The stories of the sounds at the center of the universe are true. You hear the piping from light-years away, or feel it, in the noise of the engines and the hum of the navcom. Whistling, grating, like off-key flutes down a long hall. On the edge of perception, hard to tell apart from the tinnitus we all have these days. Then you catch it in the voices of your crewmates, snatches of melody somehow upside-down from what sounds should be, little tones that not even Jek, our ghoul, ought to be able to make, and after a while every breath, every noise, comes to share in that wild, arrhythmic whippoorwilling.
The stories come from the ones smart enough to have gunned it, max warp, when they first heard it. You don’t get stories about what comes after. What happens when you get closer to the center of everything. Closer to Azathoth. Captain Moore’s the only three-dimensional being who’s gone further than the first whisper of that piping and come back with brain function intact. Granted, the nature of that function is debatable. We follow him, though. Into Hell itself, we follow him. That’s why he brought us.
He stands fixed like a nail in the center of the bridge as the ship wails and shudders around us, his eyes on the undulating mass of gaunts packed thick as the caul of blasted ships and dead satellites around old Earth so far behind. And he takes us straight into them. There must be millions of the things. Enormous, faceless, rubbery carrion crows, harrying us with their weird brokewing flapping, smacking and squelching against the walls of the ship that seem suddenly very thin, latching on and then spinning off into the infinite black. And always that piping. That infernal piping.
“Full ahead, Mister Sal,” says Moore. I grit my teeth and force the Anastasis forward. The engines, the strongest of any ship I’ve ever steered, screech and whine like dying things. The nightgaunts are ten deep around us and it’s like flying through tar. There’s a metallic moan and the ship is pulled—down? No, not down, exactly. Along some other axis. Into some other space. No place for creatures like us.
“No,” says Moore. “I’ll not be cheated.” He says it calmly, with that absolute prophetic certainty that has gotten us this far. He displaces Jora in the gunnery stand and begins shooting gaunts at uncomfortably close quarters to the skin of the ship itself. Jora, who would normally be cursing or killing anyone taking her station, grins through her helmet and drops down the hatch. The next we see of her she’s outside, among the gaunts, blasting them with a shoulder cannon and pulling them off by hand into the void.
But it’s no good. We’re going down, or through, or out, into whatever space the nightgaunts want to take us. I just hope we won’t last long there. Then Moore smiles. “Please return to the ship, Mister Jora. I will remove them.”
He opens a panel and starts pulling on wires. I have no idea what he’s doing at first, but Leh stares at him through those unblinking, ice-blue cybernetic eyes. She knows the ship. She knows everything. That’s why she’s here: to learn something past everything. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t stop him.
Moore says, “It is not my time, friends. And so, not yours either. We’re bound to this universe a little longer.” He pulls a latch.
At the last instant I realize what he’s done, and I almost move to stop him. But I can’t leave the helm, and there is no time anyway. The dimensional drive explodes in a white nova that I can see through my closed eyes, through my visor, through the hull of the ship. The recoil sends us flying, but the Anastasis keeps itself, somehow, whole. The flash should be enough to shut my photosensitive brain down entirely, but I haven’t survived this long by letting my brain quit when it should. I manage to bring us around and through the charred remains of the gaunts. I dodge the crackling fragments of the drive, and then we are roaring back into our own space, rid of our nightgaunts and of our only way home.
That’s Captain Moore.
Two months ago he’d come stalking into the little hole I’d crawled into after Earthfall, with Jek meeping and slavering beside him. Ever since the catastrophe, light was an ache to me, even what passed for light on the night side of Yuggoth. So I appreciated that Moore and Jek didn’t disturb the darkness.
“Mister Sal, late of the Steeplechase,” he said, in that voice like a whisper over ice. “I have need of a pilot.”
I winced at my name and that of my former ship, both of which I’d rather have left behind, and the mention of my former profession, which I thought I had. “I don’t fly anymore.”
“Believe me, you don’t want me.”
“I do. You in particular. You have the unique distinction of having steered a ship intact through the … incident.”
“The incident?” Earth and its people burnt and drowned and maddened, their ruins now the permanent property of things from elsewhere.
He continued. “This implies a remarkable degree of skill and an even more remarkable capacity for persistence in the face of reality.”
“Reality, Mister Sal. You have faced reality and put the pieces together. That is to say, you have understood the fundamental order, or disorder, of the cosmos. And you are still here, your mind more or less composed. I do not need to tell you how rare that is.”
I thought of my shipmates as we’d watched the Things that had brushed aside our fleets make Earth their own. The looks in their eyes, the noises they made, the screeching prayers they’d offered to the masters of the Godships while I tried to keep the ruined planet between us and them.
“Where we are going,” Moore went on, “you will need such strength of mind.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere. I don’t want to fly a ship again. I want dark and I want quiet and I want to be alone.”
“No. You confuse yourself. Understand, I am like you. I also have been confronted with reality, and I have had more time alone than you to think about it, an activity which I can assure you will only trouble you further. No, you want transcendence. To shed the burden of this reality.”
“Spent a lot of time thinking about shedding the burden of this reality. Can’t do it.”
“Not like that, Mister Sal. True transcendence. What they used to call a new Heaven and a new Earth. Peace, Mister Sal. Peace at last. It is possible. I know where we can find it.”
“And where’s that?”
When he told me, I would have laughed, but there was no laughter left in me, and I would have run, but I was all done running, so I did the only thing left: I said yes.
Moore had a talent for finding people like me, people ten parsecs past the bitter end but tied up with tough wire that just won’t break and let us go. The kinds of people who would consider, even for a nanosecond, flying into the Azathoth Maelstrom.
He had us assembled in the shipyard under the manta shadow of the Anastasis. Beneath the great chrome wings was a dimensional drive ten times bigger than the one I’d had on the Steeplechase, and the little bulge on the underside for the crew seemed almost an afterthought. It was the sort of thing you might have seen in an A/M future tech briefing before Earthfall, if you could have gotten the clearance. What secret dock Moore pulled it out of, and how, we never knew.
If the ship was like nothing I’d ever seen, the small crew was a match. There was Leh, the cyborg. Blue circles of light the size of golf balls for eyes, a brain that held three-quarters of the information in the galaxy, an imagination that played and built endlessly with it, and an insatiable hunger for more.
Jora, our gunner, who, rumor had it, had singlehandedly held off the Dholes’ efforts to colonize Deneb IV and was never the same after. If she could have held a blaster up to the universe and put a hole in its head, I think she would have. She had to settle for blasting anything else that presented itself.
There was Jek, an engineering savant who, as far as any of us could tell, saw the voyage as one of technical—and epicurean—discovery. The expressions on his rubberdog face when he looked at you were even more disturbing than those of most ghouls, as if he were conceiving applications for the human body that involved both the usual ghoulish delights and sophisticated transdimensional physics.
Then there was Moore himself. He had been captain of the Basil Elton. Research ship for A/M Industries in the years when money was flowing like water. Deep core stuff, closer to the Maelstrom than anyone had ever been: the last big project before the end. Not the sort of thing anyone knew about at the time. But we heard after.
The Basil Elton was lost, and its crew—well, people said a lot of things about what had happened to its crew. Azathoth had reached out a finger, and only Moore made it back. He was ten years coming home, in a little pod with barely enough room to roll over in. Plenty of time to go mad, if he wasn’t already. But he came back with a vision, so he said, of the cosmos beyond and through the Maelstrom, of a universe flipped round, with an Earth undrowned in water and blood, where the boundaries between what is and what should never be had not come down.
Who knows if any of us believed it then? But you hit a point where it doesn’t matter. When he asked for oaths sealed with sign and blood, we gave them. When he asked if any of us had business to finish, goodbyes to say, goods to collect, we turned silently and boarded the Anastasis.
Now we are drifting through the emptiness beyond the gaunts, in a quickening spiral toward the Maelstrom that nevertheless feels languid. There’s no need any more for the lost dimensional drive, at least not in this direction: Azathoth will bring us from here. If any of us wants to ask Moore what we’ll do once we’re through, how we’ll make our way through that other cosmos to that other Earth, we keep it quiet. All of us have learned, in one way or another, the futility of what then?
Jora and Leh are talking, too quiet for me to hear. But Leh’s eyes—eyes that have seen a thousand worlds, that front a brain that’s memorized every word written by human beings—are looking at Jora like she’s the most interesting thing in the galaxy.
The few distant pinprick stars only accentuate the nothingness. They used to think the center of the universe was bright, but turns out the closer you come, the darker it gets. Even the piping is subdued here. For just a moment, in these doldrums, in this anesthetic dark that keeps even thought at bay, the ache between my eyes and brain is gone. I think, maybe, that this might be as close as this cosmos can give to the peace Moore promised me. I almost think that I would like to stay.
Then I perceive the thing. The concepts we have for colors and for shapes are not right for it. But size, at least, gives me something to hang an impression on: it dwarfs our ship like a whale does a remora, gliding effortlessly through the aether currents. You would think that after everything, after Earth, the Steeplechase, the aliens walking around our minds, the hellish compact with the ghouls, the sunken cities rising—you would think I’d be beyond horror. But it can always get worse.
The gargantuan thing twists its way blindly through dimensions I’ve never dreamed of, writhes through my brain and makes me feel that all the pain I’ve felt has been a dumb animal’s pain. That all the horror I’ve perceived is an insect’s view of horror: partial, fragmented. I used to look up at the stars and think how small my torments were in this great big universe. A comfort. Now I’ve seen the stars up close, and this entity brings it all home: the great big universe is itself the tormenter. Believe me, there’s no comfort in being small in a cosmos like this one.
Moore is beside me, as the being rolls through our space. Somehow he speaks calmly, as if he can read my thoughts. “Yes, Mister Sal. Horrible. All of it. But some little trick of evolution keeps making us think there’s something of this existence we should want to save.”
I almost can’t answer. I gurgle: “But you found something …”
“No. Not in this universe. I found a door, but it is important that you understand, if you are to follow me through it. Nothing in this universe is worth saving.”
There’s something about how he says it, how he says it to me in particular, but I can’t focus on anything except that thing.
The drifter takes no notice of us. Why would it? But in its passage the aether roils and we are thrown off our lazy spiral toward the Maelstrom. We spin sickly. Over and over and over, like space is folding around us. When I finally manage to right the ship we are in a dead drop onto a blasted sphere of rock.
I manage to set the ship down without killing us all, but the Anastasis is the worse for it. Jek informs us that it will be hours, maybe days to repair. In Moore’s stern face is something that almost looks like impatience.
Leh wants to explore, and Jora and I go with her. After that thing, I need action, motion. I need to sense that the universe consists of substance, quality, quantity, somewhere, somewhen … all those wholesome old Aristotelian categories, as real and meaningful to me at the moment as Santa Claus.
The ground is covered in ashy powder thirty centimeters thick, and the space before our headlamps and Leh’s eyebeams is hazy with the swirling dust. So we are almost upon the edifice when we first see it, soaring above the reach of our lamps and stretching beyond anything we can see of the horizon.
Without hesitation, Leh walks to it. The walls are of a strange black substance that seems to give and even pulse just a little beneath the pressure of our gloved hands. I can only describe the feel as that of gelatinous steel. There are no doorways we can see, but Leh starts crawling spiderlike up the walls—one of her myriad augmentations—and discovers wide tubular openings about six meters off the ground. She tosses down an extender rope, and Jora and I follow her in.
It’s ten minutes of wiggling through peristalsing tunnels before we emerge in a huge, circular chamber, with what seems to be hundreds more tunnels on all the walls. It reminds me uncomfortably of the geometries of the Godships. Small metallic cubes float somehow all through the space. Leh moves slowly among them, takes one, contemplates it for a while, and at last presses one of the faces. It illuminates, for just a few seconds, then is dark again. The flashes tug painfully at my memory.
“Beautiful,” breathes Leh.
“Awful fancy way to light a room,” says Jora.
“Information,” says Leh. “It’s a library.”
“Whose? We’re a billion kilometers from …”
But Leh is already moving to another cube.
She touches them one by one. Each time there is a flash and then darkness, and there is no telling what is going on in her brain. It’s nothing we can understand, but it is something wondrous to her. You can see it in those bright golf-ball eyes. She moves with cybernetic grace through that great hall, leaping and tumbling and swinging as if gravity has forgotten her, and in the flashes as she activates each cube we see the millions of others, floating like dead stars hoarding their last light.
The spectacle is mesmerizing to all of us, for different reasons. Leh, of course, is seeing something in those cubes. Jora only has eyes for Leh. Neither can I look away, for all the headsplitting pain the starbursts bring.
Suddenly I’m back on the Steeplechase, watching the last shreds of organized humanity fall away in the little ripples and burps of spacetime that spiral out from the Godships’ wings. The warships are helpless. The colony ships, for which we had sacrificed everything, flare up like magnesium fireflies and are gone.
I take the Steeplechase around the night side of Earth, swallowed in fire and water and rolling gasses, and from its ruin and from the fading sparks of the colony ships I swear I hear my wife, my children, my parents, my brother, everyone I promised to keep safe. I hear them across the unbearable distance. I hear them laughing like maniacs.
Of the massive fleet that was everything human ingenuity and reason could bring to bear against the things outside, the Steeplechase alone escapes.
But not its crew. I watch my comrades, selected in large part for their psychic endurance, slowly peeled into something less and more than human. Weeping without tears, shrieking without sound, madly learning new ways to be, to leave behind an obsolete mode of consciousness, the banality of cause and effect, truth and falsehood.
And why not me? Why do I remain myself? How is that I, who was supposed to fall on the front lines, have outlived Earth?
Here and now, I watch Leh leaping and spinning through the stored knowledge of countless eons, knowing more and more, my head aching, and I want to ask her, is there a way to do it in reverse?
Jora asks, “What is it, Leh?”
She doesn’t respond, and Jora asks again. And again, almost pleading. At last Leh’s voice—changed, distracted, distant, the voice of one almost out of sight over the horizon. “Answers. Or, rather, questions I had not thought to ask.”
Jora begins to say something, but suddenly Moore is there, and the harsh light of his headlamp fixes Leh in its beam.
“We are returning to the ship. Mister Leh, Jek has need of you.”
Leh turns those uncanny eyes on Moore, and I almost think she’s going to blast him. “No. There is more data here.”
“Your oath was not given me to look at light-up boxes on a dead world, Mister Leh. We are drawing near our ending now.”
There is something about how he says ending that makes me wonder.
Leh responds. “There is more for me here than in whatever paradise you think you will reach beyond the Maelstrom.”
“Be that as it may, we go now.”
“Then leave me.” She speaks with absolute indifference. Another cube flashes, and whatever is contained inside enters her eyes, and then there is darkness.
I had not thought Moore’s voice could grow colder or more insistent. “We have need of your brain.”
Then there is another flash, a red gash in the darkness, and Leh falls. Jora runs to her, and I just gape at Moore and his gun.
“Take her back to the ship,” he says, “if you desire anything of her to survive.”
Jora looks up with pure hatred, but maybe for the first time since the holocaust on Deneb, she doesn’t shoot the thing she hates. Instead, she turns to Leh and hoists her smoking, twitching form.
Jek wrinkles his rubbery canine face at the sight of her, though it’s unclear whether he is troubled or hungry. With a practiced butcher’s ease, he strips the worthless flesh and broken components alike. In minutes he has Leh—what’s left of her—hooked directly into the ship’s computer, the head perched on the console like the blasted remains of an animatronic character on an antique children’s ride. A few patches of her silver hair still protrude from the metal skullplate. Her head swivels. Her eyes light up and fix first on Moore, and then on Jora. There is a blankness in them, or a seeing-past. When she speaks, her voice is completely without affect.
“Engines engaged. Prepare to launch.”
Jek grins. “Had to cannibalize some systems for the repairs. Was worried we might be flying blind. But seems like we got ourselves a new command module.”
Moore holds his hand out just about Leh’s head, like he is giving a benediction. “The ship is yours now, Mister Leh. You may engage whatever unneeded computational power you have to think on what you learned on your excursion. But now we’re for the maelstrom. There will be no further delay.”
Leh’s eyes, which I used to think of as distant, are now a universe away. Jora stares at her as I pull the ship up and through the storm of dust we’ve raised.
And then we are aloft, and on our way to the end.
The piping has grown louder. We cannot make a move except in time to its mad rhythms. We cannot say a word without hitting a tritone to its discordant melody.
Moore is below, consulting with Jek. Jora is speaking to Leh, trying to understand.
“What did they do to you?” It’s strange to hear the voice of someone like Jora plead.
Leh says, “The captain and the ghoul? They augmented my processing power somewhat, which is salutary.” Her voice is flat, stilted. Like speech is something tiresome and vestigial.
“They shot you and took your head off!”
“Ambulatory function might be easily restored in the unlikely event that we survive and such function proves optimal.”
“That’s not what I mean. You’re different.”
“The statement is meaningless. Your perception of time is structured entirely by difference, that is by change in position, state …”
“Damn it,” Jora says. “I’ll kill him. I’ll kill him for this.”
I pull Jora aside.
“It wasn’t them. It wasn’t … this.” I gesture to the head gazing calmly out from its perch on the computer bank. “It was the library.”
“Oh, you think it was looking at some lights and not being shot and decapitated that might have had some psychological impact?”
“Whatever she was learning in there…I think it put her beyond us.”
“She was already beyond us.” Again, something in her voice that you would not expect in someone like Jora.
“She used to just talk down to us. Now it’s an effort to find common ground, anything at all to say. Once, when my …” I take a deep breath. “Once we had a doctor tell us to find developmentally-appropriate ways to speak to our two-year-old. That’s what it sounds like Leh is doing.” I realize I haven’t said a word about my family to anyone since Earthfall.
“For what it’s worth,” I say, “she’s making that effort.”
Jora curses in time to the insane flutes and turns back to the gunnery station.
And then we see it. Well, we perceive it. On the edge of consciousness, tugging at those parts of the optic nerve that see things that are not there, those neurons that conjure up fever dreams and shapes in the dark.
Azathoth. The ragged center of everything.
The old Earth cults tried to name it and describe it, or at least to cloak it in words and thought. A sultan, they called it, a god. Blind, as if it had eyes. Gnawing, as if it had a mouth. Lulled by the sound of flutes, as if it had ears, emotion. All absurdities. But I understand their dilemma. It is not the impossible problem of describing nothing. Not even the problem of describing everything. It is the problem of explaining nothing-in-everything and everything-in-nothing. Of the place that is all places and none. The center that is also the outside. The end that is the beginning. And all those flat words of time and space fail so utterly. It is after all much more like a blind, daemon sultan blaspheming and bubbling, gnawing eternally at the nucleus of the meaningless void. Jora and I are down on the floor, clawing at our heads, screaming in time to the insane piping, shutting our eyes and seeing universes of swirling chaos repeated on the backs of our eyelids.
Then there is a whine through the ship’s com system, and the piping is ever so slightly muffled. The madness fades to a dull drumbeat in the backs of our heads. When I can open my eyes again, it is to look up at Moore staring into the maelstrom. Some sort of distortion has been projected across the great bridge screen, so that the phenomenon can be viewed with only moderate discomfort, crackling electric green on the edge of perception, sucking everything toward the darkness in its heart, bending our ship, our very voices in its chaotic tentacles.
“Well, my friends. Here, we face the beginning and the end. You have Jek to thank for our sanity-saving modulations.”
Jora has gotten up before me.
“So this is the road to your better universe?” she says.
Moore fixes her with an eye flashing in the unintelligible shades of the maelstrom’s edge. My head hurts. I see Moore in a thousand new lights; everything is shifting color, shifting shape, form.
His voice is calm. “This is the way, yes. The only way.”
I cut Jora off. “Look.”
For just a moment, there’s a flicker of something in the Vantablack heart of the maelstrom. It’s impossible, ridiculous, but beyond the chaos, I see sun reflected on rooftops, and a quiet place, a place I knew but kinder than the one I knew, and faces too, faces not twisted as they were when I saw them last by agony and madness and pain. I see it all, for just an instant, and the ache in my brain is hushed.
Then it is gone.
“Ah,” says Moore. “You see, Mister Sal. That is what Azathoth has kept from us.”
Jora’s eyes are on him, not the maelstrom. “Here’s my question. What’s a better universe look like once it’s got people like us in it?”
Moore does not reply, but turns to me.
“Look sharp now, Mister Sal. If we brush an edge of that chaos, we are lost. It is only dead center for us. And Mister Jora: if anything comes toward us … do what you do. Mister Leh, I am sure you have noticed that the center is not stable. Adjust the course as needed.”
He walks swiftly below. Before Jek can follow him I call out, and he pads doglike to me.
“Why are you here?” I ask.
“To serve the captain, of course.”
“Yes, but why? If the place we’re going is what it looks like to me, what … what’s in it for you?”
“Ah, maybe we’re not bound for the same place. Or maybe I lay odds that it is my paradise, not yours, that we’re all bound for. Then …” he looks at me for a long while, grins toothily, and then follows Moore.
“You saw it, didn’t you?” I ask Jora.
“I don’t know what you saw, but I know what I did, and I don’t believe it.” A jellything half the size of our ship drifts by. She vaporizes it. “It’s a mirage,” she continues. “There’s nothing through this maelstrom. Nothing for us, anyway.”
I stare into the swirling chaos, and shapes again resolve, like the little spots in the darkness behind closed eyes. Universes rise and sink into the churn. Few of them offer anything I can comprehend, and those that do offer little comfort. At moments I think I see that sunlit place, but at others I see shapes and shadows that chill my blood. Once I think I see the universe as it is, and that’s the worst of all. Then again, maybe I am seeing only what my own mind puts there.
I say, “Don’t you think it’s worth the chance? It’s not like we have anything going for us here.”
She stares straight ahead and does not answer.
“Why would Moore lie to us?” I ask.
“He’s insane,” says Jora. “Trust me, I know it when I see it. You think Azathoth just let him go? Maybe he made a deal, is doing exactly what It wants.”
“You think Azathoth could care about creatures like us?”
Suddenly Leh speaks, in that studied voice she needs for us lesser beings now.
“There is something that you would perhaps be interested to know. Through my integration with the ship’s systems, I have concluded that the Anastasis is designed not for transit through the maelstrom, but for its destruction.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “This is a hell of a ship, but that’s the most powerful phenomenon in the galaxy. Easier to destroy a star.”
“Not exactly. It does not function like a normal celestial body. It certainly does not follow normal laws. It is an … entity, and it can die, for lack of a better term.”
“Even if it could, how could a spaceship kill it?”
“Of course it could not. But the entity could kill itself. The Anastasis is a reflector. Perfectly tuned. There is a non-zero chance that the madness of Azathoth could be turned on Azathoth itself, that the rhythm could fold in on itself there at the center of everything. That the eye of Azathoth could gaze on itself and not survive.”
“And Moore somehow thinks that we’ll survive being in the middle of that? Destroying that?”
“It is quite certain that nothing will survive. Azathoth is the structuring principle of the cosmos, or the foundational chaos, however you want to understand it. Anything that happens to Azathoth happens to everything.”
“Everything?” I say. “So all that about going through …”
“That bastard,” says Jora.
Moore steps back on the bridge, Jek beside him.
“Yes, my friends. Look around you. Look at this cosmos.” Moore’s voice is growing heated, a fact that at the moment strikes me as more terrible than almost everything else I’ve been through. “Look at everything that’s been done. Look what Azathoth has done to this existence. Look what it’s done to us, to me! It. Must. Die.”
“Azathoth, or everything?” Jora spits.
“It’s the same! Azathoth is all!” cries Moore.
Jora spins from her station. Her rifle is out. Jek leaps for her throat, and they go down in a tangle. There is a horrible tearing sound and a blast from Jora’s gun. Jek’s smoking body flies back against a console and is still. Jora is a ruin, but she manages to lift her head. Moore aims his pistol at her.
A double arc of electric blue knocks it from his hands. He swears, looks around wildly, and meets Leh’s glowing, ice-blue eyes.
“Damnation,” he says.
While he’s turned away, Jora lifts the rifle and fires. And fires. And fires again.
Moore crumples, falls.
In the midst of it all I am, somehow, still steering. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jora, somehow, still alive. And it strikes me: until our last conversation I would have thought she of all people would be all right with destroying the universe.
“Leh,” she croaks. “Get the ship out of here. Now.”
Leh says, “Here? Now? Such words are meaningless.”
Jora tries to turn her head, fails. There is blood everywhere.
“Sal. Get … out. Don’t let him …”
And then she is gone, and there is only the piping and the drumming and the infernal swirling to the heart of chaos, to the blind infinity, the nothing coextensive with all space and all time.
I sigh, and close my eyes. The insane music. The universe crackling in colors I can’t understand all around me, colors that would kill me all on their own if not for whatever reflective wizardry Moore’s ship is doing. Fired down the throat of an uncaring, insane cosmos, and it turns out it was one man’s dying shot at revenge. It turns out, we were never going through. It turns out, this was for no reason at all. It turns out, like everything, there was no reason at all.
I feel so tired. All I have to do is keep steering a little longer, and it’s lights out. All over.
“Leh. I saw something through there. Was it real? Was that true, at least?”
“It is true that there are other universes, and it is true that the maelstrom might be a nexus of sorts.”
“So what will happen if we go into the eye?”
“To reiterate, the ship is likely to cause a traumatic reconfiguration …”
“Not the ship,” I say, checking the seals on my suit. “Just us. Can you calculate a trajectory? And do whatever Jek did to the screens to my visor?”
A pause. “Yes. But you may wish to consider the improbability of survival outside the craft in such a situation.”
“If you’d rather not chance it, feel free to go back to that library.”
The eyes turn to Jora’s body. Her voice modulates, if only slightly. “I believe I was incorrect in my earlier expressed indifference to the completion of the mission. If, as it appears, there is another cosmos to be reached, I would prefer to attempt to do so.”
“You and me both.”
“To be clear, beyond the improbability of surviving the maelstrom and the likelihood that there is no physical passage through from our space, it is quite unlikely that any universe to be reached will be suitable for or comprehensible to terrestrial life.”
“Yeah, well …” I sweep my arm around the bridge, the maelstrom, everything. “I’m used to that by now. Will you be all right without … anything else?”
“The head will be sufficient.”
Behind us the Anastasis, the bullet meant for reality’s brain, yaws toward the swirling edges of the maelstrom. I don’t look back, but I feel it as it’s sucked into Azathoth’s hungry tentacle lips.
So here I am, in an absurdly frail EV suit, a cyborg head under one arm, dodging nameless abominations and the dancing, grasping arms of chaos, facing a crazy roulette wheel of unknowable universes, plunging headfirst through the empty madness at the center of everything, toward the light.