“So. Any idea on what this beast might be?” Mal folded his wings and dove through the sky, following close on Simon’s tail.
“Not in the slightest.” Simon called back from his position in the lead. They were just flying over the edge of the city, the city that would hopefully contain the answers to everything they had been seeking. “Giant monster? Giant robot? Tiny monster? Something that’s long dead since it hasn’t eaten in a hundred thousand years?”
“I’m hoping for the last one.” Mal zipped up next to Simon as they drew closer to the towering shells of buildings that rose nearly to the tops of the clouds. “You know where to go?”
“More or less.” Simon nodded. “From the data I could pull, we’re looking for an old library. Uhh… Look for a building that just looks way more impressive than everything around it. Not in an ornate way, just like a… Different way.”
“Got it.” Mal nodded. Together, they two of them zipped into the canyon-like gap between buildings, and Mal began glancing back and forth.
They zipped by cross-canyon after cross-canyon, not coming up with anything. Finally, as the canyons began to twist into less rigid lines and began curving back and forth, Simon motioned at the ground. The two of them landed on the street between the buildings, and Simon took a deep breath.
“Do you ever have an odd feeling of nostalgia?” Simon’s voice was barely audible. He slowly turned his head back and forth, grimacing up at the dust-covered buildings. “Because I’m having that now.”
Mal frowned and shook his head. “It just looks like a bunch of old buildings with missing windows. It looks like…”
His voice caught as an image crossed his field of vision. It was a strange shape, a faded banner that hung inside one of the shops that lined the street. Mal’s eyes narrowed, and he took a step in its direction. It was faded by the years, covered in dust, but he could still just see the picture. It looked like… Well, like a circle with a hole cut out of the center. It was decorated with a pink goop, small colored rectangles, and two enormous googly-eyes that made the strange image seem even stranger. Of course, in Calsin, there were dozens of shops that would paint horses, animals, or random objects with human-like figures to try and draw people in, but… This was more unusual than he was used to.
“Simon?” Mal frowned and walked up to the door, which now was little more than a metal frame with a large open gap that had once held glass. The glass itself still lay scattered across the dusty white tiles, broken and chipped. “Do you see this?”
He reached out and slowly pushed the door open, eliciting a loud rusty screech of protest. Simon stepped up right behind him, mouth open in awe. Together, the two of them stepped inside.
The interior of the shop wasn’t anything special. A handful of chairs and tables lay scattered around the room, all of which were covered in a layer of thick dust. A cracked counter sat at the back of the room, complete with a number of strange devices that Mal didn’t recognize. Once more, metal frames stood where glass no longer did, presenting him with a scenario where it appeared that food had been prepared in front of the customer, though the customers couldn’t actually touch what was happening.
“By the gods.” Simon whispered and stepped up to the counter. He placed his hands on the dusty surface, slowly wiping the dirt away to reveal a white background set with the same strange colored rectangles as on the sign. “I remember this.”
Mal frowned up at the sign. The image, as bizarre as it was, just… It almost screamed at him. “I do too.”
“I just don’t know exactly what I’m remembering.” Simon took a deep breath. “It should be well-lit. There were lots of people here. You were here.”
His eyes snapped open, and he spun to face Mal. “I… Did you hear that?”
Mal nodded and closed his own eyes. Slowly, he took a deep breath as well. And, in that moment… The world changed.
Sugar. The entire room just smelled like sugar. He could hear an odd sound, the hiss of a rapid boil. He could hear laughs, screams of joy. He could see Simon’s face. He could see Isnita, he could see Amil, he could see… He could see someone else. Another girl, sitting next to Isnita.
He opened his eyes again, feeling the world tilt. He staggered back, and Simon took his arm.
“What is this place?” Mal shook his head and glanced back and forth. “Something happened here.”
“Yeah.” Simon grimaced. Mal glanced at him to find a tear slipping down the side of Simon’s face. “Can you hear the screams?”
Mal closed his eyes, but nothing more came back. “No, I…”
Simon bolted from the strange shop, running through the broken door without bothering to open it. Mal followed as the angel rushed out into the street and began spinning in circles. He held up his arms and fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face. Mal just stood there, listening to the sobs echoing off the dead walls.
It was a solid five minutes before Simon was able to rise back to his feet. Mal just stood there, staring at him, while he gasped and shook.
“This is it.” Simon whispered. “This is where it happened.”
“Where what happened?” Mal held up his hands. “We can’t remember things from that long ago.”
“But you saw.” Simon pointed back at the shop. “You smelled it just like I did. We were both there, two hundred thousand years ago, when the world fell apart.”
Mal shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Neither do I!” Simon screamed and fell back to his knees. He sat there, shaking, before his head snapped back up. “The church.”
“What?” Mal frowned. “You want to go pray?”
“No. Well, yes, but no!” Simon jumped back to his feet and charged forward. He spread his wings and leapt up into the air, flashing down a side street. Mal followed, leaping after him, doing his best to keep up.
At this point in the city, the streets curved and turned like they were snakes. Mal nearly lost sight of Simon several times before they reached a massive, open square in the center of the city. An ancient, dry fountain rose from the solid stone streets, a statue depicting a powerful angel with a drawn sword. Simon slowly walked up to the state, running his fingers across a greenish metal plate. Mal stepped up next to him, frowning down at the words.
“Gabe, the Warrior.” Simon breathed. “May his contributions never be forgotten.”
Mal sighed and stared up at the stone. “I think they may have been.”
“Maybe.” Simon sighed and spun, pointing up at an enormous building set between the skyscrapers. “But maybe they can be remembered again. Come on!”
Mal once more followed Simon as the boy bolted towards the fantastically massive building. It wasn’t nearly as tall as the surrounding buildings, but it just had a power about it. Dozens of statues stood along the walls, enormous windows stood open, still retaining bits and pieces of toothlike colored glass. As they walked up to the bronze doors, Mal felt something taking hold of his heart.
Simon pushed through the doors with an enormous crash. Inside, a small entry area was outfitted with what looked like a much smaller fountain, a raised pool with a statue of a woman, an angel, holding a star in her left hand. Simon mimed dipping his hand into the pool, then traced a star across his chest. At Mal’s glance, he shrugged.
“I just think we used to do that.” His voice was soft, almost inaudible. Slowly, he stepped towards the doors that led out of the entry area into what appeared to be a much larger room. His hands shook as he took hold of the handles, slowly pulling them open.
As Mal stepped through, he began to feel what Simon felt. The building… It felt so familiar. The domed roof that rose so high above them. An enormous statue of a star up at the front of the church. Stone pews that filled the expanse, small water dispensers that protruded from the benches every few feet.
The room was lit by the sunlight streaming through the enormous, shattered stained-glass windows. There were seven windows, spaced out more or less evenly around the church. Below each window, a statue of an angel stood tall, wings spread. Some were male, some were female. Mal stepped up to the nearest one, feeling his breath catch in his throat. The woman was so beautiful.
“Irenitha.” The word passed from Mal’s lips. “That’s who this is.”
“You used to spend hours praying to her.” Simon’s voice was quiet. “I remember getting bored waiting on you.”
Mal flashed a small smile as the barest flicker of a memory rose in his mind. “And I remember talking to her about you. It was fun.”
The two of them stood there for several more minutes, just staring up at the statue’s pristine face. It was with a surreal grace that they then turned and wandered around the church, stopping at all the other statues. Mal couldn’t remember the names to most of them, though Simon was able to point out Dortheris, the man that he had been devoted to. Mal couldn’t remember what the deities were, if they were even deities at all, or why they had been praying to them, but… They were there.
Finally, they stopped before the front of the church, the alter that rose from the stone. It was cracked from the years, but it still stood. Mal took a step towards it, but Simon placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t.” He took a deep breath, holding out his hand towards the same star, engraved on the altar and inlaid with a tarnished gold. “I don’t think we’re meant to set foot up there.”
“Maybe not.” Mal shook his head. “What is this place? What were we doing here?”
“I don’t know.” Simon closed his eyes. “We were here a lot, though. We needed…” His eyes opened. “This is it.”
Mal frowned. “What?”
“The library.” Simon shrugged and spun. “It wasn’t a library, it was this church. We were here, we were… We were underneath it.”
He turned and walked back towards the rear of the church, making his way past the stone pews and into the entry area. Mal refrained from following, at least for a moment. Slowly, he turned back to face the front of the church, and that strange star that seemed plastered on everything. What was it? What did it hold? He fell to his knees, bowing his head before it. It had obviously been of some extreme significance to him, sometime in the past.
“Help us.” He breathed. “I’ve forgotten who you are. I’ve forgotten all of this. Please, help us.”
“Mal!” Simon’s voice echoed through the building. “Come here! Now!”
Mal jumped to his feet, turned, and flew back through the church. He skated out into the entry area to find a small door hanging open in the side, a door that he hadn’t noticed before. A light burned from within, and he bolted towards it.
Inside, he found a narrow staircase that led downwards, lit by small glowing squares set into the ceiling. A feeling of anticipation rose in his chest as he pounded downwards, raising clouds of dust with every footfall, but not caring one little bit. As he reached the bottom… His breath was nearly sucked out of his lungs.
Simon was there, standing in front of what could only have been called a library. And yet… It was different. The room was massive, as large as the church sanctuary itself. The walls were lined in bookshelves, containing thousands of volumes. And yet, the middle of the room was something different. It held consoles, strange devices that looked like they belonged on the brother’s realmship. A handful of lights blinked across them, but by and large, they were dark.
“Is this it?” Mal breathed. “They don’t look like the thing that Fortrina had.”
“Oh, this is it.” Simon stepped up to the nearest display. He pointed at a small, dust-covered button just distinguishable as being red. “Care to do the honors?”
Mal nodded slowly, reached out, and pushed the button. A series of loud clicks echoed through the room, followed by loud clangs and dull booms. A massive metal door slid out of the wall and crashed down over the entrance, sealing them inside. More and more of the glowing squares began to appear across the walls, lighting up the room until it was nearly as bright as day.
“Uh, Simon?” Mal breathed. “What’s happening?”
“I don’t know.” Simon took a step back, concern on his face. “I…”
“Welcome!” The voice boomed through the air, seemingly coming from anywhere any everywhere. It was a voice that sounded oddly familiar. It sounded like…
“Amil.” Simon’s face was white. “That was Amil.”
“If you’re hearing this, it means that you’ve found something.” Streamers of light began to rise from the nearest console, coalescing in the air just above the display. “Either that, or you’ve somehow made it past our safeguards and found this place again.”
The light finished solidifying, revealing a ghostly form of Amil, floating in the air, smiling down at them. More streamers began to rise from other consoles, forming dozens more ghosts throughout the room.
“More than likely, if the process has taken more than a few thousand years, you won’t remember anything about this place.” A ghostly Isnita formed nearby, a sad smile written on her face. “You may see faces here that you don’t recognize. Honestly… We don’t know.”
“All we know is what we have to do.” Two more ghosts appeared just next to Mal and Simon. Both of them took a step back as… Well, as they realize that it was themselves. Ghost-Simon stood with an arm around Ghost-Malah, smiling down into her eyes. Together, the two ghosts turned and addressed themselves, so many years apart. “Our plan is in motion. If you’d like a debriefing, we’ve prepared a selection of recordings that we’ve made over the last… Hundred and fifty thousand years?”
Ghost-Malah shuddered. “It’s so weird, watching yourself say things that you don’t remember saying.”
“I’m sure it will be just as weird in the future.” Ghost-Simon flashed a grin, then nodded at the two rather stunned angels. “How weird is it?”
“Please.” Ghost-Isnita’s voice was tight. “I don’t want to drag this out any longer than necessary.”
“Right.” Ghost-Simon took a deep, shuddering breath. “Whatever happens here, we’re destroying all that we’ve ever known. It’s likely that you won’t remember this place at all. So, with that… Here’s our plan. Here’s everything that’s happened to our species. All you have to do is say the word.”
“Give us everything.” The words came out of Mal’s mouth before he even had a chance to think about it. “I want to hear it all.” He glanced at Simon, then held up his hands. “Is that okay?”
“Somehow, I don’t think we’ll understand what happened unless we start at the beginning.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “Let’s hear it.”
“Then we’ll begin the debriefing.” The image flickered slightly, and all the ghosts except Malah vanished. “This first recording you’ll see is the first recording that we made. It was about a year after the Scourge. We still didn’t know much, but we knew that things were bad.”
With that, Ghost-Malah vanished. There was a pause, and more ghosts appeared. Malah, Isnita, Simon, and Amil. Ghost-Simon still had his arms clenched tightly on Ghost-Malah, holding her tight. Idly, Mal took a step towards Simon, curious what that meant.
“Hi.” Isnita’s voice trembled. “Umm… Is this thing on?”
“I think so.” Simon nodded. “If I configured it correctly, yeah.”
“Good.” Isnita nodded and took a deep breath. “It’s been a year. Two hundred and eighty days, I think. Amil thinks we need to be recording things, so… Here we are.”
Amil shrugged. “I just think it’s a good thing to do. Keep records, you know? In case we all wind up dying or something, people can know what happened to us.”
“I don’t think dying is going to happen soon.” Simon sighed. “Not if my experiments have been right.”
“Simon!” Amil snapped, then sighed. “Sorry.” He took a deep breath, and nodded. “About a year ago, two hundred and eighty days ago, our world was changed forever. We were all eating donuts when it happened. There was… An explosion.”
Mal closed his eyes. Now that he thought about it… He could picture himself. Sitting at a table, laughing with Simon and Isnita. And then hearing a boom, a roar that shook the ground.
“We still don’t know what it was, but it destroyed almost all of New Thonsville.” Simon gestured over his ghostly shoulder. “More importantly, though… It altered the entire planet. Almost all of our people are dead, and those of us that are left, are different.”
“Whatever it did…” Isnita’s voice shook. “Every single adult on the planet, everyone even a day older than eighteen, died. They just dropped where they stood, landed on the sidewalks, fell into the sewers. They’re gone.”
“Most of the people younger than eighteen weren’t exempt either.” Simon shook his head. “About half of everyone else died, too. More have just vanished. Lilith…” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Lilith is gone. She survived, I know I saw her right after it all exploded, but I haven’t seen her since then. She just vanished.”
Amil put a hand on Simon’s shoulder, and he shrugged it off. “And she wasn’t the only one. Hundreds more just vanished into thin air. We don’t know what took them or why. There are about a thousand of us left in the city, the survivors from here and the surrounding towns.”
“But there may be more.” Amil cut in. “We’ve been getting some odd readings on these devices. I think there are more people, somewhere else out there.”
“But we don’t know that.” Simon snapped.
“Simon.” Isnita sighed. “We’re just telling the facts, what we know and what we don’t.” She nodded in Mal’s general direction. “Whoever is listening to us needs to know.”
“Right.” Simon nodded and crossed his arms. “But… I said that those of us left behind have changed. And… Well, none of us can anymore.”
Malah smiled and stepped forward. “If you’re aliens or something, we used to be shapeshifters!”
Isnita nodded. “Upon birth, our species has the ability to change between male and female. Had, I should say. As we get older, we become more and more fluid. By our age, we can start changing our facial features as well as our gender. By the time we’re thirty or so, most of us can change into animals, even inanimate objects. Whatever we want. I was getting good enough that I could sprout whiskers and fur and stuff. Simon was really good.”
Simon nodded. “I could already turn my body into wood or stone, something most people couldn’t.” He sighed. “But now… It’s gone. And I’m stuck as a boy for the foreseeable future.”
Isnita crossed her arms and sighed. “It’s the same for everyone. Whatever form we happened to be in at the time everything exploded, that’s the form we’re now trapped as. Most of us had preferred forms that we used most of the time. Forms that you revert to when you’re sleeping. I was fortunate enough to be in my preferred form at the time it all went down.”
“So was Amil.” Simon groaned, then put his hands on Malah’s shoulders again. “Not us, and believe me, I’m struggling with it. How do you handle all these hormones without being able to shift into something else to dilute them? Seriously, all I want to do is grab Isnita and-”
“Hey.” Malah dipped her head. “I’m still little, remember!”
“Right.” Simon puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “So yeah. That’s where we’re at. Just trying to figure out how to survive.”
Amil nodded and slowly held up his hands. “Now that we’ve found this place, I think we can use it as a base to start rebuilding. Things have sort of fallen apart out there.” He flashed a grin and glanced at the other three. “I think the only reason that we haven’t is because we have each other.”
Simon flashed a pained smile, along with Isnita and Malah. With that, the ghosts flickered and vanished. A few moments passed, and Malah reappeared.
“That was the last time we recorded anything for awhile.” She sighed. “We just didn’t know that we needed to. The next thing that any of us recorded was Simon, a few years later.”
With that, Malah vanished, once more replaced by a ghost of Simon. This Simon, though… Was different. He was sitting on the ground, slumped over. His wings were tattered, and his clothes appeared worn and ragged. Slowly, he raised his head, peering at his future self with bleary eyes.
“Is this thing on?” His voice was slurred, not by much, but enough. “Gods, it’s awful here. I know we’re not supposed to use up recording space, but Amil can go shove a cable up his-” Simon broke down in a coughing fit before continuing. “It’s been six years now. Six years that I’ve been trapped in this one form. Oh, I can’t take it anymore.” His hands raked across the ground, clawing at the tile floor. “It doesn’t matter how many girls I’m with, this body isn’t satisfied. I get an instant of relief, and then an hour later, it’s just as bad as before. Everyone keeps telling me that I need to just accept this new reality. They all have, and now it’s time to move on.” Simon shook his head. “But they’re wrong. I’m not the one who’s refusing to accept anything. It’s them.”
He took a deep breath, wings shaking like leaves. “It has been six years. Six. Years. And none of us have aged a day. No one believes me, everyone just reassures me that you don’t notice things like aging. They’re all in denial. Just look at Malah. She should almost be a woman by now, and she’s still the terrified little girl that she was when all of this started. She’s a child, and now she’s always going to be a child. She’s always going to be a little girl, and I’m always going to be stuck as a hormonal male halfway through puberty.”
Ghost-Simon slammed a hand onto the ground. When he looked back up, tears dripped down his face. “And oh yeah, it gets worse. Somehow, the energy that allowed us to shapeshift is still in our bodies. It’s just different now. It always corrects us back to this form. I can chop off my hand, and a new one will grow back in a matter of days. I’ve sliced off every part of this body that produces hormones, and they just come back. I’ve desperately tried to reshape myself back into female form, and it never works for more than an hour or two. And the worst part of it all? It doesn’t let us die.”
Simon shrugged. “I know because I’ve tried. I flew up into the upper atmosphere and let myself fall to the ground. I’ve sliced myself open, I’ve shot myself, I even blew up a building with myself inside. Amil just dug me up a few days later. He called it a miracle. I call it a curse.” Simon swore. “I’m trapped in this awful body, and I can’t even escape it by dying. Oh yeah, and I’ve drank through the entire city’s stash of alcohol, so I can’t even knock myself out anymore.”
Simon paused, staring at the ground, before slowly shaking his head. “Lilith, I don’t know where you are, but I know you’re not dead. I just hope, I desperately hope, that wherever you went is better than this place. I’ll never move on from you. Do me a favor and move on from me.”
The ghost blurred and vanished in a whir of energy. Mal glanced at Simon, who appeared more or less in shock. He took a step forward, but stopped as Amil rose from the floor, a soft smile on his face.
“Simon was the first of us to realize what had happened. I really think he was right, the rest of us were just in denial. It was ten years after the event when I finally agreed with him. Whatever had happened, we weren’t aging, and we weren’t dying.” Amil sighed and shrugged. “And, at that point, things fell apart a second time. You might as well just listen to me back when it happened.”
There was a blur, and Amil vanished, only to reappear in a slightly different location. Simon was there as well, along with Isnita.
“What’s happening?” Amil hissed. “What did you do?”
“I did what I needed to do!” Simon roared. “I tried to figure things out!”
“And what did it accomplish?” Amil balled his fists and stalked up to Simon. “What did it do? What did you achieve?”
“I opened everyone’s eyes.” Simon ground his teeth together. “You pulled a blindfold over everyone’s eyes. Everyone wants to believe that this is going to go away, that we’ll be able to start shifting again. That we’ll be mortal again.”
Isnita shook her head. “We’re not immortal, Simon.”
“Oh yes, we are.” Simon nodded firmly, then plowed forward. “Everyone wants to believe that this is just a bad nightmare. I’d like to figure out how to escape the nightmare. All I did was head over to the blast sight to see if I could figure something out.”
“The blast sight is forbidden.” Amil snarled. “You could have died!”
“I’m not that lucky.” Simon shot back.
“Boys!” Isnita held up a hand. “Simon broke the rules. He went to see the crater. It’s not like none of us have done the same thing.”
“That was right after the explosion. We’ve learned since then.” Amil shook his head.
“And maybe Simon learned something else.” Isnita gestured at Simon. “Care to speak? I’d like to know if you learned anything.”
“No.” Simon spat. “No, I didn’t learn anything. It’s just a big hole in the ground. No clues, no cure, no nothing.”
“Okay, then.” Isnita nodded and turned back to Amil. “See? No harm done.”
“Oh, there was harm.” Amil pointed upwards. “Do you know what’s happening up there?”
“People are realizing that you’re full of crap?” Simon raised an eyebrow. “That’s what’s happening.”
“Everyone is leaving!” Amil screamed. “We have a society! We have something! We’re all that’s left of the world, and now everyone is just leaving.”
“Because they want to know the truth.” Simon sneered and stepped forward. “They’re sick of just pretending that this will all go away. They’re sick of living with the reality that everyone we knew or cared about is dead or vanished. They want to go out and see the world for themselves.”
“They’ll die.” Amil hissed.
“No.” Simon shook his head. “We’re immortal now, remember? They’ll walk around the world for a century or two, get bored, and come back. Everyone here is permanently stuck halfway through puberty. It’ll get boring if they’re not around lots of people of the opposite gender. You’ll have your city, it’s just taking a break for a minute.” Simon shrugged. “Hey, they might even bring more people here. More girls for me!”
“You’re sick, you know that?” Amil snarled.
“I’m making the most of this reality.” Simon just held up his hands and started to back away. “That’s what you keep telling me to do, right? Accept the present, accept the future, forget that the past ever existed.” Simon turned away. “You want to know what’s sick? Trying to pretend that everything is okay.”
With that, Simon vanished, leaving Isnita and Amil standing there. Amil sighed and flapped his wings. Slowly, Isnita walked over and put her arms around him, pulling him close. He returned the embrace, holding her tight.
“What is it with him?” Amil finally spoke again. “I just want to help rebuild.”
“And you are.” Isnita assured him. “You’re the one who turned the office buildings into dormitories. All by yourself. You’ve kept this place together.”
“But what if I can’t do it anymore?” Amil shrugged. “If everyone just leaves, they’re going to fall apart.”
“Hey.” Isnita held up a finger. “Simon is wrong about most things, but he was right on one account.” She forced a smile. “People will come back. We have a home here. They won’t ignore that forever. All you have to do is keep it ready for them.”
“I guess.” Amil shrugged and turned, gesturing at the room. “When I found this place, I thought it was everything we needed. A hub to rebuild civilization around. I’ve even been praying. Hoping.”
Isnita snickered. “I didn’t think you were the religious type.”
“I wasn’t.” Amil shook his head. “And I always thought that the Church of Divinity was crazier than most, but… I don’t know. The priests built this place for a reason. Maybe they knew that this was going to happen and they wanted us to have it. If their god did give them foresight, I want to thank him.”
Isnita just smiled brightly. “You think they knew?”
“Just think about it.” Amil sighed. “It’s an integrated computer system, by its own admission one of the most advanced systems on the planet, and it came with a detailed set of operating instructions? A computer system that had maps to deposits of resources, caches of food, everything a society would need to get on its feet? Doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me.”
“Maybe not.” Isnita let her head fall onto Amil’s chest. “It’s just… It’s so strange. I don’t know what this world is going to throw at us next. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well.” Amil closed his eyes, then nodded firmly. “Want to help me rebuild a city? We can design the plans here, then put it up outside.” He forced a smile. “Sounds like we’re going to have a few centuries to do it.”
“I’d like that.” Isnita’s body shuddered, and she let go of Amil. The two images vanished, only to be replaced by Isnita.
“This was pretty much the cycle that we fell into.” Isnita shrugged. “Almost everyone in the city left and ventured out across the planet. After a few years, they came back. A few years would pass, they would leave again, then grow lonely, then come back. This church and this city truly did become a hub, a place that people were always welcome inside, a place that they could stay for a few years before wandering away again. A few other cells of survivors were discovered across the planet, and we set up trade routes. The total known population rose, climbing to thousands, then tens of thousands. Still a tiny fraction of what we had once been, but it was… Nice.”
She paused for a moment before continuing. “It’s important to note here that, no matter how angry Simon became, he never went more than a few miles from the church. He hated Amil and I, but… He loved Malah. He still does. While the rest of us were trapped on the verge of becoming adults, she was… And still is, I guess, stuck as a ten-year old girl. She understands what’s happening well enough. She’s right over there, glaring at me right now.” Isnita chuckled, then sighed. “Especially in the early years, she was just confused. She knew that she should have been getting older, but she wasn’t. It was a confusing time for all of us, but for her it was even worse. For everyone her age, really. Simon, for all his flaws, was the one who took care of her.”
Simon’s ghost stepped up next to Isnita, holding up a finger. “I should interject here, in case you’re confused. Lilith was… Someone very special to me. We were dating at the time, and from what my diaries tell me, we were getting pretty serious.” Simon sighed. “I think she was going to propose to me. I guess I’ll never know, now. What I do know is that Malah was her little brother. Sister. I don’t know, everything’s still weird now that we can’t shift.” He shrugged. “Malah was all I had left of her, and I wasn’t going to give that up. I think Malah is why I eventually stopped trying to kill myself. And I don’t regret that decision for a moment.”
Isnita nodded in his direction. “Malah kept a lot of us going. She was so… Innocent. When we realized that none of us could get pregnant, I think our entire species went off the deep end there for a few years. She was the only one who really kept us in line, since she really didn’t understand what was happening anyway, and none of us wanted to spoil that innocence.” Isnita took a deep breath. “And… That’s more or less where our society stayed. We had disagreements between cities now and again, a handful of minor wars, but when your entire society is immortal, it kinda forces you to work together.”
Amil stepped back into view. “And, as near as we can tell, that’s what happened. One hundred years passed. Then two. It was long past our ordinary lifespans, and yet we hadn’t aged a single day since that explosion. Some of us loved it. Some of us hated it. Most of us went in spurts of doing both. In any event, our society stayed more or less at the same level, until one day about five hundred years into things.”
The trio vanished, to be replaced by a ghostly image of Simon leaning over one of the consoles. Mal took a step back, adjusting his view as Amil walked into view.
“You called?” Amil crossed his arms. “I designed that alarm to be for emergencies only, so this had better be good.”
Simon waved his hand dismissively. “We can’t die. Name one emergency that that button would actually be useful for.”
Amil sighed and shook his head. “What do you have?”
“I finally managed to find something.” Simon shrugged and gestured at the screen. “It’s taken me two hundred years to break through these passwords, but I finally did it. Behold.”
Simon pressed a button, and another ghostly image appeared above the screen, floating in the air. Mal’s eyes opened, and beside him, the real Simon let out a small gasp. It was the realmship, there was no denying it.
“What is this?” Amil frowned down at the image. “A giant metal bird?”
“Do you not remember airplanes?” Simon held up his hands, then sighed. “Of course you don’t. No one does. Everyone’s forgetting how the old world used to be, just-”
“Right.” Simon took a deep breath and gestured at the image. “It’s an interdimensional starship. This systems holds the plans for it, down to the last bolt.” Simon turned and looked up at Amil. “We could escape. We could break free of this planet and go find a new home.”
Simon frowned and stroked his chin. “I’ve heard you talk about going to other planets before. Is this… That?”
“No.” Simon shook his head and pointed upward. “The planets are the stars that move faster than the other stars. Probably giant rocks similar to our own world. Gods, you’ve forgotten everything you learned pre-freeze, didn’t you?”
“I don’t have as much time to sit here and play with computers as you do.” Amil ground his teeth together. “Talk.”
Simon shrugged. “So, the planets up in the sky are separated from our planet by hundreds of miles of space. We would need a spaceship to cross that distance. That said, there’s a pre-freeze theory that our dimension is only one dimension among thousands of other dimensions. You could travel a trillion miles in any direction in our space and not reach another one, but if you knew what to do…” Simon gestured off to his right. “You could step through that door and into a paradise. Trees like the movies show. Possibly even a cure to our curse.”
Amil puffed out his cheeks. “And how do we build it? How long would it take?”
Simon forced a smile, then sighed. “That’s the problem. We can’t just build it.”
Amil crossed his arms. “Then why are you talking to me?”
“Because you’re the leader.” Simon shrugged and leaned forward. “Let me break it down for you. The materials required to build this ship can’t just be forged over a campfire. For example, the primary hypersonic engine requires solid mercury-titanium microfibers to work. Now, those can only be produced in a vacuum-sealed zero kelvin chambers, which can only be produced with-”
“In other words, it can’t be done.” Amil turned away.
“No.” Simon held up a hand. “It can’t be done with our current technology.” Amil paused, and Simon plowed forward. “Since the freeze, we haven’t made any attempt at progress. We’re still living in the same buildings that we lived in when we could still shift. We’re still using the same roads. We’re eating from campfires and hunting with sticks. We’re a primitive people living in the ruins of a much greater society. Most of the people out there don’t even remember how a car works.”
Amil sighed. “So what do we do?”
“We start moving forward again.” Simon gestured at the console. “This device is the only example of advanced technology on the planet. And I think it was designed to survive an apocalypse.” His arms began to flop around, gesturing wildly. “There’s a plan here designed to help a primitive culture build this ship. Step-by-step instructions on how to advance our society and gather the necessary resources. And I think, with your leadership, we can do it.”
Amil closed his eyes and groaned. “I’m only asking because it’s not like we have anything else to do. How long does this plan take?”
Simon winced slightly. “Based on its calculations given our current population… Fifty thousand years.”
Amil’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. “Fifty thousand years?”
Simon sighed. “The infrastructure that we’re going to have to build is incredible. Early on, a handful of select individuals in the population can manage it, but by the time we hit the industrial age, the number of different factories and industries that we’ll need active in order to prevent ourselves from falling back to the stone age is quite enormous. By the time we reach the Modern Age, even if we strip it down to the barest bones, we’ll barely be getting by, and by the time we hit the Postmodern Space Age, most of us will have to work three or four jobs just to make sure that things aren’t breaking down.”
Amil scratched his head. “You’re not selling me on this.”
“What I’m trying to tell you is that we’re never going to advance without this plan.” Simon pointed at the computer. “If we ignore this, if we shove it under the rug, we will never move beyond the trash heap that we live in now. We will live out millennia after millennia, pointlessly drinking the pathetic excuse for alcohol that we can produce and screwing each other over and over and over, until the sun goes dark and we all freeze. And then we’ll sit there for millennia more, unable to move, wishing that we had done more than wallow in self-pity during the hundreds of thousands of years we had before the atmosphere melted away.”
Amil puffed out his cheeks. “We don’t know that’s what’s going to happen.”
“No, we don’t.” Simon stepped forward and held up a finger. “We don’t know. We might all die next year. We might start to grow old again, we might be able to start shifting again, and if we do, then when do we lose by following this plan?” He shrugged. “We give our children a better future when things do get better. And if things don’t get better, I’d much rather spend eternity traveling than stuck on some frozen rock because I wanted to spend a few more years basking in the sun.”
Amil slowly let his head drop. Simon raised an eyebrow, and Amil slowly raised his head one more time.
“How do we start?”
The two ghosts faded, replaced by Malah. She spread her wings and flashed a grin.
“And, with that, we set out on the greatest journey ever!” She chuckled, then sighed. “It was really long. One hundred fifty-six thousand years, right?”
Simon appeared nearby and nodded. “We had to stop and restart the process twice. The first time, we made it to the modern age when one of our nuclear reactors melted down and blew up all our factories. Next time through, we built everything a little farther apart and made it to the cybernetic era, when our robot servants rose up and tried to overthrow us. The third time, though, we made it.”
He vanished again, and Malah nodded. “We did it. We built the first interdimensional starship, big enough to hold two hundred of us. So we built another. And another. It took another five hundred years, but we built enough to hold everyone. All of us could live in the stars!”
“I should interject here.” Isnita stepped back into the view. “It was in the midst of the process that we first realized that we were forgetting things. Around five thousand years in, Malah commented that she couldn’t remember when she was able to change. It made the rest of us realize that we couldn’t, either. It wasn’t that we couldn’t remember it exactly, it was that we had no working memories at all. The only reason we knew that we could ever shapeshift was because of the messages on the computer system. I would show you the recordings from that time, but they’re pretty boring. We started documenting everything.” She chuckled. “We were so worried. And, as time continued, so did our memory loss. Simon has a bit longer of a memory than the rest of us, but we’re all capped at about five thousand years. After that… Nothing.”
She vanished again, and Malah nodded. “It’s kinda scary that I can’t remember most of my life.”
“It’s devastating.” Simon’s voice came back. “I read my reports! I was with almost every single female angel on this planet, and I can’t remember a single one of them! Including Isnita! It just-”
His voice was cut off with a muffled whack, and Malah sighed. “We had just launched the last ship. Amil and Simon flew a few of them around the solar system once or twice, to test them out. And then…” Malah shuddered. “We found it.”
She faded, a bit more ominously than before. Mal took a step forward as all four ghosts appeared, along with Ferguson and Fortrina.
“What did you find?” Amil’s voice was soft. “I gather that it isn’t the plans for a more advanced starship?”
“No.” Simon shook his head. He glanced back and forth, then sighed. “I was tipped off when I went and started accessing our records from the late postmodern age. I had done a bit of writing on the relationship between matter and energy, and I wanted to see if my theories had held true.”
Isnita shrugged. “And?”
“And they were different than I remembered.” Simon shrugged. “I know our memory doesn’t work long-term, but I just had this feeling. Now, when I was doing this, I was on board the ship. Out of curiosity, I transported back down to the planet and started going through the backup records that I stored here, in this system.” He took a deep breath. “And they were different. Distinctly and impossibly different. There were no records in either system of tampering, which meant that either I had written two different things, or somehow, the data had been corrupted.”
Isnita frowned. “So what, the computers that we built are glitching?”
“Not exactly.” Simon shook his head. “I started doing some more digging, trying to see if maybe the data had been altered by a solar storm. And I found this.” He snapped his fingers, causing a series of letters and numbers to flow up from the ground, through the air, a twisting and shifting display that made Mal’s head hurt to look at. “This, for those of you wondering, is a malignant virus, more advanced than anything I’ve ever seen before. At present, it is infecting every single computer, every single circuit board, every single scrap of processing power that we have in this entire dimension. Everywhere except here, in this room.”
Amil stroked his chin. “So what is it and how is that possible? Why would it be affecting everywhere but here? Who do you think programmed it?”
“No one.” Simon shook his head. “At least none of our angels. We’ve had some hackers over the years, but nothing like this.” He sighed and gestured vaguely at the room. “I’ve never truly understood the technology here. These computer systems are more advanced than anything we could possibly create. And, the more and more I think about it, the more pieces I put together, the more I think that this room was created solely to resist whatever this infection is.” He held up a finger. “This is the only system that the code doesn’t appear in, and as I’m studying it, I think that’s because of the alternative code base that this system uses to function. Our computers all run on base 2 input, zeros and ones, which is how this virus is spreading. This system runs on a base 3 system, which provides more variables.” Simon reached over and tapped up a button, bringing up a second block of code that spun through the air just next to the first. “This is a program that everything coming into the computers are filtered through. This code is the reason that these computers are safe, it keeps the infection out.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense.” Isnita shook her head. “If that’s true, then the infection would have been put in place before…”
Her voice trailed off, and Simon nodded. “Before the freeze. Before any of this happened. Yes. Yes, I realize that, and I think it’s true.” He reached over and flipped a switch, causing the two blocks of code to vanish. In its place, a ghostly book appeared, laying open on a pedestal of some sort, pages flipping back and forth of their own accord. Mal took a deep breath as Simon held up a hand.
“This is a live feed from the Peroculean Tombs. We haven’t been there in years, but it seems that I set up a camera in there, oh, a hundred thousand years back or so. It’s hard to tell from this image, but the pages are covered in text. Moving text.” He leaned forward. “The pattern of the letters matches the code that I found in our computers. Whatever this infection is, it’s alive, and it’s magical. It can move from books to computers. Who knows what else it can do?”
Malah frowned. “So what does it do? Why is it bad?”
“It alters things, for starters.” Simon shrugged. “Almost all the records contained in the ships have been changed drastically. This room is the only place that still holds true accounts of anything. I would also wager a guess that it’s been responsible for our other failures, the meltdown and the robot uprising. Whatever it is, it doesn’t want us to succeed. Or, if it does, it’s at a cost. They want to use us for something.”
“So what do we do about it?” Isnita finally took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “How do we stop them?”
“I have an idea.” Simon crossed his arms. “It’s a bit on the wild side, and it’s going to take a bit more experimenting. There’s only one catch.” He took a deep breath. “Do not talk about this outside this room. Don’t mention it to anyone, don’t even talk about it where a microphone might overhear you. When we strike, and I plan to, I want it to be with complete surprise.”
The ghosts faded once more, only to instantly reappear. Simon stepped forward and spread his arms, taking a deep breath.
“That was recorded twenty years ago. Just a blip, really, when you think about how long we live.” He flashed a sad smile. “And that brings you to the present. Following that conversation, I built a slightly smaller version of the ships, a shuttle that could be used for small tests. I was then able to take the purge code from this computer and copy it into the shuttle’s computers. It caused a momentary crash because of the processing power required, but it was able to purge the virus. Before I could be re-infected, Amil and I took the shuttle and did the first interdimensional test run. Punched straight through into another realm nearby. And… It wasn’t pretty.”
Amil shook his head. “It’s a realm of fire. We did scans, and found this same infection, everywhere. From what we can tell, the planet, much like ours, used to be inhabited. Now, wild magical storms run rampant across the surface. Almost the entire place is lava, sustained by the magic somehow. And everyone who lives there…” Amil shuddered. “They almost look like demons, altered to live in the fire and flames.”
Simon nodded. “We popped through a few other realms, too. Three of them had been destroyed. On one, the sun had imploded, leaving it frozen. Everyone was still alive, scraping out a living from the frozen husk of a planet. There was one where everyone basically existed as a communal cloud of dust, and one where everyone had been enslaved by this psycho computer hive-mind thing. A few more dimensions actually had functional civilizations. Two of those were infected as well.”
“What we’ve come to conclude is that, whatever this code is, it enjoys killing.” Isnita shook her head. “It just wants to destroy societies, any that it can.”
“But it doesn’t just want to kill them.” Simon shook his head. “It wants them to suffer. It wants them to live in eternal pain, as much as possible. I’m betting on it being a sentient species, some form of life that we don’t even begin to understand. Maybe it doesn’t understand us, either, and this destruction is just part of its research. And maybe it just likes causing suffering. I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care.”
“Simon and I started noticing variations in the code as we traveled.” Amil nodded. “We couldn’t figure out how it jumps from dimension to dimension, but we were able to find small variations between the different dimensions. In addition, we discovered that the code, even across dimensional lines, is still receiving updates from somewhere else.” He took a deep breath. “Somewhere out there, somewhere beyond our current reach, is the homeworld of the code. I think, if we can find it, we can destroy it at its source and kill the code across the entire multiverse.”
“Which could be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “And… That brings us to this point. For the first time in almost two hundred thousand years, our mission is changing.”
Isnita glanced at Malah with a sad smile. “We’re going to put a stop to this. Whatever this code is, it’s magical and its evil. It’s destroyed our culture, it’s destroyed other cultures, and it’s likely going to destroy even more. And so… We have a plan.” She took a deep breath, and her wings trembled. “We’re splitting into two groups. Boys on one team, girls on the other. The boys are taking the ships, the girls stay here. We’ll upload the purge software to every ship in orbit. With luck, that will destroy every bit of the code that’s not on this planet itself. Then…”
Simon took a deep breath. “Then, the boys carpet-bomb the planet. The girls will survive, we can survive anything. It’ll be a mix of thermonuclear weapons and electromagnetic pulse bombs. If my calculations are right, and I desperately hope they are, we’ll be able to wipe away every last ounce of this code, both in the computers and written into books, in this dimension.”
“At that point, the brothers will leave.” Amil took a deep breath. “We’ll travel through the dimensions, following the code and purging it from anywhere we happen to find it. If the universe has already been destroyed, we’ll try to work with the residents to avenge their state. If the universe hasn’t been destroyed yet, we’ll contact the world leaders to prevent their downfall. And, if the leaders won’t listen, we’ll do it without their permission.” He set his jaw. “We will wipe this plague from existence. One way or another.”
“Meanwhile, the sisters will be here.” Isnita nodded. “We don’t know where the code’s homeworld is. For all we know, it could be a hundred thousand dimensions away. And, so, we’re doing things a bit differently.”
“I’m going to die.” Malah stepped forward, a small smile on her face. “Well, not really! Simon found a way to separate my consciousness from my body and insert it into the code!”
“Sort of.” Simon wagged his hand back and forth. He glanced at Malah, then sighed and glanced back to the front. “The code functions as a magical, living organism. Ordinarily, our healing energy prevents any and all forms of death, but if I can launch her consciousness through a dimensional portal, I think I can trick it to inserting itself into the code. Thus, she’ll be inside whatever this is. From there, her job will be to follow the code back to its source. Once she’s there, she breaks free.”
Isnita nodded. “The sisters, meanwhile, will be keeping tabs on Malah. When she breaks out, this computer system should be able to register her emergence no matter where she appears. I’ve been spending my time practicing using our magic, and I think we can use it to modify ourselves into stronger soldiers capable of leaping across the distance between dimensions without the need for spacecraft. We’re going to end this infection. The moment she shows us where to strike, we’ll hit like a nuclear bomb.”
“Yeah!” Malah cheered.
“And, with that, you’re pretty much caught up.” Simon flashed a grin. “The greatest endeavor that we’ve ever embarked on as a species.” He started waving. “With luck, I’m waving to my future self right now! How did things work out?”
“And if he’s not…” Isnita stepped forward, spreading her arms. “Please, take heed of what’s happened here. Help us finish our mission. Help us destroy this code before it kills anyone else.”
With that, the four ghosts faded, leaving Mal and Simon standing in stunned silence. Mal slowly turned to look at Simon, who had to sit down on the floor. Slowly, he turned to face Mal, horror written on his face.
“So that’s the history of our species.” He forced a grin. “Wow. Who would have thought?”
“Not me.” Mal sat down on a chair and crossed his arms. “Did any of that make sense to you?”
“About half.” Simon puffed out his cheeks. “I want to watch it back through a few more times, but… Yeah, I think I got the gist. What about you? Did you recognize any of it?”
Mal nodded slowly as pieces began to click together in the back of his mind. “When I was trying to come back from the dead, I was trying to harness the power of a bunch of magical books. Mommy didn’t know why, she just thought it was because they were close and they were magical.”
“But they weren’t.” Simon’s jaw slowly dropped. “You didn’t even know what you were doing, and you were trying to harvest the code. The entire reason the rest of us set off on this journey. You were the only one still truly following the mission, the rest of us had all forgotten.”
“I guess.” Mal shrugged. “It didn’t work, they managed to save the books.”
“Well, thankfully, it’s easier to burn books than it is to purge computer networks. Especially since the realmship is gone.” Simon clapped his hands. “So now we have a goal! We head back to Calsin and lead a coup, resulting in a totalitarian government in which we order the burning of all magical books. It takes a few years, but we’re able to purge this code from Calsin and more on with life.”
“One problem with that.” Mal bit his lip. “The books are alive.” He shuddered, thinking of his last encounter with the Wondrisil. “And they don’t like to be messed with.”
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