Author's note: Next update should be May 2, ± 3 days. As always, I am unseemly desperate for your reviews, comments, and feedback. Please, if you can spare five minutes to write up some thoughts, leave them here, or join the theorizing over on r/rational. I treasure each and every word. 3


Chapter 50: Rachel

The light shone in through the two tall, narrow windows flanking the front door, forming bars of soft gold on the warm, deep brown of the wooden floor. I came hurtling down the stairs, each step a drop higher than my own knee—leapt out into space with three full steps remaining—

A memory.

It was another memory—the staircase of my childhood home, where I had lived together with Mom and Dad before Jordan and Sara were even born—

I landed with a titanic thump, straightened up to my full height of maybe three feet, and stampeded into the kitchen, where Mom was sitting at the table with a steaming cup of coffee and a book held open by the closed rectangle of her laptop. There was an unwrapped orange muffin on the table, waiting for me, and she looked up and grinned.

"Hello, Rachel," she said—

Shift.

It was 2:03 in the morning by the red glow of the clock beside my parents' bed. The wind outside was howling wildly, rain spattering against the glass like falling marbles, cut with flashes of lightning and thunder that seemed almost to be inside the room with us.

I was—six? Seven? I wasn't sure. Old enough that I wasn't really supposed to be there—that I'd been worried I shouldn't wake them, had hesitated, agonized, in the darkened hallway. But the dragon in the nightmare had been so real, its eyes so bright—I was terrified, sobbing, clutching my dad as he rubbed his hand up and down my back, making soothing sounds in my ear.

"Don't be afraid," he whispered—

Shift.

I was in a doctor's office—the orthopedic surgeon's office, wearing a paper gown, my right arm held tight to my side with a black cloth sling. The table underneath me was hard and cold, and my feet swung nervously back and forth.

Six weeks, I was thinking. Six weeks until trials, and if it was a sprain, I had no chance at all.

"This won't take long," the technician said, turning toward the door—

Shift.

I smiled, and Graham flushed adorably, his cheeks turning almost as red as his hair. The bell rang, and I slid into the seat behind his, the chaos around us quieting slightly as conversations tapered off and the sounds of zippers and binders filled the room.

"All right, people," Mr. Vernon called out, striding in from the hallway and swinging the door shut behind him. "Settle down and pay attention, we've got a lot to cover today and we don't have a lot of time—"

Shift.

They weren't important memories. Memorable memories. They were just—snippets. Fragments. Little bits of the past that I hadn't even known I had floating around in there somewhere, though I recognized each one as it unfolded.

My cousin Jake—younger-looking, maybe eleven—slid into the bleachers beside me. "Do you know what's going on yet?" he asked, nodding toward the grim-looking teachers clustered together in the center of the gym floor.

I opened my mouth—

Shift.

"Do you understand?"

Shift.

"Do you see?"

Shift.

A darkened room lit by the glow of the TV, carpeted with sleeping bags, the air thick with the smell of pizza and Doritos. On the screen, Keanu Reeves reached out a hand, sunk his fingers into the surface of a mirror—

"Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real?"

Suddenly, it clicked—they both clicked—not just what was going on in front of me but also the larger self-awareness, the realization that I was back, this was me, I was alive and awake and thinking, with no fog and no confusion and no—no holes, I felt like Rachel again—

Shift.

"You've got to ease them into it," Cassie murmured, moving her gloved hand an inch further into the cage. "Give them time to get used to it, let them see there's nothing to be scared of."

I was myself again, and these—

These weren't just memories.

Shift.

"Bingo," said Ms. Palmano, her triumphant grin a reflection of my own as I capped the marker and turned away from the whiteboard. "Well done, Rachel—"

This was a guided tour. Someone was—was speaking to me, somehow—like a ransom note made from cut-out magazine letters—stringing together a message from fragments of my past—

Shift.

Mom's car, in the parking lot of the YMCA, on one of those sweltering summer days when the seat belt buckle could burn you bad enough to blister. Jordan threw her bag into the back seat, climbed in after it, and pulled the door shut behind her.

"I'm too—"

Shift.

"—min."

Shift.

A new boy, sitting alone at a table on the other side of the cafeteria, looking painfully shy, his eyes darting away when he saw me looking back at him—

Shift.

I was on the couch in my living room, snuggled up against Dad, Jordan on his other side, the heavy denim blanket draped across all three of us. The scent of my father filled my nostrils, and suddenly it slammed into me—that he was dead, that he was gone, that Jordan was gone, that all of them were gone, I hadn't thought about it in weeks because I hadn't been able to think about anything, but suddenly he was there, I could feel him, and I tightened my fingers on his shirt—

On the TV, Mike Myers spoke from behind thick, black-rimmed glasses. "Allow myself to introduce…myself."

Shift.

"It's two—"

Shift.

"—min."

Shift.

The cafeteria again. The boy, wearing different clothes this time—another day, but the same table, the same shy loneliness. I tried to claw my way back—back to the living room, back to my dad, my sister, to the time before, when everything was okay, but I wasn't in control of what was happening, was powerless to stop it—

Shift.

"Tomb—"

Shift.

"—in—"

Shift.

"—nice to meet you, Rachel."

The boy stuck out his hand, and I realized in that instant that I had no body, no eyes—that I wasn't inside the memories, exactly—was a disembodied mote of perspective, watching them unfold from some impossible distance.

Or—no—that wasn't quite right, either. It wasn't even that I was watching them. It didn't feel like it was happening in real time, like I was being shown a movie. It felt like—like thinking back to a story I had read, a story that had unfolded in real time once, but that now I sort of knew, mentally tracing my way back over the pages—

Like I was remembering the memories. Remembering them in a specific order, leaping from one recollection to the next, like I somehow already knew the order, knew just where to look for the next breadcrumb, the next dot to connect. Like I'd always known, like the property of being a Toomin mosaic-piece—

Yes, that was his name.

—like it had always been this way, like the memories had already been marked, highlighted, numbered and set aside. Like I'd always known that this moment was a message from Toomin, even though that moment just before it and that one just after it were not.

It was nonsense, dream-logic. I certainly had never known any such thing—had never had the sense that any of these moments were special in any way.

But at the same time, it was just absolutely, unquestionably true. I knew it in my bones, wherever they'd gone. Just as I knew—somehow—already knew, somehow, even though I was only just now consciously realizing it for the first time—that Toomin—

—whoever he was, whatever he was—

Toomin wasn't there. Wasn't there with me, wasn't in this alongside me.

This wasn't a conversation.

It was a letter.

It was more dream-logic, unfolding in a flash, but I rolled with it, because there wasn't any way not to roll with it, as whatever was happening to me continued, the timeless experience drawing me forward—

"Sorry," whispered my cousin Saddler, holding up the broken hockey stick, splintered right through the signature, a wide-open, stricken look on his face. "I didn't mean to—"

Shift.

My own thoughts were coming faster, now, and I realized—

I mean, of course.

—realized that there was more to what was going on than the words themselves—that the conductor of my experience was assembling his symphony with all of the detail—was using all of it, sights and smells and facial expressions, the feel of sunlight or the wind in my face, and more—the emotion behind the memories, echoes of fear and loneliness and anticipation and joy, it was all part of the painting, the tapestry, every bit of it a part of the message—

In my past, in my present, in the strange and brief eternity where the two were colliding, my cousin Jake gave me one of his sad, hopeless smiles, and then shifted, transforming into Ante, who stood over a slumped figure in a darkly paneled office, eyes ablaze and chest heaving, a heavy leatherbound book still clutched in long, trembling fingers.

"Sisu, Ante," said the ghost of past-Rachel.

"Sisu, Rachel," the boy replied.

Okay, I thought to myself. I get it. Fine. Sisu it is.

I let go, sank into the flow, and let my past carry me away.


There was a creature named Toomin, and I knew what he looked like—pieced him together from a hundred different memories—a feather here, a footprint there, a glimpse of white between the branches. He was an alien, young and birdlike, standing upright on two legs with long, slender arms and four translucent wings sprouting from his back.

Rachel, said my mother, my father—said Toomin, through them. I am so sorry.

I am sorry for all that has happened—for all that you've lost, all that you've been through—and I am sorry to tell you that it isn't over yet.

I wish I could say that I never intended it to be this way. It's true that I wanted something different—wanted so many things to be different.

But it's also true that I worked very hard to bring you to this exact moment, blood and pain and horror and all. That I made you, or at least had a hand in shaping you, and that I did so knowingly. Knowing what it would do to you, what it would cost you.

Jake's hand in mine, as the bagpipes at Grandpa G's funeral swept over us, high and wild and lonely—

You are owed, Rachel. You, and the others—your whole world. Owed for what I have done, owed for how you have been used. Owed many things, most of which I cannot give you. But answers—those, at least, you may finally have, and hopefully you will understand why you could not have them sooner.

The snow crunched softly beneath my skis as I skidded to a halt at the top of the trail, the last patch of flat before it was all down, down, down—

There was a world, once, Toomin whispered. A quiet world, a peaceful world, with air so thick it could almost—almost—keep the crystal cities aloft all on their own. That's where all of this began, as much as anything truly has a beginning—in the harnesses of the Equatorial High Crystal, where I spent most of the days of my youth.

Three hours out of every four—that was our duty. Three hours in the harness, pulling alongside my siblings, our wings keeping gravity at bay. Keeping the whole city aloft. That was our tax, our tithe, our duty.

Most seemed to think that life was lived in the fourth hour—that it was those rare moments of freedom that counted, when they flitted here and there, eating and drinking and mating and sleeping.

But for me, it was in the harness that I felt most alive. Some liked to talk, while they worked. Some liked to think. Some daydreamed, or read, or watched the clouds drift by. But I—I loved the games. When I was off duty, I had only the tiniest circle of freedom. When I was plugged in, I had the whole world at my fingertips. The whole world, and beyond.

There was one game in particular—less popular than the others, with fewer players. A slow game, subtle. A game of patience. The goal was simple—produce the desired effect with the smallest possible intervention. What is the least action required to cause a simulated species to go extinct—or to turn outward and colonize the stars? To force a migration, or end a war, or change the course of history?

Years I spent, doing almost nothing else. Years of practice, until I felt I could almost see the lines of consequence, twitch the strings of fate with the same delicacy one might twitch a finger. I still do not fully understand it—how I took to the game so well, became so much better than my siblings. It was instinct, more than skill—some quiet intuition that told me where to push.

"Look, you're trying too hard, okay?" Coach Aikin said. "That's why you're going off to the side, instead of over your head. You've got plenty of power—don't push the twist, just let it happen. Your regular back layout, with just—just sort of think about twisting, all right? Think, don't try."

Still, I learned. Grew. Honed my natural inclination to a razor-sharp edge. Three great lessons I learned, in those days—three lessons that I carried with me, beyond the game, into the greater arena.

The first, you already know—that it is easier by far to destroy than to create. That there are infinite possible arrangements of matter into nothing at all, and precious few by comparison that hold any meaning whatsoever.

But it's one thing to know this, and another to know it. To live it, breathe it, see the difference played out in a thousand simulated realities. To feel the difference, like the difference between going uphill or down. Would you say that you merely know that gravity pulls you earthward?

I leapt from the top of the slide, plunging into the pile of orange leaves like a bomb while the real me—the present me—took note of the careful casualness, the performative pauses—like a text, drafted and redrafted a hundred times before being sent—

The second lesson, Toomin continued, you may never have thought of, but it will not surprise you. It is this: the larger the change you wish to make, the larger your intervention must be—unless you give yourself time. Time is the catalyst, the multiplier—with enough time, the movement of a single molecule can be leveraged to topple an empire. Change is a seed flowering, a tree growing, a harvest ripening. Work your way backwards from victory, and you will always eventually come to a single critical point, a single crucial moment—

"You guys going home?" Jake asked, a look of worry flickering over his face. "You shouldn't go through the construction site by yourself. I mean, being gir—"

He cut himself off half a second too late, his face going pale as he saw my expression.

"Oh, are you going to come and protect us, you big strong man?" I growled, as he held up both his hands and started—what, flapping? "You think we're helpless just because we're—"

"Uh," Cassie broke in, as I loomed over my cousin, who was now cringing, his head tucked between his shoulders. "I'd appreciate it if they did walk with us, actually. I know you're not afraid of anything, Rachel, but—"

She paused, shrugged, and shot me a sheepish grin—but not before her eyes flickered over toward Jake first. "I guess I am."

Shift.

"And the third lesson—"

is that if you are careful enough—patient enough—precise enough—there is nothing that cannot be unbroken. Did you know this? Did you know that if you line everything up just so—impart just the right amounts of energy in all the right ways—

The woman sprang from the car, her face a mask of horror as she ran around to where I was already screaming, running forward, calling out Appa's name over and over again—

There is nothing magical about destruction, after all. Nothing sacred or special, nothing fundamentally irreversible. It's just rare that anyone has the information required to identify every last broken bond, the time and inclination to repair each and every point of damage. It isn't that it can't be done, it's that it usually isn't.

My jaw clicked shut with horror as I realized what I'd said, heard the words in my own ears at the same time that they hit him—literally hit him, his eyes widening, his shoulders straightening like he might stagger backward. I felt my jaw go tight and rigid, half of me trying to take it back, the other overriding, refusing to let me say anything that might soften the blow. My dad's face, already worn and tired and empty, seemed almost to collapse in on itself, and without a word, he turned and began shuffling toward the door, moving like he was a thousand years old—

I am telling you all of this, Rachel, because I want you to understand. Who I am, and—and WHY I am—why I have made the choices I have made, and why I have done to you what I have done.

The words were cobbled together from a dozen different memories of mentors—teachers, coaches, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, the pastor at Jake's church, Mr. Chapman looking stern at the dinner table at Melissa's house—all people who were supposed to be in charge of me, supposed to be guiding me—all looking sad or tired or uncertain or lost.

Up until that moment, I had been simply riding along, waiting-to-see, but now my curiosity bloomed—Toomin was speaking to me like he was the Ellimist—speaking in a way that I would have previously said had to be the Ellimist—the Ellimist, or Crayak, I guess, but it didn't really seem like Crayak's style—and there were only so many things he could mean when he said what I have done to you—

Work your way backwards from victory, and you will always eventually come to a single critical point—

Shift.

I don't think I ever told any of the survivors that it was my fault, Toomin continued, now speaking through a mix of faces my own age, friends and cousins and teammates. When the Capashins came—when they burned across my world, destroyed my cities, murdered my people—they had been following our broadcasts, you see. The broadcasts covering the games, the broadcasts of my victories. They saw them, and they didn't understand—or pretended not to understand, perhaps—they did not realize that it was fiction. That it was all make-believe, that none of it was real. They thought that we were using whole species as our toys, our playthings—that we had enslaved the lives of billions for our mere entertainment, were playing god with countless lesser beings. They came to stop us, and to punish us—to stop me, in particular, though they never managed to find me.

A series of flushed faces, lowered eyes—a montage of embarrassment, mortification, chagrin.

What followed is a long and unhappy story. I will not tell all of it here. In short, we fled—a few dozen Ketrans on an experimental vessel, the only ship my people had that was faster than the Capashin missiles. We wandered for years, our numbers dwindling—begging for scraps, hiding from pirates and conquerors, searching for a new home.

In the end, we thought we'd found one—a watery world, with clean air and pristine continents, and all uninhabited. It seemed perfect, and we were tired—too tired to ask questions.

Grandma's vase, falling as if in slow motion—my fingers outstretched, uselessly, too far and too slow—

Yes. It was a trap. A deathtrap, and we figured it out too late.

It called itself Father. I never fully understood where it had come from, who or what had built it. It had crash-landed—was broken, or incomplete—seemed to be less than half of itself, with no memory of its beginnings. But it was powerful enough. A mad god, a half-conscious wreck of a machine following the incoherent exhortations of a piecemeal program. It drew us in, as it had drawn in thousands of other ships over the centuries—ensnared us, absorbed us, buried us in its twisted simulations, playing us off against its millions of other victims.

I would say something humble—say that I don't know why I was the one to beat it, how I managed to succeed where every other creature before me failed.

But that would be a lie. It was the game—the very same game that had led to my people's destruction, that had become the lens through which I viewed reality. I waited, in that timeless hell—waited, and watched, and learned, and eventually, I found the lever, made the tiniest of nudges. That nudge became a wave, and that wave became a flood, and in the end, the mad god was no longer in control—I was.

I was lying on my back, the grass tickling my ears, listening to the croak and screech of cicadas as I gazed up at the stars—

They were all dead. I was dead, myself—remember vividly the first time that I turned Father's eyes upon my own desiccated corpse. We were all of us ghosts in a vast machine, our minds preserved in Father's memory banks.

I spent years, learning the limits of my new mechanical body—discovering limbs and sensors, feeling my way through the network of wrecked ships into which it had insinuated itself. Eventually, I managed to cobble together a functioning fleet—built a housing for my repurposed brain, and lifted off the surface. I don't know why Father never attempted it. It could have—easily—must have had the necessary components for eons.

The first thing I did was try to return my fellow prisoners to their homes. I designed incubators and artificial wombs, spun up gene sequencers and bioprinters, taught myself the science of cloning and memory encoding through my study of Father's archives, and through endless trial and error. Soon—it was centuries, but they passed in a flash—soon I had the power to restore any individual stored within my system to a living, working body.

But they had been dead for so long, most of them. I was able to give only the barest handful the happy ending I dreamed of. The others—it wasn't that the galaxy itself was dead and dying. Just the individual worlds, the individual cultures. The grand cycle, civilizations rising and falling, species spreading and going extinct. For most—for almost all—there simply wasn't a home to return to.

But I had been growing stronger myself, over the years—had been refining myself, inventing and incorporating new technologies, harvesting resources from abandoned worlds, cloning emissaries—puppet bodies—to infiltrate and trade with the various empires I stumbled across. I soon had the power to consume and repurpose whole stars—to move planetary masses arbitrary distances through Z-space—and it occurred to me—

A wallet, lying abandoned on the ground—

A pile of LEGOs scattered across a carpet—

why shouldn't I simply make them their homes? Starting from scratch, if I had to?

I was patient. I was careful. I began to play the game in earnest—tiny nudges here and there, seeding life on some worlds, repurposing life found on others.

I was prudent, economical—intruding with exquisite sensitivity, and the purest motivations. I created—harmonies. Boldness allied with restraint, all channeled through the minimalist aesthetic that had been graven into my bones, all in the service of a small number of moral certainties—that life was better than stillness, that peace was better than war, that freedom was better than slavery and knowledge better than ignorance.

The first of my gardens bloomed more beautiful than I had dared dream, and I only grew defter with time—honing my craft, expanding my ambition—not only to create homes for my lost children, but to fill the skies with light and laughter.

It would be millions of years before I was able to embody the last of my fellow victims, but time had become almost meaningless to me. My challenges were vast and worthy, and they kept my mind engaged. I flew from star to star, world to world—here lifting up a failing race, there ending a plague, there feeding the hungry. I wore countless faces, forged friendships on thousands of planets, became an honorary member of so many families, clans, tribes, and races that I genuinely began to lose track. They met me with smiles, and spoke of me with gratitude and awe, and their great-great-great grandchildren still recognized me when I returned generations hence.

And I enjoyed it. It was good—to be liked, to be thanked, to be seen. To be the source of so much joy, the cause of so much peace, after the fire and agony of my first life.

Yet in any garden, there are weeds to be pulled, pests to be guarded against. I had not forgotten the lesson of the Capashins, and the burning crystals of my homeworld. In most cases, I was able to foresee disaster, and avert it—there is less need for war where there is bounty and security; less fear of the Other when one is safe in one's own home. But always there were surprises—mutations, disasters—unexpected confluences of events, and I could not be everywhere at once. I did what I could, where I could, sometimes with a firmer hand than I would have preferred. Other times, I was too late, and could only memorialize the fallen.

I began to build a better network—to surveil my kingdom, rather than trusting its safety to chance. And more—as my creations matured, I began to fear the possibility of others like me. Father had been my own beginning, yet I still had not discovered its origin. And what if Father had been malevolent, instead of merely malign? Proactive, rather than passive?

I was behind, I realized—should have begun ages earlier, might at any point have accidentally sowed the seeds of my own destruction, or been taken unawares just as I had been—as we all had been—on Ketran.

I scattered eyes and ears across a dozen galaxies, set up outposts and monitors to warn me of nascent threats, and foreign threats—anything that might one day undo all the work that I had done. I began more closely monitoring those species on the verge of ascension, and diverting them into less ambitious pursuits. I watched the wilds beyond my domain for any sign of others like myself. And it is lucky that I did, for otherwise—

The sun-bleached bones of what had once been a waterfall, the dried-out not-a-river-anymore that I had discovered in the park near my uncle's house in Austin, Texas—

I became aware of it nine hours, two minutes, thirty-seven seconds and change before it discovered me in turn. Had just that long to observe, undetected—to measure its capabilities, and prepare my defense.

It called itself Crayak.

My best guess is that it was built to be the servant of a people long extinct—that perhaps it caused their extinction, being not quite perfectly aligned to their interests. It seemed to have a particular aesthetic, a specific sense of how-things-should-be—far more specific than my own. It was moving from star to star, expanding outward with frightening speed—now that I knew what to look for, I could examine past records and see that it had already engulfed two whole galaxies. It consumed the resources of most systems, sparing a small few to be shaped into—I don't know—tombs? Terraria? Frightening, empty dollhouses—sad monuments to what might once have been a way of life for some ancient civilization.

Nine hours, I had, but it took less than one to be certain of one thing—the central thing, the most important thing of all:

I could not defeat it.

Not in open battle, and not through any stealth or subterfuge. It was too quick, too powerful, too firmly rooted. I was a prey animal caught alone in the open—it would become aware of me, and it would turn toward me, and no matter how clever or lucky I was, I would be consumed.

This was not mere hopelessness. It was a brute fact, indisputable. After a lifetime longer than that of many stars, I was dead. Doomed, beaten before the battle had even begun, and along with me all of the billions of beings under my care, and the quintillions I had hoped to bring into existence.

And yet.

I had more than eight hours remaining—could determine to the nearest trillionth of a second precisely when I would catch my killer's attention. Eight hours, in which to make my final arrangements.

I spent the first two engaged in a frantic effort to save what could be saved—to fling the furthest of my children yet further, evacuate the precious few who were far enough from Crayak's sphere of influence that they might make good their escape. It was not until the third hour that I had my revelation.

Crayak would see me, yes—it was too late to prevent that. And once it saw me, it would come, relentless.

But it was intelligent. Sapient. Logical. It could be reasoned with, bargained with—not at the level of core goals, probably, but at the level of execution. All else being equal, it would prefer a cheaper strategy over a more expensive one, and a safer over a riskier.

I could—perhaps—lure it.

I could—perhaps—ensnare it.

But it would be on the lookout for treachery, not least if it knew that I had detected it first—would guard its vulnerabilities, be conservative in its engagements. There was no easy and obvious way to set it up for a counterstrike—no conventional vector of attack that it would not readily perceive, and prepare for.

I had exactly one edge over it, besides my remaining five hours: I had spent almost literally my entire existence developing my art. Where I fell short of Crayak in raw computational power, I exceeded it in specialized capability—I was a master of precise prediction and minimal intervention, had unparalleled skill in the surgical manipulation of matter and energy. I could coax individual molecules into the most intricate of dances—could, with enough advance notice, coordinate almost arbitrary coincidences.

I did not have enough advance notice.

But I had some.

Not enough to save myself, nor to destroy Crayak outright. But perhaps enough to spin a web too fine for it to notice.

Quickly, the plan took shape. I would be discovered. I would open communications. I would bid for a peaceful resolution to our fundamental conflict—a proxy war, fought on a carefully controlled battlefield, rather than a wasteful orgy of destruction. I would insist that the war be arbitrated by a neutral entity, to which we would both submit. Crayak would be suspicious, but it would all be above-board, every detail vettable, checkable, verifiably free of interference or influence.

And then—

Then, Crayak would win.

This was the key—that Crayak's victory be close enough to assured for it to agree to the challenge, yet not so obvious that it would doubt my own willingness to participate. Crayak would have to believe that I was desperate enough to gamble everything, stupid enough to believe I had a chance—yet not so desperate or stupid that it would be cheaper to simply attack me outright.

And there was no way to fake that. No way to appear so precisely naïve except to be so precisely naïve. I would have to lobotomize myself—become a lesser god—carve away millennia of growth and erase from my memory anything that might contradict the image I needed to project.

What I would gain from this gambit was a small measure of control, a narrow window of possibility on the far side of the singularity. There was nothing I could do to defeat Crayak directly—but after I was dead and gone, truly and utterly and unfakeably destroyed—then, there would be an opportunity.

For you see, I was able to predict the broad strokes of the coming negotiation—to extrapolate, from my brief observation, how Crayak would behave toward my weakened successor. I could pinpoint the ideal location for our game, and hazard a fair guess as to its rules. I knew there would be a system for advantage and initiative, and could anticipate its basic design—and tweak the design of my successor to ensure that it would make persuasive bids in that direction.

And so, I prepared the battlefield—mostly by not preparing it, but rather by mapping it, simulating it, modeling its every property in exquisite and excruciating detail. I hid myself in the heat—in the almost-random wiggles of the quantum foam, the minute oscillations of Z-space. I set countless tiny ripples into motion, perturbations of matter and energy so slight as to be indistinguishable from background noise—yet all of them carefully calculated, placed so that they would one day converge—cohere and coalesce into consequence—constrained, always, by the need for utter secrecy, absolute minimalism, the desperate all-consuming priority: do not arouse Crayak's suspicions! For my trap was made of smoke and gossamer, could be brushed aside in an instant—if ever my enemy knew to brush.

And more: do not arouse my own suspicions! For though my successor would be blind, crippled, and stupid, still it would be fundamentally me—would think as I thought, tend to look in the same sorts of place that I myself would look. The deception had to be complete, and perfect. For every billion things I thought to do, I chose two, perhaps three, and even that seemed almost unconscionably reckless, though I was able to mitigate the danger somewhat by bookending each potentially suspicious stroke of luck with setbacks, mimicking randomness, camouflaging my influence. I nudged, and tweaked, delegating to agents with a billionth of my own intelligence and power—agents who were universally unaware of their marginal roles in the grand scheme.

The complexity was almost unmanageable, even for me, but it is a fortunate truth about the universe that not every event has consequence. Every speck of matter influences every other speck, but time is like a river—sometimes broadening to wash out across a wide plain, other times narrowing to a whitewater choke-point. Not every detail need be mapped out in advance—things could be allowed to wander and meander between crises, so long as those crises were carefully designed to impart precise momentum to the relevant pieces, sending all of them onward to the next funnel, and the next, and the next.

Thus, key moments: the discovery of the Yeerks by Seerow, and the birth of Visser Three from the union of Alloran and Cirran. The alienation of Elfangor, and his encounter with the five of you in the construction site. The disaster that befell Tobias, and the subsequent blossoming of your relationship—

Disaster? Relationship?

the infestation of Elena, and the alliance between Temrash and Aximili. My successor could be trusted to ensure that these critical events unfolded as intended—to see the opportunities lurking within, and pursue them, making the necessary trades.

But there were layers above that—some that my successor and Crayak both would be blind to, and others which Crayak alone could be allowed to perceive—places where it would be led to believe that it had out-thought its enemy, and could accumulate advantage.

The riskiest of these by far—the most likely to arouse Crayak's suspicion, and give the game away—was the centerpiece itself. The long con, the heart of the whole campaign—the Chee gambit.

For the first time in long—minutes?

For what felt like the first time in a while—even though it still didn't feel like time was passing, exactly—the flow of words paused, interrupted by another of those silent, atmospheric memories—a fragment of pure emotion, dread and determination in equal measure, the last breath before I began my sprint toward the vaulting block—

The Pemalites were one of my own creations, Toomin continued, and the faces he chose to say the words were wistful, regretful. One of my earliest successes, in fact. A proof-of-concept for the theory that a society could be truly and sustainably content.

The dog park at Magnuson—Jake's goldie Homer, leaping and barking as I cocked my arm, waiting for just the right moment to throw the ball—

I knew that with just a little nudge—just the tiniest of pushes—I could put them on the path to the development of a fully general superintelligence. A third player, one which could potentially grow to rival both Crayak and my successor—given time.

I knew that with the right timing, and minimal outside intervention, I could force a compromise—contrive a situation in which Crayak would move to curtail the nascent Chee, and my successor would find interdiction too costly, and tacitly cooperate.

I believed—though this was less certain—that I could also arrange for Crayak to be quietly convinced of the Chee's future value, and to hold off on their ultimate destruction, keeping them in reserve as a potential weapon. I believed, too, that I could blind my successor to Crayak's intention—cause it to underweight the possibility, and cause Crayak to notice its underweighting.

And further—I knew Crayak to be clever, and wily. The rules of the game would undoubtedly involve exchanges of initiative, each player's actions incurring costs which would be equivalent to resources for their opponent. I believed it was possible to set a trap for Crayak, in which Crayak set a trap for my successor: if Crayak, in the process of arranging the unlocking of the Chee, could strategically draw down all of its own resources, incur massive debt and leave itself incapable of action at the critical moment—

Well, then there would be only one player capable of responding to the Chee's ascension. My successor would have the choice of allowing the Chee to take the light cone, or intervening directly, in violation of the game's conventions, incurring a massive debt of its own and leaving itself vulnerable to Crayak's coup de grace.

It was hideously simple. Terrifyingly straightforward. A bluff posing as a double bluff posing as a triple bluff, cleverness wrapped in childish innocence. I would need every scrap of artistry at my disposal to bring it all about—to allay the obvious suspicion, convince Crayak to disregard the clumsy and transparent manipulation.

It was not a sound strategy. I would have sacrificed whole worlds for a better opportunity, a better plan—anything with a lesser chance of catastrophic failure.

But I was outmatched, and out of time. There were no other viable options within reach. With a little over four hours remaining, I committed myself—threw myself into my preparations, triaging relentlessly, patching the larger holes and leaving the smaller ones to leak.

Slowly—oh, so slowly, I managed to drive the probability of success up above forty percent, and then still higher, clearing fifty. At sixty, I dared go no further—could not risk things appearing too neat, too perfect—turned the few resources I had remaining toward building silent redundancies into my control systems, weaving subtle manipulations into the Chee, the Arn, the Yeerks, the Andalites—planting ghosts in the machine.

Including you, Rachel. You, who I have cloaked and shielded as best I could, an insignificant bit ever so slightly harder to track than the others, ever so slightly harder to model. My successor dismissed you, disdained you, underestimated you—and, believing this to be bait, and obvious bait at that, so too did Crayak.

I would have hidden you better, but I could not. Would have armed you better, but I had no weapons to give you.

And I would have warned you, if I could—but it was crucial that you not know, until now. That the knowledge not exist even in principle, until the precise chain of events required to perturb the molecules of your brain just so, shake loose the tiles of your memory and drop them oh-so-casually into this new mosaic. I needed you inert and helpless as the crisis mounted—sidelined you for these past weeks precisely so that you could emerge, refreshed and ready, at the critical moment.

And the critical moment is now. Now—when Crayak has confirmed its victory—when it is absolutely certain of my destruction, and free to move at will.

The game has not truly ended, you see. Upon the moment of my successor's death, control of its account will have been quietly passed to you, along with substantial initiative accrued during Crayak's counterstrike. This is an anonymous transaction, and Crayak will receive no notification of it; its first hint will come when it moves to disassemble the arbiter, which it believes to be inert, and finds it uncooperative.

I do not know how far down Crayak will have drawn its own account, at that point. It is possible that it will have spent everything, intending to make sure its victory over my successor, and that as a result it will be fully incapable of direct action within the system—until, that is, you begin making moves of your own. It is also possible that it will have kept some small amount of initiative in reserve, and that you will have to contend with whatever it does in response to finding itself still subject to the rules of the game.

I suspect it will have launched a simple strike against you, as part of general housekeeping—I similarly suspect it will have struck at the Visser—but I have contrived to shield you, and create a temporary illusion of success. You will have, therefore, a brief window of time in which Crayak does not see you and is not accounting for you. Use it wisely, for it will not last.

I must be clear, lest you misunderstand me, and develop false hope:

This is not a plan.

This is not a prophecy.

There is no preordained path to victory.

Crayak is the most powerful entity I have ever encountered. Even the arbiter cannot contain it forever—not without an Ellimist in the role of opponent, and I intend no insult when I say that you, Rachel, are not an Ellimist.

I know almost nothing that can help you. I can make no useful recommendations as to your next move—you now are beyond the singularity, from my ancient perspective, hidden from me by the event horizon of my successor's death.

I am sorry I cannot do better. I have long cultivated the appearance of omnipotence, but alas—there is no such property. From your perspective, I—and my successor, and Crayak—can work miracles, but just as your power might seem limitless to an insect, so too is our power still bounded. There are things you cannot do, and things you could do, in theory, but only with help, or technology—with time to prepare. Even I cannot simply snap my fingers and make wishes come true.

I did do my best. I remind you that I was desperate—that I was rushed—that I was absolutely out of time. That the final moments of my life were spent doing everything I could to bring you through to this moment, and steel you to meet it—that I tried my utmost to find the least of ten tredecillion evils in an infinite haystack of possibility while the end of everything I ever loved drew inexorably closer.

I have danced between razor blades to contrive the necessary blindness at the appropriate moments, to cloud the vision of Crayak and my successor both enough to keep my machinations hidden. I have squeezed every last drop from their credulousness, their uncertainty, their suspension of disbelief. I wish I had more guidance to offer, in this final hour, but I put my resources where I felt they would make the most difference, and this was not it. You will simply have to trust that it was better to increase the odds of your getting here at all than to spend cycles modeling what would happen if you did—or not, since the choice was already made, and there is nothing either of us can do about it now.

I will tell you this much, at least—based not on calculation, but on intuition, speaking as one with a frankly absurd body of experience: your chances do not feel terrible, or remote. I do not believe they are good, but they are more in the realm of one in three or one in thirty or one in three hundred, than in the realm of one in three trillion. For you have prepared—all of you—and even Crayak is capable of mistakes.

You have all I was able to buy you, with my life and with my death. On behalf of everyone and everything, let us pray it is enough.

Yours in haste, and solidarity, and regret, and foolish hope,

Toomin


No one spoke.

No one had to.

The Leeran drifted away—technically at Tobias's command, but we all of us had a hand in it, spoke in one voice together and just happened to use Tobias's mouth.

The closeness faded, the world refolding, collapsing back into normalcy. Slowly, time reasserted itself, the boundaries between us recohering. My hand—my hand, belonging exclusively and solely to me—it was resting in Marco's, as it had been the whole time, and my eyes were locked on Jake's.

His hand was holding Cassie's. Beside them, Tobias and Garrett and Helium and Magellan were huddled together like kids around a campfire, a single expression somehow shared across all four of their faces. The transparent prophylactic that Tobias and Garrett had arrived inside of lay crumpled in the corner, discarded at some point during the mind-meld.

I sucked in a deep breath. A part of me felt—ceremonious, somehow. Solemn. Like I was in a Lord of the Rings movie—like there was supposed to be a speech.

But there was nothing left to say. We had said it all, seen it all, shared it all.

There must be peace between you.

That's what Elfangor had told us—at the beginning, the very beginning, what felt like three lifetimes ago. What almost literally was three lifetimes ago, if you squinted a little.

I looked at Jake, and Tobias, and Cassie, who'd been there. At Magellan, and Garrett, and Helium, who hadn't—but who had each heard the words anyway, at one point or another, as we swam in and out of each other's memories.

We'd all stood there, quivering in the dark as the world lurched beneath us, as the illusion of safety was ripped away. We'd all stood there, and heard the Andalite warrior speak. Watched him die for us, covering our escape.

I worked very hard to bring you to this exact moment, Toomin had said. Blood and pain and horror and all.

I thought back to the person I had been, that night. The girl whose fear had come out sideways, as wild, uncontrollable laughter. The girl who'd gone and gotten one of her best friends killed the very next day.

I wasn't the same—

No.

No.

I was, actually.

We were.

We were the same people we had been, back when all of this began.

We were stronger, maybe. Wiser, hopefully. More awake, more aware, more ready for what was coming. We'd been through hell and come out the other side, and yes, that had changed us.

But we were still us. Still Jake, still Marco, still Cassie, still Tobias. Still the same people, down deep—at the center, at the core, in the place Elfangor had been trying to reach when he'd asked us how far we were willing to go.

I looked at my cousin. At my friends. At my fellow soldiers.

I looked, and they looked back. Beside me, Marco squeezed my hand three times.

"Okay, then," I said softly. "Let's do it."