of insects.”

  “Have the Jarts taken over the Redoubt?” Rasp asked. The image did not answer, so Olmy echoed the question.

  “They are alone in the Redoubt. That is sufficient. I can describe the situation as it will be when you arrive. There is a large groove or valley in the Way, with the Redoubt forming a series of bands of intensely ranked probabilities within the groove. The Redoubt has grown to immense proportions, in time, all possibilities realized. My prior self has lived more than any cardinal number of lives. Still lives them. It sheds us as you shed skin.”

  “Tell us about the gate,” Karn requested, sidling closer to the visitor. “What’s happened? What state is it in?” Again, Olmy relayed the question. The woman watched him with discomforting intensity.

  “It has become those who opened it. There is an immense head of Issa Danna on the western boundary of the gate, watching over the land. We do not know what it does, what it means.”

  Plass made a small choking sound and covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide.

  “Some tried to escape. It made them into living mountains, carpeted with fingers, or forests filled with fog and clinging blue shadow. Some waft through the air as vapors that change whoever encounters them. We’ve learned. We don’t go outside, none for thousands of years…”

  Rasp and Karn flanked the visitor, studying her with catlike focus.

  “Then how can you leave, return to us?” Olmy asked.

  The young woman frowned and held up her hands. “It doesn’t speak. It doesn’t know. I am so lonely.”

  Plass, Rasp and Karn, and Olmy stood facing each other through clear air.

  Olmy started, suddenly drawn back to the last time he had seen a ghost vanish—the partial of Neya Taur Rinn.

  Plass let out her breath with a shudder. “It is always the same,” she said. “My husband says he’s lonely. He’s going to find a place where he won’t be lonely. But there are no such places!”

  Karn turned to Rasp. “A false vision, a deception?” she asked her twin.

  “There are no deceptions where w
e are going,” Plass said, and relaxed her hands, rubbed them.

  Karn made a face out of her sight.

  “No one knows what happened to the gate opened at the Redoubt,” Rasp said, turning away from her own session with the records. Since the appearance of the female specter, they had spent most of their time in the pilot cabin. Olmy’s presence seemed to afford them some comfort. “None of the masters can even guess.”

  Karn sighed, whether in sympathy or shame, Olmy could not tell.

  “Can either of you make a guess?” Olmy asked.

  Plass floated at the front of the common space, just around the pale violet bulkhead, arms folded, looking not very hopeful.

  “A gate is opened on the floor of the Way,” Rasp said flatly, as if reciting an elementary lesson. “That is a constraint in the local continuum of the Way. Four point gates are possible in each ring position. When four are opened, they are supposed to always cling to the wall of the Way. In practice, however, small gates have been known to rise above the floor. They are always closed immediately.”

  “What’s that got to do with my question?” Olmy asked.

  “Oh, nothing, really!” Rasp said, waving her hand in exasperation.

  “Perhaps it does,” Karn said, playing the role of thoughtful one for the moment. “Perhaps it’s deeply connected.”

  “Oh, all right, then,” Rasp said, and squinched up her face. “What I might have been implying is this: if Issa Danna’s gate somehow lifted free of the floor, the wall of the Way, then its constraints would have changed. A free gate can adversely affect local world-lines. Something can enter and leave from any angle. In conditioning we are made to understand that the world-lines of all transported objects passing through such a free gate actually shiver for several years backward. Waves of probability retrograde.”

  “How many actually went through the gate?” Olmy asked.

  “My husband never did,” Plass said, pulling herself into the hatchway. “Issa Danna and his entourage. Maybe others, after the lesion formed…against their will.”

  “But you didn’t recognize this woman,” Olmy said.

  “No,” Plass said.

  “Was she extinguished when the gate became a lesion?” Olmy continued. “Was her world-line wiped clean in our domain?”

  “My head hurts,” Rasp said.

  “I think you might be right,” Karn said thoughtfully. “It makes sense, in a frightening sort of way. She is suspended…We have no record of her existence.”

  “But the line still exists,” Rasp said. “It echoes back in time even in places where her record has ended.”

  “No,” Plass said, shaking her head.

  “Why?” Rasp asked.

  “She mentioned an allthing.”

  “I didn’t hear that,” Rasp said.

  “Neither did I,” Olmy said.

  Plass gripped her elbow and squeezed her arms tight around her, pulling her shoulder forward. “We heard different words.” She pointed at Olmy. “He’s the only one she really saw.”

  “It looked at you, too,” Rasp said. “Just once.”

  “An allthing was an ancient Nordic governmental meeting,” Olmy said, reading from the flawship command entry display, where he had called for a definition.

  “That’s not what she meant,” Plass said. “My husband used another phrase in the same way. He referred to the Final Mind of the domain. Maybe they mean the same thing.”

  “It was just an echo,” Rasp said. “We all heard it differently. We all interacted with it differently depending on…Whatever. That means more than likely it carried random information from a future we’ll never reach. It’s a ghost that babbles…like your husband, perhaps.”

  Plass stared at the twins, then grabbed for the hatch frame. She stubbornly shook her head. “We’re going to hear more about this allthing,” she said. “Deirdre Enoch is still working. Something is still happening there. The Redoubt still exists.”

  “Your husband told you this?” Rasp asked with a taunting smile. Olmy frowned at her, but she ignored him.

  “We’ll know when we see our own ghosts,” Plass said, with a kick that sent her flying back to her cabin.

  Plass calmly read her Bible in the common area as the ship prepared a meal for her. The twins ate on their own schedule, but Olmy matched his meals to Plass’s, for the simple reason that he liked to talk to the woman and did not feel comfortable around the twins.

  There was about Plass the air of a spent force, something falling near the end of its arc from a truly high and noble trajectory. Plass seemed to enjoy his company, but did not comment on it. She asked about his experiences on Lamarckia.

  “It was a beautiful world,” he said. “The most beautiful I’ve ever seen.”

  “It no longer exists, does it?” Plass said.

  “Not as I knew it. It adapted the way of chlorophyll. Now it’s something quite different, and at any rate, the gate there has collapsed…No one in the Way will ever go there again.”

  “A shame,” Plass said. “It seems a great tragedy of being mortal that we can’t go back. My husband, on the other hand…has visited me seven times since I left the Redoubt.” She smiled. “Is it wrong for me to take pleasure in his visits? He isn’t happy—but I’m happier when I can see him, listen to him.” She looked away, hunched her shoulders as if expecting a blow. “He doesn’t, can’t, listen to me.”

  Olmy nodded. What did not make sense could at least be politely acknowledged.

  “In the Redoubt, he says, nothing is lost. I wonder how he knows? Is he there? Does he watch over them? The tragedy of uncontrolled order is that the past is revised—and revisited—as easily as the future. The last time he returned, he was in great pain. He said a new God had cursed him for being a counterrevolutionary. The Final Mind. He told me that the Eye of the Watcher tracked him throughout all eternity, on all world-lines, and whenever he tried to stand still, he was tortured, made into something different.” Plass’s face took on a shiny, almost sensual expectancy and she watched Olmy’s reaction closely.

  “You denied what the twins were saying,” Olmy reminded her. “About echoes along world-lines.”

  “They aren’t just echoes. We are our world-lines, Ser Olmy. These ghosts…are really just altered versions of the originals. They have blurred origins. They come from many different futures. But they have a reality, an independence. I feel this…when he speaks to me.”

  Olmy frowned. “I can’t visualize all this. Order is supposed to be simplicity and peace…Not torture and distortion and coercion. Surely a universe of complete order would be more like heaven, in the Christian sense.” He pointed to the antique book resting lightly in her lap. Plass shifted and the Bible rose into the air a few centimeters. She reached out to grasp it, hold it close again.

  “Heaven has no change, no death,” she said. “Mortals find that attractive, but they are mistaken. No good thing lasts forever. It becomes unbearable. Now imagine a force that demands that something last forever, yet become even more the essence of what it was, a force that will accept nothing less than compliance, but can’t communicate.”

  Olmy shook his head. “I can’t.”

  “I can’t, either, but that is what my husband describes.”

  Several seconds. Plass tapped the book lightly with her finger.

  “How long since he last visited you?” Olmy asked.

  “Three weeks. Maybe longer. Things seemed quiet just before they told me I could return to the Redoubt.” She closed her eyes and held her hands to her cheeks. “I believed what Enoch believed, that order ascends. That it ascends forever. I believed that we are made with flaws, in a universe that was itself born flawed. I thought we would be so much more beautiful when—”

  Karn and Rasp tracked forward and hovered beside Plass, who fell quiet and greeted them with a small shiver.

  “We have ventured a possible answer to this dilemma,” Karn said.

  “Our birth geometry, outside the Way, is
determined by a vacuum of infinite potential,” Rasp said, nodding with something like glee. “We are forbidden from tapping that energy, so in our domain, space has a shape, and time has direction and a velocity. In the universe Enoch tapped, the energy of the vacuum is available at all times. Time and space and this energy, this potential, are bunched in a tight little knot of incredible density. That is what your husband must call the Final Mind. That our visitor renamed the allthing.”

  Plass shook her head indifferently.

  “How amazing that must be!” Karn said. “A universe where order took hold in the first few nanoseconds after creation, controlling all the fires of the initial expansion, all the shape and constants of existence…”

  “I wonder what Enoch would have done with such a domain, if she could have controlled it,” Rasp said, hovering over Plass, peering down on her. Plass made as if to swat a fly, and Rasp tracked out of reach with a broad smile. “Ours is a pale candle indeed by comparison.”

  “Everything must tend toward a Final Mind. This force blossoms at the end of the Time like a flower pushed up from all events, all lives, all thought. It is the ancestor not just of living creatures, but of all the interactions of matter, space, and time, for all things tend toward this blossom.”

  Olmy had often thought about this quote from the notes of Korzenowski. The designer of the Way had put together quite an original cosmology, which he had never tried to spread among his fellows. The original was in Korzenowski’s library, kept as a Public Treasure, out few visited there now.

  Olmy visited Rasp and Karn in their cabin while Plass read her Bible in the common area. The twins had arranged projections of geometric art and mathematical figures around the space, brightly colored and disorienting. He asked them whether they believed such an allthing, a perfectly ordered mind, could exist.

  “Goodness, no!” Karn said, giggling.

  “You mean, Godness, no!” Rasp added. “Not even if we believed in it, which we don’t. Energy and impulse, yes; final, perhaps. Mind, no!”

  “Whatever you call it—in the lesion, it may already exist, and it’s different?”