“So, how’d it go this time?” Athena had beat Ryan back from her nanoverse, although Crystal was still off. Ryan figured that was appropriate – Crystal had easily been the worst injured of the three of them, and she would need the most time to heal. He checked his phone, knowing he was stalling on answering Athena. It still showed 10:40 PM, one minute after he’d left. When you factored in the fact that he’d had to walk from his nanoverse into the castle to find Athena, he’d only been gone a matter of seconds in the real world.
“You know, I’ve just realized I haven’t plugged this thing in, not once since everything started, but I’ve still got a full charge.” If Athena was bothered by his attempt to change the topic, it didn’t show on her face. Then again, given how expressive she usually was, Ryan figured she’d have to care a great deal for it to show. “At first I figured it was because I was hopping realities, barely using it, and time was flowing weird. I didn’t really respond to any messages or make any phone calls because, well, I was worried about losing the battery. At least, that’s what I told myself.”
Athena leaned on the battlement, looking at him. Her eyes, her face, they were full of her normal utter lack of emotion, but now, after so much, Ryan found something oddly warm in it. It wasn’t a stone wall like he had originally thought. It wasn’t the emptiness of the void of space, but of an open door. “We could die tomorrow. For real.”
She nodded here, a small turning of the lips to a smile. “First time it’s really hitting you, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, “You know, before all this, I had a life.” She raised an eyebrow, inviting him to continue. “I mean, it wasn’t much of one. I couldn’t keep a job or a girlfriend, not with Nabu constantly watching. And my parents died a couple years ago. Nothing dramatic, just old age. But I had a couple friends who put up with me being neurotic, and a sister in California I saw a couple times a year.” He paused to think, and felt himself grinning. “And like five hundred friends on Facebook, people I never talked to except online. There needs to be a term for ‘person you’re connected to through social media who has status updates you randomly Like.’”
“And you haven’t spoken to them since this all happened?”
He shook his head. “I mean, they’ve texted or called. Or sent me messages. I’ve been on the news as a god or the Antichrist, and now they’re watching me fight for my life on a remote Canadian island, and I haven’t even spoken to them. And if I die…well, that’ll be that.”
Athena’s half-smile didn’t expand, but it somehow came closer to reaching her eyes. “Well, are you going to reach out to them?” Although the tone was a question, Ryan got the feeling she knew the answer.
“Not now. I guess I’ll use that as something to live for. Does that seem stupid?”
“No.” The smile faded slightly as she spoke, but the light stayed in her eyes. “I’ve been present for many people as they realized tomorrow could be their last. Most of them think of regrets, of missed opportunities, but if given the option to address those, they focus on the here and now. For that matter, I did too.”
They stood there in silence for a little while, staring at the stars. This far north, the Aurora Borealis was clearly visible, green and blue lines dancing like serpentine lovers writhing across the sky. Crystal stepped out of her nanoverse, saw them, and turned back to check on the demons. They were Having a Moment, and Crystal firmly believed that you should always allow people who were Having a Moment – and she thought of it just like that, as a proper title, like it was a sacred ritual – to have it in peace.
“They’d created a utopia.” Ryan said, breaking the silence. He’d noticed Crystal, just as Athena had, and they’d noticed her retreat, but neither of them have reacted.
“You sound almost sad,” Athena murmured.
“No, just…I wish I could let the entire nanoverse be that way. No weapons, no wars. Just good people doing good, y’know?”
Athena gave a sound that might have been agreement. “So what’d you do about it?”
“I let them keep their utopia. I just went elsewhere and created some places where it wouldn’t happen. On one world I put two different groups of the same species on different continents, and gave them similar but different commandments, and languages. Different skin colors. That’s been enough for humans to war for all of history, I figured. Another world I put three different species on, and no commandments, no sign of my presence. A third world I made one species nocturnal, the other diurnal.” He shrugged. “I figure if any of those worlds finds a time of peace, the other two won’t. And they’re all only a couple light years apart, so if they they all find peace, they probably do so just in time to start warring with each other.”
Athena waited for a moment, to make sure he was finished. “And you feel like a monster for doing so?” Again, another question that wasn’t a question, where the answer was already known.
Since she knew the answer, he didn’t waste her time with an affirmation. “I need them to fight, Athena. I almost died because of the peace, and if I had the world would have gotten blown up when the sun went nova.”
“Of course you did. You’re a good man, Ryan Smith.”
He looked at her, his forehead furrowing. “I’m sorry, but what?”
A full, genuine smile crossed her face. “You’re not unique, you know. Most gods, when they find out that weapons come from their nanoverse, go into it and demand weapons. With similar results. My first dystopia was a matriarchal one where men were lobotomized so they could be useful for reproduction and otherwise were basically well trained pets.” She laughed a bit, a rueful sound that was oddly flat in the cold night air. “I might have had some issues that crept into it. Just like your feeling that you were out of control of your life helped shaped a tyranny of absolute power. Absolute control.”
Ryan shuddered at the thought. “But if that’s the case, why were they able to create a utopia?”
“Because you still let them have free will, and now your subconscious was over correcting to the horrors you had made. Again, same as mine. I imagine it was the same for Crystal, Tyr, Enki, even for Bast, too.”
“But not Moloch?”
“Moloch is a legitimately disturbed man who used to literally eat children. I don’t think he ever had anything redeeming in him.”
Even if he had wanted to, which he didn’t, Ryan couldn’t find a flaw in her logic. “And you’re saying I’m a good man because?”
“You could have destroyed the utopia. You could have created a race with a thirst for blood or war. You could have made two races that felt a powerful aversion to each other’s pheromones, so they’d never know peace. You could have commanded they war with each other, or even just repeated your first mistake and demanded weapons. But instead…” she reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Instead you allowed for free will, and just trusted that there are always enough people who will choose to be bastards. But you allowed for them to, if they can choose peace, to choose it.”
He didn’t know what to say, finally finding the only words that seemed to fit. “Seems pretty pessimistic of me though.”
She chuckled again, and this one wasn’t flat in the night air, this one was warm as it hit his ears, friendly and amused and bright. “Don’t ever confuse cynicism with evil, Ryan. You can be a good cynic, and you can be an evil optimist.”
He nodded, and did feel better. It didn’t erase the fact that he could have created more utopias, more worlds of peace…but, if nothing else, it was a salve for his conscious.
She smiled and suddenly leaned forward, giving him a kiss. He returned it. He’d taken care of his Social Hunger while in his nanoverse, so he didn’t feel a need for the closeness, but just as you can often find room for dessert or a snack and enjoy every bite of it even if you’re not hungry, the same was apparently true for closeness, for human contact, and for being kissed by a beautiful woman.
After a moment, they broke the contact. Ryan smiled, happy but confused. “What was that about?”
She considered him for a moment, then brushed a strand of hair back from her face. “Maybe nothing. Maybe something.” Here she gave him another one of those enigmatic half smiles. “Maybe it’s just another reason to survive tomorrow.”
With that, she turned to head down the stairs to find Crystal. Ryan considered following her, but decided to stand there for a moment before catching up. He considered the kiss, and decided to not read anything into it. It could have been a lot of things that didn’t really make a difference, and it was more they could deal with that after Enki had been defeated and the world was, if not saved, at least had some more time before it had to end.
Assuming, of course, they both survived long enough to find out.