by Gareth L. Powell
It's cold here, in the twilight of the universe. The sky's dark with the husks of burned-out stars. Only one still shines – a young sun born from the ragged clouds of dust and gas that circle the bloated remnants of the black hole that ate our galaxy. Its light draws the surviving races to bask in its heat. They huddle close in vehicles of every size and shape, a vast armada of refugees. It's an awesome sight – and I've come a long way to be here, sacrificed a hell of a lot just to see it.
And now that I am here, so far from home, all I can think of is the start of my journey, and the girl I left behind...
Her name was Anna and she had the bluest eyes I'd ever seen. We met on a campsite in Burgundy when we were both eighteen years old, hitchhiking around Europe with friends. She picked me out of the crowd at the site's open-air café, and stayed with me for the rest of the week.
I remember it as an idyllic time. We took long walks together. There were wild poppies in the hedgerows and coloured lights in the trees. The village streets were steep and narrow. In the evenings we met our friends under the café's corrugated tin roof, to drink wine and tell stories.
"Come with me," I remember her saying on the last night we were together. She had a white cotton blouse and frayed blue jeans. She took my hand and led me downhill, away from the café and our circle of tents, until we came to the stone bridge where the lane crossed the stream.
"I'm so glad I met you," she said, giving me a squeeze. "And I'll be so sad tomorrow, when I have to leave."
We leaned against the parapet. The rough stones held the day's heat. The water bubbled and chuckled underneath.
"Try not to think about it," I said smoothing a stray hair from her cheek. I knew I was going to miss her and didn't want to talk about it. I tried to kiss her but she pulled away.
"Will you write to me?" she said.
"You promise you won't forget me?"
She bit her lip. Then she pulled one of her wristbands off.
"Here, I want you to have this," she said, and tucked it into my shirt pocket.
I put my arms around her and kissed the top of her head. We could hear someone playing a guitar up in the café.
"Are you alright?" I asked.
She huddled closer.
"Just hold me," she said.
Minutes passed. A breeze picked up, stirring the willows bent over the water.
"We should get back to the tent," I said. "It's going to rain."
Anna shook her head. "Not yet -- I want to go a bit further."
I felt my shoulders slump. "How much further?"
"To the little church we saw yesterday."
"But that's in the next village," I protested.
She took my arm. "It isn't far."
She led me across the bridge and I looked up at the clouds in the hot sky. "It feels like there's a storm coming," I said. Anna squeezed me. The lane before us cut a straight line through the flat fields.
"Then we should walk faster," she said.
By the time we reached the medieval church, fat spots of rain were falling. I pushed the heavy wooden door open. Inside, the only light came from the narrow, dusty windows.
"Should we light a candle?" I said. The place smelled of incense. It was cooler in here than outside, and a little creepy.
Anna shook her head. She put a hand on my shoulder and kissed my neck.
"I'm really very fond of you," she whispered.
I was surprised; we'd spent the last week avoiding such declarations, because we knew they'd only make it harder when the time came to go our separate ways.
She stepped back. "In fact, I think I love you," she said.
I swallowed. "You do?"
She looked away. "I just wanted you to know."
I reached out and touched her. I didn't know how else to respond.
"You realise we'll never see each other again, don't you?" I said.
"We won't." I put my arms around her. She lived in Melbourne, I lived in Cardiff, and neither of us had any money.
"But thank you," I said.
A little while later we were we were sitting on the smooth flagstone floor, just inside the open door, watching the rain. I had my back to the wall and Anna had her head in my lap.
"So, what are you going to do when you get home?" she said.
I shrugged. When I got back to Wales I'd be broke -- and I'd have to start making some serious decisions about my future – like whether to go on to university or leave full time education and get a job. But right now, it all seemed so far away, like another life.
Across the fields, we could see the lights of the campsite.
"It's midnight," I said. "They'll be wondering where we are."
Lightning flashed on the horizon, then again, closer. The rain got heavier.
"They won't be too worried -- they know we're together," said Anna.
Another flash lit the church and thunder rolled overhead.
She sat up and smiled.
"Besides, this is our last night together -- I don't want to share it with anyone else."
We were standing at the door when I saw a dark shadow moving in the field across the road. I leaned out to get a better look.
Anna pulled at my hand.
"What is it?"
"There's something over there," I said. "Look, wait for the lightning. There."
"Oh yes. Is it a balloon?"
"It's too big."
"But it moves like one. Maybe it's a blimp?"
I took a step out, into the rain. As we watched, the shadow grazed the top of the hedge and dropped into the next field.
"Come on," I grabbed her hand and pulled her across the road to the gate. We climbed over into the field. The object floated in the middle, one end dragging in the mud. Despite the rain, I felt the hairs prickle on the back of my neck.
Anna had a death grip on my forearm.
"What the hell is it?" she said, shouting over the noise of the storm.
I scratched my head. It was a rugby ball about the size of a Volkswagen, covered in intakes, bulges and antennae, its hull shimmering with the energies contained within.
"I think it's a flying saucer," I said.
We stood watching from a few metres away as it wallowed in the air. Then it seemed to right itself, and settled to the ground.
"It looks damaged," I said, and I felt Anna shiver – we were both wet through.
"Maybe it got hit by lightning?" she said.
"Maybe..." I took a step toward it.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to take a closer look."
"Don't!" She pulled at my arm but I slipped free. I just had to touch it. I took two quick steps and reached out my hand.
Thunder split the sky.
I woke with a start, on a beach with Anna beside me. Surf broke on the white sand. Palms swayed in the offshore breeze.
"Where are we?" she said, shading her eyes against the late afternoon sun.
I climbed shakily to my feet. I could see another beach through the trees, about a hundred yards away.
"We're on an island," I said.
I helped her up and we stood there, looking around and clinging to each other.
"How did we get here?" she said. "Are we dreaming?"
I could feel the heat of the sand through my shoes, and smell the sea air – it all seemed real enough.
"I don't think so," I said.
We edged down to the waterline and Anna kicked her shoes off. Then without speaking, we walked right the way around the island. It took us half an hour. Everywhere we looked, there were other islands on the horizon but no signs of life.
It wasn't until we got back to our starting point that we noticed the pirate galleon. It was moored out by the reef, sails furled. A dinghy lay beached nearby with its oars shipped and a man sitting in the stern.
"Ah, there you are," he said. He had a scrubby beard and dark eyes, and wore breeches and a black jacket. As we got closer, he stood up.
Anna took a step back.
"Who are you?" she said.
The man smiled. He had a gold tooth.
"My name's Hook," he said, tugging at the brim of his feathered hat.
He led us up into the trees, to a clearing, and the embers of a driftwood fire.
"Sit, make yourselves comfortable," he said. The sun was going down. He wrapped a handkerchief around his hand and picked a coffee pot from the fire.
"Would you like a cup?" he said. "Or would you prefer something a bit stronger?"
Still stunned, unable to see any alternative, we knelt in the sand.
"We just want to know where we are," I said.
There were some tin mugs by the fire. He picked one up, blew into it, and filled it. Then he filled the other two and passed them over. He put the pot by the fire to keep warm, and settled himself in the sand, facing us.
"Let's start simply," he said, stroking his beard. "First off, can you tell me who you are?"
He sipped his coffee, watching us. Anna slipped her hand into mine.
"I'm Anna," she said. She gave me a squeeze. "And this is Scott."
She looked at me, as if for confirmation, and I gave her an encouraging nod.
Hook put his cup down.
"I'm afraid not," he said slowly. "I know that's who you think you are, but really, you're mistaken."
The sea breeze ruffled the tops of the palm trees and stirred the smoky embers of the fire.
"Then who are we?" I said.
"Your real selves are still lying in that field in France," he said. "You're facsimiles, simulations. When you touched the 'UFO' it copied your mental state, like copying a piece of software."
I waved a hand at our surroundings. "And all this is a simulation too?"
"That's right. We're going on a voyage and we're giving you the choice whether to come with us or not. This is our boarding program. It's a symbolic choice -- You've got to decide if you want to get on the ship, or stay here on the land."
I looked out at the galleon silhouetted against the last of the setting sun.
"But how does that work?" I said.
He put his hands together.
"It's simple," he said. "The 'flying saucer' as you called it contains a solid block of computronium at its heart, running neural simulations of the uploaded mind-states of thousands of intelligent beings."
He paused, seeing our blank looks.
"It's a computer," he said.
"Like a virtual reality kind of thing?" Anna said hesitantly.
Hook nodded. "Exactly," he said. "It's a virtual reality simulation that allows you to accompany the 'saucer' as it travels from star to star, to witness everything it encounters."
He leaned forward. "And if you get in the dinghy it shows you want to come with us," he said.
I rubbed my arms, feeling a sudden chill. The sun was almost gone and the breeze was really getting up.
"And what happens if we want to stay?" I said.
He puffed out his cheeks.
"Then you'll be deleted."
Anna sat up in alarm.
"You'll kill us?"
Hook waved his hand dismissively.
"No, no – your real selves are alive and healthy," he said. "For them, only seconds have passed. Whatever you decide, they'll go right on with their lives, with no knowledge of any of this."
He stood and walked over to the fire, and prodded a piece of driftwood with the toe of his boot, nudging it into the embers.
"And what happens if we go with the ship?" I said.
"We travel the stars, copying things," he said. "We don't take anything, and we don't disturb anything. We just take copies. But we don't want to hold anyone against his or her will. If you want to come with us, get in the dinghy. If you don't, well... just stay here."
He looked at the red clouds in the West.
"You have until first light to make your decision," he said.
He lay down, pulled his hat over his eyes, and went to sleep. We listened to him snore. Overhead a few stars poked through the twilit sky.
We huddled on the opposite side of the fire, wrapped in each other's arms. We were both very tired, which didn't help.
"I don't understand any of this," Anna said.
I held her tightly. I was just as confused as she was.
"We're like photographs," I said, struggling to understand it myself as I explained it to her. "Walking, talking photographs."
I felt her fists clench, pulling at the back of my shirt.
"It's not right," she said angrily. "I don't feel like a 'photograph', I feel like I"ve been kidnapped."
Out by the reef there were lamps burning on the galleon. I could see figures moving around on deck, and I wanted to see who they were and what they were doing. Was this all really just a simulation?
"What do you think we should do?" I said.
Anna let out a long breath. I felt her body relax.
"I just want to go home," she said, suddenly miserable.
I jerked my thumb at the pirate ship. "You're not at all curious why they"ve gone to all this trouble?" I asked.
She turned her face away. "And you are? You don't even know where they"re going."
"They say they want us to go with them but they haven't told us where," she said.
We woke Hook and asked him.
"We call it the Redoubt," he said. "It doesn't exist yet but according to our predictions, in a hundred thousand billion years, when our galaxy's a burned out corpse orbiting a swollen black hole, it'll shine forth in the darkness -- the last remaining star."
"Where else," he said, "would you look for the last gathering of intelligent life?"
"And that's where you're going?"
He smoothed his beard with a gnarled hand.
"That's where we're all going," he said. "This ship's been travelling a long time, and we've visited a lot of worlds, picking up thousands of passengers at every stop."
Anna sat rubbing her eyes. She yawned.
"But why?" she said.
He frowned at her.
"It's going to be the final oasis of light and warmth in the galaxy – there'll be species there from all periods of history, with all sorts of new and strange technologies. Think what we can accomplish together!"
He had sand on the hem of his jacket. He brushed it off with a rough flick of his hand.
"And besides," he said, "think what we'll see on the way there! A hundred thousand billion years of history, of exploration – you'll have full access to all the data from our external sensors. And you'll never age. You'll still be the same as you are now when the stars start going out and the universe settles into its long twilight."
He clapped his hands, rubbing them briskly.
"Now won't that be worth the trip in itself?"
Hook said he'd wait for us by the dinghy, so we left him to it and took a walk down to the rolling surf. Anna had her arms folded across her chest.
"You're going to go with him, aren't you?" she said.
I stopped walking.
"What makes you say that?"
"I saw the look in your eyes – you've already made up your mind."
I took a deep breath.
"What's the alternative?" I said. "You heard him -- our real selves are still back in that field. They'll wake up tomorrow and get on with their lives. They won't remember us because we're not really here." I waved my arms to encompass the island and the stars. "We've got nothing to lose."
She turned away and hunched her shoulders.
"But what if I said I wanted to stay here?"
"You'd be deleted."
"Yes, but what if that's what I wanted? Would you stay with me?"
I stepped up behind her. The sea breeze straggled at her hair.
"I just want to wake up with you in France, and have a normal life," she said. "And I want to go home. I want to see my family, and my friends."
I touched her shoulder. "If you come with me, we can have an eternity together."
"I can't do it," she said. "Not without them."
Her eyes glittered in the starlight. The surf crashed on the beach. I held onto her shoulders, feeling something welling up inside, something I couldn't hold back any longer.
"I love you," I said. "I love you here and now, and I love you back there, in France."
She opened her mouth to speak but I touched a finger to her lips.
"Now, I'm getting on that boat," I said. "And I'd like you to come with me. I really would. But I'll understand if you say no."
She looked down and the hair fell over her face.
"I don't want to lose you," she said.
"And you won't! Our real selves are together, right now. Maybe they'll find a way to stay together, or maybe they won't. All I know is that you and I, here and now, we've been given this fantastic chance to see the universe – to find out how the story ends. And I can't pass that up."
"Because I owe it to myself – to the 'me' that's going to wake up in France on the last day of his holiday. The 'me' that's going to go home and spend the next three years as a penniless student – the 'me' that's always going to look up at the night sky and wonder what's out there, but never get the chance to find out."
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands.
"I've been asked to represent the whole human race at the end of time," I said. "And that's something I can't walk away from."
She brushed the hair from her eyes and rubbed her nose on her sleeve.
"I understand," she said. She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.
I let out a held breath, and asked: "Are you coming with me?"
She looked out at the galleon. Its lamps were reflected on the dark water.
"No, I can't. I'd miss my family and my friends too much. I couldn't face living for thousands of years knowing they were dead. No, I'm staying here."
She stalked off, arms still folded, toward the beached dinghy, where Hook waited.
I hurried after her, stumbling in the dry sand.
"What are you doing?" I said.
She didn't stop.
"Just go," she said, "if you have to."
"What, now?" I reached out a hand but she slapped it away.
"Yes, right now -- Just get on the boat and go," she said.
"Can't we can talk about it?" I said. "We've got until first light."
She stopped walking and looked out to sea, arms folded again.
"I said goodbye to you last night, in the church," she said. "I don't want to have to go through it all again. I'm too tired, too confused. Please, just go now."
She took a deep breath, blinking back tears. Looking at her, I almost changed my mind, almost gave up everything just to be with her for a few more minutes.
"I love you," I said.
She nodded. Then she leaned toward me and I put my arms around her.
"I love you too," she whispered, and then pulled away and shivered.
I sat in the stern of the dinghy as, a few minutes later, Hook rowed me out to the pirate galleon at anchor by the coral reef. Anna stood on the beach with the surf washing around her ankles. She had her hand raised, waving as each slap and stroke of the oars pulled us further apart.
She shouted something as we neared the reef, but I didn't catch it, so I just waved back. I looked at Hook, and had to swallow hard to stop myself from crying. He nodded at me as if he understood.
"What happens now?" I said.
He paused, letting the oars drip into the sea. The crew on the galleon's deck were hoisting sail and stowing the anchor.
"We're getting ready to leave," he said. "We'll set sail as soon as you're aboard."
I looked back to the beach, and Anna was a shadow on the white sand, small and hard to see. I patted my shirt pocket. I still had her wristband next to my heart.
And then we were moving again, pulling around behind the larger vessel, toward a waiting rope ladder. I caught a final glimpse of her, still waving.
"I'll never forget you," I called.
And I never did.
© 2007 Gareth L. Powell
Bio: Gareth L Powell is a speculative fiction writer from the UK. His work has been published in the United States, Europe and the Middle East, and translated into several languages, including Polish, Greek, Spanish and Portuguese. His story 'The Last Reef' was long listed for both the BSFA and BFS awards for Best Short Story, and came sixth in the Interzone Reader's Poll for best story of 2006. His first collection of short stories will be published by Elastic Press in August 2008, and his first novel will be published by Pendragon Press in 2009. A number of Gareth's stories and poems have appeared in Aphelion, including OI! People of Earth! (March, 2005).
E-mail: Gareth L. Powell
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