What happens next is irrelevant. All that matters is where it started.
Harvester bars are pretty much the same wherever you go, but I hadn’t learned that yet. Fresh out of Infall and all out of hope, I was looking for the sleaziest, most pointless, dead-end dive that ever existed. I had nothing to look forward to but getting as plastered as the ancients and spending the rest of my days in a hangover.
There were plenty of bars to choose from. They were busy, too. I clearly wasn’t the only one looking to drown my sorrows under a sky devoid of stars.
That made it instantly more boring.
I settled on a place called, unimaginatively, the End of the Line. It was full of humans, sub-humans, post-humans, poly-humans--every category I’d ever heard of, plus some types that probably weren’t human at all. The Loop has been around a long time, and if half the things I had heard were true, then it was quite likely I Was Not Alone. In that sense, at least.
I knew I should be depressed: I had reason to be. But the possibility of talking to a real, live alien was not just intriguing; it was something the rest of my scattered self might never experience. It was something I could cling to, something that was mine, and would be mine alone for as long as I could bear it.
The thing about aliens, though, I soon realized, is that they’re alien. After five conversations in which we utterly failed to find opinions, experiences, and in one case even words in common, I gave up and took to leaning against the long, corroded bar on my own. Nursing a drink in sullen silence turned out to be a natural part of my social inheritance.
“You’re new,” said a voice from the other end of the bar.
“It’s that obvious, I suppose,” I said without looking up.
“Not really. We’re all floundering. I’m just permanently jacked into the news feed. You’re the third today. I recognize your face.”
“There’s a news feed?”
“Sure, but not much in the way of actual news. No offence.”
I looked up. Judging by the voice, I’d expected the owner to be a woman. What I saw instead was a bipedal mech suit almost twice as tall as I was, all ceramics, alloys and plastics, as streamlined as a stiletto. It occupied the deepest, darkest corner of the bar, but even so, it gleamed. Pinpricks of light ricocheted off its faceted eyes, the sharp tips of its digits, its many beveled edges.
“You human in there?”
“I said, ‘no offence.’”
“None taken. I’m just curious.”
“Well, don’t be.”
“There must be something biological, or else you wouldn’t be in this place, messing with your chemistry.”
“It’s certainly not for the company.”
“Hey, you spoke to me, remember?”
The suit shifted with a faint whirr of servos, presenting its back. There, embossed against the silver, was the logo of the Earth Justice Enforcement Agency, and her surname in black: Ei.
“Nice to meet you, soldier,” she said.
Maybe I really was that obvious. Stung, I retreated to contemplate my empty shot glass.
“Don’t mind her,” said the bartender, a loathsome toad but at least superficially of my species. “She’s spoiling for a fight with someone her size, and you don’t really qualify.”
“Gee, thanks.” I was sarcastic, but that was one thing to be grateful for. In my current form, Enforcer Ei could have squashed me like a bug. “What’s her story? I don’t recognize the make of her suit.”
“Something new, I guess. She’s been here three months. Came after a mark. Caught him almost immediately, they say. He snuck in through the Infall, and she tracked him down. First the Authorities knew of him was when she handed them his body.”
I’d been debriefed on arrival, but there was still so much to learn. “The Authorities?”
“Closest thing to a government you’ll find in Harvester.”
“Maybe I should take a proper look about the place, see what’s what. While I can still walk.”
The bartender gave me half a shot, on the house.
“For the road?”
“There’s no road from here, my friend. Just ways to pass the time.”
Five suns, any one of which was in the sky at any given time. One planetary nebula, casting a permanent glow across the heavens. Permanent settlements scattered across two rocky worlds, plus stations around the system’s only gas giant. The gas giant was home to the shipyards.
That’s where I went first, in a manner of speaking.
Tideships, stillships, heavyships . . . every species had its own wild fantasy about getting home the hard way. None of them had worked to date, and even if one did, where would it go? The nebula was almost a light-year across. Just getting a clear picture of the universe outside was difficult. No one had a map, and if they did we weren’t on it.
“The colony at loop junction one-sixty-three has many names,” said the orientation drone taking me and my fellow newbs on the virtual tour. “‘Cyernus’ is the oldest known, but almost certainly not the first. The term comes from the Guta tongue, and approximately translates as ‘harvester,’ the epithet employed by the colony’s human inhabitants.”
Our point of view swept through the ribs of a ship so big it would take another century just to finish the chassis.
“Harvester is home to seventeen species of biological sentient and three machine intelligences. Evidence of habitation stretches back more than one million years, with only two vacant periods, the longest spanning ten thousand years. Fossil records indicate that life did not evolve here. Presumably the Loop’s builders were the first inhabitants.”
That told me a little, but not a lot. All things in Harvester started and ended with the Loop, which remained as mysterious as ever.
“Why this junction?” asked someone from the back of the consensual shuttle. “Why did it break down here?”
“That is unknown. The malfunction remains unexplained, if indeed it is a malfunction. Some maintain that the Loop was always intended to stop here, and is functioning normally.”
“Perhaps this is the home system of the Builders,” said another shell-shocked newb.
“All roads lead to Rome?” I said. “But there’s only one road, and the Builders are conspicuously absent.”
“Perhaps the event that caused the nebula wiped them out.”
The drone didn’t dignify that with a response. No species capable of building a wormcaster network spanning the universe would ever let a simple stellar hiccup knock them out of the picture.
“One hundred and sixty-three is the largest Heegner number,” said a third member of my temporary compatriots. “That might mean something.”
Also doubtful, I thought. Class number problems and almost integers seemed a long way from the seething polyglot around us. As well as the five suns, two rocky worlds and one gas giant, there were streams of asteroids and dust following fiendishly complex orbits through the system. The largest asteroid had been mined out millennia ago. Wars had once been fought over the richest finds, but things were quiet at the moment, while the Authorities’ power held.
For the foreseeable future, then, I was out of a job.
“I think it’s beautiful,” said a small, dark-haired woman I had barely glanced at before. “It’s so rich and interesting--compared to the other junctions, I mean.”
I looked at her properly, now. We had passed each other at the Outfall on junction one-sixty-two, and then again at Harvester’s Infall. Travelers in the same direction, we had had nothing more in common than that.
Now, we were caught in the same trap, and her eyes were shining with something that might actually have been joy.
“What about the singularity kites of forty-five?” asked another passenger.
“Or the multiplex quintuple system of sixty-one?”
Both good suggestions, I thought, to which I would have added the bottomless pit of thirty-nine, the eternally burning world of eighteen, and the stellar graveyard at even one hundred.
“Sideshows,” she said with a wave of one delicate hand. Her expression was rapturous. “This is the real deal.”
We had all seen the same things. We’d all come to junction one-sixty-three the same way, junction after junction on our intergalactic grand tour. But somehow this woman had arrived at an entirely different place from the rest of us.
“It’s hardwired,” she explained after the tour, at a different Harvester bar, one that stank of yeast and sugar like we were inside a giant brewery. “I don’t believe in being negative, so I make sure I can’t, surgically. I’m only capable of feeling positive emotions--and it’s wonderful.”
“Yes, but you would say that, wouldn’t you?”
She laughed, and invited me back to her place. I was amazed that she already had quarters organized and furnished. While I had been moping about, grousing at strangers, she had been getting her life together.
Maybe, I thought, there was something to her positivity jag. It could even be infectious.
Her name was Zuzi. She didn’t give me anything more than that. And when I told her what I had done for a living, she didn’t ask for details.
“So you’re Corps,” she said. “So what? It’s all history now, Alex.”
She used my name like she used the rest of me. And when she was done, neither of us seemed any happier than we had been before.
I wasn’t the only Corps recruit on Harvester. Embodiment training was mandatory, and the rest of me wasn’t the first to opt for the Loop’s one-way trip. It was a fair bet that some version of my higher self would be around to pick me up when I reached the far end, full to the brim with experiences and memories for the rest of me to share. That no one had ever gone all the way around yet wasn’t a disincentive. It was assumed that the Loop was so big there simply hadn’t been time. No one seriously considered the possibility that one of its links might be broken.
As with most colonies, Corps recruits were called corpses, but here that had both a literal and cautionary edge. Some of us did choose death over being isolated from our higher selves. It wasn’t that our much-reduced forms weren’t viable. It was the thought that this was all we would ever be that did the damage. There were self-help groups, where we talked through our problems. There were training sessions to keep up our skills. There were even a couple of odd little collectives where mismatched corpses tried to link up and form a new emergent self. I stayed away from the first and last, but forced myself to participate in the second.
Other classes of being occasionally joined the fights. Enforcer Ei was one of them. She was hard to miss. There were other suits and larger bipeds prowling the habitats of Harvester, but none as brooding and dagger-sharp as she was. After that first encounter in the End of the Line, I had seen her in green zones, amphitheatre audiences, work crews, and even just standing around, staring at the view from one of Harvester’s many lookouts. If she lived anywhere in particular, I never found out.
The first time she came to the dojo I frequented, I didn’t fight her, nor the second time. I simply watched her wipe the floor with the toughest members of the crew, one after the other. I noted her moves and catalogued her weaknesses. She was all former, none of the latter.
“Stone cold killer,” said one of the other recruits in an aside she probably couldn’t hear, and if she had, might have taken for a compliment. “I heard rumors of squads like these before I left home. You cross them, you’re dead, no matter how far you run. Remember that guy she killed? Probably thought he’d got clean away, coming out here . . . .”
I just kept watching, awaiting my opportunity.
The dojo was kitted out with all sorts of tech, but I preferred to fight as close to bare-handed as was feasible. I certainly never fought with a mech suit. Enforcer Ei had seen me sparring and knew my style probably as well as I knew hers, so when I approached her her immediate response was, “You don’t want to fight me.”
“Why challenge you, then?”
“I don’t know. Because you want me to kill you?”
“You won’t kill me. You’re an Enforcer. It wouldn’t be legal.”
“Earth is a long way from here, soldier.”
“Use my name.”
“I don’t know your name.”
“Yes, you do. It was in the news feed.”
She tilted her shining helm. “Alex Lombard. What difference does it make?”
“Maybe none. Maybe a lot if the thought of killing me does cross your mind.”
A small crowd gathered as we squared off in the arena. I ignored the odd mocking cat-call. None came from my fellow recruits. They understood, but they thought I was mad all the same.
I adopted a wary crouch--one she imitated with a whole lot more unfolding of weapon-stalks, fins, and antennae.
“Now you’re just showing off,” I said, noting the position of everything vulnerable.
“And you’re just wasting time.”
“Me? I’m waiting for y--”
I barely registered the sharp clicks of her actuators pushing with explosive force against the arena floor. The next thing I knew I was on my back, in so much pain I could barely breathe.
I blinked up at the shining figure standing over me.
“Enough?” she said.
“Hell, no. They make us tough in the Corps.” That was the truth. I had little conscious control over my body’s more advanced abilities, but already the pain was fading and I was able to get to my feet.
“Again,” I said.
She stepped back. “You can’t be serious.”
“I can’t believe we’re still talking.”
I ducked low under the natural reach of her left arm and lunged for a particular attenuated sensor that looked like it might bend. I didn’t try a kick at her knees. I didn’t for a second consider that I could knock her off-balance. All I saw was the needle-thin tip of that sensor and--in my mind’s eye--my fist reaching out for it, closing tight around it, twisting . . . .
In reality, I probably got no closer than ten centimeters.
She held me upside-down by one leg so we were almost eye-to-eye. This time there was a little laughter.
“Are you done yet?” she asked.
“If it’s a fair fight you’re looking for--”
“Just getting bored.”
“So come out of the suit and meet me face to face.”
She let go and I hit the floor with all of the habitat’s 1.2-gravities.
“I guess that’s a no.”
“You guessed right.”
She had already turned away. This time I took a running jump for her back, reaching for the panels behind which all her sensors and weapons had retracted. There was sufficient grip there for me to hold onto, and I was able to get to her shoulders before she spun around her center of gravity and punched me hard in the chest.
I was out cold when I hit the dojo wall, and only came to when she shocked me with the tip of an electrical weapon protruding from her mechanical toe.
“You’re an idiot.”
“Try to understand,” I said braving the hammering in my head in order to sit up. The walls, floor and ceiling turned dizzyingly around me. “I don’t have a death-wish and I’m not expecting to beat you. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about the fight.”
“It’s not even a fight,” she said.
“But it’s a fight I’ve never had before, with an opponent I’ve never fought before. That’s the point.”
She straightened, and I knew I’d reached her. “You think your higher self will be grateful for your memories of being pounded over and over again?”
“Maybe not, if that’s all you’ve got to offer.”
“What else is there?”
“But you’re so slow,” she said, “so primitive.”
“That’s the point of legacy genes. My higher self--”
“I know what your higher self thinks. It thinks that by making parts of itself old-style human, it’ll stay at least partly human rather than evolve off into some freak-show. That’s why you won’t wear a suit. Another version of you back home is doing that and recording that experience. You’re the grand tourist, the Looper--but you’re still a soldier, or part of one, and you think this is what the rest of you wants. Are you sure you aren’t kidding yourself?”
“Maybe,” I said, “but it beats sitting around in bars.”
She towered over me, unmoving for a good ten seconds.
“All right,” she said. “Get up.”
I did as I was told.
“My higher self is a ‘him’, not an ‘it,’ by the way.”
“You think ordinary pronouns apply anymore?” She killed that line of conversation with one savage chop of her right battle glove. “Do you know what the craziest thing about you is?”
“You haven’t given in. You still think you might go home.”
“Why not? Or I might meet myself out here, wherever we are. Either way.”
She hit me so hard I was in rehab for a week.
When I recovered, she started teaching me about suits like hers--their weak points, their blind spots, their limitations. It was all relative, of course. I never had a hope of putting her down, but she got that now, and it became about something other than winning for her, too.
As we fought, we talked.
“How did you know I was Corps?” I asked during our first spar after rehab. “That wasn’t in the news feed.”
“A lucky guess,” she said.
“No, tell me. What gave it away?”
“You want me to say it was your confidence, or the way you held yourself--meronymically, if that’s a thing.”
“I just want you to tell me the truth.”
She shrugged. “Your biochemistry was off. That’s all.”
“You can tell that at a glance?”
“I can tell what you had for breakfast . . . yesterday.”
I laughed. “Well, that’s not fair. I don’t get to see anything about you.”
She didn’t answer.
We sparred for a while, and then I pressed her again.
“Seriously, do you ever take your suit off?”
“That’s none of your business, soldier.”
“I’m making it my business.”
She jabbed at me a fraction faster than I could dodge. I rode out the blow and came up grinning.
“So tell me about this place instead. What’s the deal with the Outfall? Why hasn’t anyone fixed it yet?”
“Do I look like a scientist?”
“I don’t know what you look like, Enforcer Ei. I don’t even know if you have a first name.”
She didn’t respond to that little dig, either. “The Outfall doesn’t work. That’s all you need to know.”
“Doesn’t work how?”
“People walk into it. They stand around looking embarrassed. Then they walk back out again. No one goes anywhere.”
“I presume someone’s examined it.”
“I think we can be sure of that.”
I thought of the brightly glowing sky and the crowded habitats, the tens of thousands of years of devolution and fruitless industry and cultural mixing. People arrived every day, but they were far outnumbered by the people who already lived here, had even been born here.
“Yes, but can we be sure of that?” I asked. “I bet you haven’t looked at it, and neither have I. What if everyone before us did the same--and everyone before them, too? What if that goes right back to the first people here and no one has double-checked the original diagnosis?”
“Why don’t you take the tour and find out for yourself?”
“There’s a tour?”
“Will you stop talking like this if there is?”
I considered the consequences of not taking the hint. She was sensitive on the subject. I had had plenty of time to ponder that during my week in rehab.
“I will,” I said, “if you go with me.”
“On the tour?”
“Because you’re such good company, that’s why.”
That came out a little sharper than I’d intended. Her movements lost some of their smooth grace, like I had managed to hit her where it counted, inside the suit. I dodged two blows with ease, and was beginning to wonder if I had seriously offended her when she said, “All right.”
“All right what?”
“I’ll take the tour with you.”
“And my first name is Nadia--but if you ever call me that, I’ll put you back in rehab for good.”
“Understood. It’s a date, then.”
She held out her metal right hand.
I shook it, and had my fingers painfully squeezed in return.
“It’s a date,” she said, “if this is fighting.”
I nodded and she let me go.
The Outfall tour was run by a relatively human-friendly Dashizi, an alien of a species I’d never encountered before. Its name was Lna. One pendulous, segmented body hung from the intersection of its six stilt-like legs like a sausage in a cage. Sensory organs were at the bottom end of the sausage, so it had to curl up in a U-shape to look at Enforcer Ei. Ribbons in varying shades of gray adorned its legs, Roman sandal-style.
Lna waited for the other members of our tour before giving us anything other than its name. Five had booked. Only three showed—Enforcer Ei and I, and a near-human called Thiall, whose overlarge eyes leant him a permanently quizzical expression. Lna professed himself to be disappointed at the poor turn-out but not surprised.
“Humans evolved in the shadow of volcanoes,” the alien said. “You have a predisposition for looking down.”
I was pretty sure he wasn’t calling us cowards, or depressives, but his expression was unreadable.
“How long have you lived here, Lna?” I asked.
“Three thousand of your years.”
“And you’ve been tour guide all that time?”
“Only on Firstdays. There is a roster.”
Enforcer Ei nudged me. I shut up.
Lna guided us into the Outfall complex. It seemed much the same as any other, although it was perhaps a little newer-looking, showing fewer signs of wear and tear. This junction clearly hadn’t seen as much use as the others.
At its heart rested the massive, alien disk that was the key to the Loop’s existence--a solid lump of ambiguous matter, so gray it was almost black, over a hundred meters across and five high, with one cylindrical tunnel bored in a spiraling arc from the edge to the center. Lna walked us around the disk’s circumference, pointing out markings left by previous inhabitants of the junction. Some were prayers, others curses. Many were simply names. The disk was covered in those, all painted on. The material was too tough to scratch.
“Commemorating the beings who died here,” was the explanation Lna offered. I saw no reason to disbelieve him.
We returned to the tunnel mouth and filed inside. The top of Enforcer Ei’s helm was tall enough to scrape the ceiling, making her stoop. Immediately I felt a weird tugging and shifting as gravitational, electric, and magnetic fields wrapped around me. The mech suit creaked, and I briefly wondered if it would survive the stresses this odd, alien space would impose upon it. But it had to, I concluded, as it had one hundred and sixty-two times before. Thus far, this was an Outfall like any other.
Our footsteps echoed along the tunnel. The only lights came from a torch Lna carried and Enforcer Ei’s chest lamps. The forces multiplied until my head was swimming with the effort of thinking straight. I felt as though all the atoms and molecules in my body were being stirred like letters in alphabet soup.
The tunnel ended in a blank wall.
“This is the geometric center of the disk,” Lna said, tapping a point roughly two meters from the end of the tunnel. “Here, our journey ends.”
Not just the journey through the disk, he meant, but around the Loop as well.
I approached the wall and examined the tunnel’s end by the shifting light. There was more graffiti, centimeters thick by the look of it. What lay beyond it felt disconcertingly solid to my questing hands, a sure sign that something was indeed wrong. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Normally one walked into the wormcaster transmitter disk of junction (X) and walked out the receiver of junction (X + 1) without breaking stride. The disks did all the hard work for you.
At least they did when they worked.
“What do the scientists say?” I asked.
Lna folded his legs into pairs. “Many times have I walked this path,” he said. “I thought myself a scientist, once. What I considered science is a child’s perception of the universe compared to the understanding that built this.”
“But people have tried, haven’t they?” I felt that I was speaking normally, but I could hear the echoes of my voice getting louder. “They’ve poked it, prodded it . . . ?”
A heavy hand came down on my shoulder. Her metal shell quivered under the complex forces roiling around us.
“Until the builders return,” said Lna, “or the Outfall fixes itself, we can only wait and wonder.”
“Well, that sucks,” said Thiall, startling all of us. The near-human hadn’t spoken since giving us his name. “But it could be worse, I guess. At least it didn’t half-work.”
“What do you mean?” asked Enforcer Ei.
“Well, it could have dumped us in deep space, or left bits of us behind. At least we’re still here and in one piece.”
“Some might count that as a curse,” she said, “not a blessing.”
With heavy steps, the suit turned and began walking out of the tunnel.
Lna uncrossed his legs and followed. “This concludes the tour,” the alien said as it ambulated after Enforcer Ei. “There is a register for visitors, if you would like to record your thoughts . . . .”
“Spare me,” I told Thiall. “I need a drink.”
“To each their own,” he said.
I took that as a rebuff, but without rancor. I already had a drinking buddy, if I could get her down off the ledge.
“No goodnight kiss?” I called after her before she could disappear into a crowd.
She indicated the sky. “There’s no night, let alone a good one. No moon, no stars--no nothing.”
“Comets I can give you.” Actually, we had those in abundance. The complex interplay of forces in the system was always throwing something icy towards one sun or other. “Probably a rainbow, if you ask nicely.”
“I did what you wanted. I took the tour. Now you want me to be nice as well?”
“Just one round. I’ll pay, whatever you fancy.”
Her pace slowed. “All right. Alcohol works for me.”
“So you are human.”
“That’s not what I said. Alcohol disrupts Karuliesh biochemistry as well.”
“So you’re one of two species.” I had met the Karuliesh; they resembled ambulatory prunes and smelled of vinegar. I hoped the real Nadia Ei was nothing like that. “The End of the Line?”
At the bar in which we’d first met, we had several rounds, not just one. The front of her suit opened a fraction to allow her access to its inner workings, into which she trickled the drink. I watched curiously as she did so. The outer layer was just millimeters thick, and there seemed to be many more beneath it. I wondered how long it took her to get undressed.
“Maybe Lna’s wrong,” I insisted. “What if there’s another disk, one that works, and all we have to do is find it? Or if we could reprogram the Infall to take us back to junction one-sixty-two?”
“You think people haven’t tried?” she said. “You think you’re the only one who’s thought this way?”
She was right. I was beginning to sound like Zuzi. But Zuzi’s relentless optimism was useless on Harvester. It was directed inward, to making the best out of a bad deal. I didn’t want that. I wanted the deck shuffled and the cards laid out all over again. Or I wanted some way to turn my shitty hand into a game-winning misére.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked her. “That I might be making sense?”
“I’m going to say yes in the hope it might shut you the hell up.”
“But isn’t getting away from here something we should all be talking about?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” she said, staring down into her drink.
“Wait,” I said. “This I don’t get at all. You come here on a mission, you catch the guy, and now you can’t get home. What’s not to be pissed about?”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t pissed.”
“But you said--”
“Maybe means maybe. Don’t read too much into it. It’s got nothing to do with you.”
I supposed that was true, and forced myself to stop prying.
“Shame you didn’t catch the guy earlier,” I said, aiming for companionability. “That way you’d have the rest of the tour to look forward to.”
“You don’t know anything about me, soldier.”
Her tone was hard. My plan had backfired, somehow.
“I know you only call me ‘soldier’ when I’m getting close to something.”
“That isn’t it at all.”
The outer layer of her suit abruptly slid shut. She stood up.
“Nadia, wait . . . .”
She didn’t blast me into next century. She didn’t even look at me. She just kept going.
This time I didn’t follow. I drained the rest of my drink, and hers, and went in the opposite direction.
Enforcer Ei didn’t show at the dojo for a week, which was fine with me. I had other sparring partners I’d been neglecting, and was pleased to see that working with her had increased my strength and agility, putting me at the top ranking of my fellow corpses. That was new, and not unpleasant.
The buzz was just beginning to pale when she returned, offering neither explanation nor apology for her absence, and I figured she owed me nothing of the sort. She barely said a word, except to accept or reject challenges, as the mood took her. I wasn’t her primary sparring partner any more, although we did fight a few times. It felt awkward, like some vital rhythm was missing, one we’d danced to so effortlessly before.
This went on for a couple of months, circling each other, never quite colliding, except physically in the arena. I hitched up with Zuzi again and met some other people through her. Harvester’s population lacked nothing when it came to interesting and unique types. Only gradually did the familiarity start to eat at me in that regard, too. We were all refugees, castaways on an unknown shore. Every story ended the same.
Four months after I arrived at Harvester, the Authorities declared a junction-wide celebration of mourning. At first I thought it was some alien thing--I had, as yet, failed to determine who or what the Authorities actually were--but Zuzi, always more integrated than I was, explained that the celebration was for everyone. Any race, culture, or creed could participate. Unlike the scrawls I’d seen all over Outfall, this wasn’t just for the people who’d died here; it was to commemorate the ones we’d left behind, too.
And it was simple enough. Every physically bound entity processed past the tunnel leading out of Infall. At the opening they spoke the name of the person they were mourning. A small tribute could be offered. Anyone who arrived through the Infall during the procession was declared a Hero for the day and feted by all. The ceremony concluded with a pageant and lots of drinking.
Zuzi thought it sounded wonderful, of course, and talked me into participating.
“Whose name will you say?” I asked her over dinner the night before. We were, by that time, sharing an apartment, and sleeping regularly in the same bed.
“I don’t think I’ll do that part,” she said. “There isn’t anyone I feel sad about.”
“You mean you don’t miss anyone?”
“I guess that is what I mean. Grief is a negative emotion, isn’t it?”
I stared into her smiling eyes, and saw in them a truth I think I’d known from the beginning.
“You wouldn’t miss me if I was gone,” I said. “You’d be just as happy as you are now, and just as happy again when the next person moved in. It’s all the same to you.”
“It’s not all the same,” she said. “There are shades of happiness. The way I am with you is different to how I am with someone else. It must be, of course, or I would get terribly bored.”
She held my hands over the table, and I smiled at her. There was no point pushing it. I knew from experience that she was incapable of having a two-sided argument.
We joined the throng the next day, spruced up like Harvester’s finest out to welcome a queen. The mood was a happy one, mixed with an undercurrent of loss. Music was somber as often as it was danceable. Seeing a familiar silver helm standing high above the crowd, I pulled ahead of Zuzi. I felt more comfortable on my own, with the crowd surging and retreating around me. It reminded me of the day I’d left to join the Loop, of the farewell thrown by my higher self. He had been there in dozens of bodies, and I had felt embraced physically as well as mentally. Little did I know that the only way I would ever feel anything like that again would be in the company of strangers, all of whom carried their own burdens.
I caught up with Nadia Ei on the approach to Infall. If she noticed me, she didn’t say anything, and I didn’t force the issue. The silver skin of her armor reflected my face back at me as she approached the entrance. I silently rehearsed what I was going to say when the opportunity came to do what we were all there to do.
She turned, dropped to one knee, and bowed her head.
“Grae Bilwis,” she said.
She straightened, stood, moved on.
Then it was my turn to look down the disk’s long, curving tunnel. A dead-end--but a functioning one, since already that day two Heroes had arrived--it had none of the graffiti and all of the mystery of Outfall. I found it easy to imagine that the words we said would ricochet down a long tunnel of space-time back to the places and people we’d left behind. Maybe they’d make a difference to someone.
“Alex Lombard,” I said. Although I strained to hear an echo, there was nothing.
The name rang a bell.
In post-mourning celebration mode, Harvester was consumed by fireworks, acrobats, and drunks. I wasn’t much interested in any of them. Seeing Nadia Ei had put me in a contemplative mood, and I didn’t have the energy to shuck it off.
Zuzi would be with her friends, expecting me to join her, I supposed, but not relying on it. There might be other corpses there, unless they were feeling the same way I was. Just thinking about my higher self brought back the sense of isolation that, on joining the Loop had been so novel and thrilling, but here on Harvester bled like an open wound. On other days I might have called my fellow corpses friends and a comfort. That day, the loss we all shared was a wedge between us, driving us into isolation and resentment.
I roamed, staring at the clouds the Authorities had thrown up to block out the suns, the laser-painted stars on their undersides. Sublight shuttles occasionally left Harvester with one destination in mind: the edge of the planetary nebula, where light-echoes faded and the universe reappeared. It wouldn’t be hard to book a coldseat on one of those, wait out the millennia in the hope of things changing. It would certainly be a new experience, inasmuch as it was an experience at all . . . .
But Grae Bilwis nagged at me. Who was this person Nadia Ei mourned, and where had I heard the name before?
I found a quiet pocket in a green zone and logged into Harvester’s infocore. I didn’t know the precise spelling, and the search engines weren’t optimized for human vocalizations. It took me a surprising amount of time to find the record, and in the end I kicked myself for not looking in the news feeds first. That’s where I’d stumbled across it the first time, while looking up Enforcer Ei herself.
Grae Bilwis was the man Enforcer Ei had been chasing through the Loop. He had been an officer in the Earth Justice Enforcement Agency, just like her. He’d sneaked into Harvester by means that were still unknown. She’d caught him, killed him, and handed his body over to the Authorities.
And now here she was, publically mourning him. Why?
Something parted the ferny fronds to my right. A shadow fell across me. By the size of it, there was only one person it could have belonged to.
“I’ve been researching, too,” she said. “Guess what I found.”
Clearly she’d been following my search via some means available to her. I couldn’t read her mood, not from the way the suit was standing. I didn’t get up. If she was going to kill me, I had as much chance of stopping her lying down as I did on my feet.
“Tell me about him, first,” I said. “Was he crooked? Or were you the crooked one, and he was blackmailing you?”
“Are they the best theories you’ve come up with?”
“Well, I haven’t had long to think about it. I only just found out he still matters.”
“He doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Of course he does. He’s the reason you’re here. It’s his fault. You’re allowed to blame him if it’ll help you move on.”
“There’s nowhere to move on to.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You don’t know anything.”
I stopped talking--not just because of the fists, suddenly clenched, that could have turned me to paste in an instant. There was such pain in her voice. For the first time, she sounded how I felt.
“What were you researching?” I asked her.
Her fists unclenched. “Outfall.”
Now I sat up. “Tell me what you found.”
“The disk has been under observation for half of Harvester’s recorded history. It’s been studied by people a whole lot more motivated than tour guides--the machine intelligences, for one, and they’ve got the patience of saints. What’s more, all the data is publically available. It makes for pretty dense reading. I’ve been wading through it for weeks, trying to find a hole. Most of it I don’t understand, but everyone’s come to the same diagnosis.”
“The disk is stuffed.”
“Not quite. The disk is definitely doing something--we felt it when we were in there--but exactly what, no one knows. If we did know, maybe we could fix it. All we can say is that it’s not working properly, because we’re still here.”
I rubbed my temples. “Everyone’s really thinks that?”
“Well, apart from the cranks and weirdoes, half of whom think this is a kind of punishment sent by the Builders. The other half claim to actually be the Builders, but why they’re caught in their own trap is never adequately explained.”
“And you came to tell me this . . . why?”
“Because you started it. And I thought you’d want to know.”
“No,” I said, sensing a very different message behind her words, “it has to be more than that.”
“It doesn’t have to be anything.”
She turned to walk away.
I jumped to my feet and followed her, dodging the elastic leaves that snapped back in her wake.
“Don’t run from me, Nadia. You always do that--reach out, then push me away. Is that how it’s always been? Is that why you never come out of your suit, because you feel safe in there?”
“Don’t try to psychoanalyze me,” she said, feet crunching heavily through the undergrowth. “I’m not afraid of connecting any more than you’re afraid of being alone. Neither of us would be here if we weren’t.”
“What does that mean?”
She didn’t answer.
We hit the edge of the green zone and followed the curved inner wall to the nearest airlock. The truth was, I didn’t know why I was following her any more than I knew why she’d come to me, but it seemed important to make the attempt. She was on the verge of something, something critical, and as we passed into the human sector of the habitat it came to me what that might be.
“You’re giving up,” I said. “That’s it, isn’t it? You’re thinking about killing yourself.”
“It wouldn’t be hard. And it’s not illegal.”
“Whether it’s hard or legal isn’t the point,” I said, struggling to find words for why the suggestion filled me with such alarm. “It’s just crazy. There’s so much here. I mean, look around us. Five suns! Aliens! What else do you want?”
“I used to feel that way. Now I’ve changed my mind. And I know that’s not all you want.”
“All right--I’m being simplistic in order to defend my own uncertainties. So sue me. But look at the machine intelligences. They haven’t given up, have they? What makes them different to you? If they haven’t topped themselves, why should anyone?”
“I’ve no idea what they think, and neither do you.”
“That doesn’t make their conclusion invalid.”
“But they think on different scales. Time moves differently for them.”
“So put yourself in cold storage for a bit. See what’s happening in a thousand years. Isn’t that better than death?”
“You’re not saying anything I haven’t said myself.”
“Well, you should listen to yourself. These are pretty persuasive arguments.”
She stopped without warning. “I told you. I changed my mind.”
I stared at her back for a long moment, trying to drill mentally through her armor and see what lay beneath. We were talking about suicide, but I didn’t think I’d reached the heart of what was bothering her. Her suit was in the way.
It was immaculate, as always, but she might as well have been bleeding from every joint.
“You changed your mind when, exactly?” I asked her.
“It’s none of your business.”
She didn’t call me “soldier,” but she might as well have.
“This is to do with Grae Bilwis, isn’t it?”
She half-turned. “He was my partner.”
“So he broke the law and betrayed you. That’s his fault, not yours. You had to do what you did. He had it coming. Right?”
She hung her head. For all the strength and resilience of her alloy shell, she seemed about to sag to the habitat floor and melt away. She actually went down on one knee, so our heads were almost level.
“You’re not listening, Alex. He was my partner.”
I shut up, thinking that at last I understood.
That’s the funny thing about data. A single piece of information can change everything. Like Archimedes and his lever, you just need precisely the right one. Everything else is dross. If I’d known sooner what Grae Bilwis meant to Nadia Ei, I thought, maybe I might have understood her better, maybe even helped her. I certainly understood, now, why leaving Harvester--where he had died--had been an ambiguous prospect for her. But I still didn’t entirely understand their story. Had she killed him or had he killed himself? Had he run from her or had they been traveling together? It didn’t matter. He was gone, and she now wanted to follow him.
Except it’s not dross, all that mass of extra data. It has weight and substance. And so do conclusions based on that mass, not to mention behavior based on those conclusions . . . .
I don’t know exactly what went through my mind in that moment. It wasn’t a revelation borne out of reasoning or logic. It just came to me in a flash, and for a moment I didn’t believe it. Then I thought of how things could be hidden right out in the open, sometimes. I thought of what a difference it would make, if it were true. I thought of how hard it would be to tell her, and just for a second I seriously considered not telling her at all.
But the thought in my head was too large to keep to myself. I had to do something with this knowledge. I had to share it.
I put one hand on the side of Nadia’s helm--a tiny, soft thing compared to the hard metal--and the other on her left shoulder flange.
“Come with me,” I said.
She said nothing, made no sound at all. Maybe she had shut off her comms so I wouldn’t hear her weeping, or laughing, or screaming. I had no way of knowing what she was doing in there. But she did move. She straightened, and she followed me like a sleepwalker through the habitats.
She broke her silence only when it became obvious where we were going.
“We’ve been here already,” she said. “I’m sure nothing’s changed.”
“I’m sure you’re right, but bear with me.”
“No,” she said, pulling back. “I’m not going back there unless you tell me.”
“Okay. It’s a small thing, so it might not immediately seem like much, but I think it makes a huge difference. Think of the machine intelligences.”
“What about them?”
“Well, they’re conscious, rational beings, like you, Grae, lots of others. But they’re still here. They haven’t given up. Why not?”
There were no easy answers to that question, but there was one really interesting one.
“You’re going to have to spell it out for me,” she said.
“They haven’t committed suicide because they’re like me.”
“You’re blaming their stubbornness on your legacy genes?”
“No. They know it won’t make any difference. Think about it, Nadia. We don’t really know how the wormcaster works, right? We assume it throws us physically from Infall to Outfall, but that’s just a guess based on what we see happening.”
“Someone comes out the Infall who didn’t go in,” she said. “Someone goes in the Outfall and emerges somewhere else.”
“Close. What we actually see from the sending end is someone going into Outfall and not emerging.”
“Splitting hairs, surely?”
“Not at all. The Outfall we have here seems to be working fine, but no one goes anywhere. We stay here. So instead of assuming that we’ve misunderstood the way it works, we assume it’s not working at all--when in fact it might be doing most of its job just fine, just not the one critical part that has led to the problem we see here.”
“Which critical part is that?”
Here, I hesitated. “Did you and Grae take the tour of the disk like we did?”
“Then . . . I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you that everything will be all right, somewhere, but now I can’t.”
“I’ve never thought it would be. Not since we were stuck here, and he . . . .”
She stopped. I could tell the thought had sunk in. Maybe not all of it, and she would probably need time to accept the rest, as I had--but the important part was there. I could tell from the way she turned and hurried with renewed urgency for Outfall.
There was a different tour guide this time, one slightly harder to understand. I managed to convince the uncooperative Uotan that we wanted to go in on our own, and he/she/it acquiesced in the end, simply, I think, to get us out of his/her/its hair. It wasn’t as if we could damage anything, after all. The disk had been sitting there for more years than humanity had existed. Not even time had dented it.
We had barely entered the tunnel when Nadia stopped and crouched down in front of me.
“If you’re right--”
“Then it makes no difference to us. And if I’m wrong, it makes no difference at all.”
“You think the machines really know about this?”
“I suspect they do.”
“Why haven’t they told anyone?”
I thought of Zuzi. She would have greeted the news with the sincere but utterly uniform delight she greeted every occurrence.
“It makes sense that they would keep this quiet,” I said. “After all, they can’t possibly prove it. Not until someone finally goes all the way around the Loop, anyway, or figures out how to make the Outfall work in both ways. It’s a guess, and it might be wrong.”
“But you don’t think so.”
“No. That’s why I’m here.”
“Both of us have already been inside once. Won’t that make a difference?”
“To Outfall, we’re just dumb matter.”
“So we can do this as many times as we want?”
“I don’t see why not.” I stared into the suit’s glittering eyes. “Does that make you feel better? Liberated, somehow? I know it shouldn’t but, still . . . I think it does. To me, anyway.”
She said, “All right, Alex. I’ll go with you, all the way. I wasn’t sure until now. I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea. But I will, if we go together.”
I smiled. “So let’s go.”
“Wait. Not like this. It could be dangerous.”
She stood up. Something whirred and hissed. A panel lifted out from the front of her suit, then several panels beneath that one. I thought something had malfunctioned in the complex fields of the Outfall disk. Then it occurred to me that suit wasn’t falling apart. It was opening.
I stepped back, not fully comprehending until all the layers had peeled and I saw what lay within.
“Grae couldn’t bear the thought of it,” she said. Her voice was unchanged. “The Loop was supposed to bring us together, but the truth of it was that we were as close as we were ever going to be. Nothing I said or did could change the way he was feeling. He didn’t understand himself until we were stuck together in Harvester, and once it was clear we would be stuck here forever, he chose the easy way out. He saw no reason to hope, and after a while, neither did I.”
My head was swimming, and it wasn’t from the forces at work inside the disk.
“When I saw you digging for information on Grae, I thought you were being stubborn again, trying to understand--and you were, but you understood the wrong thing.” She made a sound that might have been a laugh. “I swear I wasn’t looking for you to rescue me.”
I stared, thinking of all the times I had misunderstood what Nadia’s suit meant to her.
“This place,” she went on. “It’s like some fucked-up metaphor for life. Sometimes we need to destroy the past so we can move on. Otherwise, we’re stuck. If we can’t shrug off what came before, we can’t leave it behind, can’t move on. But life does move on, even if we don’t always want it to. Even if what lies ahead might be dangerous, or frightening, or whatever. Are you going to say something?”
I didn’t know what to say. Her suit was empty. There was room for a person, with instruments, life support, and black formfit padding that looked beyond comfortable--but there was no one in the seat.
“Where are you?” I asked, thinking absurd thoughts about ghosts in the machine.
“In the armor,” she said. “Spread thin.”
“Of course, otherwise alcohol would have no effect. If you want the gruesome details--”
“No thanks. But you are human, right?”
“Yes. Would it make a difference if I wasn’t?”
“I think so.” It seemed better not to lie. “You want me to get in?”
“Are you going to?”
“It’s a big step.”
“Don’t get all Freudian on me. This doesn’t have to change anything. You don’t even have to do it, if you don’t want to--”
“I know,” I said, understanding at last that this was how Grae Bilwis had come to Harvester, why the Authorities had never heard of him until she had given them his body. “I think it’s a good idea, though. We don’t know what lies ahead, right?”
“Right. It would be safer this way.”
I still could have backed out. We weren’t going anywhere, after all. We would still be stuck with Harvester, and the celebration, and the memories of everyone we had lost. But that was the other side of the equation, and she knew it.
“Just let’s make it very clear up front,” she said, “that I won’t take your orders. You’re not my pilot. Okay?”
I thought of the complex equations needed to describe the motions of Harvester’s five stars, and extrapolated them out to cover all the beings there, all the people who had ever followed the Loop, all the people back home--including my higher self, who I fully expected never to see again, in this life, and who I would always miss, no matter what substitutes I found . . . .
The easy part would be telling Zuzi I probably didn’t need her apartment any more.
I said, “Okay.”
I step inside.
She seals up.
We walk to the end of the tunnel, turn around, and come back.
Lna was waiting for us in junction one-sixty-four. Nearly seventy Lnas, to be exact, all pretty much identical apart from the length of time they had spent in Harvester. Most of the population here consists of guides, as a matter of fact. Everybody else who comes through moves on, once they make the break from what they’ve left behind. That’s what the Loop is for, when it works.
We were greeted with delight and excitement, but not surprise. We weren’t the first versions of us to come through. That we understood the situation this time put us in very elite crowd, though. Most people fall through accidentally. The scientists who had done so were uniformly sheepish, and not without reason, given the gaff they’d help perpetuate--that staying in Harvester wasn’t the same thing as not appearing in one-sixty-four.
The erasure mechanism worked fine at the next junction. It was a strange feeling, knowing that the present version of myself was going to be destroyed when we moved on to the next. But the issue of identity and which version was “real” was moot by that point, since we’d already gone through the process so many times and felt authentic enough. It didn’t matter where our atoms came from, or how many of us there were, now. The really unnerving thought was whether any of the links ahead had failed in different ways. Just because our data went forth along the wormcaster, that didn’t mean there was going to be an Infall to receive it at the next stop. What if the last version to be erased was the last ever to exist?
Not knowing was okay. Ignorance loves company.
And besides, there was still Harvester.
Under the dark night skies of junction one-sixty-four, knowing we weren’t going to be there forever, we were the living embodiment of what happened next, and that was all that mattered to us.
This story originally appeared in Armoured.