Science Fiction & Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

The Last to Matter

Kayn knew he was being rejected by the orgynism for almost a full year before it fully expelled him.

He could easily live a million years past this humiliation and never understand what he had done to deserve such a rejection from the collective that had loved him so well, for so long.

He had been one of the orgynism’s founders, the man who had provided its organizing principles and solicited the first participants, the architect who had drawn up the parameters for the pleasure-feedback loops, and as a result, he’d been honored to spend its many years of existence as the seed nexus around which all its carnality orbited. For all that time, the orgynism’s participants, male and female and neuter and recombinant, had always tithed some of their pleasure to his, their sensations flowing in his direction through the neural connections all had agreed to upon joining the collective, just as their other surgically implanted connections also provided him with oxygen for his lungs and nutrients for his blood. Pierced in all of a dozen places and piercing in a dozen others, he had known nothing but mindless bliss, at the orgynism’s core.

How lucky he had considered himself, at those rare moments when conscious thought had space to intervene, for living in a time when such things were possible!

One would think that the bastards would have damn well appreciated that.

Then, one by one, the connections were withdrawn, the devotion toward his pleasure above all else was sidelined, and the peristalsis of the dozens of interconnected bodies began to move him, bit by bit, toward the outskirts. The limbs of his many lovers now grasped him not in embrace but in firm urging toward the exit, and though they were gentle about it, taking more than a year to shift him from the orgynism’s center to its periphery, they also brooked no argument. He continued to feel pleasure. But, throughout, he also knew that he was being dispensed with.

At the end of the year, Kayn popped sweaty and glistening from the hovering sphere of bodies, and slammed to the soft floor a man-height below. The living tubes that had provided him with nutrients and euphoric drugs tore free of his flesh and slithered back into the ball of copulating bodies, there to disappear beneath the shifting landscape of shoulders and buttocks and ecstatic faces. Nobody whose features were exposed bothered to open their eyes and acknowledge his bereft status, his enforced farewell; not one of the women, not one of the men, not any of the recombinants said goodbye. As far as they were concerned, he was gone, and he was forgotten, as irrelevant to the orgynism as any other sight or sound of the world its pleasures locked out.

For some time, he sat moist and heartbroken below the throbbing ball of former lovers, lost in the novelty of separation. Then a portal opened on the wall to his right and his replacement, a creature with a half-dozen sets of complete sexual organs from forehead to midriff, undulated in, its naked form already studded with the necessary interfaces for the nutrient tubes and neurological feedback wires. It glanced at him, registering his predicament but not remarking on it, before turning away and striding the rest of the way to the orgynism Kayn had left and that it was now joining. One leap and the new lover was caught. The orgynism throbbed at the point of impact, and swallowed the newcomer whole.

Kayn considered fighting his way back into the collective, clawing with tooth and nail back to a dominant place at its center. But as devastated as he was, he knew that this would be a pathetic and doomed attempt at rape. He’d be outnumbered, for one thing. For another, now that not all of his consciousness was dominated by incoming sensation, the emptiness of the rutting that had occupied so many years of his life depressed him. Maybe that’s why his lovers had expelled him; they’d sensed his flagging commitment.

So he stood. He applied to the same portal the newcomer had entered for his own exit, passing through the surgical vestibule now tasked with rendering him respectable for the outside world. It first sprayed him with topical anesthetics, and then with flashes of whirring knives amputated the various extra sexual inlets and protuberances that he’d needed before but would not be using again, a dizzying flurry of male and female castrations and other surgeries coupled with accelerated healing that by the time he’d completed ten steps had restored him to his birth settings. As soon as he was whole, spray nozzles emerged from the walls, bathed him, and then covered him with a thin gloss of purple liquid that congealed as neck-to-ankle clothing. It was not clothing in the sense that it preserved modesty, in part because he had none; it simply conformed to the shape of his genitalia, displaying it in full openness as was only proper. It was also imbedded with connections to the machines that did all the city’s thinking, which anticipated his likely needs and informed him that there were currently still seventeen other orgynisms being maintained at various other locations around the city. Some were currently recruiting. He could resume his carnal pleasures with scarcely a pause for the gathering of breath. But the paucity of this number shocked him. When he founded his orgynism, there’d been more than three hundred others. Thirteen of the seventeen still in existence were full up, their participants having opted for full lobotomization in order to fight off any urges toward disbanding. Four had heard about his ejection, and had issued invitations to his account. He demurred and moved on. The door at the end of the vestibule slid into its recess and provided the newly-freed, freshly-clothed, sexually-refreshed Kayn back onto the street.

He composed a sonnet of heartbreak. He did this in the way anybody had written anything, in the last few millennia: by taking it upon himself to declare that such a thing should be written and mentally ordering the machines that ran everything to write one for him. It was produced at once, delivered to his cortex by the connection with the machines that was the birthright of all who lived.

What emerged was the worst sonnet ever.

He was no expert in poetry. Nobody was. That was why composing it had long since become the domain of the machines. Who wanted to go to all that effort, especially since no one would ever read it? Might as well let the machines take care of that impulse. But in past years, they would have come up with a good sonnet. This one was mostly made-up words, and still failed to scan.

How irritating.

He didn’t order a replacement. He just set about finding out what had become of the city during his years of distraction.

• • • •

Once, there had been tens of thousands of cities. They had hugged the shorelines and punctuated the rivers and marked the wider points in the road, wherever goods were carried from one place to another. They had occupied the places where the holes were dug in the earth so the resources could be ripped out; places where the crops were grown, where the tools were built, even where people went just to lay in the sun. Once there had been enough people to fill those tens of thousands of cities. Then many had fled Earth, launching themselves at a universe that seemed infinite with possibility. A few had come back saying that this had turned out not to be true, that the universe was in fact a cold and inhospitable place with little soil congenial to humanity; a few others had returned and said that this was nonsense, that the stars teemed with opportunities for those who possessed the courage to seize them, and that humanity’s diaspora had accomplished wonders undreamt of by those who had stayed behind. Either story could have been true. But it no longer mattered which, now. Eons had passed. The distant outposts had fallen silent. The constellations had gone dark. Most civilization had crumbled to dust. The descendants of the billions who stayed behind had dwindled to millions, and then to thousands.

Long before Kayn joined the orgynism, the city had shrunk in the ways cities do when there are no longer enough people to fill them. Entire sections had been claimed by the surrounding desert, even as others were built up to look more elaborate, more magnificent, more a play-palace for the residents who remained. When Kayn founded his orgynism, one could still venture out into the remaining streets and find a crowd, at any hour of the day or night (those being antiquated distinctions even by then, as the sun no longer shone brightly enough to make a proper day). But sometime since he first joined his lovers, the city’s masses had thinned out even more. Even on the first major thoroughfare Kayn investigated, there were almost no people, except for those who had elected to become trees and who stood at regular intervals, being watered by automatic systems, as they spread their arms and faced a sky that reflected their emptiness with its own.

Some of the trees could still talk and provided him with directions, an important service when the streets had changed orientation and no longer led to the right places, but they were trees and not capable of much conversation beyond that. So Kayn headed for the city center, where there was always activity to be had, and as he went he ran into some of his remaining neighbors.

He met a dandy being fitted for a suit more magnificent than any ever produced by any tailor. It was a glossy multi-colored thing that, the dandy told him, the mechanisms had been laboring to spin on his frame for several decades now. It was far too voluminous to permit physical movement and so the dandy sat at the center of enough frilled cloth to fill a space the size of a ballroom, only his face showing, like an egg being cradled by an acre of satin. Hand-mirrors orbited him, propelled by little puffs of compressed air that also served to dispense perfume. “I am beautiful,” he told Kayn. “I am the most beautiful thing alive.” It was his ambition to have fresh frills added to his ever-growing outfit for as long as the machines remained sufficiently operational to do so, at which point he would have himself injected with a plasticizing compound so he could spend what remained of eternity as his suit’s undecaying mannequin. Kayn commended him on his choice of performance art and moved on.

He met a woman who had decided to spend her years giving birth. She sat naked, her back against a wall, her legs splayed to facilitate the escape of her offspring, a glistening fetal something who while Kayn watched several times squirmed its way free of her birth canal, then climbed up her body to force its way back into her open mouth. This was its cyclical journey: escaping her, then escaping the outside world, then escaping her again. The woman was unable to tell Kayn why she’d chosen to spend her years this way, likely because her child’s constant invasions of her throat had ravaged her vocal cords, but the baby had the consciousness of an adult and was able to tell Kayn what it knew of the city’s recent history. There’d been some programmed revolutions, some happy genocides, the rise of some murderous despot or two who had painted the streets with blood until the city decreed that it was no longer their turn to have fun. Once, a murderer had been brought in, and the citizenry had amused itself being slaughtered by him. This, Kayn figured, accounted for much of the fallen population. But the baby informed him of something else that also made sense, given the squalor of the cityscape around him: that the machines that kept things running had been breaking down for years, and that as more and more of them stopped working, the servitors were only able to keep some neighborhoods running by scavenging parts from those that didn’t. Kayn took this with some excitement. He was starving for novelty and found being part of a crumbling civilization just what he needed. He thanked the baby for its time and moved on.

He passed a circular fountain, now dry and caked with clotted blood, where the skeletons of two human beings lay in a heap that suggested they’d died together. An old man sat throwing bread crumbs on the bodies, in order to enjoy the sight of the birds fluttering around the bones. Kayn asked what had happened and the old man said that there were any number of sights like this, tucked in this place and that: evidence of that killer who had been allowed to run amuck for a while, for the entertainment value that provided. Kayn, who had been murdered once or twice in his long life and did not care to have that happen again, asked if the pet killer had been disposed of once his novelty value was exhausted, and the old man said, “Oh, sure, sure; really, there’s only so much you can do with a creature like that, before they start to repeat themselves in unacceptable ways.” He sighed, pointed at the larger of the two skeletons and said, “That one was me.” Kayn bid the old man farewell and moved further into the center of the city, finding along the way that he had to traverse any number of places where passages were blocked by drifts of sand.

This is how he knew that he was getting closer to the place he sought.

• • • •

In outline the city resembled the infinity symbol, a pair of teardrop-shapes designed to converge at the narrowest points. This deliberate bottleneck was an intersection less than a hundred paces across at its narrowest point, open to the untouched landscape on both sides. It was a feature originally designed as a place of wonder, a plaza where the citizenry could pause and take in the unspoiled, or at least unpopulated, wilderness outside the city walls, reflect on the part of the world no one in the city ever needed, and move on, to whatever pleasures awaited in either of their home’s two halves.

The last time Kayn had been to this place, just before joining with the orgynism, the mechanisms that had kept the desert on both sides from intruding on this narrow bottleneck of civilization had already started to fail, and the pavement tiles had all felt gritty underfoot, a first sign that the sands had already begun to intrude. It was worse now. The drifts of gray sand now extended from one side of the narrow strip to another, fingers of pure decay well into the process of sundering the city’s two halves from one another. In the very center, the tiles had disintegrated completely, and Kayn did not just stumble over shifting sands but sink knee-deep into them. Something bit him in the leg. He cursed and dragged himself onto the tiles on the other side of the gap, pulling the buried creature along with him: He yanked it free of his leg, and examined the thing that had bitten him at arm’s length. It was a tiny thing as wide as his wrist, with a nearly human face but for the slit nose and lipless mouth, and little human arms, but a torso that trailed to a point rather than sprout legs. Everything below its waist looked like some turds do, when they’ve been inside the colon so long that they’ve taken on the wrinkles and folds of the surrounding tissue.

Kayn almost smashed the shit-thing dead, but then it said, “Don’t kill me!”

He grimaced but did not hurl it away as he would have wanted. “What are you?”

“I’m a man.”

Kayn said, “I don’t believe you.”

“Laugh all you want. I’m prepared for when the city’s gone. I’ll survive a lot longer than you. I’ll still be thriving in these sands when the sun goes cold.”

Blood, Kayn’s blood, dripped from the thing’s fangs.

Kayn said, “The sun’s gone cold. It made the news.”

“Colder,” the shit-thing clarified. “If it had gone out, we’d all be dead.”

“Cold enough. The desert won’t support life.”

“You’re half-right. It won’t support human life. You can’t go stumbling out there, trying to make a go of it, without freezing your nuts off. But life like me is still making a go of it, and will for a while yet. I’m the wave of the future. So feed me or let me go; I’m tired of your crap.”

Kayn almost hurled it to the tiles and stomped it to a greasy spot, but there are penalties to casual murder even in a city where murder can be arranged as a source of entertainment, and so he simply dropped it into the gap between the city’s decaying halves, and watched as it burrowed its way into the sands. He wondered if it was alone or if it was one member of a thriving colony, and if so, just what they fed on, down there, as it could not survive only on the blood of those like him, who stumbled in the crossing. And then he shrugged. In any city, even this one, it was possible to intercept any number of stories that had nothing to do with yourself, and if you did not want them to become your stories instead, you had to move on, banishing them to the status of footnotes or apocrypha.

He marched on, past the narrows, past a broken archway into the city’s other half, where after a while he began encountering other residents again. An emaciated but bearded woman, clad only in the few strips of clothing that had not yet rotted off her, nodded at him as she crossed an avenue, bearing a squirming human-shaped something in a sack on her shoulders. Two children, a rarity when he’d joined the orgynism, sat in a tree chattering nonsense at one another, and he spent a few minutes attempting to coax them down before realizing that, human or not, they were joined to the tree by stems, and enjoying life as its fruit. A man in a long multi-colored coat, ragged and bearded and mad, darted into a narrow alley lined with knives, that ripped pieces from him as he fled heedless into a potent darkness at its other end. Two other men played a variant of chess, only with many thousands of additional pawns and knights, across a game board so vast that their pieces had yet to contend with one another at the center of the board; both players were draped in drifts of dust, each one so involved in calculating the possible ramifications of any move that it might have been years since they had done anything but wait.

• • • •

It was only after he entered a neighborhood where none of the buildings had doors, where they were just unmarked monoliths offering no clue as to what they might have contained, that he found a place that had been once been one of his favorites. Prior civilizations would have called it an inn, or café, or restaurant. It served the same function with some adjustments for the nature of the way the city’s people interacted with one another. The last time he’d been here, centuries earlier, had been Poison Day and he had sat alongside two dozen other patrons there to soak up the novelty of dining and dying and dining and dying only to dine and die some more. It had been glorious. Today, of course, he didn’t want to feel his insides turn to fire inside him. He just wanted to plug himself back into whatever social intercourse the city could still provide, while making contacts for whatever grand joy came next. And so he entered the familiar room with its frescoes of hanging gardens, overjoyed to find it, if not full, then at least occupied by half a dozen others, including two old men locked in conversation, one lone man addressing his soup with what could only be described as grim determination, and a forlorn young woman with dark circles under her eyes, staring at her plate of something as if wholly uncertain what it was.

Kayn said, “Excuse me.”

The woman was silver-skinned, no doubt plated with the actual metal, a fashion choice that had been popular once upon a time. He supposed that it must be completely antiquarian now. So were her eyes, which were pink and lemur-large against cheeks buffed to a mirrored finish. She sat with her delicate hands palm-down on the table, flanking her bowl but making no move to lift it to her lips. But she was not forlorn enough to ignore Kayn’s hello. She met his gaze and released half-a-dozen syllables of purest gibberish in no language he knew, which was not all that unusual. Kayn had lived through entire renaissances of enthused linguistic experimentation where all of the city’s thousands had ordered the machines to design individual tongues for them, and had happily wandered the streets as citizens of Babel, content to not understand each other at all.

He pressed further: “Do you understand me?”

She cycled through a dozen tongues, some known to him, and some not, before arriving at the one he’d used to address her. “Can I help you?”

“Will you accept my company?”

“I wasn’t looking for company, but I don’t specifically object to it. I am willing to discuss anything but politics, morality, or the flattening effect of multiplying temporal paradoxes.”

“My full name is Adam Splendor Sadness Feline Igneous Ultimate Never Cul-De-Sac Untoward Synchronicity Leverage Cystic Beverage Arrogance Wholly Thirteen Cunnilingus Hummingbird Multiplication Kayn. You can call me Kayn.”

She provided her name, not a spoken syllable but a blast of tropical warmth, humid and filled with peat. “You can call me Peat. Please sit.”

“All right.” He sat opposite her, and let the table generate a meal for him, utensils and all. There was no mucking about with menus, sentient or otherwise. The establishment had tasted him and determined just what combination of foodstuffs was most appropriate for his current mood. What came, rising out of the solid table like the sun coming up on the horizon, was a bowl of something moving, something clearly sentient and alive, something that sang in soft, mournful despair as it awaited slaughter at the tip of his heated, six-pronged fork. He didn’t make it wait for very long, just stabbed through its tiny skull with one ruthless thrust, and lifted it to his mouth, feeling satiated as its death throes distributed what flavor it had. This had long been one of his favorite dishes. But today it was oily and bland, and when he was done chewing, it left an unpleasant gritty residue between his teeth. It was as if the sand of the surrounding desert had gotten into the synthesizers themselves.

She noted his displeasure and said, “You’re surprised. You must have been gone for a while. Orgynism?”

“Yes.”

“I was in one, about eight hundred years ago. It was a big one, with over a thousand participants, at its peak. It was bliss until one near the center went insane and started chewing his way out. I’m still missing some toes. How long have you been out?”

He told her.

“That explains your reaction to the food. You’re new to the way things have been falling apart.”

“I notice you’re not eating either.”

“I never do. I have no stomach. No internal organs of any kind. This,” she said, drumming her silvery digits on the table, “is what I’m made of now. I suppose I’ll last longer this way, when the city’s gone.”

“So it’s not a rumor.”

“No.”

He pointed at her food. “You ordered.”

“I wanted to sit. The table provided. But I outgrew food long ago. You should, too. The city won’t be making much more of it.”

He remembered the predictions of the shit-thing. “How much time do you think we still have? Months? Years? Centuries?”

“Who cares? It’s not like this place is fun anymore. We’ve seen everything. We’ve done everything. I’m only alive out of inertia.”

He said, “Up for suicide? I’ll join you, if that’s what you want.”

“I’ve done that,” Peat replied. “It didn’t take.”

“Then let’s get married.”

“I’ve done that a couple of dozen times, too. Once with you, in fact, though we weren’t the only people involved. But if you’d like to be in love for a while, just to pass the time, I’m willing to do that.”

“All right,” said Kayn.

Their courtship over, they both left the table, to make the necessary arrangements.

• • • •

They didn’t know each other and didn’t like each other much, but that was no longer an inconvenience, not when they were both available and there were still working machines dispensing love. It was just a matter of recalibrating their internal referents and setting what intensity they wanted, from mild affection to all-out raging, clothes-shredding passion. The first through fourth of the stations they investigated were all derelict, three merely devoid of power and one incapable of producing anything but flatulent noises, but the fifth they found, in a vacant bazaar on the seventh level of the abandoned Third Church of Gilgul the Materialist, was still capable of producing Love at some settings, albeit none of the better ones. As per his lifelong habit as a man more comfortable with receiving that emotion than feeling it, he took a dose two notches lower than hers, and felt a surge of deep affection while she elected to feel something more, something rich and genuine and pure.

There was no chance of a standard honeymoon night, not that he wanted one, after the sexual surfeit of his recent centuries. He may have still possessed the parts, but she did not. But companionship, she provided. They shared a bed and sometimes a vat, and during the days they wandered the city, noting all the places that still existed and those that were still a ghost of what they had used to be.

They went to the Cinema, the last Cinema, a place that had been established millennia before, where mechanisms behind the screen projected a perpetual story compelling enough to be joined or abandoned at any point, without any sense that one had missed something. Alas, something primal had been lost over the years. In Kayn’s youth, the story had been an intricate saga of intrigue in the court of some medieval kingdom, driven by subtle turns of character and shifts of power dynamics among a cast of thousands. It had once kept him in his seat, being fed and tended by bots, for more than a month before the sameness overwhelmed him and he’d wandered out of the auditorium looking for a place to set some bombs. Years later, he’d returned, and the story had contracted to two men, armed with knives, grappling with one another in the center of a field of corpses. He’d spent a day watching them cut little strips of flesh off one another’s bodies, discerned no story, and left. Now, returning with Peat to an auditorium ankle-deep in sand occupied by a half-dozen dusty patrons he recognized from his earlier visits and who he presumed to have been watching the entire saga from the beginning, he found that the story had contracted still further: It was now a man forever punching a solid wall with the wrist-nubs that were all that remained of his arms, after his fists had eroded from an unimaginable number of constant impacts. “The machines are stuck,” Peat explained. “They used to be able to introduce new characters, establish new plot developments, create brand-new complications capable of carrying the narrative to new places, but in recent years they’ve been deteriorating. The narrative’s become fossilized. You can sit for years waiting for something different to happen.”

“It’s a great unintentional metaphor,” said Kayn.

The two of them stayed six hours, just watching the unfortunate on screen pummel the wall, waiting for something else to happen, anything else to happen. Nothing did, and they ultimately left in search of new adventures.

They found an abandoned building where Peat said that she’d lived once, a tower now leaning seventeen degrees which once would have been righted or had its architectural deficiency incorporated as a fresh source of novelty, and scaled the exterior to the summit, one hundred and forty stories above the avenue below. The apartment they found there was infested with spiders, and criss-crossed with vast curtains of webbing. The tenants, three women and one man, were cocooned and in the process of being digested, but did not seem to mind. One explained to Kayn that the spiders made such wonderful music. Kayn could detect nothing. Peat said that she could: “It’s just above your range of hearing, Kayn.”

He asked her what kind of music they were playing, and she said: “Waltzes. I can hum along, if you’d like to dance.” So they danced, the tightly wrapped residents of the apartment watching with delight and fascination as Kayn and Peat spun their circles across the tilted floor. How long they danced, Kayn could not tell, but it was long enough for the spiders to begin the process of capturing them, swathing Kayn in what looked like bandages and Peat in what looked like a diaphanous gown. And for a while he thought that it would not be a bad thing for his years of existence to end this way, so high above the city streets, as close to the dimming stars as he had ever been. But the spiders began to work in earnest, his skin began to itch, and he was moved to tell Peat that maybe they ought to go. They climbed back down, without him hearing so much as a single note.

Back on the streets, they found a corpse willing to speak to them. Terrible things had been done to him by a passing murderer of unremitting savagery, perhaps the same one whose handiwork Kayn had already seen here and there: It honestly didn’t matter, not to the victim and not to Kayn, because the deed had been done and the corpse was not willing to do anything constructive to fix it. His chest was still open to the elements, but he had elected not to heal or to die, but rather to continue to lie where the monster had left him, choosing to spend what time the city had left on his back, in contemplation of the few remaining stars. He said, “I remember being part of a great love story. I do not remember whether it was two men or two women or one woman and one man or a pair of thirders or any of the hundreds of other possible combinations we came up with, by the time it all started falling apart, but I remember being one of them. I remember telling the one I loved that I would never forget. I remember the finger against my lips, the whispered words, sure you will; everything we have done is just footnote. That turned out to be true. It was the one great love of my life and it happened so long ago that I cannot remember who my lover was, or for that matter who I was. I just remember regretting that I went on after it ended.” He took a deep breath that caused the cavity at the center of his chest to bubble, and then spoke with special urgency: “The city’s going to fall.”

“We know that,” said Peat.

The murdered man said, “I don’t mean millennia from now. I don’t mean centuries from now, or even any span of years. I mean weeks or months, no more. Listen: We’re sinking. Listen: We will soon be swallowed up. Listen: The sand will come in and fill the streets and blot out the sky and scour everything clean. Listen: Anybody who stays will die. Anybody who wants to live must leave.”

Kayn had already reached this conclusion just by walking around, but he had seen the dune sea: a desert that had long ago spread worldwide, without any fantastical oases or lands untouched by the entropy that had overtaken everything else. “There’s no place to go.”

The corpse could only repeat himself. “Anybody who wants to live must leave.”

“Shush, shush,” said Peat. She pressed a mirrored fingertip to the corpse’s lips, burning them slightly because of the generated heat she could do nothing to tamp. Being a corpse, he felt nothing but the intended comfort, and he grew calm long enough for her to speak the only ameliorating truth she could. “There’s no reason to worry. Nobody here wants to live, anyway.”

• • • •

Later, Kayn said, “But I do want to live.”

By now they were wandering through one of the last remaining libraries with books made of paper. It was, not, of course, real paper, made from trees: that would have deteriorated to dust long before. Paper had not been a thing since all information was trusted to the machines, and before that, since any texts human beings might still have some purpose for had been transferred to silicates. These books were designed to feel like paper, but were made of flexible alloys, chemically inert and designed to last forever. What a pity that some past vandal had seen fit to black out every line of type with a pigment just as eternal as the pages themselves, before re-shelving them in cases of the same material, as a means of ensuring that their splendid meaninglessness lasted forever!

He made his pronouncement while Peat was running her silvery hands over the pages of one volume grabbed at random, just to enjoy its texture. She looked up and said, “What?”

He repeated himself. “I do want to live.”

“But everything’s ending.”

“I don’t care. I haven’t done everything I wanted to do. I haven’t seen everything I wanted to see. I don’t want this story to be over. I want to keep adding to it. I want to live past the point where there’s any point in living.”

She was aghast. “Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ve watched you. You’re as bored as I am. As bored as everyone is.”

“I can’t deny it.”

“Then why would you want this to go on?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s a birth defect of some kind.”

“There are no birth defects. The machines can fix any flaw there is.”

“I have one. I don’t seem to be able to give up.”

She said, “You implanted love for me. You can implant a death wish. It’s just as simple. There must be some machine still capable of doing that.”

“I tried that, years ago. Before the orgynism. I thought the time had come to end myself. I couldn’t make myself want to. I went to one of the machines and told it to adjust me, to make me content with the time I had lived, and ready to stop. It made noise for a while and then stopped. It was non-functional. Something about me had broken it. I tried another machine and then a third, with identical results. I broke down every machine I asked. When I realized it was impossible, I decided that blissful oblivion was just as good, and started recruiting lovers for my orgynism.” He thought about it for a while, as driven to silence by her nonplussed reaction as she was to what he said, and reported, “I don’t know. Maybe that’s why the orgynism rejected me. But I want to live. I’m stuck that way.”

She flipped through some more pages, caressing each one she stopped at, finding nothing new on any of them, but still finding mild distraction with the way they felt.

Then she said, “I don’t think I can love anyone so old-fashioned.”

• • • •

They didn’t break up right away. Just as heat takes time to dissipate, so does affection, and so they spent the next few days having other shared adventures, some romantic and some not, as a means of continuing to spend the time that was now in such short supply.

They found a building on the edge of a neighborhood that had already been reclaimed by the sands, with one collapsed wing and one that seemed to remain upright only out of sheer stubbornness. It was an orphanage, long-abandoned, and the bottom floor was a nursery filled with babies. They were manufactured children, grown in vats and tended by servitors like all the world’s children had been, since long before this was the only city. Aged to what the peak age of what once would have been considered appealing, they were forever frozen at that level of maturity to be claimed by whatever adoptive parents happened to show up. There had of course been none for a long time, and thus every crib being tended had an occupant, squirming and cooing beneath inches of dust. There was no point in taking any of them, and so Kayn and Peat just spent an hour or so wandering among the bassinets, neither oohing nor aahing, but not immune to the pathos either. They named the cutest one, the one they would have taken had they been in the market, “Forever.” Forever regarded them with interest, imprinting. This, given their dearth of interest, was probably not a favor.

They found a machine in the shape of a pulsating sphincter attended by a tarnished servitor who explained that it was an art installation, designed to turn things into other things. Any object placed within the loading portal would be devoured and shat out the other side as another object entirely. Peat had seen such merriments before but Kayn had not, and so she stood by indulgently as he tested its capabilities with the various artifacts in range. He gave the orifice a stone plucked from the borders of a wilted garden, and watched as the orifice sucked it in, chewed, and produced an obscene statue of a woman having sexual congress with a tree. He gave it a little wooden table from an abandoned nearby café, and watched as the mastication produced a mound of broken glass. Then he ordered the servitor to feed itself to the orifice, and, being a machine, it obeyed without protest. The orifice chewed and the thing that came out the back was alive and boneless and incapable of any action but unending screams.

Peat said, “That was interesting.”

Kayn felt bad for the servitor, which had been polite and unoffending and didn’t deserve an end of this sort. Maybe feeding it to the orifice would produce an improvement? Perhaps, but it could also produce something much worse, and so he ended up doing nothing.

They sought out warmth, in the form of the city’s last furnace, a raging open conflagration that Kayn could not approach but that Peat was able to enter and explore, without harm. Her silvery flesh did not melt but grew red-hot, a transformation that rendered her so beautiful that Kayn might have fallen in love with her all over again, without artificial assistance. She spun and danced and sang, an ember that, for a few minutes, looked like she might have been able to devour all that remained of the city, all by herself. She seemed joyous. But once she left, she cooled rapidly, both in temperature and in mood, and she said, “That, on the other hand, was boring. I think I’ve decided to die now.”

“Are you sure? Maybe you’ll feel better in the morning.”

“Who wants to feel better? I’ve done that.”

Kayn could not dissuade her, and so they spent her last night in a ballroom that had become only a little shabbier over the centuries, dancing tangos and waltzes and pretending for a while to be a great lord and lady from one of those past eras that still had such things. At midnight an artificial moon rose on the other side of the cracked stained-glass windows, casting a beam of multicolored wonder through the dusty air. He kissed her for the first and only time, a moment of contact between his flesh and whatever her flesh happened to be that felt too much like kissing a thing made of ice. She said, “Goodbye,” disentangled herself from his arms, and strode to the center of the dance floor, raising one graceful arm and standing en pointe in a spot where her many shiny surfaces could reflect the moonbeam to every corner of the hall. It seemed like a moment of perfect stillness in the middle of a ballet. But as the long seconds passed, and she never came out of it, Kayn saw that she wasn’t going to. He approached her and touched a finger to her metallic cheek, finding a nub just below her right eye that might have been a metallic tear, and confirmed that whatever had made her Peat was gone.

• • • •

He wandered for a few weeks after that, interacting with as many of the city’s fading wonders as he could, but found fewer that worked and even fewer that he had not seen.

When he had decided that, he fell into revisiting some of the places where he had already been.

He went to the nursery, found Forever—who was already gathering a new layer of dust—held him for a little bit, and said some things about connections that fail and times that end, that Forever must have understood not at all.

He went to the library, gazed upon all the shelves lined with unreadable books, and stood for a while in the presence of all those unknowable narratives, and contemplated a life spent curled up with them, the life he would have been happy enough to undertake were it possible to cross the obstructions between those words and his eyes.

He revisited the murdered man, who told him again that things were ending and that there was no time to lose, if he wanted to live.

He went back to the Cinema to see where the story had gone, and found that it had indeed progressed since his last visit. The image on screen was no longer a man punching a wall, but was now a different man, one who looked very much like Kayn himself, sitting cross-legged in a desert very much like the one currently engulfing the city. The man was alive and aware and clearly capable of action; it was possible to tell, just from the way he blinked at the moments when one errant breeze or another deposited grains of sand in his eyes. But he did nothing to shield himself, nothing to rescue himself from the forces that would soon enough bury him. He was spent. And in the fourth hour that Kayn spent absorbed in this absence of all adventure, the star of the movie shifted, turned his dusty visage toward the audience, and focused on Kayn alone, ignoring the handful of others who had sitting for far longer, waiting for him to do something worth seeing.

He said, “Go.”

Kayn said, “Where?”

“I don’t care, Adam Splendor Sadness Feline Igneous Ultimate Never Cul-De-Sac Untoward Synchronicity Leverage Cystic Beverage Arrogance Wholly Thirteen Cunnilingus Hummingbird Multiplication Kayn. This show is over for you. Go elsewhere.”

Kayn, who had never been the type to stay where he wasn’t wanted, went.

He retraced all his steps, lingering here and there and taking weeks for the journey, until he found himself back in the room of his greatest humiliation, looking up at what was left of his old orgynism, and found that it had deteriorated horribly in his absence. No longer an approximate sphere, it was now a crescent moon, disfigured by a great gaping crater where fully a third of the participants had either been pushed out, or had left of their own accord. Of those who remained, only about half were still in motion, attempting to make up with their efforts what the immobile remainder no longer could. Their union no longer looked like bliss, but like desperation, denial of that which was coming for all of them. One of those still grinding away, but not looking at all well, opened his eyes and noticed Kayn. He said, “I suppose you came to gloat.”

“No,” said Kayn. “I did not.”

“Liar! I know the way it works! You want us to say that it all fell to pieces when you left! Well, it did, but you had nothing to do with it! It was an inevitability, a shift in our corporeal paradigm, that was only the next natural step in the evolution of our union! Soon, we will re-incorporate under new principles and achieve heights we never would have known were we still with you, slaves to your antiquated erotic philosophy! We would not have you back even if you begged us, do you hear? Not one of us, not all of us! We are better without you and we will continue to be, until the end of the world!”

“That’s no more than two days away,” said Kayn, whose connection to the city’s flailing machinery was still keeping him informed.

“Two days is forever,” the dying man told him.

Kayn considered it and thought that yes, this was true. There had been no subjective time in the orgynism. Hours had been the same as centuries, and centuries the same as hours. That it lasted as long as it had was therefore the same thing as not lasting for a heartbeat, a crowning achievement the same thing as a total failure. This truism, it further struck him, was also true of the city itself, and, to a still larger extent, the history of all humanity, a race that had been around for many billions of years and had turned out to be as ephemeral as a sneeze. He thought: How many terribly depressing things are also tremendously freeing? and embraced that epiphany, feeling much better.

“Enjoy your two days,” he told the man functioning as the voice of the orgynism.

“Go to hell.”

• • • •

In the past, when great ships sank far from land, those left aboard in the final moments had to choose between two options. One was to stay aboard the vessel for as long as they could, and in so doing embrace what life-preserving properties it still had, at the cost of submitting themselves to the prospect of being dragged with it down into blackness. The other was to damn the dubious comforts of that which would not float for long, dive into the turbulent sea, and swim like mad, knowing that there was no other vessel to swim to, but still embracing fate, challenging the universe to provide deliverance while it still could. There had always been advocates of both methods, people who had lived and died by both methods, people who had doomed themselves by making the wrong choice. The right choice had never been anything but circumstance.

Aware of this, and aware that his own preferred strategy would soon be moot, Kayn trekked through streets that were coming apart even as he traveled on them, to the spot he had chosen for his own egress. His strategy was, as it turned out, not a unique one; there were a dozen others, comprising the largest crowd he had seen in one place since departing his orgynism, in line ahead of him, waiting for their own leap into stormy waters. He watched one or two of them go, and then sat cross-legged on the floor, to do the one thing he’d never really done before, the one that he did not think he would have another chance to do after today.

In short, he composed a poem.

He did not ask the machines to compose a sonnet for him. The last time he’d done that, it had turned out to be the worst sonnet ever written. He had no comprehension of that literary form in particular or of the rules of meter or rhyme, and so his wasn’t even a sonnet. It was in truth only a poem at all because that was what he had intended to write and because now, at the end of time, it would have been downright silly for even the most persnickety critic in all the world to make a fuss about definitions. Besides, honestly, it was more than fair to say that Kayn had accomplished the goal sought by all the poets who had written in all of Mankind’s languages, since the beginning of time: for their words to last until the end of time. Though Kayn managed this trick by composing his just a few minutes before that grand departure, his seizure of this ancient goal could not be denied. His words, as heartfelt as any that had ever been written, would last to the dying of the light.

He struggled with the most important part, the lines that summarized everything he’d ever learned.

When nothing matters, everything matters.

When everything matters, everything’s tragedy.

When everything’s tragedy, everything’s comedy.

When everything’s comedy, nothing matters.

He was sufficiently proud of this to show it to the man standing ahead of him in line, who wore a stained black suit and a matching top hat, all gone ragged and stinking from many years without laundering. That man read the lines, seemed to consider delivering the judgment that it was incomprehensible gibberish, but lit up at that one highlight, saying, “Oh, very good. Very, very good. That summarizes the idiocy of the species more than anything.”

“Do you really think so?” asked Kayn, who with this question became the last human being to ever care what a critic thought of his work.

The man in the battered top hat replied in the affirmative and placed himself on the conveyer belt into the orifice, surrendering his eternal fate to whatever it chose to make of him. On the other end lay the things that had been the other people on line: a lampshade, a golden helix, a blinking lizard, a globe, a puff of smoke, a parasol, a gasping fish, a mound of gray sand. Perhaps two or three of these things remained conscious of what it had been before their transformations. Perhaps two or three would survive after the city was gone. There was no way to predict, really. Submitting to the change might or might not be a better survival strategy than finding some secure place and waiting for the city to be engulfed. But this was the choice of those who found themselves on sinking ships: to stay, or to leave, either option equally promising, either option equally bad, the choice ultimately a lesson in philosophy. When that was the only thing left, the only weapon left was confidence.

Kayn was confident. For him, at least, it would not end this way.

In the meantime, he stood by as the penultimate man went through, and awaited his own turn.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to SPY magazine in 1987. His 26 books to date include four Spider-Man novels, 3 novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and 6 middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. The final installment in the series, Gustav Gloom And The Castle of Fear (Grosset and Dunlap) came out in 2016. Adam’s darker short fiction for grownups is highlighted by his most recent collection, Her Husband’s Hands And Other Stories (Prime Books). Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). He lives in Florida with his wife Judi and either three or four cats, depending on what day you’re counting and whether Gilbert’s escaped this week.