Sharon’s head itched from all the fake brain implants, and the massive cybernetic headdress was giving her a cramp in her neck. But the worst discomfort of all was having to pretend to be the loyal servant of a giant space blob. Pretending to be a thing instead of a person. This was bringing back all sorts of ugly memories from her childhood.
The Vastness was a ball of flesh in space, half the size of a regular solar system, peering out into the void with its billions of slimy eyemouths. It orbited a blue giant sun, Naxos, which used to have a dozen planets before The Vastness ate them all. That ring around The Vastness wasn’t actually a ring of ice or dust, like you’d see around a regular planet. Nope—it was tens of thousands of spaceships that were all docked together by scuzzy umbilicals, and they swarmed with humans and other people, who all lived to serve The Vastness.
The Vastness didn’t really talk much, except to bellow “I am everything!” into every listening device for a few light-years in any direction, and also directly into the minds of its human acolytes.
After five days, Sharon was getting mighty sick of hearing that voice yelling in her ear. “I am everything!” The Vastness roared. “You are everything!” Sharon shouted back, which was the standard response. Sharon really needed a shower—bathing wasn’t a big priority among the devotees of The Vastness—and she was getting creeped out from staring into the eyes of people who hadn’t slept in forever. (The Vastness didn’t sleep, so why should its servants?)
“We’re finally good to go,” said Kango’s voice in Sharon’s earpiece, under the knobby black cone she was wearing over her cranium.
“Thank Hall and Oates,” Sharon subvocalized back.
She was standing in a big orange antechamber aboard one of the large tributary vessels in the ring around The Vastness, and she was surrounded by other people wearing the same kind of headgear. Except that their headgear was real, and they really were getting messages from The Vastness, and they would probably not be thrilled to know that her fake headgear actually contained the ship’s hypernautic synchrotrix, which she’d stolen hours earlier.
Sharon and Kango had a client back on Earthhub Seven who would pay enough chits for that synchrotrix to cover six months’ worth of supplies. Plus some badly needed upgrades to their ship, the Spicy Meatball. If she could only smuggle it out of here without the rest of these yo-yos noticing.
Kango had finally spoofed The Vastness’s embarkation catechism, so the Meatball could separate from the ring without being instantly blown up. Sharon started edging toward the door.
“I am everything!” The Vastness shouted through every speaker and every telepathic implant on the tributary ship, including Sharon’s earpiece.
“You are everything!” Sharon shouted . . . just a split second later than everyone else in the room.
She was halfway to the door, which led to an airlock, which led to a long interstitial passageway, which led to a junction, which led to a set of other ships’ antechambers, beyond which was the airlock to the Meatball, which they’d disguised to look just like another one of these tributary ships.
Sharon tried to look as though she was just checking the readings on one of the control panels closer to the exit to this tributary ship. The synchrotrix was rattling around inside her big headdress, and she had to be careful not to damage it, since it was some incredibly advanced design that nobody else in the galaxy had. Sharon was so close to the exit. If she could just . . .
“Sister,” a voice behind her said. “What are you doing over there? How do your actions serve The Vastness?”
She turned to see a man with pale skin and a square face that looked ridiculous under his big cybernetic Pope hat, staring at her. Behind him, two other acolytes were also staring.
“Brother, I . . .” Sharon groped around on the control table behind her. Her hand landed on a cup of the nutritious gruel that the servants of The Vastness lived on. “I, uh, I was just making sure these neutron actuator readings were aligned with, uh, the—”
“That screen you are looking at is the latrine maintenance schedule,” the man said.
“Right. Right! I was concerned that The Vastness wouldn’t want us to have a faulty latrine, because, um . . .”
“I am everything!” The Vastness shouted.
“Because, I mean, if we had to wear diapers—you are everything!—then I mean, we wouldn’t be able to walk as quickly if The Vastness might require when it summons . . .”
Now everybody was staring at Sharon. She was so damn close to the door.
“Why did you not make your response to the Call of The Vastness immediately?”
“I was just, uh, so overcome with love for The Vastness, I was momentarily speechless.” Sharon kept looking at the man while groping her way to the door.
The man pulled out a gun—a Peacebreaker 5000, a nice model, which would have been worth some chits back on Earthhub Seven—and aimed it at her. “Sister,” he said. “I must restrain you and deliver you to the Head Acolyte for this sector, who will determine whether you—”
Sharon did the only thing she could think of. She shouted, “I am everything!”
The man blinked as she spoke the words reserved only for The Vastness. For a second, his mind couldn’t even process what he had just heard—and then the cupful of cold gruel hit him in the face.
The man lowered his gun just long enough for Sharon to make a lunge for it. Her headdress cracked, and the synchrotrix fell out. She caught it with her left hand while she grabbed for the gun with her right hand. The man was trying to aim the gun at her again, and she head-butted him. The gun went off, hitting one of the walls of the ship and causing a tiny crack to appear.
Both of the women had jumped on Sharon and the man, and now there were three acolytes trying to restrain her and pry the gun and synchrotrix from her hands. She bit one of the women, but the other one had a chokehold on her.
“I am everything!” shouted The Vastness.
“You are everything!” responded everyone except Sharon.
By the time they’d finished giving the ritual response, Sharon had a firm grip on the gun, and it was aimed at the head of the shorter of the two women. “I’m leaving here,” Sharon said. “Don’t try to stop me.”
“My life means nothing,” the woman said, with the gun right against her cone-head. “Only The Vastness has meaning.”
“I’ll shoot the other two after I shoot you,” said Sharon. She had reached the door. She shoved the woman into the antechamber, leapt through the doorway, and pushed the button to close the door behind her. The door didn’t close.
“Crap,” Sharon said.
“The overrides are on already. You won’t escape,” the woman Sharon had threatened at gunpoint gloated. “Praise The Vastness!”
“Screw The Vastness,” said Sharon, aiming at the crack in the ship’s hull and pulling the trigger on the Peacebreaker 5000. Then she took off running.
“You took your time.” Kango was already removing his own fake headdress and all the other ugly adornments that had disguised him as one of The Vastness’s followers. “Did anybody see you slip away?”
“You could say that.” Sharon ran into the Spicy Meatball’s control area and strapped herself into the copilot seat. “We have to leave. Now.” She felt the usual pang of gladness at seeing Kango again—even if they got blown up, they were going to get blown up together.
Just then, The Vastness howled, “I have been robbed! I am everything, and someone has stolen from Me!”
“I thought you were the stealthy one.” Kango punched the ship’s thrusters and they pushed away from The Vastness’s ring at two times escape velocity. “You’re always telling me that I make too much noise, I’m too prone to spontaneous dance numbers, I’m too—what’s the word—irrepressible, and you’re the one who knows how to just get in and get out. Or did I misinterpret your whole ‘I’m a master of stealth, I live in the shadows’ speech the other day?”
“Just drive,” Sharon hissed.
“You just think you’re better than me because I’m a single-celled organism, and you’re all multicellular,” said Kango, who looked to all outside appearances like an incredibly beautiful young human male with golden skin and a wicked smile. “You’re a cellist. Wait, is that the word? What do you call someone who discriminates against other people based on the number of cells in their body?”
They were already point three light-years away from The Vastness, and there was no sign of pursuit. Sharon let out a breath. She looked at the big ugly blob of scar tissue, with all of its eyemouths winking at her one by one, and at the huge metallic ring around its middle. The whole thing looked kind of beautiful in the light of Naxos, especially when you were heading in the opposite direction at top speed.
“You know perfectly well that I don’t hold your monocellularity against you,” Sharon told Kango in a soothing tone. “And next time, I will be happy to let you be the one to go into the heart of the monster and pull out its tooth, and yes, I know that’s a mixed metaphor, but . . .”
“. . . but I don’t care, because I need a shower lasting a week, not to mention some postindustrial-strength solvent to get all this gunk off my head.”
“Sharon. I think we have a bit of an issue.”
Sharon stopped monologuing and looked at the screen, where she’d just been admiring the beauty of The Vastness and its ring of ships a moment earlier. The ring of ships was peeling ever so slowly away from The Vastness and forming itself into a variation of a standard pursuit formation—the variation was necessary because the usual pursuit formation didn’t include several thousand Joykiller-class ships and many assorted others.
“Uh, how many ships is that?”
“That is all of the ships. That’s how many.”
“We’re going to be cut into a million pieces and fed to every one of The Vastness’s mouths,” Sharon said. “And they’re going to keep us alive and conscious while they do it.”
“Can they do that?” Kango jabbed at the Meatball’s controls, desperately trying to get a little more speed out of the ship.
“Guys, I’m going as fast as I can,” said Noreen, the ship’s computer, in a petulant tone. “Poking my buttons won’t make me go any faster.”
“Sorry, Noreen,” said Sharon.
“Wait, I have a thought,” said Kango. “The device you stole, the hypernautic synchrotrix. It functions by creating a Temporary Embarrassment in spacetime, which lets The Vastness and all its tributary ships transport themselves instantaneously across the universe in search of prey. Right? But what makes it so valuable is the way that it neutralizes all gravity effects. An object the size of The Vastness should throw planets out of their orbits and disrupt entire solar systems whenever it appears, but it doesn’t.”
“Sure. Yeah.” Sharon handed the synchrotrix to Kango, who studied it frantically. “So what?”
“Well, so,” Kango said. “If I can hook it into Noreen’s drive systems . . .” He was making connections to the device as fast as he could. “I might be able to turn Noreen into a localized spatial Embarrassment generator. And that, in turn, means that we can do something super super clever.”
Kango pressed five buttons at once, triumphantly, and . . . nothing happened.
Kango stared at the tiny viewscreen. “Which means,” he said again, “we can do something super super SUPER clever.” He jabbed all the buttons again (causing Noreen to go “ow”), and then something did happen: A great purple-and-yellow splotch opened up directly behind the Spicy Meatball, and all of the ships chasing them were stopped dead. A large number of the pursuit ships even crashed into each other because they had been flying in too tight a formation.
“So long, cultists!” Kango shouted. He turned to Sharon, still grinning. “I created a Local Embarrassment, which collided with the Temporary Embarrassment fields that those ships were already generating, and set up a chain reaction in which this region of spacetime became Incredibly Embarrassed. Which means . . .”
“. . . none of those ships will be going anywhere for a while,” Sharon said.
“See what I mean? I may only have one cell, but it’s a brain cell.” He whooped and did an impromptu dance in his seat. “Like I said: You’re the stealthy one, I’m the flashy one.”
“I’m the one who needs an epic shower.” Sharon pulled at all the crap glued to her head while also putting the stolen synchrotrix safely into a padded strongbox. She was still tugging at the remains of her headgear when she moved toward the rear of the ship in search of its one bathroom, and she noticed something moving in the laundry compartment.
“Hey, Kango?” Sharon whispered as she came back into the flight deck. “I think we have another problem.”
She put her finger to her lips, then led him back to the laundry area, where she pulled the compartment open with a sudden tug to reveal a slender young woman curled up in a pile of dirty flight suits, wearing the full headgear of an acolyte of The Vastness. The girl looked up at them.
“Praise The Vastness,” she said. “Have we left the ring yet? I yearn to help you spread the good word about The Vastness to the rest of the galaxy! All hail The Vastness!”
Sharon and Kango just looked at each other, as if each trying to figure out how they could make this the other one’s fault.
Sharon and Kango had known each other all their lives, and they were sort of married and sort of united by a shared dream. If a single-celled organism could have a sexual relationship with anybody, Kango would have made it happen with Sharon. And yet, a lot of the time, they kind of hated each other. Cooped up with Noreen on the Spicy Meatball, when they weren’t being chased by literal-minded cyborgs or sprayed with brainjuice from the brainbeasts of Noth, they started going a little crazy. Kango would start trying to osmose the seat cushions and Sharon would invent terrible games. They were all they had, but they were kind of bad for each other all the same. Space was lonely, and surprisingly smelly, at least if you were inside a ship with artificial life support.
They’d made a lot of terrible mistakes in their years together, but they’d never picked up a stowaway from a giant-space-testicle cult before. This was a new low. They immediately started doing what they did best: bicker.
“I like my beer lukewarm and my equations ice-cold,” Kango said. “Just sayin’.”
“Hey, don’t look at me,” Sharon said.
The teenage girl, whose name was TheVastnessIsAllWonderfulJaramellaLovesTheVastness, or Jara for short, was tied to the spare seat in the flight deck with thick steelsilk cords. Since Jara had figured out that she’d stowed away on the wrong ship and these people weren’t actually fellow servants of The Vastness, she’d stopped talking to them. Because why bother to speak to someone who doesn’t share the all-encompassing love of The Vastness?
“We don’t have enough food, or life support, or fuel, to carry her where we’re going,” Kango said.
“We can ration food or stop off somewhere and sell your Rainbow Cow doll collection to buy more. We can make oxygen by grabbing some ice chunks from the nearest comet and breaking up the water molecules. We can save on fuel by going half-speed or, again, sell your Rainbow Cow dolls to buy fuel.”
“Nobody is selling my Rainbow Cow dolls,” Kango said. “Those are my legacy. My descendants will treasure them, if I ever manage to reproduce somehow.” He made a big show of trying to divide into two cells, which looked like he was just having a hissy fit.
“Point is, we’re stuck with her now. Praise The Vastness,” Sharon sighed.
“Praise The Vastness!” Jara said automatically, not noticing the sarcasm in Sharon’s voice.
“There’s also the fact that they can probably track her via the headgear she’s wearing. Not to mention she may still be in telepathic contact with The Vastness itself, and we have no way of knowing when she’ll be out of range of The Vastness’s mental influence.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Sharon said. “We’ll know she’s out of range of mental communication with The Vastness when—”
“You are everything!” Jara shouted in response to a message from The Vastness.
“—when she stops doing that. Listen, I’m going to work on disabling, and maybe dismantling, her headgear. You work on rationing food and fuel, and figuring out a way to get more without sacrificing the Rainbow Cows.”
“Do not touch my sacred headpiece,” the girl said at the exact same moment that Kango said, “Stay away from my Rainbow Cows.”
“Guys,” said Noreen. “I have an incoming transmission from Earthhub Seven.”
“Can you take a message?” Kango said. “We’re a smidge busy here.”
“It’s from Senior Earthgov Administrator Mandre Lewis. Marked urgent.”
“You are everything!” Jara cried while struggling harder against her bonds.
“Okay, fine.” Kango turned to Sharon. “Please keep her quiet. Noreen, put Mandre on.”
“You can’t silence me!” Jara struggled harder. “I will escape and aid in your recapture. All ten million eyemouths of The Vastness will feast on your still-living flesh! You will—”
Sharon managed to put a sound-dampening field up around Jara’s head, cutting off the sound of her voice, just as Mandre appeared on the cruddy low-res screen in the middle of the flight console. Getting a state-of-the-art communications system had not been a priority for Kango and Sharon, since that would only encourage people to try and communicate with them more often, and who wanted that?
“Kango, Sharon,” Mandre Lewis said, wearing her full ceremonial uniform—even the animated sash that scrolled with all of her many awards and titles. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need your assistance.”
“We helped you one time,” Kango said. “Okay, three times, but two of those were just by accident because you had used reverse psychology. Point is, I am not your lackey. Or your henchman. Find another man to hench. Right, Sharon?”
Sharon nodded. “No henching. As Hall and Oates are my witness.”
“You are everything!” Jara mouthed soundlessly.
“Listen,” said Lewis. “You do this one thing for me, I can expunge your criminal records, even the ones under your other names. And I can push through the permits on that empty space at Earthhub Seven so you can finally open that weird thing you wanted. That, what was it called?”
“Restaurant,” Sharon breathed, like she couldn’t believe she was even saying the word aloud.
“Restaurant!” Kango clapped his hands. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”
“It sounds perverted and sick, this whole thing where you make food for strangers and they give you chits for it. Why don’t you just have sex for money like honest, decent people? Never mind, I don’t want to know the answer to that. Anyway, if you help me with this one thing, I can get you permission to open your ‘restaurant.’ ”
“Wow.” Kango’s head was spinning. Literally, it was going around and around, at about one revolution every few seconds. Sharon leaned down and slapped him until his head settled back into place.
“We’ll do it,” Sharon said. “Do you want us to infiltrate the spacer isolationists of the broken asteroid belt? Or go underground as factory workers in the Special Industrial Solar Systems? You want us to steal from the lizard people of Dallos IV? Whatever you want, we’re on it.”
“None of those,” said Mandre. “We need you to go back to Liberty House and get back inside your former place of, er, employment. We’ve heard reports that the Courtiers are developing some kind of super-weapon that could ruin everybody’s day. We need you to go in there and get the schematics for us.”
“Holy shit.” Sharon nearly threw something at the tiny viewscreen. “You realize that this is a suicide mission? The Courtiers regard both of us as total abominations. We can’t open a restaurant if we’re dead!”
Lewis made a “not my problem” face. “Just get it done. Or don’t even bother coming back to Earthhub Seven.”
Kango’s head started spinning in the opposite direction from the one it had been spinning in a moment earlier.
They were about halfway to the outer solar systems of Liberty House, and they decided that Jara had probably passed out of range of The Vastness’s telepathic communication. Plus, they were pretty sure they’d disabled any tracking devices that might have been inside Jara’s headdress. So, Sharon leaned over the seat that Jara was still tied to.
“I know you can hear me, even though we can’t hear you. If I turn off the dampening field, do you promise not to yell about The Vastness?”
Jara just stared at her.
Sharon shrugged, then reached over and disabled the dampening field. Immediately, Jara started yelling, “The Vastness is all! The Vastness sees you! The Vastness sees everybody! The Vastness will feast on your flesh with its countless mouths! The Va—”
Sharon turned the dampening field back on with a sigh. “You’ve probably never known a life apart from The Vastness, so this is the first time you haven’t heard its voice in your head. Right? But you stowed away on our ship for a reason. You can claim it was so you could be a missionary and tell the rest of the galaxy how great The Vastness is, but we both know that you had to have some other reason for wanting to see the galaxy. Even if you can’t admit it to yourself right now.”
Jara just kept shouting about The Vastness and its boundless wonderful appetite, without making any sound.
“Fine. Have it your way. Let me know if you need to use the facilities or if you get hungry. Maybe I’ll feed you one of Kango’s Rainbow Cows.” (This provoked a loud and polysyllabic “noooo” from Kango, who was in the next compartment over.)
When Sharon wandered aft, Kango was waist-deep in boxes of supplies, looking for something they could use to disguise themselves long enough to get inside Liberty House.
“Do we have a hope in hell of pulling this off?” she asked.
“If we can get the permits, absolutely,” Kango said. “We might have to borrow some chits to get the restaurant up and running, but I know people who won’t charge a crazy rate. And I already have ideas of what kind of food we can serve. Did you know restaurants used to have this thing called a Me-N-U? It was a device that automatically chose the perfect food for me and the perfect food for you.”
“I meant, do we have any hope of getting back inside of Liberty House without being clocked as escaped Divertissements and obliterated in a slow, painful fashion?”
“Oh.” Kango squinted at the piles of glittery underpants in his hands. “No. That, we don’t have the slightest prayer of doing. I was trying to focus on the positive.”
“We need a plan,” Sharon said. “You and I are on file with the Courtiers, and there are any of a thousand scans that will figure out who we are the moment we show up. But Mandre is right; we know the inner workings of Liberty House better than anybody. We were made there, we lived there. It was our home. There has to be some way to play the Courtiers for fools.”
“Here’s the problem,” said Kango. “Even if you and I were able to disguise ourselves enough to avoid being recognized as the former property of the Excellent Good Time Crew, there’s absolutely no way we could hide what we are. None whatsoever. Anyone in the service of the Courtiers will recognize you as a monster, and me as an extra, at a glance.”
“I know, I know,” Sharon raised her hands.
“We wouldn’t get half a light-year inside the House before they would be all over us with the biometrics and the genescans, and there’s no way around those.”
“I know!” Sharon felt like weeping. They shouldn’t have taken this mission. Mandre had dangled a slim chance at achieving their wildest dreams, and they’d lunged for it like rubes. “I know, okay?”
“I mean, you’d need to have a human being, an actual honest-to-Blish human being, who was in on the scam. And it’s not like we can just pick up one of those on the nearest asteroid. So, unless you’ve got some other bright—” Kango stopped.
Kango and Sharon stared at each other for a moment without talking, then looked over at Jara, who was still tied to her chair, shouting soundlessly about the wonders of The Vastness.
“Makeover?” Kango said.
“Makeover.” Sharon sighed. She still felt like throwing up.
“Greetings and tastefully risqué taunts, O visitors whose sentience will be stipulated for now, pending further appraisal,” said the man on the viewscreen, whose face was surrounded by a pink-and-blue cloud of smart powder. His cheek had a beauty mark that flashed different colors, and his eyes kept changing from skull sockets to neon spirals to cartoon eyeballs. “What is your business with Liberty House, and how may we pervert you?”
Kango and Sharon both looked at Jara, who glared at them both. Then she turned her baleful look toward the viewscreen. “Silence, wretch,” she said, speaking the words they’d forced her to memorize. “I do not speak to underthings.” Kango and Sharon both gave her looks of total dismay, and she corrected herself: “Underlings. I do not speak to underlings. I am the Resplendent Countess Victoria Algentsia, and these are my playservants. Kindly provide me with an approach vector to the central Pleasure Nexus, and instruct me as to how I may speak to someone worthy of my attention.”
They turned off the comms before the man with the weird eyes could even react.
“Ugh,” Kango said. “That was . . . not good.”
“I’ve never pretended to be a Countess before,” said Jara. “I don’t really approve of pretending to be anything. The Vastness requires total honesty and realness from its acolytes. Also, how do I know you’ll keep your end of our bargain?”
“Because we’re good, honest folk,” said Sharon, kicking Kango before he could even think of having a facial expression. “We’ll return you to The Vastness, and you’ll be a hero because you’ll have helped defeat a weapon that could have been a threat to its, er, magnificence.”
“I don’t trust either of you,” said Jara.
“That’s a good start,” said Kango. “Where we’re going, you shouldn’t trust anybody, anybody at all.” By some miracle, the man with the cloud of smart powder around his face had given them an approach vector to Salubrious IV, the central world of the Pleasure Nexus, the main solar system of Liberty House. Either the man had actually believed Jara was a countess, or he had decided their visit would afford some amusement to somebody. Or both.
“So, I’m supposed to be a fancy noble person,” said Jara, who was still wearing her tattered rags apart from a splash of colorful makeup and some fake jewels over her headdress. “And yet, I’m flying in this awful old ship, with just the two of you as my servants? What are you two supposed to be, anyway?”
“We were made here,” said Kango. “I’m an extra. She’s a monster.”
“You don’t need to know what we were.” Sharon shot Kango a look. “All you need to know is, we’re perfectly good servants. This ship is an actual pleasure skimmer from Salubrious, and you’re going to claim that you decided to go off on a jaunt. We’re creating a whole fake hedonic calculus for you. The good thing about Liberty House is, there are a million Courtiers, and the idea of keeping tabs on any of them is repugnant.”
“This society is evil and monstrous,” said Jara. “The Vastness will come and devour it entire.”
“Of course, of course,” said Kango with a shrug. “So, we have a few hours left to teach you how to hold your painstick, and which skewer to use with which kind of sugarblob, and the right form of address for all five hundred types of Courtiers, so you can pass for a member of the elite. Not to mention how to walk in scamperpants. Ready to get started?”
Jara just glared at him.
Meanwhile, Sharon went aft to look at the engines, because their “plan,” if you wanted to call it that, required them to do some crazy flying inside the inner detector grid of Salubrious IV, to get right up to the computer core while Kango and Jara provided a distraction.
“Nobody asked me if I wanted to go home,” said Noreen while Sharon was poking around in her guts. “I wouldn’t have minded being at least consulted here.”
“Sorry,” said Sharon. “Neither of us is happy about going back either. We got too good an offer to refuse.”
“I’ve been in contact with some of the other ships since we got inside Liberty House,” Noreen said. “They don’t care much one way or the other if we’re lying about our identity—ships don’t concern themselves with such petty business—but they did mention that the Courtiers have beefed up security rather a lot since we escaped for the first time. Also, some of the ships are taking up a betting pool on how long before we’re caught and sent into the Libidorynth.”
“I can’t believe the Libidorynth is still a thing,” Sharon said.
Sharon and Kango spent their scant remaining time making Jara look plausibly like a spoiled Countess who had been in deep space much too long, while Kango gave Jara a crash course in acting haughty and imperious. “When in doubt, pretend you’ve done too many dreamsluices, and you’re having a hard time remembering things,” said Kango.
“Silence, drone,” said Jara in an actually pretty good impersonation of the way a Courtier would speak to someone like Kango.
“We’ve got landing points,” said Noreen, and seconds later, the ship was making a jerky descent toward the surface of Salubrious IV. From a distance, the planet looked a hazy shade of brownish gray. But once you broke atmosphere, the main landmass was coated with towers of pure gold studded with purple, and the oceans had a sheen of platinum over them. They lowered the Spicy Meatball into the biggest concentration of gilded skyscrapers, and all the little details came into focus: the millions of faces and claws and bodies gazing and squirming from the sides of the buildings, the bejeweled windows and the shimmering mist of pleasure-gas floating around all of the uppermost levels. Gazing at her former home, Sharon felt an unexpected kick of nostalgia, or maybe even joyful recognition, alongside the ever-present terror of Hall and Oates save me, they’re going to put us in the Libidorynth.
They touched down, and Noreen seemed reluctant to open her hatch, because she was probably having the same terrifying flashbacks that were eating Sharon’s brain. Things Sharon hadn’t thought of in years—the cage they had kept her in, the “monster training,” the giggles of the people as she chased them around the dance floor, which turned to shrieks after she actually caught up with them. The painsticks. Sharon felt the bravado she’d spent years acquiring start to flake away.
As they stepped out of the hatch, a retinue of a hundred Witty Companions and assorted Fixers and Cleansers swarmed to surround them. “How may we pervert you?” they all asked, with an eagerness that made Sharon’s stomach twist into knots. They all felt obliged to declare their fealty to this long-lost, newly returned Countess right away, and this became deafening. One of the Witty Companions, who introduced himself as Barnadee, started listing all of the Courtiers who were dying to meet their cousin, but Jara gave him a sharp look and said that she was tired after her long journey.
“Of course, of course,” said Barnadee, bowing and flashing his multicolored strobe-lit genitalia as a show of respect. “We will show you to your luxurious and resplendent quarters, where any debauchery you may imagine will be available to you.”
Jara snorted at all of this nonsense—it was all pointless, because it did nothing to glorify The Vastness—but her disdain sounded enough like the petulance of a jaded hedonist that it only made Barnadee try harder to please her.
“Drone, bring me more cognac and bacon,” said Jara, waving one finger. Sharon and Kango looked at each other, as if each trying to blame the other for turning this girl into their worst nightmare. They’d been on Salubrious IV for a week and a half, and you wouldn’t recognize Jara anymore. Her skin had been retro-sheened until it glowed, they had put jewels all over her face and neck, and she was wearing the newest, most fashionable clothes. But most of all, Jara had gotten used to having whatever she wanted, at the exact second she decided she wanted it. They were staying in one of the more modest suites of the Pleasure Nexus, with only seventeen rooms and a dozen organic assembly units—so it might take a few whole minutes to build a new slave for the Countess Victoria or create whatever meals or clothing she might desire. The walls were coated with living material, sort of like algae, that looked like pure gold (but was actually much more valuable) and had the capacity to feel pain, just in case someone might find it amusing to hear the golden walls howl with agony.
“I grow bored,” said Jara, as Sharon rushed over with her cognac-and-bacon. “When will there be more amusement for me?”
Sharon had a horrible feeling that she could not tell if Jara was faking it any longer. She’d had that feeling for a few days.
“Um,” said Sharon to Jara, “well, so there are five orgies this evening, including one featuring blood enemas and flesh-melting. Also, there’s that big formal evening party.”
“Is this the sort of party where you used to be the featured monster?” Jara held her cognac-and-bacon in both hands and gulped it, with just the sort of alacrity you’d expect from someone who’d only ever tasted gruel until two weeks before.
“Um, yes,” Sharon said. “They would turn me loose and I would chase the guests around and try to eat them. I’ve told you already.”
“And how did that make you feel?” Jara asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Sharon turned and looked at Kango, who was tending to the Countess’s assembly units but also double-checking that there were no listening devices in here so they could speak freely. Kango gave her the “all clear” signal.
“Let’s talk about you instead,” Sharon said to Jara. “Are you ready to go to the big party? It’s one thing to play-act at bossing Kango and me around in private. But at this party, you’ll see all sorts of weird things—depravities that The Vastness never prepared you for. And you can’t bat an eye at any of them.”
“I’ll do whatever I have to,” Jara said. “You said there’s a weapon here that’s a threat to The Vastness, and I’ll endure any horrors and monstrosities to protect The Vastness. Praise The Vastness!”
“Do you think she’s ready?” Sharon asked Kango, who shrugged.
“She’s got the attitude,” Kango said. Just a few hours earlier, Jara had made Kango go out and fetch her some still-living mollusk sushi from the market, and meanwhile she’d gotten Sharon to fabricate a tiny legion of pink fluffy shocktroopers for her amusement (they goose-stepped around and then all shot each other, because their aim was terrible).
“Thank you,” Jara said, “Drone.”
“But she’s still rusty on the finer points of Courtier behavior,” Kango said. “She doesn’t know a painstick from a soul-fork.”
“She’s a quick study. And she’ll have you to help her,” Sharon said. “As long as you don’t get all triggered by being back inside the Grand Wilding Center. I can’t even imagine.”
“You two,” Jara said out of nowhere. “You talk as though each of you was The Vastness to the other.”
“Yeah,” Kango said. “We’re a family, that’s why.”
Jara was shaking her head, like this was just another perversion among many that she’d encountered on her journey. “At least the people here in Liberty House care about something bigger than they are, even if it’s only a pointless amusement. You two, you are so small, and all you care for is each other. How can you stand to have no connection to greatness?”
“We had enough of other people’s greatness a long time ago,” Sharon said. “You start to realize that ‘something bigger than you are’ is usually just some kind of stupid mass hallucination. Or a giant scam.”
“I feel sorry for you.” Jara finished her cognac-and-bacon and gestured for more.
“You can pretend that you’re still pure,” Sharon said. “But you’ve been enjoying that cognac-and-bacon way, way too much. What do you think The Vastness would think about that? How can The Vastness be everything when it doesn’t have cognac-and-bacon? When it doesn’t even know what cognac-and-bacon IS?”
“Shut up, Drone,” Jara said—falling back into her “Countess” voice as a way out of this conversation.
“Keep an eye on her, okay?” Sharon whispered to Kango. “I really think there’s a part of her that wants to be her own person, but she just doesn’t know how.”
He shrugged and nodded at the same time.
And then they were surrounded by a few dozen other servants and Fixers, who had heard that the Countess Victoria was going to the evening’s most exclusive party and were there to help her become as resplendent as possible in hopes of winning some favor. So, there was no further chance to talk about their actual plans for stealing the specs on the secret weapon—but lots and lots of chances to obsess over whether the Countess should wear the weeping dolphin eyes or the blood-pouches.
At last, the Countess was ready to go to the party, and Sharon was preparing to peel off and sneak back to the Spicy Meatball. “Wish me luck,” she whispered to Kango.
“You’ve got this,” he whispered back. “We’re going to open our restaurant. We’ll serve all the classic food items: handburgers, Ruffalo wings, damplings, carry . . . It’ll be great.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” said Sharon, kissing Kango on the cheek.
The central computer core of the Pleasure Nexus looked like a big mossy rock floating over the city, between two giant esorotic spires of pure silver. But as the Spicy Meatball flew closer, the computer core looked less like a rock and more like some kind of ancient sauroid, with thick plates of spiky armor guarding its fleshy access points. They flew into its shadow.
Sharon was concentrating on navigating past the tiny guardbots flying around the computer core, while finding the exact vector that would allow the Spicy Meatball to come right up to the exposed patch of underbelly. And then Sharon and Noreen just had to hover there, directly underneath the computer core, where anybody could spot the ship’s impact-scarred hull, waiting for Kango’s diversion to happen. And obsessing about the thousand things that could go wrong.
“I’ve been telling the other ships about us,” said Noreen. “Our smuggling runs to the Scabby Castles, that time we conned those literal-minded cyborgs into thinking Kango was some kind of Cyber-King . . . They’re pretty jealous of us. The other ships might even give us a slight head start if it comes down to a pursuit. Although it wouldn’t make any difference, of course.”
“I appreciate the gesture,” said Sharon. She stared at the crappy little vidscreen, showing the undulating flesh of the computer core—just sitting there, a few inches away from their hull. She was regretting a lot of her recent life choices. She’d sworn for years that nobody was ever going to make her into an object again, but she’d willingly put herself back into that position—and the fact that she was “just pretending” didn’t make as much difference as she wanted. She felt bad that Kango, who’d had a rougher time than she had, was being forced to confront this awfulness again. And she was realizing that she’d projected a lot onto that Jara girl, as if a week or two of pretending to be a Countess would break a lifetime of conditioning and psychic linkage to a giant space glob. This was probably going to be a career-ending mistake.
“We got it,” Noreen said, just as Sharon was getting sucked into gloom. Their vidscreen was streaming some news reports about the Estimable Lord Vaughn Ticklesnout unexpectedly catching on fire and being chased by his own party monster. Some three hundred terrorist organizations had already claimed responsibility for this incident, most of them with completely silly names like the Persimmon Permission Proclamation, but the party had dissolved into total chaos. They picked up footage of the crowd scattering as a man on fire ran around and around, pursued by a bright blue naked woman who could have been Sharon’s twin sister.
“Great,” Sharon said. “I’m setting up the uplink. Let’s hope the distraction was distracting enough.” She started threading through layers of security protection, some of them newly added since she and Kango had escaped from Liberty House, and spoofing all of the certs that the computer demanded. There were riddles and silly questions along with strings of base-99 code that needed to be unraveled, but Sharon and Noreen worked together, and soon they had total leet-superuser access.
Sharon searched for any data on the new super-weapon and found it helpfully labeled “Brand New Excellent Super-Weapon.” A few more twists of the computer matrix, and she was instructing the computer to transfer all the data on the weapon.
“Uh,” said Noreen. “I think you might have made a mistake.”
“What?” said Sharon. “I asked it to send over everything it had on the super-weapon.”
“Check the cargo hold,” said Noreen. “Right next to the boxes of Rainbow Cows. The main computer just auto-docked with us a second ago.”
Sharon took a split second to process what Noreen had said, then took off running down to the cargo hold, where a squat red ovoid device, about the size of a human baby, had been deposited. The object made a faint grumbling noise, like a drunken old man who was annoyed at being woken up. “Oh, shit,” Sharon said.
“Please keep it down,” said the super-weapon. “Some of us are trying to rest.”
“Sorry,” Sharon said. “I just didn’t expect you to show up in person.”
“I go where they send me,” groaned the super-weapon. “All I want to do is get some rest until my big day. Which could be any day, since they never give me a timetable. That’s the problem with being the ultimate deterrent: people talk about using me a lot, but they never actually follow through.”
“Just how ultimate a deterrent are you?”
“Well, actually, I’m very ultimate. Ultimately ultimate, in fact.” The super-weapon seemed to perk up a little bit as it discussed its effectiveness. “If anybody tries to interfere with Liberty House’s sacred and innate right to seek amusement in any form they deem amusing, then I send a gravity pulse to the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy, causing it to, er, expand. Rather a lot. To the size of a galaxy, in fact.”
“That’s, er, pretty fucking ultimate.” Sharon felt as though she, personally, had swallowed a supermassive black hole. This was getting worse and worse. Added to her own low-single-digit estimation of her chances of survival, there was the realization that her former owners were much, much worse people than she’d ever fathomed. She was so full of terror and hatred, she saw two different shades of red at once.
“Hate to ruin your moment,” said Noreen, “but we’ve got another problem.”
“Don’t mind me,” said the super-weapon. “I’ll just go back to sleep. My name is Horace, by the by.”
Sharon rushed back to the flight deck, where the vidscreen showed Kango and Jara in the custody of several uniformed Fixers, as well as one of the senior Courtiers, a man named Hazelbeem who’d been famous back in Sharon’s day.
“We have captured your accomplices.” Hazelbeem’s lime-green coiffure wobbled as he talked. “And we are coming for you next! Prepare for a wonderfully agonizing death—accompanied by some quite delicious crunketizers, because this party left us with rather a lot of leftovers.”
“We have your bomb,” said Sharon into the viewscreen. “Your ultimate weapon. We’ll set it off unless you release our friends.”
“No, you won’t,” said Hazelbeem, who had a purple mustache that kept twirling and untwirling and twisting itself into complex shapes, “because you’re not completely stark raving mad.”
“Okay. It’s true; we won’t. But what does that say about you, creating something like that?”
Hazelbeem’s mustache shrugged elaborately, but the man himself had no facial expression.
“Leave us,” Kango shouted. “Get out of there! Take their stupid bomb with you. We’re not worth you sacrificing your lives to these assholes. Just go!”
“You know I can’t do that,” said Sharon.
“There are fifty-seven attack ships, approaching us from pretty much every possible direction,” said Noreen.
“Can we at least disable their stupid bomb permanently before they capture us?” said Sharon. “I’m guessing not. We’d need weeks to figure out how it works.”
“Hey,” Jara said, pushing herself forward. “I wanted to say, I guess you were kind of right about why I stowed away. I always wanted to be special, not just another one of a billion servants of The Vastness. And when I saw your ship about to disembark, I thought maybe I could help spread the word about The Vastness to the whole galaxy, and then I’d be the best acolyte ever. But it turned out the only way I could be special was as a fake Countess.”
“You were a great fake Countess, though,” Kango said, squirming next to her.
“Thanks. And thanks for taking me to that party,” Jara told her. “I got to see all sorts of things that I’d never even imagined. And it started me thinking maybe I really could find a way to reinvent myself as an individual, the way you two did. In fact, I’m starting to realize that . . . You are everything!”
“What the hell? You just said—”
“I can’t control it,” said Jara. “It’s like an instinctive response whenever—You are everything!”
And then they lost the signal, because a voice broke in on every single open frequency. The voice was shouting one thing over and over: “I am everything! I am everything! I am everything!”
“Uh,” said Sharon.
“So, you probably already guessed this,” said Noreen. “But sensors are showing that a Temporary Embarrassment the size of several planets has just appeared on the edge of the central pleasure nexus of Liberty House. The weather control systems on Salubrious IV are all working overtime.”
“You’re right; I did actually guess that,” said Sharon.
“The good news is, all the ships that were about to attack us have been diverted onto a new heading,” said Noreen.
“We gotta go rescue Kango,” said Sharon. “And Jara, I guess.”
“I have some excellent news,” came a plummy male voice from the cargo hold. Horace, the super-weapon. “My activation sequence has been initiated. It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life!”
Hazelbeem, whose full name was Hazelbeem Sternforke Paddleborrow the XXVIIth, was standing in front of the Grand Wilding Suites and Superior Fun Center, where the party had been held. He had a half-dozen Fixers with him, and they were holding Kango and Jara in chains as the Spicy Meatball landed on the front lawn (which screamed and tried to bite the Meatball’s landing struts).
“So! Not only did you steal our top secret ultimate weapon,” said Hazelbeem, his mustache knotted in anger, “but you brought the wrath of the most revolting giant monster in the galaxy down on us. Were I an existentialist masochist, this would be my happiest day ever. Too bad I am an objectivist sadist instead.”
“Just let my friends go,” said Sharon. “We can help. We know what The Vastness wants.”
“You are everything!” shouted Jara.
“We are past the point of negotiation,” said Hazelbeem. “We have already activated the weapon on board your ship as soon as we detected a major threat to our way of life. If we cannot continue the absolute pursuit of amusement, with zero limitations, then there’s no reason for this galaxy to continue existing. I must say, when we created you and your friend here”—he gestured at Kango—“we did not imagine it could ever lead to so many unamusing incidents.”
“This just proves that amusement is subjective,” said Kango, struggling against his chains. “I’ve been highly amused by many of today’s events.”
“You are everything!”
“You were made as a brothel extra,” said Hazelbeem to Kango. “You weren’t even supposed to have a mind of your own. You’re a single-celled organism, are you not? Made to appear like a beautiful young man, to stand in the background of the crowd scenes at a brothel. Something must have gone very wrong—perhaps you received too high a dose of neuropeptides in the vat.”
“I may only have one cell,” said Kango, “but you’ve just been nucleused.”
“I don’t even know what that means.” Hazelbeem’s mustache crinkled.
“It was supposed to be a play on the fact that I have a single nucleus, and I’m . . . Oh, just forget I said anything.”
“Already forgotten,” said Hazelbeem.
“You are everything!”
“Can you stop shouting that?” Hazelbeem said to Jara. “It’s giving me a headache.”
“We’ve been trying, believe me,” said Sharon.
“It’s a reflex,” Jara told Hazelbeem. “I belong to The Vastness no matter what I do. I was foolish to think anything mattered except for The Vastness. I’m probably going to be punished for doubting even a little, in my heart.”
“You are a very tiresome little person,” Hazelbeem told her.
The sky was churning with angry black swirlies, which reminded Sharon of one of the first parties at which she’d been the designated monster, when the Marquis of Bloopabloopasneak had set off some kind of weather bomb left over from one of the old galactic wars. Five hundred-odd people had died in the hurricanes and blizzards before the Pleasure Nexus’s weather-control systems had regained control, and the Marquis of Bloopabloopasneak had played really loud glam-clash music to drown out the screams and the roaring of the elements.
Hazelbeem was looking at the big fob hanging from his inner jacket (which was made of tiny living people, all of them squirming in a vain attempt to escape from the stitching that stuck them together). “That hypertrophic organism and its fleet of ships have torn through our planetary defenses in the worst disaster since that all-you-can-eat buffet escaped from its trays and grew until it devoured an entire planet. I blame! I really do. I blame.”
“Just let my friends go, and we’ll deal with The Vastness for you.” Sharon shouted to make herself heard over the howling in the sky. “There’s no need for any of this.”
“This is what happens when playthings try to think for themselves,” Hazelbeem snorted. “First they start trying to act like people, and before you know it, they—”
Sharon ate Hazelbeem. This happened too quickly for anybody to react. One second, Hazelbeem was working himself up into a tirade about toys that get ideas above their station, and the next, Sharon’s mouth expanded to several times its normal size and just gobbled him up. She spat out his boots a second later.
“Ugh,” Sharon said. “I promised myself I would never do that again. But there’s provocation, and then there’s provocation. I’ve had a lot of pent-up rage these past few days.” She looked at the gaggle of Fixers who were holding her friends prisoner and yelled, “Let my friends go, or you’re next!”
“Whatever you say!” the head Fixer stammered as she unlocked Kango and Jara. “We all just want to be with our families—or possibly go to an end-of-the-galaxy blood orgy. One of those. Bye!” The Fixers all took off running in different directions, leaving Sharon, Kango, Jara and Hazelbeem’s boots.
Sharon looked down at the boots. “He just pushed me too far.”
“It’s fine,” Kango said in her ear as he touched her arm. “Just because you eat the occasional horrible person doesn’t prove you’re actually the monster they tried to make you into. I promise.”
“You are everything!” Jara said, then added, “That guy was asking for it. As an official Countess, I pardon you.”
“Thanks,” Sharon said, still raising her voice over the awful din. “Now we just gotta save the galaxy. Any ideas?”
They all looked at each other, then at the pair of boots on the ground, as if the boots might suddenly offer a helpful suggestion.
The Vastness had somehow taken over the festival speakers all around the Superior Fun Center, and was shouting about the fact that someone had dared to steal from its all-encompassing magnificence. And that nobody escaped The Vastness! To underscore this, a flotilla of The Vastness’s Joykiller-class ships were swooping down over the surface of Salubrious IV and firing Obliteron missiles at every freestanding structure. The ground shook, the sky churned, and the Superior Fun Center and several other buildings collapsed as Kango, Sharon, and Jara ran back to the Spicy Meatball—stumbling and falling on their faces as The Vastness shrieked at top volume.
“You are everything,” said Jara, face in the dirt.
Kango flung himself into his pilot seat aboard the Spicy Meatball and tried to lift off, but the entire airspace consisted of pretty much nothing but explosions, dotted with the occasional deadly warship. Barely a few hundred yards off the ground, the Spicy Meatball was forced to go into a dive to avoid a huge chunk of burning debris. Kango and Noreen screamed in unison.
“You know,” said Horace. “I’ve heard it said that death is what makes life meaningful. In that case, I am about to create more meaning than all of the artists in history combined.”
Kango was a blur as he tried to steer through the flaming obstacle course.
At last, they reached the upper atmosphere . . . just as some terrible presence appeared directly beneath them. It was just a dark shape that blotted out their view of Salubrious IV. Sharon struggled to make out any details for a moment, and then she saw some undulating barbed tentacles, and she knew.
“No,” said Sharon. “They released the planet-eater.”
“Is that Liberty House’s last line of defense?” asked Jara, fascinated by the shape on their external viewer.
“No,” Kango said. “They made it for a party years ago. It basically just eats planets, much as its name implies. And we’re between it and The Vastness. Hold tight!”
“To what?” Sharon demanded.
The planet-eater thrashed around as it forced its way out of the atmosphere of Salubrious IV and tried to swim toward The Vastness. The planet-eater’s uncountable limbs lashed out, trying to pull everything in their path into the one enormous maw at its center. One of those huge barbed tentacles swiped within a few feet of the Spicy Meatball . . . which dodged, and nearly ran into another flotilla of Joykiller-class attack ships.
“Hall and Oates!” Sharon cursed.
“You are everything!” Jara cried out.
“Keep it down, you two,” Kango growled. “It’s hard enough trying to make evasive maneuvers between pretty much everything deadly without also having to listen to a lot of religious mumbo jumbo.”
“Oh, as if you have it all figured out,” Sharon said. “Your only religion is exhibitionism. I swear, the next time we have a plan that relies on a diversion—a contained, sensible diversion—that can be my job.”
“Sure!” Kango spun the ship on its axis to scoot past a planet-eater tentacle, then veered sharply to the left to avoid a spread of Obliteron missiles. “Because you’re such a genius at strategy, and that’s how we ended up with a stupid ultimate weapon on board!”
“I’ll have you know I am quite intelligent,” Horace protested. “And there are mere minutes before my devastation wave is launched from the galactic core. Once it begins, it will sweep the entire galaxy in no time at all!”
“Hey, I did my best,” Sharon said to Kango. “It’s not as if it was my idea to—” She stopped, because Jara was staring at her. “What?”
“You’re doing it again,” Jara said. “You’re acting as though each of you is The Vastness to the other. I wish I knew how you do that. I’m going to die soon too, and even with The Vastness close at hand, I’ll die alone and for no real reason. You are everything!”
“Listen, Jara,” Sharon said, ignoring her nausea as Kango did a series of barrel rolls to avoid explosions that came close enough to rattle her teeth. “Listen. The Vastness is only everything because it’s incredibly limited. It can’t even see all the things it’s not. It’s like a giant stupid ignorant blob of . . . wait. Wait a minute!”
“What?” Kango said. “Did you think of something super super clever?”
“Maybe,” Sharon said, praying to Hall and Oates that she was right. She ran over and pulled the stolen synchrotrix out of the strongbox, then started wiring it into Horace’s core as fast as she could. “Remember what you told me was special about this device?”
“The fact that it’s worth a lot of chits?” Kango pulled the Spicy Meatball’s nose up so fast, Sharon nearly did a backflip while keeping one hand on Horace. “It’s got a nice color scheme? It has the ability to neutralize . . . oh. Oh!”
“You are everything!” Jara said.
The planet-eater had finally gotten past all of the attack ships that had tried vainly to slow it down. Now it had reached The Vastness, opening the vast gnashing maw at the heart of its starfish-like body to try and devour the mega-planetoid. The planet-eater embraced The Vastness with its many limbs.
Sharon gripped Jara’s shoulders so hard, her knuckles were white. “Tell The Vastness we’ve got the ultimate weapon, right here on our ship. We can help The Vastness to become completely unstoppable. And The Vastness really will be everything, in an even better way than before.”
Jara looked like she was about to cry. “You want me to lie to The Vastness.”
“No,” Sharon said. “Yes. Sort of. Not really. It’s the only way.”
“I’m just moments away from a glorious consummation,” Horace said. “It’s at times like this that I feel like composing a sonnet.”
“Jara,” Sharon hissed, “now!”
“I’m trying,” Jara said, shutting her eyes and concentrating. “The Vastness doesn’t really listen. It just talks. I’m sending the message as hard as I can.”
The Vastness reached out with a beam of energy, trying to seize the Spicy Meatball. Sharon rushed to the rear airlock with Horace, cobbled together with the synchrotrix. She tossed them out, and The Vastness’s energy field captured them, pulling them through one of The Vastness’s slavering eyemouths inside its guts.
They were inside The Vastness’s own atmosphere, close enough to hear its eyemouths shouting through their countless razor-sharp teeth. “I am everything! Now I have this ultimate weapon, my power will be absolute. I will be all things, and every living being will shout my praises. I am—”
Sharon watched through the airlock as The Vastness vanished from space.
In the space where The Vastness had been, a bright purple-and-green fissure was opened up. The crack in spacetime was huge enough to let Sharon see through it as The Vastness was drawn toward the supermassive black hole at the core of the galaxy.
“You are everything,” Jara said, sorrowfully, standing next to Sharon.
And then The Vastness was no longer visible—but in its place, there was a huge distortion enveloping the black hole at the core of the galaxy.
“The biggest Embarrassment the galaxy has ever seen,” Kango breathed from the flight deck.
And then the purple-and-green fissure closed, leaving a badly injured planet-eater, several thousand confused Joykiller-class starships, and the Spicy Meatball.
“We did it,” Kango said, seeming semi-permeable with astonishment.
“The Vastness followed Horace’s program and ended up at the galactic core,” Sharon said. “And then it Embarrassed itself.”
“I just killed my god.” Jara looked as though she was too shocked even for tears.
“Look at it this way,” Sharon said. “You told the truth. Mostly. The Vastness is everywhere and everything now, in a way. And it always will be with you. And it can never be defeated. You can worship The Vastness forever.”
“I don’t know.” Jara tried saying, “You are everything,” but it wasn’t the same when it came in response to nothing.
“Well, meanwhile,” Kango said. “We lost the synchrotrix that we were counting on to pay our bills. And we lost the super-weapon, too. So, we’re even more broke than we were before. Unless we can convince Mandre Lewis that we just saved the galaxy.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Sharon said, then turned back toward Jara. “But what are you going to do? There’s a huge fleet of ships out there, full of your fellow acolytes, and they desperately need some direction. Plus, this star system is rich in resources and technology, and it just had all its planetary defenses wrecked. You could go back to Salubrious, with all your people, and become a Countess for real.”
“Maybe,” Jara said. “Or maybe I could go with you guys? I feel like I have a lot to learn from you two. And I’m not sure I’m ready to explain what happened to the other acolytes.”
“Sure. How do you feel about helping to open a restaurant? Do you know how to make a tableclot?” Kango threw the Spicy Meatball headlong into an escape course before anybody could try to blame them for all the property damage. Behind them, the ruins of Salubrious IV sparkled with the dying light of countless fires as the tributary ships of The Vastness began, hesitantly and confusedly, to make planetfall.
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