Augury and Innocence
Her father took them to the holy city when she was a child, shortly before the whole Mallick family immigrated to Britain. When people talk about the smell of death, she thinks of Varanasi. Riverside infernos, white-shrouded form in the center of each; pale smoke of burning bodies. The Ganges was murk, clouded with human ash, running its fingers along the bustling ghats. Those cremated upon its banks broke the cycle of rebirth, her father told her.
She remembers the temple of Shiva, gazing upon it with smoke from the pyres still haunting her nostrils. Shiva the Destroyer. Serpent coiled about the neck, a vertical third eye. Her mother told her a legend there, and the only fragment she retained was of how Shiva once transpierced the worlds as an endless pillar of light.
Which had to mean there were different worlds.
Serena wasn’t sure when the warmth began. Most agreed that it had started a month prior, but it came on gradually enough that it could have been before then. She didn’t pay it much heed until it captured the media and scientific communities, dividing their fervent attention from the infertility issue, making it apparent that the ever-present sensation was shared by untold millions of others.
For some, the warmth was overbearing, even intolerable. They called it heat, said they were too hot. There were those who even claimed to be burning. While no one could really be inside their minds, it most likely was all in the head. Though it was often likened to the feeling of fever, body thermometers showed no increase from the norm. Global temperature readings, likewise, indicated nothing out of the ordinary, regardless of location. No increased radiation or other invisible anomalies in the environment had been detected. The perception of warmth, therefore, appeared to come from somewhere within, and neurologists lamented their inability to monitor activity deep in the brains of conscious individuals, which would require technological advances in their field which were merely theoretical.
That inner place was sacred ground, a connection to the divine. Mysterious and unknown places so often were. Secrets of the eternal nestle in unmapped and unseen regions, elusive wildernesses where magic awaits the true believer. Prominent mystics around the world were taking a roughly concordant stance that the warmth was an augury heralding the end of an age of humanity, poising the species on the brink of a great awakening. The phenomenon, they contended, was a symbolic burning away of this combative, unenlightened stage of humankind’s evolution—though what nature of cosmic transcendence lay ahead seemed ever beyond the capacity of description.
Serena kept an open mind because of the barrenness. It was not hers alone; she shared it with every woman on the planet. Like the warmth, it defied explanation; it was as though there was a missed connection in the hours and days after love making, time and again. The same sentiment was shared around the world, enshrined in literature of every sort, and had been for the thirty-three years since her birth. Serena was the youngest person on earth.
After twelve years as a nurse, she’d tended to many dying patients, and been with more of them as they passed than she wanted to think about. Many died in their sleep, or while unconscious, but some made the passage from an awake and aware state.
Serena believed that the brain released a flood of pleasant chemicals when its end was near. A change came over patients; they would often say they understood now. Sometimes they expressed thankfulness, even if they had to rasp it with the final expulsion of air from their lungs, though to whom or what they offered this thanks remained a mystery; it was like an expression of gratitude to existence itself. Frequently, as though in a trance state, they raised hands that had remained motionless for hours and moved them weakly about their head. Then they faded away to silence, went still. They ended, at least in the physical realm.
One time she was alone with a woman expiring of multiple organ failure. She was without family, and so ancient that her discoloring skin seemed already to have mummified on her bones. She’d not been expected to survive the night, and sure enough stirred awake quite suddenly, her eyes still comfortably closed and breath coming in tiny sips of air.
“I see now,” she whispered. “Ah, I know.”
Having never before interrupted a patient in the moment of passing, unless there was something to be done to save their lives at that ultimate precipice, Serena dared to ask what it was she knew. At first the woman seemed not to hear, her eyeballs roving back and forth beneath paper-thin lids, taking in some secret sight—a final hallucination, Serena imagined, mental phantasms released to welcome her though the door into nothingness, to the gradual disordering of her energy, never created nor destroyed, that the chain of life had cleverly woven into a fleeting human form. Then the woman performed the action that Serena had seen so many times before, moving her hands about her head without quite touching it, and with eyeballs still migrating blindly she said, “That light…” and was gone.
Less than a year later, Serena found herself present at another deathbed, alongside two generations of the patient’s family. The grandchildren were a little older than Serena herself, though the youngest was the same age—albeit, of course, several months her senior. She’d asked the woman’s birthday just out of curiosity, as she always did when meeting those who were born in the final years of fertility like her.
The dying man was 101 years old, and Serena was told through happy tears that he’d stood and danced a little on his hundredth birthday, which made Serena laugh and the man smile weakly. Though he’d been anaesthetized beyond the worst of the pain, his body was filled with the tumors of terminal cancer that would soon claim his life. He’d chosen euthanasia, to go on his own terms.
Such wretched things, these cancers. Though they were a scourge upon the human race, she found it fortunate that throughout the known history of medicine only a handful of people under ninety years of age had been afflicted.
Though she herself was not permitted to perform euthanasia, Serena had requested that she be present for it, having served as the man’s nurse for his final weeks. After saying goodbye and assuring the physician for the last time that his choice was made, the patient was handed a small cup containing a thick solution of barbiturates, poisonous white like forbidden mushrooms. He downed the drink in a gulp, coughing and grimacing at its unimaginable bitterness, then, with a sorrowful chuckle from his children, he washed the taste out of his mouth with a trembling swig from the glass of red wine he held in his other hand. His daughter wiped his chin.
The old man closed his eyes as his breathing slowed. When he spoke, it was with the mere force of air rising out of his lungs, creeping weakly from confinement like mist from dry ice. Even in that drafty sound there was some dim hint of wonder, of recognition.
“The light… I can feel it. So close.”
As the family puzzled over this and the physician stood silently by, Serena startled them by sweeping forward a step, striving to bring her face closer to the man’s ear.
“What is the light?” she asked, ignoring the heads that turned to her with reddened and watering eyes.
His mouth opened and closed, tongue and lips failing as the lethal concoction shut him down. His arms began to rise, perhaps to perform those strange death motions about the head, but he was being taken too quickly and they dropped back to his sides.
“Shiva… Fire in the sky…”
He drifted away, chest sagging as it ceased drawing air forevermore. The physician checked his vitals and gave the inevitable pronouncement. As wails of grief broke from the family, the physician bid Serena accompany him out of the room with a tip of his head and cold fury in his eyes.
Knowing full well her violation of the moment’s sanctity, she followed him to the hall.
Serena wasn’t surprised that she ended up falling for a doctor. The preservation of life, or at least providing comfort for what remained of it, had been her presiding interest from as far back as she could remember. She’d wondered before, though never so seriously that she dwelled upon it, if the knowledge of being the world’s youngest person had ignited some daughterly instinct in her to care for a populace that was, without exception, older than herself.
Lance seemed driven, albeit in an unspoken way, by the same motives. In recent times, however, he’d found himself removed from seeing patients. Only a few years her senior, his career had been redirected, through a well-funded government initiative, to an international effort looking feverishly into the infertility issue—or the extinction crisis, as it was increasingly termed by the media and heads of state around the world. Endless assortments of prospective fertility drugs had been developed, tested, and failed entirely, as did every folk remedy that persisted into modern day. Artificial insemination had borne no results in any lab or under any experimental conditions—whilst conception in all known species besides humans, both natural and otherwise, continued to occur without any perceivable disruption.
It was two months since the warmth began, its intensity increasing steadily for Serena, though imperceptibly on the scale of days. Lance said he felt it too, though it hadn’t distracted him from his chief scientific focus. Today he pulled her aside in the hall and kissed her ear, eyes darting around as he did so to make sure they weren’t being observed.
“Come up to the lab if you’re free,” he said. “The others are going out for a long lunch.”
“Doctor,” she admonished coyly, lowering her voice just above a whisper. “In the lab?”
Lance laughed, but Serena detected something forced in it, almost like he was nervous.
“There’s something important I want to show you, but the others can’t know you know. At least not yet.”
“What is it?”
His aura of mirth dissipated. Somber brown eyes shifted back and forth once more to check that no one was nearby.
“It’s the strangest thing. I mean literally the strangest. Just come.”
They made their way to the Fertility Unit on the fourth floor. Lance ushered her inside, then hovered at the door he’d just closed behind her, glancing through its small rectangular window before turning the lock.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to an instrument of gleaming metal on the far table, next to a softly humming machine.
“Is that a microscope?”
“It is. One of the most powerful on the market. We got it in a couple weeks ago. Here, come.”
He ushered her over to the device, flipping a switch on its side. A bright round light came on, shining white from a cylinder mounted on the base.
“We need a lot of light to see the spermatozoa and ovum clearly. Usually that light heats up the specimens on the slide too much, killing them. This one’s different, though. With it, we should be able to witness fertilization.”
Serena considered the immediate implications of this, momentarily struck with wonder. But Lance’s face was set in a deep frown, bearing what she thought was perplexity. Confusion. The way he said should made the skin on the back of her neck crawl.
“I want you to see for yourself.” He offered her a slight grin. “Make sure all of us here aren’t crazy.”
He busied himself for a few minutes at the other end of the lab and returned with a slide, slipping the thin piece of glass onto the stage and securing it. He peered through the dual eyepieces, adjusting the diopter with delicate fingers, nails healthy pink and carefully clipped, unlike Serena’s bitten and ragged-edged ones.
He pulled his face away, apparently satisfied.
“Alright, go ahead.”
Serena seated herself in the chair and looked through the microscope. She saw the large round ovum surrounded by hundreds of frantic spermatozoa.
“Can you see the membrane around the ovum?” Lance asked. “A spermatozoon needs to penetrate that.”
“And then it shares its genetic material.”
“It should. Yeah.”
That word again, she thought. Should.
“What do you see now?”
“A couple of them are almost there. Oh…okay, one is…it’s wriggling against the membrane now. Looks like it’s trying to push through.”
“Okay, right. Watch that one.”
She committed her focus on the spermatozoon, the flagellated cell like a long, thin tadpole, tail whipping to push its head with mad determination through the translucent outer edge of the membrane.
A childlike excitement bubbled up from her chest.
“It’s getting in!” she cried. “This is amazi—”
She fell silent, wondering, with some disappointment, if she’d managed to blink and miss something.
“What’d you see?” asked Lance.
“I…I didn’t… The spermatozoon’s gone. Can it get in that fast?”
“Did it disappear?”
“I mean, that’s what it looked like…”
“We all saw the same thing. Two dozen times already. New samples each time.”
Another swimmer was already trying to get through. Heart quickening, and with a cold sweat prickling her scalp, Serena watched the frenetic cell without blinking. It wriggled and pushed, and just when its head pierced the thinnest barrier of outer membrane—
There was no discernible transition. No intermediary state. The desperate spermatozoon simply winked out of existence.
“It’s gone,” she said hollowly, pulling away from the eye pieces to meet Lance’s stony visage. A species of fear was written across his features, one she’d never seen on him, as though the observation by her untrained eye drove home the truth in a final and implacable way.
“Why?” she heard herself ask, aware of the question’s pointlessness even as it left her mouth. There might be a how, regardless of whether it was comprehended by any mind on earth, but there was surely no why.
Lance shook his head. “None of us know. But right now I need you to keep this a secret. We’re not publishing these findings. Not yet.”
She nodded wordlessly, thumb of her right hand meeting her fingertips, seeking out a nail to pick that had grown beyond its quick.
Lance drew her into a hug, and when he spoke again, she heard emotion throttling his voice. She welcomed the sound, because the cosmic direness that inspired it was directly before her—before both of them. She’d seen an ugly trick of the universe, some evil flaw that was surely beyond human control, and what she needed in that instant was to feel anything but alone.
“It’s like… I don’t know, Serena, it’s like we’re supposed to end.”
Dr. Mallick checked her notes one more time, drew a shuddering breath and clicked to enter the meeting, thinking she was early and that there might be a few seconds grace before the spotlight was on her. In fact, she was the last to arrive, the members of the Terrestrial Defense Council already assembled, cameras and mikes on, faces square on their screens. Though they were located in separate offices around the world, several had the same circular blue, green and red logo visible on a wall behind them—a symbol of Earth sheltered by a scarlet ring—and whether the line of black text below was readable or not through the screens, she knew which inescapable truth it announced: Time is of the Essence. On the wall behind her, somewhat complimentary, she felt, was mounted a hand-painted signboard, courtesy of her artsy sister-in-law, which read simply, Eternity in an Hour.
“Dr. Mallick,” started the Chair, “I assume you’ve read the advance report. There’s no use delaying things.”
She half expected him to quote the Council’s adopted phrase, though he continued with barely a pause.
“The nuclear deterrent has failed. No strike at this distance will succeed in altering the comet’s course. We’ve got twenty-seven days.”
“I said failed. Less than four weeks, Doctor. What is the status of Realm?”
“Realm is ready. Mostly.”
“Resolution?” cut in the representative from Japan.
“Electron, though they’ll need to develop the tech to see it. Quarks, neutrinos and other elementary particles will spawn randomly if the means of observation are developed.”
“109 years?” asked the Chair.
“Yes, but that’s no small gift at this point. I hope everyone can see that. It’s 109 years if this is executed exactly as we plan. 109.5, actually. That only has a chance of happening with the Council behind it, and only if you act now. You should’ve acted six months ago, instead of putting all your funding into the nuke deter—”
“That’s enough,” shouted Brazil, voice crackling through his webcam mike.
She knew she sounded impetuous, criticizing them like this, but there was no longer a need to save face. Realm was the last option, a final means of refuge.
“Explain,” said the Chair stonily. “What do you mean by 109 years, if?
“Okay, show of hands, I guess—how many of you have read my paper on the Blake Protocol?”
A smattering of hand graphics appeared on screen, nine in total, representing half the Council members.
“Good enough,” she said, feeling disgust claw at her demeanor. “Here’s the short and long of it. The passage of time the human mind experiences in Realm is directly correlated to how many other human minds exist within it—the more observers of Realm, in other words, the longer Realm exists for everyone.”
“This is running on XM-Pulsar?”
“It will be using the XM-P network for consistency oracles and automated patches, but Realm itself is housed on the Quantum Augur.”
“What’s the ratio?” asked the Chair, a note of hunger, of desperation, creeping into his voice for the first time. “Of time? Earth time to—”
“With eight billion minds participating, time there will run at roughly one forty thousandth the Earth rate.”
“One forty thousandth?” checked the U.S., producing it numerically on the shared whiteboard.
Eyes shifted slightly to screens and handheld devices, where swift and simple calculations were being performed. She could have told them the figure they were looking for, but it was just as well if they arrived at it themselves.
China spoke first. “The maximum of 109.5 years you stated, of time passing in Realm—or experienced in Realm, whichever—you’re saying that’s 40,000 times as long as actual Earth time?”
“That’s twenty-four hours, Doctor.”
“Well, yes what? Why limit this to twenty-four hours?”
“A few reasons. The first is that people will have no ability to hydrate once they connect to Realm. They’ll sit wherever they were at activation. Their bodies will be deprived of water from this point, and it will start to affect their mental integrity, possibly in Realm as well. Not to mention that once everyone is immobile, any number of things can go wrong. Limited time means a limited window for the worst to happen before…”
She caught herself choking up, as she had a hundred times before. Suppressed it. Beat it back.
Before the end.
“Next,” she continued, “is that the nodes need to be put in place. Most have been manufactured already, but hundreds more stations need to be installed globally.”
“There’ll be no limit to funding at this point.”
“But there’ll be limits in sheer logistics. Besides nodes, the helmets will need to reach everyone. That means everyone. One helmet per person, no exceptions. They’re designed in different sizes, to suit any head, infant to adult. We’re manufacturing an enormous excess, so that there’ll be a fit available for anyone, in every demographic, everywhere. That production needs to be ramped up yesterday, in all our factories.”
Germany scoffed. “Not everyone’s going to take part, even if we get the helmets to them. Plenty of religious fundamentalists will balk. And what about some of those Stone Age tribes, like the Sentinelese? They’re not having any of—”
“Whether they partake or not is up to them. The instructions will be clear—print, audio and braille, every last language on the planet. We just need eight billion, or as close as we can get.”
“I can’t see,” said the U.S., “how this is going is going to go down without mass corruption and theft. Whole shipments will be pirated. Helmets will be harvested for parts.”
“They won’t be,” she shot back, aware of the righteous snarl in her own voice. “Because the job of this council will be to arrange the largest fucking information campaign in the history of the species. No one with two brain cells to rub together is going to miss the point. Every person who doesn’t get a functioning helmet on their head, who doesn’t participate in the Blake Protocol, is one more moment lost from the rest of the time. Their time. Everyone’s time. Not just that, but there’s nothing to be made. Money’s worthless one week from now when Shiva is disclosed to the public, and people will see that. No one’s getting out of this except through here.” She lifted her own helmet into view of the camera, giving for many of the Council their first glimpse of the actual hardware held in human hands, rather than the gleaming metal appendages of robotic assemblers. “This is the only future for anyone. This is salvation.”
“For 109 years,” commented France dryly.
“For those who live that long, yes. We’ve done what we can to remove certain diseases and dangers from Realm, but we’re too short on time to alter it much from Base.”
“Base reality. We’ve had to feed every bit of data available into the Quantum Augur’s AI, and we need to make do with what it constructs from that. If we’d had another year we’d have been able to remove more undesirable elements, but it’s not as easy as deleting a line of code.”
“Never mind it then,” interrupted the Chair. “It’ll be close enough that we’ll stay sane, I trust.”
“No. You haven’t read the brief.”
The Chair’s face dropped, embarrassment and concern running swift behind his narrow gaze.
“You’ll be you, I guarantee. Everything’s running on your same neural structure. Your memories will stay intact here at Base, but at best they’d be horribly warped if we tried to implant them into your infant brain in Realm.”
“Infant? As in baby?”
“Yes,” she answered. “You’ll be born into Realm.”
There was mute silence from the rest of the Council.
“It needs to be this way,” she said.
“My God…it’ll be like dying then.”
“The opposite, obviously.”
“We’ll lose everything.”
“You’d have to lose everything anyway. We can’t have anyone going into Realm with memories, with their full selves intact, like it’s some VR game. Like we’re all just running around in our avatars. People would be trying to hack it somehow, to break out, if people knew it wasn’t… Well, it is real. It’ll be real to our minds. But if people knew it wasn’t Base, just think of what could happen. We have a chance to make this anything but hell, but hell would be just what we’d get if people arrive there knowing where they are, who they are, and why they’re there.”
“We’d get to keep something of the real world. I thought that was the whole point.”
“The real world is hell,” sneered Russia. “Or didn’t you notice?”
“Anyway,” cut in Dr. Mallick loudly. “That’s not the only reason you’ll be born into Realm. It’s for equity. Everyone gets their shot at a century or more of life. What fairness would there be in sending the elderly, or you yourselves, into Realm with limited time? You’ll still be playing by the rules of the biological clock there. You’ll age.”
“Who are the parents then?” asked the Chair. “If we’re all born into Realm at the same time, what feeds us, raises us? Surely not machines.”
“In a sense, yes. It’ll be AI. It’ll have a physical representation as real as anyone or anything else in Realm, and in terms of its personality and action we’re positive no one will be able to discern its true nature—all the more because there’ll be no representation or cultural notion of AI within Realm anyway. No computers even. We’ll have to invent those inside if anyone so aspires. The technological level upon genesis will be on par with the early 1930s.”
“So what if they can’t discern its nature? How can a proper human being be raised by a robot mind?”
“Those ‘robots’ will be loving in their every action. They will be just. They will be what all parents should be. Everyone—and I mean everyone—will get a fair start in Realm.”
“And you think that will make it some sort of heaven, Doctor?”
“I never said that,” she replied. “It only needs to not be hell.”
It was strange, she thought, that no one on the Terrestrial Defense Council had asked her what happens when you die in Realm. Time was of the essence, as the TDC themselves proclaimed so loudly, but even if ways were found to prevent every life in Realm from early expiry, a world like that wouldn’t be reality—and somehow, she felt in her bones, the human race would know it.
They had considered reincarnation—recycling minds back into new infants while cancelling out all memories gained in the previous lifetime—but forewent it in the end. They didn’t have enough time to test and ensure seamlessness, and any failings—bugs and glitches—in such a system could lead to unpredictable effects on the minds subjected to them. In fact, then, when a person died in Realm, they’d simply wake up. Memories of their life in the simulation would be as intact as those they possessed of base reality, prior to when the helmet had activated and drilled several pinholes through their skull at precise points, near painlessly, and threaded into their brain the hundreds of Neural Nexus fibers that initiated birth into Realm via the nearest Blake node.
For all but those few who survived in Realm to the end of its 109-year existence, their death in the simulation would be the only one they truly had to face. The helmet covered the whole head, with only a small visor in front to look out of; anyone awaking would surely try to pull it off, and the sudden dislodging of the Neural Nexus implants was designed to trigger an immediate coma. Very few, then, were expected to actually be conscious at the moment of impact, and for good reason far fewer than that—less than a dozen of those in Dr. Mallick’s inner circle of engineers—were aware of the coma trigger in the first place: the human organism’s will to survive, they’d decided, would all too often lead them to keep the helmet on, torturing themselves needlessly with delusion and terror as they tried to escape the destruction Shiva would unleash. The comet was more than eighty kilometers across—a miniature ice world perhaps eightfold the size of the visitor that wiped out the dinosaurs. Complex life on the surface of the planet wasn’t expected to last long after the strike.
And so, with no reincarnation and no new human minds waiting to be imported into Realm, Dr. Mallick herself had written infertility into the program. No sperm and egg could ever unite.
She should have known the universe, having played so cruel a joke with the emergence of Shiva from behind the sun, would have pushed back against her for denying her own species the ability to reproduce, because just now all of India—the helmets—had failed to connect to their local nodes.
One and a half billion minds were not participating in the Blake Protocol.
One and a half billion souls were locked out of Realm.
The countdown timer on the wall read 23 hours and 49 minutes from impact. Billions of humans, the majority of all in existence, were in the process of being born in that very moment, minds nestled in infant cerebrums, sequestered in infant bodies, struggling into the light, bathed in the joyous gaze of AI parents that would secure them with love and protection throughout all the years of infancy and childhood to come.
But India was not. All those residing there were clinging, for the moment, to their own fraying hope—helmets on, Neural Nexus fibers embedded deep in their grey matter, waiting for rebirth.
The top nineteen engineers under Dr. Mallick’s command eyed both her and their own helmets as she fought for their attention, the abolition of her authority imminent. These people, she had to reason, had put everything they had into this project, and they were ready to go to their reward. They were ready for their final life.
“They’ll try to pull the helmets off before long,” came the response from one, his face grave, all those behind him as still as hewn oak. “The coma will initiate. They’ll know nothing after that. It was the plan.”
“We’ll lose two decades in Realm,” she nearly shouted in protest. Her appeal to compassion for so many people left stranded, denied one more lifetime to savor and suffer existence, clattered against a wall of stone. “The Protocol! The Blake Protocol depends on—”
“—the number of minds interacting with Realm.” The woman who finished her sentence, Dr. Mallick realized, did so only out of empathy. She did it to show she understood, and that Dr. Mallick’s passion had found its way into the heart and mind of every person there. “We know.”
“Then you’ll stay and help me connect them…”
“Nine decades is enough, Serena.” Eyes shifted again to the helmets, lined in cases against the wall. “Just let us go, please. Months are slipping away with us standing here.”
Out of all their devastating setbacks and momentous triumphs, she’d never cried before her team. The tear that escaped the corner of her eye now felt hot enough to steam on her cheek.
“Go then,” she said, marching to her station. “Live life to the fullest. All of you. Thank you for what you’ve done.”
Her wish was returned to her, mumbled from nineteen throats. She didn’t watch them as they took their helmets, slinking off to their quarters to lay down in peace and embark.
The Quantum Augur’s AI was a workhorse, but as unfathomably beyond human computing power as it was, Dr. Mallick knew that it was her mind which had programmed its initial orders of creation. She had overseen its most profound commands and edits, and coded the fail-safes, the backdoors, the cellar beneath the floorboards that even the non-sentient Augur could never fathom, much less imagine.
Screens of code.
Endless. Like sifting through grains in a sandbox for the single one of a different crystalline structure that let in on a deeper level. She had buried the node overrides at the foundation of the shifting, liquid mass; knots in the wood of the sandbox’s base.
Keep the helmets on, she pleaded to empty air. The silence of the control room devoured the tapping of the keys. The clock read 22:59.
Never had hours sped so fast. Not for her, perhaps not for anyone, ever. Was the comet warping time, she wondered ludicrously, through some fantastical play of gravity as it bore down on its target?
Some in India would be comatic by now, having given up, or decided they’d done something wrong when donning the device.
Her fingers flew over the keys. Her eyes were sandpaper, ready to bleed.
The sky was preternaturally bright outside. It was night, but a new sun had come to occupy the sky, and that false sun’s name, that false giver of life, was Shiva.
20… 19… 18…
And she was in. Here she could do a hard bypass of the failing nodes on the subcontinent, then mass connect the helmets through to the nearest operational ones. She hoped they’d handle the extra load. They only needed to hold up for eighteen more hours…
About twenty-three years had passed in Realm. Some there would be starting to try for children, striving to usher in a new generation. If Serena’s plan worked, they wouldn’t encounter universal infertility after all—at least not for a time.
The minds of India would be born into Realm, carried to term and birthed by human mothers. People would see correlation of some of the pregnancies with sexual activity, and in other cases not at all. Acts of parthenogenesis, all of them; looks would always take after the mother and her forebears, though fathers, thought Dr. Mallick, would ever be convinced they saw glints of themselves in those small faces. It was all she could do. She had no time to program otherwise, out here where that temporal river raced past her, around her, through her so furiously.
Her fingers and the keyboard were one. She could hear dogs losing their minds out on the streets, howling themselves back into wolves at the anomaly in the night sky. Shiva lit up that crying, frantic world of human inactivity, pushing out the dark and making it as day.
Bypassing failed nodes was a success, and now helmets merely waited for signals from the more distant, functioning stations. She would have to do this manually, in lots numbering in the millions, based on where people were clustered and at what density.
She experimented with the first group, forty million, collected across a range of GPS coordinates that the system identified as Delhi. She’d connect them with the Lahore node, just as she’d do with Kolkata to Dhaka—or if Dhaka turned out to be suffering the same inoperability, she’d find a way to daisy-chain them all through to Mandalay. First the major cities, and then the work of reaching the wider population would begin, all those outside the urban areas, scattered across thousands of villages and single homesteads; she’d made sure the helmets reached them all, and now she’d connect them in a vast web, networking the devices together as minds were transmitted through unknown numbers of them on their way to processing at the distant nodes. All souls depended on interaction with each other in the end, a collective observational force that necessitated Realm’s time and space to continuously render itself into being. It was the key to the Blake Protocol—how humanity would generate its own bought time.
Eight hours remained until impact. True day had returned with the true sun, the latter glowing beside the imposter now as large and bright as she.
Everyone was in. The last were gestating or in the process of being born, while wave after wave of them had already grown, having entered across more than four decades of Realm’s existence.
She could no longer think properly. Her vision blurred. She stumbled to the cabinet and took her helmet in hand, returning to the console to input one final command. It felt unethical to do such a thing. But then, in eight hours human ethics would be ash.
The world didn’t need to know its savior—and couldn’t, for Realm didn’t know another world existed.
But her name would be there. Whether the universe cared or not, there it would be. With her.
She left the building behind for good, stepping outside into brilliant light. She slipped the helmet on and knew when it began mapping her skull.
She stared through the visor at the comet, so bright that its icy body couldn’t even be discerned. The glare stabbed into her poor irises, and yet she didn’t care if she blinded herself. Never would she use these eyes again. The destroyer expanded in her vision, pierced her retinas, fried them. All was light.
It would tear its way in from space when it arrived, and whether Shiva exploded in the sky or ploughed into the Earth, it would unleash a scorching shockwave, a heat pulse, across the surface of the planet that nothing would escape. It was believed the very atmosphere would boil.
She wondered how much of it they would feel. That was the trade-off she’d reached. The computational concession. The helmets of the great global web had to shoulder some of the load in the end, to protect the operational nodes; some of their ability to filter out sensations from the physical skin, the temperature of base reality, had been compromised.
The fibers were in. Neural Nexus connected.
She no longer knew if she was staring at the comet. All was light was light was light. And she screamed, long and loud—a primal cry that erupted from her center, and then the moment she inhabited stretched away in all directions, reaching out to forever, the light taking shape.
The mother heard a voice as the squalling newborn was placed into her arms. It came from nowhere and everywhere, whispering a single word. For the first time in her life, she sensed something of the profound mystery of existence, some indefinable glimpse she registered in the depths of her soul, caught by an eye she didn’t know she had. She felt within and around her the secrets of being that once hovered only on the ragged edges of dreams, of all-encompassing love and other worlds. Unfathomable, higher worlds.
Without knowing what to make of it, she considered the voice to be that of the universe itself, as though the universe, in its vast intricacy, was both creator and creation all at once. As though it possessed intent.
Her child’s name, then, was to be Serena.