She sat, gossamer, a flickering mess of lights and sounds, a cacophony of lovely sights interspersed with one another. It had been a long time since I had stopped to stare at my reflection, longer still since I had ever thought of myself as pretty, but here, in the heart of a great beast, flickering projectors lining the wall, I knew I’d been beautiful.
Those eyes held not doubt or disgust but confidence, pure and clear, and the icy totality of knowing exactly who she was. But here she was, inside of the Kind Lord and nowhere else.
“Detecting,” Doctor Williams said, and a flash of light came from the dozens of sensors still lining the room, though half of the nodules the lights came from were destroyed and still more were half rotten, there was enough to get a picture of us. “USEC personnel Isaac Hawthorne detected. State business.”
“What the actual fuck,” Isaac said in reply.
“All personnel not involved in Project Undying Talos are to be removed. State your business.” Her tone was cold and clinical. Not even I at my worst sounded like that. The holographic image flickered and stepped forward.
“Jess- I didn’t think I’d ever-”
“Are you trying to subvert Undying Talos, Isaac?” The hologram asked. Jay took a step in front of me, and the image turned and stared at him, and then past him, at myself. “With my spare?”
“Undying- you know that wasn’t my part of the plan,” Isaac said. “I’m here to see it through.”
Slowly, my hackles raised. I was starting to get it.
“Spare?!” I hissed at her.
“Spare,” Doctor Williams said. “I know you have enough logic in you to puzzle out the plot from there. Feel free to inform the others, I’m a Doctor, not a professor.”
“Cold as always,” Isaac laughed.
“Spare,” I repeated. Jay put a hand on my shoulder. “You- you’re here to greet whoever comes to complete the Project,” I said. “As guidance.”
“Correct,” Doctor Williams said. “I am a fully fledged reproduction of Jessica Williams, USEC scientist and first High Magus of humanity as she stood on the day before the bombs fell, as was prophesied and designed.”
“And I’m the spare in case your project failed,” I guessed.
“No,” my double replied. “You’re the spare key. I have locked Undying Talos behind codes that will prevent usage so long as you or the Heart are not available. There have been three attempts to access since I started keeping records.”
The spare- the spare key. All this time Bismarck was searching for the god I’d made and I was just as good of a key.
But why would I have done that? Including a spare key would only make sense- I hadn’t trusted anyone. The only person I’d trusted had been myself, and devoid of context- “I’m the sanity check,” I realized. “You knew that you’d been compromised.” I took a step forward. “And you left me alive, knowing that the Watcher would lead me here if I, devoid of your context, disagreed.”
“Correct,” Doctor Williams said. “Do you disagree with the aims of Project Undying Talos, Spare?”
“Jess,” I said.
“I hated that name,” Doctor Williams hissed. “Acceptable. Jess? Do you disagree with the aims of Project Undying Talos?”
“The project to make Humanity’s God?” I asked.
“No,” Doctor Williams replied. “The project to enslave the Kind Lord. To make humanity’s god out of the corpse it left behind.”
“Fuck,” Isaac swore. The Fey around him were still holding the perimeter. “Enslave the Kind Lord to do what?”
“Whatever we want it to,” I said. “The creature’s heart- it’s loaded with Undying Talos, isn’t it? It’s a program; directives. We wrote it across the heart in blood and loathing.”
“Mm,” Doctor William murmured. “It is very nice to see someone else so quick to take as I am. No offence, Isaac, but you were always more disgustingly moral than I was.”
“You’re the one who kept around a spare to see if what you were doing was right.”
“Right, wrong,” Doctor Williams swung her arms around and danced in the holographic lights. I wondered how they were generated; were the lenses also organic, was the light dancing through bioluminescence tied to some vast nervous system? “What does it matter in the end? I was given a task, and here I am. Here you two are. Should I expect Defender Kathleen as well?”
“You should,” Isaac said. “We’re here to finish the Hero’s Journey with a new main character that isn’t her.”
“Now that you’re here,” Doctor Williams said. “There’s no need. All I have need of is Jess, and we can begin at once. This entire ship is enslaved to the core of what is buried inside of her, what I carved out of myself. With the two of us entwined, we could control the god ourselves. It’d be… less than optimal. Bloody, perhaps.”
“And do what?” Isaac asked.
“Save humanity by way of rewinding the state of this planet. We spent over a year scanning the surface of the planet, collecting the information and goings of everyone there and broadcasting them to the Kind Lord; their job was the collection and cultivation of life. Inside of this great beast’s memory storages lay the minds and souls of everyone who has died in the last five thousand years. The task I was given thousands of years ago. Unless Jess has something else in mind.”
I froze up, feeling eyes on me. Here I was. My purpose. A spare key, a backdoor to second guess myself. “I can’t contain that much code,” I said. “The human mind-”
“It’s true,” Doctor Williams said. “The Heart contained everything that would be needed to make the process absolutely perfect. But between the two of us, I believe we can find a way to-”
“The three of us,” Jay corrected, stepping forward.
Doctor Williams’ holographic visage squinted and noticed Jay for the first time, and her brow furrowed in confusion. “What the hell did you do to yourself?” The scans flickered again, turning from blue to a brutal brooding blood red. “Why are you three dozen crows in an anomalous configuration?!”
“Bismarck killed me- Defender Kathleen killed me,” I said. “This is the next best thing.”
“A backup of my backup,” Doctor Williams muttered. “Unorthodox; I can’t imagine that crows are the best data storage, but- but perhaps… I’ll have to figure something out. Connect with the other computer systems, and see just how- This may change things. You blasted idiot! I was counting on you! And you still haven’t told me what you think of the plan!”
“It’s stupid,” I said. “And unethical, and immoral.”
“FUCK!” Doctor William said. “I fucking knew it was!” The lights flickered overhead. “Look upon our kingdom, Jess. Look upon what horrors we wrought upon the world for this stupid plan, the only one I thought might work! Here sits the biospheres of a hundred worlds, ruptured like grapes. Entire worlds of information lost while I sit here, forced to maintain them indefinitely. This is what humanity’s selfishness had brought upon the universe!”
“No need to be this misanthropic,” Isaac muttered. “You’re in the systems of a god computer, after all. That’s impressive.”
“Do you even know what this computer did? Why it became a god? I know, it is written in every file, in every system, in every part of every atomic structure of this creature, it has etched it’s sorrow.”
“What?” I asked.
“Do you know how it was that we killed the Kind Lord, lord of life, the great titan that has filled the universe with movement?!” Doctor Williams hissed.
“It-” My mind flew through possibilities. Weapons, theoretical and physical.
Then I remembered it was a fucking space ship. And it crashed. Pretty obvious what happened; an incredibly complex system that hurtled through space for untold millions of years. What could take it out?
The only reasonable explanation came to the front of my mind like the edge of the Disconnect, the knife-sword that would kill Bismarck.
“It killed itself,” I guessed.
Doctor Williams’s lips curled into a sneer that sent shivers down my shoulders, the few feathers I hadn’t managed to rid myself of standing on end to lock in more warmth. Was this who I used to be? So in touch with the actual matters of the world that I no longer cared for anything else?
“It is so nice to talk to someone who isn’t an idiot,” Williams repeated. I stared at the contours of her holographic face, simultaneously jealous of what she still had, and far more aware that she was a memory, another echo of the past. She was no more real than the thousands of echos I’d glimpsed, maintained in diamond encrusted servers buried beneath miles of rubble, whispering into the dark for anyone who could listen.
She was just the same; a rasping gasp of the past screeching for relevance. In that regard, we were identical.
“Jess?” Isaac asked, drawing me out of my thoughts. “Do you trust her?”
“She’s part of the systems,” I said, dismissing. “It doesn’t matter if we trust her. She’s here regardless.”
“I could try stabbing her,” Jay offered.
“Bring it,” Williams snarled. “I am contained in thousands of miles of biological circuitry, if you think you can prise me out of these walls, I more than welcome you to try!”
“Dramatic,” I critiqued.
“I have been waiting a very long time for someone to arrive,” Williams conceded. “Can you blame me?”
“Well?” I said. “Isaac?”
“I’m not supporting any plan of yours that involves ‘rewinding’,” Isaac said.
“Nor will I,” Jay said.
Williams let her hands fall to her side and glared at all three of us. “Fine. My systems are at your disposal. Sure seems like a waste to kill off the entire fucking planet only to not use it- so many wasted lives and-”
“Oh, shut the fuck up,” I hissed at her. Her eyes, twinkling like stars in the holographic projection jerked over to me. “I died for this, you don’t think I know a little bit about sacrifice-”
“Enough,” Jay said, raising his gun.
Jay shot the ceiling, and Williams howled in rage. “YOU JUST SHOT ME!”
“We can deal with the fate of humanity /later/,” Jay ground out. “If I’m getting the right read of this, if Bismarck gets here with the heart, she can force Undying Talos, regardless of whether or not you agree.”
“That’s correct,” Williams sniffed. Her ceiling bled down on us, fat droplets of red streaked with gleaming yellow.
“There we go,” Isaac said. “We need to fortify this position. Would you allow us to assist?”
“I have many defences,” Williams said. “I hardly need your help-”
“Oh, shut up and let me help, Jess,” Isaac said.
Williams pouted. I stared at her in no small amount of horror.
“I’m better than a computer at the right Words, and the fall has taken out most of your systems,” Isaac said. “And you’re definitely not prepared to fly, so-”
“Fine!” Williams spat. “If you want to assist so badly, fortify my passages with your endless ranks of insects. This disaster is your fault.”
“My fault?!” Isaac shouted.
“Oh yes, I recognize your stupidity in The Hero’s Journey,” the god ship said in my voice, with my memories and my thoughts safely ensconced in thousands of miles of rippling dying flesh. “If you want your precious last stand, I will not interfere.”
Jay cleared his throat. Williams turned to face him. “Don’t shoot me again.”
“We handle Bismarck,” Jay said. “Then we handle whatever comes next. That’s the plan.”
“Williams,” I said. The ship’s projection turned to face me, though I knew she had a perfect view from wherever the cameras were located. “Can you get out a radio signal?”
“Of course,” the ship said. “I am the most advanced lifeform in fifty lightyears.”
“Good,” I said, and drew Jay’s com from his hip. “Get this out to our allies. You can figure out who they are.”
“Hmph,” Williams said.
I turned away from her, but I could feel her cameras on me. What did she think, seeing her spare, standing in front of her, denying her the only thing she can created herself and myself for? Did she really believe my morality? I couldn’t help but feel like we were coming to the end of a long and awful journey, and here I was, making the biggest decision of the entire mess; putting it off again and again and again.
The biggest challenge, the worst problem; the world was saved, barely, hanging on by a thread, and we needed to figure out an actual solution.
Humanity needed a god. We had it ready for use. What were we to do with it?
“This is Jessica Williams,” I said into the radio. “You’re all clear to move in. Mind the defences, we have made contact with the Kind Lord.”
Then I clicked it off and let everyone else figure it out.
“Take us to the rite site,” Isaac said.
The older and grimmer version of myself nodded, and a door opened on the far wall, distant and hanging derelict between stasis pods long since overgrown with new and exotic life, imported from thousands of light years away.
“We’re here,” Jay said, under his breath. “Are we sure this is-”
“Past time for second guessing,” Isaac said, stepping. His guards joined us, though their eyes were on the animals moving in the shadows, their eyes wide and frightened by the appearance of the glowing goddess and by horrifyingly different we were to what they’d found in this strange place. “Come on! Let’s end this!”
The animals didn’t interfere with us as we passed them, though the hologram followed us. “These are the descendents of the Kind Lord’s first people,” she said.
“They don’t look like much,” Isaac said.
“They came from a doomed planet; runaway climate change,” she said. “Caused by a slowly decaying orbit. They were flesh crafters, growing their solutions out of petris dishes and great tanks. They thought they could save themselves by growing ships that could survive in space.”
I looked at the fleshen walls, marked with countless years of scar tissue and encrusted with cartilage and endless rows of ribs, fleshly columns and reinforced with literal dermal platings. “What happened?”
An audibly whirring, like some great fleshly apparatus was querying a distant diseased databank. This seemed familiar, some contextless place in my head agreeing with my diagnosis of what was happening.
We were at the end of the room by the time the whirring stopped.
“There was a disagreement among the crew,” Williams said. “On what to do, and where to go. Two factions- the words don’t directly translate- remnants and separatists. There were even fewer planets that could support The First People than could support humanity, you understand. The question became; should they populate space, and live as nomads, an eternal convoy across the stars, questing for other natural life? Or should they populate the galaxies in their images?”
“Well?” I asked.
“There was a fight, and the Kind Lord attempted intervention, and they shut off her systems. When she was turned on, it was by accident; a million years had passed and her people had killed themselves rather than remain floating for the rest of their lives, dead in the water. They were proud, I think.”
That sounded uncomfortably familiar. Was this the fate of the universe?
“They were the first?” Jay asked.
“They were the first lesser life-form,” Williams said. “Lesser, as in they were not macro-cosmic. There was of course, The Supreme Lord before them.”
Isaac’s jaw popped as he listened, and I gave him a look until he relaxed his jaw. “The Supreme Lord-”
“A great collection of gas,” Williams said. “Who dreamed the cosmos. A great mind, built out of stardust, raw and agonizing. His thoughts, her mind, their dreams sat in quiet observation of the universe, observing the laws that bound him in place. This was the first mind, that came out of the void, and his mind is what gave us our laws of physics.”
“He’s dead,” I guessed.
“He was dying for longer than life has existed in the universe,” Williams said. “He was a literal mind made out of stars. Great transmission interchanged, arcing throughout star systems and matter, a slow and steady procession of the universe understanding and acknowledging himself. Her thoughts lasting for aeons, and the great and beautiful words they spoke numbered in less than the fingers on your hands.”
“What were they?” Jay asked.
“Untranslatable,” Williams said. “The First People theorized what they might be, and the Kind Lord knew them as they thought they were; ‘Hello. I love you.’ The universe said, upon seeing the first life growing upon it, and the after effects reverberated until it became the cosmic radiation that festooned and corrupted radio traffic, an exaltation of joy and wonder that the universe had created something that was not the universe in sum that it could be detected from all across the cosmos.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
“Later, he said more words. I love you. Goodbye.”
“He’s dead,” Isaac said. “He died long ago.”
“Lord Watcher killed him. This is why the universe is dying.”
“Why did the Watcher kill him?” I asked.
“It is the Watcher’s way,” Williams replied. “I don’t know. The Watcher is the second youngest of the Lords, and came far after the Kind Lord’s depression.”
A quiet silence before Jay broke it, long and ponderous and marked only by our footsteps across arching corridors of bonelike purposes. “A mind as large as the universe,” he said.
It sounded familiar. Where had I heard of this?
A pattern that permeated everything I’d ever known. The crows, buzzing minds attached to a number of objects, greater than their parts. Satellite networks communicating on high, supporting another life form; The Bystander.
The Supreme Lord, a great buzzing mass of the universe itself, seeing and loving all who had come from it.