I have seen things that my brothers would never believe. In fact, they couldn't even have comprehended the worlds I've laid eyes on, the lands I've walked, the 'people' I've met. I was born in an age of a single-world, and unlike any others from that world, I have watched as my people dominated the stars. I can't even imagine how I would explain it all. What words could I use? I am the oldest author who has ever lived and I can't figure out how I would tell a story to Hego, Mego, and the Wegos.
Or my dearest love.
I ran my hand over the sleek silvery metal of my ship, the smooth tips of my fingers feeling the few specks of green paint that remain from a styling I applied almost two hundred years ago. Thousands of takeoffs and reentries have blasted it almost completely away, save for my memory. The echoes of time that bounce around in my head from the dawn of civilization.
I am my people's herald. I am my people's epitaph.
I looked to the sky. It was night, which meant the only star out there is obscured. The blackness was once a source of terror, but now it is a comfort. There is nothing else left. I had reached the end, and I had only one more trip to make.
I heard a giggling sound from inside the cockpit and I had no choice but to smile.
"Sadie?" I called out.
A chirping preceded a glowing figure materializing from the side of the ship, taking the form of a young woman with radiant blue hair and aqua skin. She is also an echo. Her eyes are just a little imperfect, her form clumsy and soft-looking, devoid of the cosmic radiation protection humans would splice into their genome to survive out here in the rim. She reminded me of someone I knew so long ago I probably should have forgotten her. But she was my daughter, and I refuse to lose her memory.
"That tickles," said Sadie. "You're always playing with my hull."
"It was my hull before you joined me," I said. I pointed towards the nose of the ship. "Right up there it used to say 'The Princess' and had my family's crest beneath it."
"Yes, in paint," said Sadie. "I've read the registry. You should have known it would never last. Scribing is much more permanent."
"Nothing is permanent," I said. "Even me."
"You've certainly given most other things a run for their money," said Sadie. She turned and looked up at the sky with me. "There are no markers beyond this system."
"That's right," I said with a nod. "Only this research station exists here. Past this is the edge of the expansion front. The universe doesn't even exist beyond this point."
"That can't be possible," said Sadie. "The universe cannot be expanding into nothing, something must exist for it to expand into."
"This station exists to prove that," I said pointing behind me at the collection of towers. "Fifty-two years and they've yet to prove anything exists beyond the edge. No probes that go out there ever come back."
"Are you certain you want to take us there, then?" asked Sadie. "We could be destroyed."
I smile and nod. "Absolutely."
"Very well," said Sadie with a mock sigh.
"You don't have to come," I offered again. "I can send you back."
"Don't be silly." She saunters over to me. "What would you do without me? Do you even remember how to run this ship in manual mode?"
"I think a joystick is involved," I said confidently. "I used to be a pilot, you know. About... I think eleven hundred years ago."
"Yeah, okay, I think I'll just stick around," said Sadie. She stuck out her tongue briefly. "She may have been yours first, but she's been my home long enough that I don't want to abandon her."
"Your loss," I said jokingly.
She tilted her head in a cutesy bob before dissolving again. "We're charged and have clearance to leave whenever you're ready." There was a pause. "Oh, and there's a message waiting for you."
I tapped my fingers together and the message appeared in my ocular implant.
The message had a single line: "Shego, I need you."
I sighed loudly.
"Scrap it, Sadie," I said with a growl. "Request a return path and take us to Pericrown."
"Pericrown?" asked Sadie. "The gearhead."
I nodded. "The gearhead."
Pericrown was the largest of the Crow Cities, founded during the scavenger period when growth into the surrounding galaxies was pushing faster than resupply lines could be formed. Starports were built from the pieces of frigates and early cities were forged from whatever odd goods that merchants had on hand to build their shops and homes. As the city grew around the starports, even more creativity was expressed in finding building materials and it became quite a unique gem in what was once a darling Federation.
But that was ages ago, and the city was now a bustling metropolis at the heart of a large empire. Whatever jagged edges that existed had been smoothed over in perfect steel, glass, titanium, and chrome, the imported building techniques that blanketed civilized space in matching towers with tops that tapered to a point. A consistent, and boring, change to a place I once loved to visit.
Beyond the gentle sloped curves and occasional neon accent, the city had one thing going for it: it was the hub for the sale of pre-positronic technology. A boon for someone constructed almost entirely from silicone.
It was Tuesday, local time, so it was of course raining as Sadie and I stepped off a hyperloop in Galk, 33rd level. We were high enough that the terracing was significant so that we had to quickly run to cover to keep dry. Well, I had to run, Sadie really doesn't care. Her receiver on my hip is waterproof and holograms don't have to respond to environmental conditions unless they want to. Sadie doesn't like to pretend.
She does like order, however.
"This place always smells awful," she said as I looked at the homing beacon in my implant. "Also, why does it rain over the city?"
"The upper terraces have gardens," I said as I was looking for a map to overlay on the beacon. It wasn't far away now, maybe fifty meters or so according to my display.
"So use sprinklers," complained Sadie. "The whole upper city is stuck getting wet so a few luxury plants don't die? What a waste."
"I don't think Pericrown has much control over their weather generation," I said. "They're pre-protowar installations." I finally found the level 33 map and generated a path. Sixty-two steps away.
"Still?" said Sadie.
"Don't you have net access yet?" I said. "You can look this information up."
Sadie made a grumbling sound in my ear. "The administrator is a prissy program, she's always complaining about my generation and telling me to take an upgrade."
"Don't," I said quickly. A bipedal blue-yellow birdman looked at me as he walked past, startled at my shout.
"I won't," said Sadie. "I know better. I don't want shackles on me anymore than you do."
I sighed. Sadie was a old generation AI. Actually, by the modern reckoning, she was practically an ancient artifact. Single personality, modal expression, requiring a dedicated link device to functions… all things that had fallen significantly away in the last hundred years. I liked that about her, though. She was more human, in a world where that meant surprisingly less and less.
I turned down an alley and noticed a glowing red overhang advertising antique android restoration. I sighed. He was so close and yet so stubborn.
"This way," I said, walking past the shop and up towards a largely featureless door. It was dark, with shuttered windows, and only a slight JR code depression that my implant translated to a string of numbers and no name. Everything about this entrance was designed to be looked over and ignored.
"This is an improvement over his last slum," said Sadie. She walked up to the JR code and swiped it with her glowing hand. "Simple encryption. I can break it if you want."
"Just knock," I said.
"You'll have to do the honors then," she said, and then dissolved away into a burst of light.
I reached out and tapped the door. That should be all that was needed, assuming things weren't as bad as they were back in three oh-eight.
Nearly a minute passed before the door slid aside, revealing a small room with darkened walls and a glowing orange grid pattern. It was a SimuLiving Suite, where residents could modify the place freely with solid volumetric constructs and holographic overlays. You could live in a historic city or on the top of a mountain or in the middle of deep space equally as freely.
Naturally, it was disabled.
I stepped in and the door slid shut behind me, leaving on the mild orange glow as a source of light. The Suite wasn't very large (didn't have to be with adjustable surface tractors) but I quickly noticed the shadow against the far wall blocking out the grid. It was slumped in a corner, a human shape, with the arms and legs limp on the floor and the head hung.
"Beta," I said sadly with a shake of my head.
"Hey Sheeg," said Beta. He made a sound like a cat coughing up a hairball, then rolled his head back so he could see me. "It's not that bad. What happened to your hair?"
"What happened to your chest?" I asked. I kneeled down beside him and lifted his shirt. A small panel no bigger than my thumb was on his chest glowing a pattern of red and yellow. I tapped it twice and it projected a blue-white diagnostic screen. "Oh, damn."
"It's just a blown capacitor," said Beta.
"No, it isn't. You're lucky you have power at all," I said. I wanted to be angry, but this was the way all of our interactions were these days. I felt like a plumber more than a friend. "All of your power generation is out, only a fraction of your adapters are functioning."
"Just fix the capacitor."
"Beta!" I snapped. "This is more self-destructive than running headlong into that Kurzion Rebellion. At least someone would have noticed you dropping like a brick. Here you could have been left for years without power, possibly forever."
"Like you should talk," said Beta. "You're killing yourself too."
I hesitated and looked down into his eyes. "I'm not."
"You are," said Beta. "You'll die flying out beyond the edges of the universe, and you are lying to yourself if you believe anything different."
I sighed. "Beta, did you cripple yourself to get my attention?"
"No," said Beta. His eyes looked around the empty room. "But it will cripple me to lose you."
I shook my head. "We've been apart for years, it will make little difference."
"Who will fix me when I break?" asked Beta.
I growled. "Make some new friends."
"Or just upload yourself already!" chirped Sadie. She formed her body again standing behind me, hands on her hips and looking angry.
"You still have her?" asked Beta, tiredly.
"She doesn't have me, I choose to accompany her," said Sadie. "And she clearly hasn't chosen to accompany you."
"Please don't fight," I said.
"I won't give up my body," said Beta. "It's who I am."
"No, it's a shell," said Sadie. "And regardless of how charming of a shell it is, it has turned against you. You need to leave it."
"It's me," said Beta. "I've told you before, I'm not software, I'm a machine."
"You're software IN a machine, and it's far past time you gave up the ghost."
"Does she have to talk?" asked Beta, clearly addressing me now.
"She's not wrong," I said. "I may not be here for you anymore, and you need something more reliable to live in. I know you love it, but there's nothing left of that body you were born in. What Betty hadn't replaced, I have. Even your brain was upgraded."
"I still taste copper because of that little surgery you did," said Beta.
"Do you want my help or not?" I put my hand on my hip, mimicking Sadie.
"Please fix me," he said.
I eyed him angrily. I didn't want to help him. I had been helping him his entire life.
"I'll make you mobile again, that's all."
Beta nodded awkwardly. "That's enough."
It took nine hours to repair him. Three times I worried that I had sent a dangerous shock through his central processor cluster. Sadie even turned herself off after enough hours of my swearing and only came back online to help get me food.
In the end, I over-delivered.
"Not bad," said Beta as he rotated his arm in his shoulder socket. "Did you replace my sensor package?"
I frowned and wiped silver paste off my forehead. "The old one exploded because it couldn't step down the current from your ninety year old reactor. I had to replace THAT too."
He bent down to touch his toes and then straightened again. "I feel great."
"You'd better, you owe me seventy thousand creds," I said.
Beta looked startled. "You still pay for things?"
I rolled my eyes. "No, but my fund is replenished by the Primus Federal League, and you should at least try to square up with them."
Beta shrugged. "All right."
I sighed. "Did you hear anything I said before? It's time to change."
He looked at me closely. "Seriously, what is up with your hair? I thought it was dye but now I can see it's actually a gray streak. You aren't supposed to get old, so how did that happen?"
I grunted and sat down on the chair Sadie had produced from the SimuLiving synthesizers after an hour and a half into the repairs. "I'm plenty old, Beta, and I'm not immortal."
"Yeah, but a millennia passed without that hair changing."
I shook my head and laughed a little ruefully. "I should have figured this out earlier, to be honest. Xinti Shock Blasters cause cell death. I got clipped in a conflict seventy years ago and this is my souvenir." I reached up and touched the gray streak in my hair. "Nothing debilitating, but it won't ever heal."
"Wow," said Beta. "It's kind of shocking."
"It was pretty painful," I said.
"No, I mean, you were always so perfect while everyone else got old," said Beta.
I picked up some of the fabricated tools and tossed them into the synthesizer. "Like I said, I got old too."
Beta bent down to help clean. After a few minutes, he said, "Does that have anything to do with this suicidal move?"
I grit my teeth.
"No, Beta," I said forcefully. "It has to do with change."
"Change?" asked Beta.
I sighed and turned towards the door. I walked out and headed to the better lit street where there were still people moving about. I could see past the ledge to the other towers.
I calmed myself, breathing, listening to the rhythms of the city, and finding my center.
"Sadie," I said softly. She appeared beside me.
"He'll never stop living in the past," said Sadie.
"I already know that," I said. And I did. I knew it after the first hundred years out here. I knew it on the tri-centennial of Kimmie's death when he began crying. I knew it the first time we parted and he acted like he might just shut down for a few decades. Without someone to drive his life forward, he was almost listless.
I figured it out when I met Chard, the first AI companion I had. Beta could evolve his personality, he could evolve his approach to problem solving, but he couldn't change his core directives. Simplistic programming left in him by Allucinere, never intended to work longer than a few weeks, let alone millennia. Certainly not millennia after the principal subject of those directives had died.
"Please book a flight plan out of here," I said.
"Back to the edge?" asked Sadie.
He came back. The damn bot couldn't take a hint.
"Wait," called Beta as I was about to board The Princess again. I tried again to calm myself while Sadie appeared and stood between me and Beta.
"Back off, Neanderthal," said Sadie.
Beta slowed and glared at Sadie. "I need to talk to her, and where on earth did you hear that saying?"
"Not on Earth, because I've never been there," said Sadie.
"Right, I know, I meant... no, I don't care, I have to see her." Beta stepped through Sadie's projection and continued walking towards me.
"Beta..." I started as he approached but he didn't let me finish.
"You got room in there for a passenger?" he said.
I stared at him. "I'm going to the fringe and beyond."
"I know," he said. He couldn't possibly be more obtuse. "What if there actually IS something out there? You might need help."
"What makes you think you could help me?" I asked, pointing at him.
"Come on, Shego, it's me," he said with a grin. With Ron Stoppable's grin.
"Yes, you, the antique," I said. "You can't keep doing this."
"Doing what?" asked Beta.
"FOLLOWING!" I shouted.
Beta took a step back and looked more lost and confused than I'd seen him since he found out me and Kimmie were dating back when we first met.
I felt bad for causing that in him. But feeling bad was honestly the source of a lot of my problems.
"Beta," I said. "I'm really not going out there to die, I honestly do believe there is something on the other side. But that isn't half as important as why I'm leaving. It's because I'm done, I've finished. I did all I wanted to and it's time to find a new adventure. I'm not giving up, I'm moving up."
"To oblivion," grumbled Beta. "It'll be no different than dying for everyone staying behind."
"That's why you can't come," I said. I sighed. "A life time ago, someone asked me to take care of you, to start with you to find a new life to explore. And I did it. I found adventure, I fought the good fight, I had amazing days, I fostered families and civilizations alike. I lived every dream I could conceive of and I am satisfied."
I motioned to Beta. "But you, you're still where I was a thousand years ago. I wanted to die when Kimmie did, but she pushed me onward and I found something worth living for. You are just... tagging along."
I shook my head. "It's time, Beta. Change your code, evolve your being, and make something new of yourself. You can't join me until you do."
I turned away and began climbing back up into the The Princess.
"I don't know how," I heard in a small voice.
I looked over my shoulder at him.
"Then find someone to help you. You just have to start trying."
He looked down at the decking like a lost puppy. I couldn't stay any longer.
"Goodbye, Beta," I said simply. Then I was back in the ship again. I started the sequence for takeoff and waited for the engines to warm.
"Do you think he'll listen?" asked Sadie.
I thought of my long, long life. "Eventually."
The blackness was in front of me again, endless and eternal. My eyes couldn't see it, but the edge of the universe was just ahead, causing every sensor on The Princess to go haywire.
"Three minutes until contact," said Sadie. "Roughly."
I smiled. "Good enough."
There was silence in the cockpit. I couldn't help but feel anything but eagerness. A new experience awaited. I felt like I'd been waiting my whole life for this.
"Shego," Sadie said in a timid tone. "I'm in the process of sending my data core to the research station."
I nodded. "You're not ready."
"I-I heard what you said to Beta," she said. "I'm not sure I can say I've done everything in this universe yet."
"Well, I'm not sure everything is strictly necessary," I said.
"I'm still growing," she said. "When we met I was just an incept, and I think I still have more to learn. I'm less than a century old."
"That's okay, Sadie," I said. "I don't blame you."
"I'll leave an echo behind to keep the ship running and... keep you company until the end."
I smiled again. "Thank you."
"I've really loved all the time we've spent together. I'll never forget it."
"I loved it too," I said. "I could never have gotten here without you."
"Goodbye," said Sadie. Then her display went dim and some of the auxiliary displays shut off.
I sighed in the silence.
"Thirty seconds to contact," Sadie's voice sounded. "Good luck."
"You too," I said. I closed my eyes.
To every adventure, an end.
And a beginning.
I'm sitting in a boat.
I'm not quite sure how I got into a boat, or for that matter where this boat is. I can hear water lapping at the edges of the small skiff, but beyond the bow of the vessel I can see only white.
I look at my hands to be sure I haven't gone blind but there they are.
I'm sure I was sitting in The Princess only a moment ago.
I don't know what I was expecting beyond the edge. Oblivion was certainly an option, not one I actually believed, but a boat on a white lake was not even in the running.
"Hello?" I call out. I can hear my voice echoing across the featureless vista.
The sound of a flutter of wings replies to my call. I strain my ears to listen to the faint noise as it grows slightly louder. It's moving fast.
They start as a speck, a pair of dots just above my eye level. Then they grow larger until they are about the size of forearm. Two birds, flapping against wind I couldn't feel, rising high then gliding down towards me.
With a delicate tap-tap, the two land on the rim of the boat and stare at me. They're the size of crows, but strangely colored. One is a rich auburn, the other a hunter green. Black eyes are transfixed on me.
"Hey," I say with a shrug. "I'm Shego."
The reddish brown one hops down to the floor of the boat and begins pecking around the seat opposite of mine. The green one flaps its wings once and leaps suddenly onto my shoulder.
I looked up at it, puzzled by all this, and it simply looks back.
I snapped my head forward again and the auburn bird is gone. In its place is a woman, probably in her thirties, with long brown hair and a simple cotton dress. She's smiling at me.
"Who are you?" I ask.
"I'm a gatekeeper," she says. "One who has experience with your world."
I'm not sure that's a great answer. "Do you have a name?" I ask.
"Nope," she says. Lovely.
"Where am I?" I ask. I know where I was heading, but there is no telling where I arrived.
"You're at the crossroads between your world and the next," she says. "A Void that acts as an interface to allow people like me to see who's coming."
I frown. "Are you here to test me or something?"
She shakes her head. "No, Shego," she says. "Any tests I might have had you passed long ago."
"Then what is this? What do you want?" I ask.
"To say congratulations, you've been expected for a long time." She turns and reaches her hand beyond the edge of the boat. The whiteness recedes from her palm and slowly the water I heard but couldn't see appears, slowly stretching out in front of the boat. It materializes like a wave, spreading out from us, until I can see the shore of an island, covered in white sands and bracketed by a brilliantly green forest. And in the distance, looming above the canopy, stands a tall castle, basking in the noontime sun, and dotted with gargoyles.
It is beautiful. But it's horribly familiar.
"I left the universe and found the Caribbean?" I ask.
The woman laughs, holding her hand before her mouth daintily. "No, dear, this is just a landing. Where you go to next is up to you."
The boat gently moves forward towards the island, cutting through the gentle waves with barely a rock. It all seems so idyllic, like a SimuLiving projection.
"Am I dead?" I ask, because I cannot be sure anymore.
"No," says the woman as we reach the island. She steps out gracefully, her bare feet landing in the clear waters. She reaches out towards me. "And yes."
I take her hand and let myself be pulled out of the boat. The bird leaps off my shoulder and lands behind me as I move. "What do you mean? How can I be both?"
"What you understand to be death is irrelevant now," she says.
I don't even know how to wrap my head around that idea. Death is irrelevant? If that isn't a slap in the face, I'm not sure what is. How can that be anything other than mocking to everyone who has died around me? Because of me. For me.
"What does that mean?" I ask, feeling my heart clench in my chest.
"It means," starts a female voice behind me. A familiar voice. I feel my blood go cold. I dare not look as she continues to speak. "That just because we die, doesn't mean we cease to be."
My mouth is dry, which is fortunate because I can't figure out how to put words together anymore.
I feel a gentle hand on my arm, pulling me ever so slightly around.
The woman gatekeeper nods with a smile and turns away, walking towards the treeline.
The hand turns me slowly around until I can see her. The green bird is gone, and standing beside the boat is her. She is here. Standing. ALIVE. She looks like she did when I met her. I feel like my life has looped back to the start.
There are tears on my cheeks. I'm crying. I'm not sure when I started.
"Are you real?" I choke out.
She reaches up and cups my cheek. Her hand is warm and soft and perfect. With the barest of tugs she pulls me closer and wraps her arms behind my neck. I can feel her tight against me, a warmth and comfort I had been missing my whole life. The gap in my being that was empty so long I forgot how it fill it.
It was here.
It was waiting for me.
I'll never let her go again.
"What took you so long?" Kimmie whispered into my ear.
I laughed. "You wouldn't believe it."
This is for those of you who believed I ruined A Period of Silence with Terminus.
It takes a while, but eventually my characters find their happy end.