The Mu called their ship the Shangri-La. Keith overheard the name as he was approaching two guards discussing the ship's security between themselves. He didn't bother discussing it with them. Instead, he showed them how much more efficient violence was than words. They fell like cards.
"Why...?" whispered the Mu woman, at his shoulder. "You have the same song as I do in your heart, but there's so much hate around it." She held the Mu child more closely. "So much hatred you're acting out."
He ignored her question, because it was based on a false premise anyway; he wasn't acting out of hate. He was acting in the best interests of the system. Instead, he asked her, "What does it mean? 'Shangri-La.'"
"It means 'paradise,'" she said. "People like you shouldn't be here disturbing it."
Keith shook his head in contempt. "Paradise. It's another word for heaven, isn't it?"
"Sometimes," she said.
"Heaven is just an idea humans made up," he said, "because they weren't satisfied with the life they had. They still wanted more. I see the Mu have borrowed it, too."
"You're wrong," she said, stopping. She was frail enough that he could have dragged her along anyway, but he stopped with her, momentarily surprised by her sudden vehemence. "We can create paradise in this life, with each other, if we try hard enough. I saw that we could try in the cards..." But her voice fell to a whisper. "But now that you're here..."
She stood at the end of a corridor, and behind her he could see a door opening onto an expanse of green grass, thriving trees, and white paths. Keith told himself that the glimpse he saw was nothing more than an echo of the false nature that humans created wherever they went. There was no paradise here.
"I'll end it," he promised her. "The world doesn't need the Mu's version of heaven." He did not add the reason why: humans had destroyed enough already in pursuit of their own paradise. What the Mu would ruin was unimaginable.
That was the memory that came to Keith months later, when he was finally alone for the last time, under blades and boulders. He wished it were another memory. He wanted to think of Sam or Matsuka. But if he thought of them, he had to wonder if they'd be waiting, and then he had to think of the way he'd dismissed heaven so long ago.
He could still feel pain. It wasn't over yet. He refused to close his eyes now, even alone in the darkness, but still images fired in his brain.
Sensation came first in fits and starts. The bark of a tree against his back, grass beneath his legs. He was resting in the shade, and he was not alone. Someone had a hand on his shoulder and was shaking him awake.
Keith opened his eyes and stared directly into the face of something blue and furry. It blinked at him. He scrambled hurriedly to his feet, fumbling halfway into a combat posture before he realized there was no threat. He was looking down at the weeping mouse, which had been gently held out for him to see.
Laughter rang out from beside him as the creature was released and ran off through the grass. "Come on, Keith! You were so great with the toy, I thought you could handle the real thing!"
He had no time to regain his composure. Keith turned, bewildered, to look into Sam's smiling face. "Sam?"
"You look so surprised," Sam said. "What's wrong?"
Keith turned in a slow circle, taking in his surroundings. It wasn't a planet—he could see great white structures and a distant ceiling of some kind—but it wasn't Station E-1077 or any of the other space habitats he'd been on. Glimpses of white pathway and blue doors finally unlocked the memories in his mind. "This is the Mu mothership," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"You and me and Jomy," Sam said, "we're all friends, aren't we? So he let me on. I've been waiting for you. What took you so long?"
"I'm sorry, Sam," Keith said. "How long were you waiting?"
"I'm not sure," Sam admitted. "The important thing is you're here now."
"I don't know if I am," Keith said. "I stopped being certain of things recently."
"That's not really a bad thing, is it?" Sam said. "You're smart, Keith! You can figure anything out."
Keith gave Sam a hesitant smile. The expression still felt strange on his face. "Thank you, Sam."
Sam laughed awkwardly and rubbed at his head. "I didn't do anything special. I just woke you up."
"But—" Keith started to speak again, but he didn't get the chance.
A new voice rang out. "Keith! Keith! Over here!"
Keith turned abruptly, jarred by the sound of another familiar voice. "Seki Ray Shiroe!"
Shiroe stood at the top of a flight of steps at the end of a path, looking exactly as he had the last time Keith had seen him, but with a grin on his face. He was waving something at Keith. "What's with that face, Keith? You're not happy to see me? I get it—you're worried about how I'm going to beat you this time!"
Keith focused on what Shiroe was holding, and something twisted a little beneath his heart as he saw that it was a book. "Shiroe," he said. It made sense that he was here, of course. He was a Mu, and he belonged in their safe haven. But why did he have the book? "The book—" No, that made sense, too. Keith had sent it to him when he destroyed it with Station E-1077, hadn't he? "I'm glad you got it back."
To his surprise, Shiroe responded not with a sneer or a shrug to rid himself of the gratitude, but with laughter. "You're still so stupid sometimes! This isn't my book. Come closer!"
Keith glanced back at Sam, but he got no explanation from him, only an encouraging grin and a gentle but firm shove forward. He stumbled a little, then righted himself and started toward Shiroe. As he grew closer, he could see that the book wasn't the one Shiroe had once clutched so fervently at all. "What is it?" he asked.
"You need everything explained to you," Shiroe said with a smirk. He opened the book and flipped through its pages, showing them off to Keith. They were all perfectly white and blank. "What do you think it is?"
"It's nothing," Keith said. "Why is it important to you?" He knew it must be important, but he couldn't possibly understand why.
"It's not important to me," Shiroe said. "But it is to you. You really haven't figured it out yet? You're so dense!"
Keith stopped a few steps away from Shiroe, at the bottom of the stairs. He looked up. "Shiroe," he said, "tell me what it is."
Shiroe sighed. "Fine. Since you really can't figure it out on your own." He snapped the book shut and held it out. "It's your book. Your life, Keith Anyan!"
"It's blank," Keith said.
"Of course it is," said Shiroe. "You haven't filled it out at all yet."
Keith hesitated, suddenly a little afraid of that plain blank book. But all the same, he made himself reach out for it.
Shiroe laughed again and pulled it away. "Not so fast! You're going to have to work to get it from me!" He spun around and bolted off across the green, the book tucked firmly under his arm.
Keith blinked after him, then turned around as the sound of running footsteps came from behind.
It was Sam. "Are you going to let him get away with that?" he demanded.
Keith thought for a moment. "No," he said, "but we'll need to work together to corner him." He pointed. "Sam, block him off at that tree. I'll approach from behind."
"Got it," Sam said, and they set off.
Awareness of reality came back with the first flood of pain. It was more distant now, and Keith felt almost detached from the sensation; he didn't have long left. But he had long enough left to wonder just what it was he'd experienced a moment ago. Some kind of vision...?
Once upon a time, if something inexplicable happened to him, he could have turned to Mother and asked her to explain it. She would have given him the answer. But he had finally rejected her, and she was gone in all her iterations. He was on his own in whatever time he had left. No explanation for the vision of Sam and Shiroe on the Mu mothership would be provided. Something occurred to him: that also meant he was free to think of his own.
Had he been given a glimpse of heaven?
There was nothing left to see here in the heart of Terra. But he strained against the diminishing pain to catch a glimpse of light and shapes in the darkness.
This time, he was already standing. Keith could see grass and trees at the corner of his vision, but he wasn't looking at them. Instead, he was looking at a door leading into the sterile corridors of the Mu mothership. He didn't know why, but he was a little afraid of the door opening. But it was going to happen anyway. He could feel it.
The door opened, and Keith met golden eyes with his own.
Matsuka smiled. "I shouldn't be, but I'm glad you're here, Keith," he said. "I didn't feel right without you."
Keith wondered if Matsuka was going to step out of the corridor to meet him, or if he should step in to meet Matsuka. He didn't know for sure just yet, so he stayed put. The door stayed open. "Isn't that a sign of weakness?" he asked. "I thought it was."
"So did I, for a while," Matsuka said. "But it isn't, after all."
"You must be right," Keith said.
"Is it always 'must be'?" Matsuka asked. "You could question me."
"I've questioned you enough," Keith said.
"No," Matsuka said. He looked away, but Keith could still see the sting of sadness in his eyes. "You never questioned me. You dismissed me. Until the very end. There's a difference."
Keith opened his mouth to say that he was sorry, but he couldn't make the words come. They seemed too inadequate.
No, Matsuka said in his head. It's all right, now. It's all right, here.
Keith took a step back. "You read my mind without touching me," he said. The old impulse turned in him, the reflex to strike or yell in response. He studied it, but chose not to give in. He didn't want to hurt Matsuka any longer. There was no point. There had never been any point. The lonely ache of missed opportunities rose in place of the retaliatory urge. He should have been touching Matsuka in kinder ways.
"You're different, now," Matsuka said. "But not as much as you think you are. Just enough."
"Matsuka," Keith said. "You saved me. Why?"
"Because it was what I wanted to do," Matsuka said. "That's enough, too."
Keith noticed something else that he hadn't questioned before. "You're with the Mu now," he said, glancing around him again to make sure (and to avoid meeting Matsuka's eyes). "Where you always belonged—"
"No," Matsuka said, with more vehemence than Keith was used to from him. "I didn't belong anywhere. I chose to be at your side."
Keith shook his head a little. "That wasn't what I meant. Why are you still wearing a Members Elite uniform?"
Matsuka looked down at his clothes. "I hadn't noticed," he said. "I suppose it's because you're still wearing your Head of State uniform."
"You should wear something else," Keith said.
"I will," Matsuka said. "When you do."
It occurred to Keith that Matsuka was still on the other side of the door. He looked at the threshold; there was no line drawn there, but he felt as if he could sense one. "Then," he said. "Let's both take off our uniforms."
"I'd like that," Matsuka said.
Keith stepped into the corridor, past the door, and reached for Matsuka's hands. They were bare, like his own.
Darkness returned. If Keith concentrated just right, he could see the faint outline of distant light. But he had no idea whether it was real light filtering down through the rocks, or just a trick of his dying brain. There was nothing that mattered left to see. Jomy was perfectly motionless beside him. Keith could not even feel warmth from him anymore, although he knew that was probably just because he couldn't feel his hands.
His body was beginning to seem much less important, after all. Keith was more interested in the dreams passing through his head. What were they? Were there more?
Even so, he didn't close his eyes yet. He thought there might be more too see.
Keith knelt at the edge of a winding pathway leading across a great black void. He had never been here before. He wanted to turn and look around and behind him, but the seemingly endless fall ahead of him mesmerized him instead. He stared down into the darkness. Was this what he'd been wanting for so long? Was this his heaven? He found himself missing the last two visions and yearning for the company of Sam, Shiroe, and Matsuka.
He didn't realize just how worried he was until he heard soft footsteps and saw boots at the corner of his eye, and relief overtook him. He wasn't alone here, after all.
"Why don't you get up, Keith?" It was Jomy's voice. "You're too close to the edge."
Keith kept his head lowered. "This may be where I belong."
"It isn't." This one was a new voice, and it took Keith a few moments to place it. When he did, he finally lifted his gaze and turned around. Behind him was a large bed, and on it lay Soldier Blue. He was the one who had spoken.
"Soldier Blue," Keith said. "Then this is still the Mu mothership."
"Yes," Soldier Blue said. "This is the Shangri-La." Slowly, Blue pushed himself out of the bed. Keith could read the effort in his movements. He remembered leveling a gun at this man and shooting, time after time, waiting to annihilate and be annihilated in return. He no longer had any desire to do that. Nor could he bring himself to even if he had. Blue looked too frail, and Keith understood now how much effort it must have taken him to make that final sacrifice. He understood now that Blue hadn't done it out of weariness or bitterness, but for his people.
"That's right," Blue said, finally getting to his feet. "Thanks to Jomy, I believed in their future."
Keith glanced away, back into the darkness. "Don't read my mind."
"It's hard not to," Jomy said from beside him. "With your shields down, your thoughts are so strong."
"I'll try not to do it," Blue said, approaching the two of them. "Jomy?"
Keith just barely saw Jomy nod. Without thinking about it, he got to his feet and turned again so he could face the two of them more easily. The void at his back was comforting. He could choose to fall back into it at any point, even if he no longer wanted to. "I need to ask something," he said.
Blue stopped, waiting for his question. Jomy turned expectantly.
"Is this heaven?" Keith said.
"It's the Shangri-La," Blue said. "That's another word for paradise, but it was never anything more than a stopping point."
"If I imagined heaven," Jomy said, "I think it would look more like Nazca."
Keith lowered his gaze.
"Do you want it to be heaven?" Soldier Blue asked.
"Yes," Keith said, "and no." They didn't read his mind. They waited for his explanation. He wasn't sure if he was grateful for that or not. "Both of you are here. Sam, Shiroe, and Matsuka are here. If this is heaven, then all of you belong here. But do I?"
"I can't answer that," Blue said. "Only you can."
"If it's heaven," Jomy said from his side, "I'd like for you to be here with us, Keith."
"You mentioned Nazca," Keith said. He didn't need to say anything more. The silence that fell on the three of them was heavy.
"Then," Jomy said, "is that it? You're not going to come with us?"
"I did terrible things all my life," Keith said. "Heaven is no place for someone like me."
"You're judging yourself," Blue said, "but that doesn't work."
"Why not?" Keith said. "You felt it yourself. The hatred in my heart. All the ways I've failed."
"How can you fairly judge someone who's never truly made a choice in his life?" Blue said, his voice suddenly sharp.
"Blue," Jomy said suddenly, "that's not fair either. He made one choice, in the end."
"That's not enough," Keith said. He glanced sideways at Jomy for a moment, then forced himself to meet Blue's steady gaze. "To make up for a lifetime of yielding to the will of Mother."
"Then what is?" Blue asked.
A hand landed softly on Keith's shoulder. It was Jomy, smiling at him. "Keith," he said, "you can figure it out. Sam and Matsuka believed that you could, didn't they?"
Keith hesitated. "I'll..." For a moment, he couldn't find the word. He started again. "I'll try. For their sake."
"I'll hope you get it right," Jomy said. "For your sake."
The light in the darkness was clearer now. Keith couldn't see what was on the other side of it, though. But he thought he might have an idea. That was good, because there wouldn't be any more visions. It was time for him to choose. He thought of the blank book in Shiroe's hands. Had he and Sam managed to get it back in the end? There'd be no answer to that, he knew. Not until he made one.
Keith finally closed his eyes. The light didn't go away. So he made his choice.
I want to try again.