This story also appears in the anthology COSMIC POWERS, edited by John Joseph Adams. Available April 18, 2017 from Saga Press.
Beeblax beats its wings against a superlumic slurry of time and space, and the universe turns to liquid starlight in its periphery; inside rides Aria Astra—Stellar Champion of the Star Supremacy, Wielder of the Sister Ray, Spacetrotting Coolgal, and Humanity’s Last Hope—nestled within a blob of translucent pink jellymeat, and it is totally cool and only a little disgusting.
This jelly is Beeblax, or at least the material Beeblax that Aria’s senses can perceive, or at least the phenomenon of Beeblax that exists in the moment of Aria’s perception. And Aria perceives an infinity of Beeblax all around her, a measureless swarm only slightly obscured by jelly and motion, and within each one is a different iteration of herself—every Aria that has or would ever travel with Beeblax in every possible universe, all shooting through the same hyperstream along a single chain of moments, like motes of dust dancing on a sunbeam.
Aria takes a long, sweet snort of it/them. The taste evokes a memory of roses in their platonic ideal, and she enjoys the anagogic tingle of Beeblaxness in her lungs. There is a little piece of her that is afraid—the horny, angry, frightened pigbaby that skulks in the limbic sewer at the bottom of the brain. You’re drowning in slime, babe, it says. Engage complete autonomic freakout. But Aria is like, Nah pig. This is chill. Don’t fuck this up for me. And she does not let it fuck it up for her. Her breaths are as deep and slow as those with which gods animate universes.
“Still,” says Beeblax, continuing a conversation it and every iteration of Aria had been having since like forever. “Like, even if the right glop is out there for me, how am I supposed to know? Am I supposed to become better for them, or am I supposed to stay the same forever so they can recognize me? If we merge into a singular perfect being, will I still be able to hang out with the homies and eat breakfast for dinner? Or will I have to eat brunch? I hate brunch. Brunch is like someone turned eating into a job. I just want to eat breakfast in my underwear.”
Beeblax does not speak so much as psychically harmonize with the vibrations of Aria’s soul. It tickles a little, spiritually speaking, but Aria is giving Beeblax serious counsel here, so she keeps her soul from laughing.
“But that’s the dream though, right?” she says/thinks. “To find someone with whom to share underwear times, both casual and saucy.”
“That’s what they say,” Beeblax psychically harmonizes. “But there’s more to life than kissy face bullshit. Every moment I spend with some glop doing the same old whatever is a moment disappeared into universal nothingness. I’ll never get those possible experiences back, right? So even if I’m the happiest I could be, I am still limiting my potentiality. But then again, when it’s over, I feel terrible.”
“Aren’t you a fifth-dimensional cosmic constant? Is lost time really an issue?”
“I’m dumbing it down for you. I feel like we’re having some good real talk, and I don’t want to glop it up with a lecture on the nature of the universe and/or my existence that would goop up your mindhole. I don’t eat brunch either. That’s just some shit I stole out of your brain to convey meaning in absence of a shared reference point. Just go with the metaphor.”
“That’s cool. I’m just saying. I think you’re overthinking it. You gotta just let these things happen.”
“I know. I know everything. It’s just hard sometimes. The glop of life is long and boring.”
Sometimes, another Beeblax will glide over to them, and Aria will see one of her other selves up close. They are mostly all the same, differentiated mainly by affectations: clothes and hair and a few years given or taken. And Aria wonders if the other Arias are on the same mission as she is in their universes, or if they are just kicking it with Beeblax, just for whatevs. Beeblax is a cool bro, if a little needy, and also the easiest way to travel across galaxies on the cheap, and she would not mind just chilling with him for a minute, especially if it meant not having to do the stuff she is supposed to be doing—her job or whatever. She wonders if the other hers are as feelingsy about the whole thing as she is, or if her emotionality is unique, the defining characteristic of herself and thus her universe. And then she thinks of Zarzak, watches it dancing in her mind, feels a warmth in her chest, sighs. She is unable to get the Zarzak thought out of her mind, and she finds herself unable to discern the goodness or badness of the thought. She can only experience it, watch the image in her mind’s eye and feel the sensations rippling inside her. And even though she knows it is some space bullshit, it is pleasant.
“Oh Beeblax. ‘Tell me, where is fancy bred? Or in the heart or in the head?’”
“I get that reference. I get all references. My knowledge of references is absolute. But there exist none who can swim in the reference pool of Beeblax. So like, what’s the point of anything?”
“I kind of wanted to talk about my thing, but whatever, I guess. Just chill. You’re dope as hell, Beeblax. I’m sure you’ll find someone you can glop with.”
“That’s not what glop means, even in transconception.”
“Okay, Beeblax. Okay.”
“I’m kind of just dealing with some stuff right now and it’s messing me up in ways beyond your reckoning.”
“It’s okay. I get it. It’s cool.”
The rest of the trip is quiet and kind of weird. At an appointed moment known only to Beeblax, it/they spits Aria out into the cosmos (without saying goodbye). She is submerged in impossible geometries and unthinkable colors as her mind struggles to readjust to her native umwelt. It’s not that cool, though, so she doesn’t really think about it. Soon enough, her particles begin to resonate at familiar frequencies, and the universe coheres, and she sees points of light whizzing past her, stars and planets and other space shit, as she flies through the darkness. A thin layer of Beeblax clings to her skin, which is mad gross but also it keeps her from dying.
She sees the cosmic being known as the Drowning King in the distance, arms flailing, body shaking, desperately clawing at the vast emptiness of eternity. No one knows how long the Drowning King has been drowning. He has maybe existed since forever, unable to breathe, unable to die, or perhaps dying very, very, very slowly. As she comes closer, his figure grows larger and larger until her field of vision is completely filled with him. The jelly begins to burn as she enters his atmosphere, and, wreathed in golden jelly flames, she pretends that she is a phoenix. She lands on a crystal at the center of his crown, a diamond as expansive as an ocean. The jelly absorbs the impact of her landing, then sloughs off, and she notices a bulge in her pocket that was not there before. She finds a personal cassette player and cassette tape wrapped in a note:
I’m not supposed to do stuff like this, but take this. It is the most perfect mixtape that could ever exist. Sorry for being a glop.
The label on the cassette tape says Nothing Adds Up in block letters.
The note bursts into sparks after she reads it, and Aria rolls her eyes before putting the tape and personal cassette player in her bag. She draws the Sister Ray—which is a cool space gun she stole from an uncool science bro who had mastered manipulation of matter but had not mastered avoiding punches to his face—and sets it to naviform mode, and fires on the ground beneath, intending to make use of some of that good good carbon. The material slowly rises up and begins to rearrange on an atomic level, slowly taking the shape of a vehicle. Aria uses the jetbike setting, as that is the dopest way of traveling across ancient, planet-sized alien gods, no doubt.
• • • •
There are petals floating in the breeze, dozens of hundreds of them caught in the star-sweet exhalations of the Drowning King. Aria reaches out with her left hand to catch them as she flies, and when she catches one, she gives herself a point; when she has twenty points, she turns up the speed of her jetbike a little more.
Already, she has accelerated past safety and reason, and she flies so fast now that the landscape is rendered into a blurry approximation of impressionist watercolors behind her. She can only just make out the petals before they are between her fingers, and it is increasingly difficult to distinguish reflex and intuition; this difficulty is pleasant to her, and she thinks that soon there will be no difficulty at all, only motion, and that she will lose herself in velvety self-abnegation, make herself into an animated koan. But when her hand is so full of petals that she can no longer snatch them from the air, she opens her palm and allows them all to drift away, and she watches them flutter in the corner of her eye, feels the procession of silken tingles on her skin, pretends that the petals are emerging from inside. In these moments, she thinks that she might, in retrospect, forgive the universe for everything.
The Drowning King’s eyebrow is a sort of strange forest, dense with lifeforms speciated somewhere between plant and fungi clinging to massive hairs extending upwards past visibility. Aria has been riding for days now, and the scenery is a pleasant change from the vast, empty wastes of his starlit forehead. She could’ve taken a more direct route, but she has always been a romantic by nature, unable to resist the magic of the scenic route.
She thinks of Zarzak again and feels a delicious shiver, and then she tries very much not to think of Zarzak, which is extremely difficult—Zarzak is wonderful, wondrous, everything you could want and more. To not think of Zarzak is to not think at all. This is how the universe works now.
A cramp hits her stomach, and soon the pain is overwhelming. She pulls over next to a web of fuzz and blue-green slime protruding from one of the Drowning King’s hairs. She expels a throbbing lump of semi-solid pink from the hurt in her belly. The frequency of its vibrations begin to intensify, so as to harmonize with the neural oscillations of Aria’s thoughts, and, having locked into a perfect fifth, the lump begins to expand, taking on a human figure, though still cast in pink stickiness.
“Agent Aria?” it buzzes. “This is Quark-4 transmitting from Star Station Emeraude. Do you read me?”
The pink cannot distinguish signal from noise, and the simulacrum continuously shakes, swirls, melts—Quark-4’s features getting lost and found again in the tessellating flutters of afterimage and static. Was Quark angry? Worried? Sad? The voice betrayed nothing, and the face was chaos.
“Agent Aria,” it says. “What is your status? Report immediately.”
Aria runs her fingers along its shifting edges, tracing Quark as she remembers her, her lines, her angles, her smile. Aria was real tight with Quark-3, who was super chill and great at kissing or whatever, but Quark-4 is an asshole, super serious and unsympathetic and kind of weird on social stuff.
“I’m here,” says Aria. “Everything’s cool. Just Aria, please.”
“I’m on my way. Maybe a couple more days to the eye.”
“Seventy percent of known galaxies have succumbed to the Zarzak Contagion. Within days, it will have expanded to the edge of the universe. All other agents have been lost. You are our only hope.”
“Yeah, that’s cool, but to be super clear here, I am not an agent. ‘Slave’ seems like a really harsh word, and I don’t really want to use it because of some historical stuff on my home planet and my whole ethno-racial deal that you probably don’t know about, but you have to really chill on the ‘agent’ talk.”
“Agent Aria! You have one week to save the universe!”
Quark freezes on the last word. Her image is still deformed by time and distance, but the face is stuck in a pleading expression, mouth open, wide eyes, eyebrows arched along a sentimental curvature. Aria puts her finger in the nose. It’s not super hilarious, but it is sort of funny.
The image deflates into a little pink ball, and Aria stores it back in her tummy hole before setting off again. As she rides, she thinks about how Zarzak has almost certainly spread to Earth, which means that everyone she has ever known has been affected. It’s funny to imagine the people she knew in her old life in love with a weird space monster. Derrick, who broke up with her for being “like, weirdly volatile about dumb stuff” is now in love with a space monster. Her ex-roommates Angie and Diane, who used to order pizza without telling her and secretly eat the pizza in Angie’s room without telling Aria or asking if she wanted in, are now in love with a space monster. Funny, right? But then she thinks about her mom and her sisters and her middle school history teacher Mr. Jacobs and all the people she knew who were kind and of good will, and she feels sad for them, but also kind of happy for them too, because Zarzak is actually pretty amazing.
• • • •
Aria decides to take a cigarette break at the edge of the Drowning King’s eye, stopping next to a colossal metal structure which she hypothesizes is keeping the eyelid open. Balancing the Sister Ray in the crook of her right arm and leaning against her jetbike, Aria rolls a paper and some purple flakes into a cigarette. She puts it in her mouth and lights it with the tip of the Sister Ray. Space cigarettes are nicotineless garbage, but they’re better than nothing. She closes her eyes and takes a long drag and holds it as long as she can, and her lungs hurt pleasantly, like they have been out in the summer sun too long.
She puts on the headphones and plays Beeblax’s mixtape. It is mostly alien music, arrhythmic and atonal and difficult to listen to, and the cassette quality is not great. She gives it a chance for a few songs, but it is too terrible for her to bear, and she turns it off before the fourth song can begin. Her eyes are full of smoke when she opens them, and when it clears, she notices there is a braincube lurking across the way, on the edge of a canyonesque pore.
“Fuck,” she says.
The braincube is eight feet by eight feet by eight feet of wrinkly, pink meat. It slides along the ground slowly, greasily, with a sound like an inverted burp. Aria rushes to her feet, but it is too late. Already, she can feel the braincube’s poisonous thoughtwaves in her mind. Nausea. Pain. Ennui. Weltschmerz. Anomie. Heartbreak.
All at once.
“Aria points the Sister Ray at the braincube,” she says, “But then she realizes that she is saying that she is pointing the Sister Ray at the braincube rather than actually doing it. This is probably an effect of the toxic psychoradiation she is being bombarded with.”
Fuck you, braincube.
“It shambles ever closer, so close now that Aria’s nostrils burn with the stink of sparked neurons and putrid glial residues. Aria tries to once again distinguish between saying things and doing things, but it is difficult. She thinks this might be interesting from a philosophical perspective, but she is probably going to die too quickly to really get into it.”
The braincube is the worst of all possible cubes.
“Drops of fear-sweat collect on her forehead and glisten in the starlight. She struggles to move her feet. They do not move. She is desperate. She has to do something if she is not to be braincubed. She tries to think with the part of her brain that is not a brain but is actually a robot. She thinks she might—”
—be getting the hang of it again, but she is—
“—not sure if she has it yet. Or if she ever had it at all.”
The anomie is not helping.
“Then, at the last possible moment—,”
Aria leaps back. The braincube is still up in her business, but there is room now for reprisal. She crouches and points the Sister Ray. She goes down, down-right, right, punch. This would cause her to shoot her raygun if this were a video game, but this is not a video game. It is real life. Again, toxic psychoradiation is some bullshit.
“Goddamn it,” she says, before adding, “There is no God. We are all nothing in a sea of nothing.”
The emotional pain is unbearable. Aria can barely remain conscious. Baring its teeth, the bearcube rotates such that its mighty clawed corner comes down on Aria’s face, adding physical pain to the mix. Blood pours from the wound, spraying Aria’s shirt and the nearest side of the bearcube. The bearcube does not stop. It is relentless and without mercy. It spins around and around, murderously, and when it has cut her enough, it rolls itself on top of her body. She reaches out with her left hand to push it away, and the pain she experiences is as if she has plunged her hand directly into a star. Teeth tear and shred and gnash at her fingers. She tries to pull her hand away, but she is weak from pain and blood loss and also the bearcube is a real motherfucker. She cannot escape. She cannot breathe. This is it. This is the end. She can only look into the wall of fur and listen to the crackle of bones and—
There is not supposed to be blood inside of her. The fluids inside her are purple and viscous and cold. Nor does she need to breathe. Like, it’s cool thing to do when you want to smell stuff, but it’s not necessary for her survival. Plus, wasn’t it a brain or something a minute ago? Nothing about this is adding up.
Her fingers struggle to find the walkman at her waist. They will not remain steady. They tremble like she is telling a scary story or doing a magic trick. But they soon they find their quarry. She presses play.
Almost. The bearcube shifts just as her index finger is on the button, pinning her hand down under its weight. The bearcube is everywhere and everything, and the world is going dark. She thinks she may be slipping in and out of consciousness, but it is difficult to tell. Was she unconscious just now? Or did she just blink? Does it matter? She cannot see anything anymore. It is not darkness. Darkness is a thing. She sees nothing. The void. The end.
“Fuck everything,” she whispers.
She can’t die here. She summons all her remaining Arianess and tries to pull her hand from under the bearcube. It does not move. Too much weight on it. Then, redoubling her Arianess, and trying her very best to scream, she tries to wrench her other hand free of the bearcube’s clutches. The intact pieces of meat and bone are stuck in the bearcube’s teeth, and it does not want to let go. It bites down harder. Aria pulls. This is not a pleasant experience.
When she is finished, she reaches over with the stump and slams it against the buttons on the walkman. Again and again. And then there is music. An Earth song. Disco. A girl singing a song about lust over trippy synthesizers and trembling static.
The braincube is across the way, and Aria is not dying or dead. Awesome. The Sister Ray is still pointed at it. The music blasts in her ears, and she can no longer feel the braincube in her mind. She is about to pull the trigger, but she sees that the braincube is shaking slightly. She does not know if this is a natural part of the braincube’s biology, or if the braincube is experiencing fear. She lowers her raygun slightly.
“What’s your deal?” she asks.
There is a long wait, and then Aria imagines Zarzak and the braincube dancing together. The thought is gentle, fleeting, and at first she thinks it is just a stray imagining. But then, there is another image of Zarzak and the brain together, and then another. And Aria sees the braincube in her mind’s eye, smaller now, alone amongst an array of bizarre xenostructures—a park maybe, a playground? And Aria sees the braincube alone, covered in a purple slime, surrounded by other braincubes in groups of three to five, also covered in slime. She sees a ship, hears an explosion, feels the sickly squeeze of hyperspace in her gut, all punctuated by images of Zarzak. But then disaster. The ship crashes, and the braincube is alone again, its brainbody bloodied, its transport reduced to rubble. In the end, the image of Zarzak is flashed over and over again. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak.
“Okay. I get it.”
The image fades.
Aria stomps her cigarette out and gets on her jetbike.
“Later,” she says.
Before she can go, she is bombarded by images of the braincube dying, starving, murdered, dead. A stack of braincubes teetering mournfully on braincube planet. The sound of silence.
Aria looks back at the trembling cube. “What do you want?”
Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak.
“Stop doing that.”
A small, simple ship flying up and away from the Drowning King, escaping homeward.
“Fuck you,” she says, but she straps the braincube to the back of the jetbike. It is very awkward. She does not like the squishy feeling of the braincube pushing on her back, and its size and shape completely mess up her aerodynamics and balance.
“We’re not friends,” she says, as they begin the journey across the eye.
• • • •
Aria starts noticing them just after passing from sclera to iris. First, a single Driffle lying on the surface of the eye, bleeding cloudstuff from a wound at its side. Unable to speak its language, she seals its wound with the Sister Ray and goes about her business. Then there is a bruised Ceterian limping toward the pupil. Aria approaches to offer aid, but the Ceterian yells at her with all its mouths and is way uncool, so she bounces. She sees more and more lifeforms as she travels, some of familiar species, some entirely new to her, each one traveling alone. Many are injured, but all those that are conscious persevere.
This is unexpected. To the extent that there exists mutually understood, enforceable law across galaxies, visiting the Drowning King is a super-serious offense, as it is generally agreed across culture and species that fucking around with ancient space gods is not a good idea. Nobody wants to awaken anything that’s gonna take over/destroy everything. Better to just leave shit alone. Aria had expected to see a few desperate types hanging out, possibly sent by their own planets to deal with this shit, but she had not anticipated seeing this surfeit of weirdoes.
The brawl starts around the pupil, just as the Spire of Zarzak comes into view.
“Holy fuck,” Aria says.
It extends for miles, and there are far too many participants to count. Millions at least. Aliens of all kinds, wondrous creatures with strange physiology and technology unknown on Aria’s side of the universe, and all of them are going fucking ham. They punch each other with fists as large as boulders, choke each other with dripping tentacles, fly into the air and fire mind lasers, pilot shiny death robots and mechanized animal hybrids, sing songs that melt bones, etc. The fighting appears indiscriminate. There are no sides, no rules: just violence. There are screams of all sorts: pain, anger, fear—but Aria is capable of making out only one word:
These are the Fuckboys of Zarzak, the obsessives, the stalkers, the jealous assholes. Most lifeforms are content to keep Zarzak in their heart, quietly nursing a sweet, peaceful love that is patient and kind and crosses time and space without envy or anger. But these motherfuckers are clearly not keeping it together, and Aria is unsure how to proceed. She sees herself blasting the shit out of all of them with the Sister Ray, and for a moment, she is unsure if it is her own thought or the braincube’s.
“I told you to stop doing that. It’s not cool. Anyway, we need the power of chill vibes, not aggro shit,” says Aria. But she allows herself to imagine blasting the shit out of all of them with the Sister Ray. It is a pleasant thought, especially with the knowledge that these people are all jerks perverting all that is beautiful and awesome about Zarzak, and she hopes that the braincube did not hear her think that. She puts Beeblax’s mixtape on again, hoping there might be a song with the power of chill vibes on it. But no. Just more alien noise.
“I guess we do this the hard way.”
Aria revs the jetbike and drives straight into the crowd, weaving through the combatants, dodging their attempts on her and each other. The ungainliness of the braincube is initially a hindrance, bringing her within a hair’s breadth of getting decapitated by a giant psycho mantis and then burned by a living explosion and then brought asymptotically close to absolute zero by a slug guy. But soon enough she settles into a rhythm, and she realizes that the fighting is not quite as indiscriminate as she first thought. There are some conventions, some strategy. The Fuckboys are trying to approach the Spire while also trying to keep all other fuckboys away from the Spire. Given the choice, most will focus their efforts more on preventing those behind them from progressing than impeding those already ahead of them. They all seem very angry that Aria is effectively cutting the line, but none of them do anything to stop her once she has passed.
It takes about a day to get through it all.
• • • •
The base of the spire is a great machine drilling into the eye of the Drowning King. There are many Fuckboys here, and these ones seem extra rowdy, but there is also a golden robot calmly sitting on a long series of steps leading to the entrance, not fighting anyone. This is a surprise to Aria, as she had begun to forget that it was even possible to not be engaged in 24/7 fisticuffs. The Fuckboys mostly ignore the robot and the area immediately surrounding it. None follow Aria when she approaches it.
“Madness,” says the robot when it sees her. “They have forgotten why they even started this journey in the first place.”
“You speak English,” says Aria.
“I am familiar with all the languages of this arm of the universe, and my subroutines generate probable languages at a rate of one million per cycle. You are a human of Earth, yes?”
“Basically. I’m from there, anyway.”
“Yes. This truly is madness. All wish to enter this spire, yet none will deign to allow another entry. Their minds are clouded with a foolish passion.”
“Yeah. That’s kind of why I’m here.”
The robot stands. “I am T.A.R.C.T.I.L., the Tactical Assault Robot Created to Increase Love. I was designed to ensure the continued existence of love in this universe, yet I will never love or be loved myself.”
“Oh. Cool. My name is Aria. That’s not my real name, but I just sort of go by that now.”
“So, uh, are you with Zarzak, or are you just chilling or what?”
“I have no formal affiliation with the being known as Zarzak, and I lack the capacity to experience the love of Zarzak as other sentients do. I am here of my own accord, to guard the gates of this spire and stop those who might interfere with Zarzak.”
“And why is that?”
“I exist only for the propagation of love, and Zarzak is the fulfillment of love.”
“What? No. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s dumb.”
“All the universe now knows love. This is the fulfillment of love, the ultimate form of love, a love that enmeshes all.”
“I mean, Zarzak’s cool and all, but that’s not what love is. Being forced to love a weird space monster is not love.”
“Zarzak forces nothing. Zarzak asks nothing of those who love it. Zarzak plants the seed and allows it to flower. Does one ever choose to love? Love is always an imposition by fate and biology.”
“It’s still not real.”
“What makes love real? If there is no difference between the thing and its simulacrum, then both are as real as the other.”
“It’s creepy and wrong. It’s in my head, in everybody’s head.”
“Zarzak provides only warm feelings toward an abstraction. All may exist as they are, only with love in their hearts.”
Uninterested in pursuing this line of inquiry further, Aria sighs and reaches for the Sister Ray. Before she can even touch it, T.A.R.C.T.I.L. grasps her wrist. Its grip is painful and unyielding. With its other hand, it holds a glowing laser pistol to her head.
“I do not wish to harm you, Aria, but I will do what I must. I am armed with the most advanced weaponry in the universe. I am trained in every martial practice. None can stand against T.A.R.C.T.I.L. when love is on the line.”
Aria slowly raises her arms. “It’s cool. I’m chill. I get it.”
T.A.R.C.T.I.L. lets her go but keeps its weapon trained on her.
“If you wish to continue our discourse, I would allow it. If not, I will ask you to leave this place.”
Aria nods, sits down, and begins talking. She tries to convince T.A.R.C.T.I.L. that it is wrong. The task is next to impossible. Aria martials every ounce of rhetorical ability within her, but is essentially only able to restate her core premises, i.e. that love of Zarzak is a violation of consent and that love created through artifice is both qualitatively distinct from and materially inferior to that love which might be called natural. Each of her arguments is met with a dozen counter-arguments, every premise is found contradictory, every conclusion is found wanting. T.A.R.C.T.I.L. weaves a web of rhetorical bullshit the likes of which Aria has never witnessed before. All the classical methods fail: Socratic, Hegelian, getting angry and saying a bunch of swears. There is no dialectic, no synthesis.
We are at Sophistry Level Infinity.
The braincube manages to tumble off the jetbike and squish over. Its awkward interjections of imagery and thought do little to progress the discourse, but Aria is able to find some comfort leaning against it as the hours and then days go by. Three whole days, at first filled with conversation, then mostly silent, as Aria can only occasionally summon a useful thought or concept. She goes so far as to engage T.A.R.C.T.I.L. on the nature of robotic epistemology and cyber-existentialism, attempting to leverage her own status as a cyborg to get into the nature of free will and emotion and materialism. She even throws in a few logical paradoxes.
No dice. T.A.R.C.T.I.L. is unmoved.
Aria and the braincube start playing a mental game on the second day, something from the cube’s home planet. It is kind of like backgammon, but obscenely complex, and part of the game is thinking about the move you are going to make, which is different than thinking to make the move. After a full day of getting trounced, she feels that she is very close to winning, which doesn’t matter because this game is dumb, but then she loses again, and she imagines herself flipping over the board in anger. And she realizes she is now truly into this game for real, as the pleasure of winning is dwarfed by the pain of defeat, and this sparks an epiphany.
“I am T.A.R.C.T.I.L.”
“Yeah. I know. I was just thinking, isn’t the very fact that I don’t believe this love is real a sign that this love is unfulfilled and imperfect?”
“It is common for sentients to not understand that the emotions they experience are love.”
“Yeah. Super common. Still imperfect. If your goal is the fulfillment of love, then shouldn’t the universal knowledge of it be its ultimate form?”
“And you know, I think there’s only one way peeps know for sure that the love they had was definitely, definitely real.”
“And that is?”
“Take it away. Maybe you’re in love, maybe you’re not. It’s hard to say in the moment. But then when it’s gone, you can really feel it. Like somebody cut off an arm. Like somebody cut out your soul. Like somebody cut out your brain and put it in a space robot body. If you’re right and the love is real, if I go in there and stop it, everyone will know what’s up, that they experienced the truest, realest love possible. How is that not perfect?”
“Calculating. Please stand by.”
T.A.R.C.T.I.L. just stands there for a while, frozen, and Aria is just like, whatever. She thought it was kind of a dumb argument, but it’s cool that it worked. She tells the braincube to wait here. She gets the Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak. Zarzak from it again, but she is firm. She tells the braincube to stay safe and make good decisions, and she gives it a little hug despite herself. She waves her hand in front of T.A.R.C.T.I.L.’s eyes a few times to be sure, and then she enters the Spire.
• • • •
Zarzak is on a rotating pillar in the center of a small, red room at the top of the tower. The pillar throbs with strange, humming energy, presumably plumbed from within the Drowning King. Zarzak dances, fluid and shapeless, smoothly mimicking shapes as it flows across the pillar.
Aria has the Sister Ray pointed at Zarzak, but she cannot pull the trigger. Not because she loves Zarzak—no, definitely not that—but because she feels there should be more to it than this, more than just another moment. She has been dicking around on this mission for like two weeks, and she deserves a little drama, a little acknowledgement. She wants to be witnessed. She fires a warning shot and waves.
“Hey! Hello. Over here! I am Aria! I am from a planet called Earth. We have lots of cool things there. Like, uh, cats. And phones that have games on them. Chess. Democracy. Samosas. The French New Wave. Pirates. TV on the Radio. And TVs and radios. I mean, I haven’t been back in a while. It’s complicated. I’m not really ‘human’ or whatever anymore. I’m still trying to work out a good portmanteau. Starborg? Robogal? Something like that, but not dumb. Anyway, I am here on behalf of the Star Syndicate to fuck you up.”
Zarzak says nothing, but shapes itself into an abstract humanoid form, a ball floating above fleshy curves, and it dances.
Aria comes closer. “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
Zarzak dances. Aria tries to read the movements, tries to see an unctuous smirk and a cackle and a speech about being the most desired being in the universe or a pathetic snivel about wanting to be loved or a noble yet misguided diatribe on the mind-killing evils of loneliness. Something. Anything.
Zarzak just dances.
Aria does not know who built this place, if it was Zarzak or someone else, if Zarzak is conqueror or prisoner, monster or victim. She comes closer and closer.
It is said that the Sister Ray can kill gods. It is ancient and unknowable, like everything that matters. She points it at Zarzak, and Zarzak dances.
“This sucks,” she says.
She is going to pull the trigger. Totally. In just a second. Just a second. It is just very pleasant being here right now. Aria feels clean inside, not happy exactly, but clean, or maybe healed, and it is a nice sensation, again pleasant. Why not linger a while? It’s not like there’s exactly a time limit. Well, Quark said there was a time limit, but Quark is a doofus. No one ever got hurt by just hanging out. Just for a minute.
Aria begins to dance.
She offers Zarzak the Sister Ray. It slides a protrusion toward her and takes the Sister Ray.
Aria keeps dancing. She thinks it was probably a mistake to do that just now, and she thinks that she probably should have just shot it. She has never been good at just shooting things. She is too sentimental, too much of a romantic, too inclined toward forgiveness and non-violent talky times. The Zarzak Contagion is definitely way stronger up close, and she wishes she had considered that in advance.
Zarzak points the weapon at Aria.
“Shit. So you’re, like, definitely a bad guy, huh? Not even a cool bad guy. Just a dick.”
Aria wants to think of a cool thought before she dies, but she can’t really think of anything but how great Zarzak is. Bummer.
But before she can be murdered, the doors of the Spire fly open and T.A.R.C.T.I.L. appears, covered in weapons—lasers cannons and glowswords and particle whips extending from compartments all over its body. It charges them, and Aria is unsure which one it is after. Zarzak does not seem to care either way. It fires wildly, dance-dodging an incoming volley of ultra-missiles and laser spray.
Aria does not dodge but somehow manages to avoid getting hit. In the confusion, she leaps forward and reaches out for the Sister Ray. There is a quick tug of war, but Zarzak doesn’t even have real muscles. She takes the weapon and aims.
“You suck, dude. Like really.”
And she fires. Zarzak is hit directly, and Aria holds the beam down on it, causing Zarzak to be rearranged on a quantum level.
It is totally dope.
She stands, dusts herself off. Already, she can feel her mind getting right. Emotions are dumb, she decides. As a way-cool space cyborg, she should know better than to be seduced by a few warm fuzzies. She looks over to T.A.R.C.T.I.L., ready to continue the fight if necessary. It lies on the ground, bleeding from its left side.
She puts on her headphones again and presses play, and she sees the braincube there, missing many of its most important atoms. It didn’t get a full blast, but even a taste of the Sister Ray is enough to fuck up one’s shit.
Aria rushes over to the dying cube. And she is like, “Why?”
And the memory rushes in Aria’s mind.
“Fuck you,” she says, but she straps the braincube to the back of the jetbike. It is very awkward. She does not like the squishy feeling of the braincube pushing on her back, and its size and shape completely mess up her aerodynamics and balance.
And the braincube shows her all the times it was alone on braincube planet again, and then it shows them traveling and hanging out and playing mind games, and then the braincube dies.
Zarzak’s dance pillar begins to pulse, and the hum turns to a sickly screech. Without Zarzak doing whatever dumb thing he was doing, the equipment is freaking out. Or maybe the Drowning King just wants to get all of this stupid shit out of his eye. Either way, Aria has a feeling shit is about to get real.
“You’re carbon-based, right?”
She sets the Sister Ray to naviform mode, and she forms the braincorpse into a little ship. Nothing special, just dece enough to get them out of atmo. She really wishes she knew what the braincube’s actual name was, but she just names it the Braincube. It’s sort of cute, she thinks.
She gets into Braincube and flies away just as the Spire explodes. The universe is saved. Hurray. Great job.
As the Drowning King shrinks in the distance, Aria wonders, idly, if souls can attach to atoms or if they are more of a molecular thing. She does not know the answer, but she likes the idea of it.
“Tell me, Braincube. Where is fancy bred? Or in the heart or in the head?”
It is engendered in the eyes, she thinks, and she does not know if she is thinking it herself or if someone is thinking it for her or if she is just thinking about someone thinking it for her because she is a big softie. Is this a kind of love, this inability to distinguish sentiment from sentimentality? Perhaps T.A.R.C.T.I.L’s premise was wrong. Perhaps love already exists in infinite quantities all around us, subtly connecting us all together with little moments of affection and kindness and not attached to freaky alien buttholes.
“Okay. We can be friends now,” she says.