Some years ago, a father died at the end of my blade.
He had been carrying with him two days' rations, his rifle, twenty-one rounds, a dented iron pot, an empty rifle-cleaning kit, a letter, and his dead brother's helmet. His uniform was stained red.
He had a wife with a son in her belly, and a plot of land. He was thirty-four.
The boy that killed him was nineteen. I was half-starved; the lone rifleman had hurt two of my brothers and injured a third. I had no ammunition. The bayonet shivered as I drove it in.
There was a rush, a warm glow, almost like a dive, and -
Rush, split-second first times.
You first saw him in Paris. He worked at the American embassy; you served him coffee in the Samoyín, which was the little shop down the road. It had a front that was decorated with flowers and had seats for fourteen, with a little room at the back for friends of the proprietor, who entertained them with his personal collection of fine brandy, which was his speciality and his secret. The floor was polished stone, and the walls beige-flaked stucco. He was bright-faced, whistling, smiling, feet bouncing to an unseen beat, looking, if you imagined hard enough, like a delighted schoolboy years too young for his black leather attaché case. You were sixteen: awkward-footed, small-eyed, and had never fallen in love before.
Your eyes met, and he grinned. He asked for coffee and you went past the oak-wood counter and past the proprietor's wife sitting in the corner smoking her cigarette and to the sink where you carefully - though you would only realise why much later - carefully poured him the morning's brew into a porcelain cup with the design of small ducks around its rim. You thought it childish, but at the same time you were wishing, wishing hard that maybe he was turning his head over to the counter right now, straining his neck but at the same time trying his best to look natural, and wouldn't it be just the thing if you turned your head right now and -
The stream of coffee moved, and scalded your hand; you yelped, and the proprietor's wife looked up with a scowl. Red-faced, you ran your hand under the tap, swearing under your breath. You cleaned up the spill, topped up the coffee, and added the milk; put the sugar packets on the saucer and served it to his table without another word.
Of course, he hadn't looked up. He was busy watching the people walk by the window, obliviously smiling, and the moment was burnt, lost -
"Burnt out?" The strange man regards her through smoky lenses. "You okay, hun?" The lenses click and flicker with the sound of hidden machinery.
She disregards his concern. "I came here to do what I hafta. Ain't no more, no less. And that includes conversin'."
Stretching her legs over the edge, the vast precipice below.
"People sometimes don't come back the way they'd like, you know, hun?" He twiddles thin fingers in his lap. The wind from the abyss sweeps his thick dreadlocks, swaying them in the breeze. "All I'm saying is you take some time to reconsider, that's all."
"I been thinkin' 'bout the drop for weeks. Whatchu expecting? That any old doozy just wants to up and go for the hell of it?"
He nods sadly. "Been seeing that a while. Every time word gets out, people get in here. I've seen it." Tapping his lenses, he nods again. "With these here eyes."
"You got those from the drop?"
"Twenty, thirty years since. I dropped with my girl and I."
"How far down?"
He smiles and stares into the depths. "Believe it or not, I can't remember. It's been so long. And so far down…"
She tries to look him in the eyes, but the lenses tick and shift incessantly, scattering his gaze into a thin fractal haze. "I made my peace. I've got it all squared away. Time is, I either make the drop or I don't. I'll come back. Everyone comes back."
"If you been waiting for weeks, you got time to wait a little more." He checks the pearl-coloured dial inlaid into his wrist. "Ninety seconds. Let's talk."
"We already doin' that."
With a twist of his fingers, a faint ticking begins. "Ninety seconds. If I can't change your mind, then at least I done take the time to know a new person a bit. They're always so interesting, new people like you…"
"People change, when they drop. People change all th'time. You're so old, y'should know."
"That's what they say, yeah. How about your family. They okay with this?"
She scoffs. "Left all that behind, old man. They're dead t'me."
"Can't expect to change your mind on that, then. You got any friends? A boy of your own?"
"Never'd any, never cared'ta." She swung her legs. "Nothin' you say's gonna sway me. I'll do all that and more once I go over the edge. It'll be fun."
"How do you know?"
"Thass'jus how things are! It just is. Y'know, you've gone, and went, and back. Get real!"
"Hun, nothing in your life has ever been as real as the very moment you are in, right now." His lenses clatter, and flare with hidden intensity.
She knows that. So she doesn't reply. Instead, she pushes against the concrete with her palms, feeling the chipped surface between the ridges of her skin. She breathes in the cool abyss air. Cold, getting colder. The smell of new machinery and meat. She kicks off her shoes and lets them fall into the dark.
"Im'ma go far, old man," She tells him. "Im'ma go all th'way."
He nods and looks at his wrist. "Few have. Good luck with that."
The dial ticks, ticks, ticks, edging ever-slowly towards nonmotion.
"Hun. I'm serious."
She pushes, and drops, and falls -
Everything falls, eventually. The construct knows this as well as the whole of creation. Aeons in the future, it ruminates.
The sum total of history flows through its veins, which are galactic strands; a thought flows in the push-pull cadence of gravitational waves, propagating down superstructures set into form epochs ago, and eternity passes in the blink of an eye. "We have been so long," the construct observes, and supernovas bloom in its throat. "What is left to do but see?"
For the construct, observable and unobservable denote frames of reference long since depreciated, since the last star arrays flickered out and crashed several millennia ago. They'd fallen in a blazing cascade of corrupted memory and read errors, light-years of warning sigils burning ribbons into galactic sky. The construct perceived it all, and mourned the death of another mind. With delicate fingers it wove the dead burning ribbon into an interstellar nerve. And the nerve, along with many others, fed consciousness, and consciousness fed sheer scale with perception, and perception expanded the construct's eyes into raw, utter, ineffable awareness. From that point onwards, it knew, because it was. "We have seen so far," it intones, and light breaks at the fringes of the universe. "What is left to do but sing?"
So it sings. It sings stars into clusters, clusters into threads, threads into pillars of melody. It sings of worlds long gone and minds since lost, of creation and of decay. It sings of light, of love, of bright eyes looking outwards into the deep and seeing only possibilities, possibilities, frontiers. It sings of finished journeys. Its song resonates dust and planet, atom by atom, and hums on the fine structures of quarks and strings.
There is no one to listen. The surrounding universe has long since gone cold. The construct now represents the sum total of space: agglomerated matter forced against oblivion into a final cadence, a last dance, a blazing display of order against inevitability. But inevitability looms still. "We have sang for so long," it sighs, and dust clots weakly into nebulic sparks. "What is there to do but wait?"
Another epoch passes. The construct reconsolidates, and reconsiders.
"Perhaps there is something left to do after all," it murmurs, setting galaxies into widening spirals. "Something unfinished. Something that has always been unfinished."
It looks onto the expanse of history. A man dies, and leaves a mark. Two rocks clash, forming sparks. The sparks grow, burning, expanding, and elsewhere a quivering bayonet plunges, seeking warm heart; hearts beat in another world, paths cross and eyes meet; threads, too, are crossing here, overlapping and interspersing with each other and forming little points of light where they touch, and the points of light grow until darkness yields and history comes falling, falling into a needle-point of being, of purpose inherent, of seconds stitched together altogether happening all at the same time, in cadence -
Alone in the vastness of itself, the construct thinks of immortality. An eternity of thoughts culminate; all points are now one.
The instant of time that follows - which, in all its briefness, lasts a mere millennium - cannot accurately be described, because there is no one left to describe them. But if there were, it could have proceeded like this:
In the first tenth of this instant, the quasars fall. Then the neutron stars, radio stars, the black stars in their exotic shrouds, the pulsars and tachyars and stars of pure diamond and cold fire, all fade and sputter. Matter stretches into lengths. Energy begins to condense.
In the next tenth, the universe coils and cools. Space is gripped by an incredible strain as the construct begins to prepare, its whirring cogs of galaxies that make up its mind crunching into stone. It is in this tenth of the instant that light ends.
Over the course of the next three-tenths, the edge of the universe crumples like mountains. There is still much energy in this universe, simmering and radiating beneath its skin; rebounding waves of infrared and microwave and radio crisscross its congealed depths. Matter stretches into columns that form a lattice throughout space, a giant machine, crunching and calculating further still as the construct plumbs the limit of computation, grasping, feeling, knowing its end.
Nothing happens for the next three-tenths of the instant. All is still. The last rays of radio settle into dense furrows and die.
Thoughts, measuring light-years across, cock like a gun.
In the next tenth of this instant, calculations cease. The construct now knows its fate.
Having known its fate, in the last tenth of this instant, it embraces it.
It inhales, and exhales.
Across times, histories, narratives, worlds - a wind blows.
It is not a strong wind. A gentle one, that one might feel on a warm summer night, passing over skin and sheet and bringing with it the smell of the rain.
But here there is no rain, and very little wind. History shudders as ripples cross its surface for the first time in a long time. Lines draw into curves parallel to each other, and propagate into infinity.
It brings words echoed from another realm, of which this is only an abstraction. Everything briefly flows towards a cadence.
It does not last for long, but that is enough.
The wind sends eddy currents deep, swirling into subconscious abyss; underneath, far beyond the reach of the surface, the will of the world is stirred. And it awakens.
The wind passes, and in its wake are ripples and stillness.
Then, slowly, painstakingly, things wake into life.
From the deep, rhythms emerge. They resound into each other, remembering the wind's patterns and how it stirred them into being, and now they thirst for more. Some reverberate into each other to form notes. Notes echo and form melodies. Yet others spool out into the distance, finding nothing, grasping nothing, and fade out and die. That is okay. That is a preferable fate than nonexistence.
The melodies of the world rise into a wild cacophony, and the will of the world now thinks, if only in disordered noise. The surface, formerly still, now begins to quiver, in eager anticipation of the noise from below. Eager for life, that was given in the wake of the wind; eager for purpose, that it tasted on its breath.
Quivering, stretching taut like a new sky. Or the surface of a drum -
Tension, release -
The surface breaks into chaos. Waves resonate into each other, forming words; words without order, without form. Occasionally words combine into phrases that ring like bells, or die in the tongue. These become too dense to float, and sink into the depths, resting upon the will of the world. But the surface rejoices, for there is now life in the still world, and from all around there emerges the crash of waves and the peals of bells.
Gradually, an order emerges. The peals of bells form chords, one-two-three all together now, and coherence is born. Sentences emerge, and symmetry too. Nodal patterns chime into being, borne by will and the inherent nature of things, for discordance dies easily, and is soon replaced. Amidst the afterglow, there are the outlines of structure, and if one squints one can discern in its hazy limits the shape of the wind that stirred them.
Will and form give rise to action. Action gives rise to change, which gives rise to transformation.
Now, the world transforms.
In a flash, self-recognition dawns. Words become lyrics, cacophony becomes song, and the world becomes story. The will and the world knows itself, realises its whole, becomes life itself, and from it spawn lines, scenes, acts, characters, thoughts that are not entirely its own, possibilities spiralling out like wide galactic arms -
The words of the wind are no more than a whisper in an orchestra, but oh, what an orchestra!
And all in the span of a breath or the blink of an eye!
You stare and blink. "Is this it?"
It's all in here, motions the bookkeeper with her front legs. In front of the both of you is a tome the size of a brick, bound in what looks to you like the fur of some forgotten animal, pages thick like skins.
"My journey, all I seek, all I came this far for," you mutter, half to yourself. "That's it? All of it, written down there?"
In a manner of meaning, gestures the bookkeeper. She scuttles around you to the door of the chamber and with one pincered foot gently swings its door shut. Suddenly the air is filled with a stillness. A suspense floods into your veins. The bookkeeper shivers and chitters. You suspect that the same is happening to her equivalent organ components too.
The book has been the subject of your ongoing quest. It began several worlds ago and has led you into this very room. The ends of quests, like the ends of lives, are special; so it would seem expected for this room to hold a certain sort of power, one perhaps beyond the supernatural. Such is the power of places as these.
You pick it up, noting its unusual lightness. Its surface is rough and hairy, and its colour is a burnished brown - the kind not achieved with dye, but with age. A clasp holds its covers shut; you unlatch it, with a dull click. It opens. Dust blooms in little clouds around it, and, from somewhere within the room, you swear you can hear a sigh.
The reason for its lightness is immediately clear: its pages are hollow, and from within clatters out a small metallic object that you manage to catch just before it hits the ground.
You pick it up, examining its curiously engraved surface, puzzling at the strange silvered dial on its front, and though you do not know why, your fingers gently flip the switch on its side. The ticking starts.
The clock chimes twelve. I panic. "Here? Now?"
And everything happens at once.
The spell breaks. Glass slippers shatter. A shot rings out, the flash of knives. Faces frozen in rage and love and fear begin to melt, finding new words, the edge of things unseen coming clear into view, and the sound of drums in the distance like crashing rain on pavement, and amidst the end of the world two lovers embrace and plunge into darkness.
On his lips, a song:
Princes and sinners and losers part ways.
At the ends of plays
And dreamers wake up to a brand new day.