“I hadn’t had my nanoverse for long,” Crystal said, still standing but leaning against the wall. Although her voice was steadier now, each word seemed to come from a great distance, like she had to haul it out of a well before she could say it. “No much…not long. I think I was still Nascent.”
“There were five continents. Did I tell you this, Ryan? I think I told you this.” Ryan opened his mouth to respond, but Dianmu made a shushing motion at him, and he stopped himself. He saw her point – Crystal was on a tightrope right now, and if she fell off, she might lose whatever memory she was pulling on.
“Well, I didn’t tell you, Anansi. I’m sure of that. Lemuria, Atlantis, Mu, Hyperborea, Leng. Six different species, too. The Atlanteans, who were a lot like you lot. Autumn skin colors, only they tended more to the…the reds and golds, you know? Mammals, too. Hyperborea had mammals, but they were big. Probably about twice as tall as me, and dumber than…” She frowned, concentrating. “Dumber than tasz sot chal’tzanna. Means something like dumber than a drunk boulder. Only meaner.”
Ryan could swear there was sweat glistening on her forehead.
“Leng had the two races. One was like octopuses, but with skeletons and hands on the end. The other were like trees that could walk. Mu had..” She frowned, and hit her hand against her leg once. “I don’t remember the people of Mu. I’m the only person alive who saw them, and I can’t remember what they look like. Ain’t that a barrel of piss?”
She didn’t wait for an answer, which was good, because everyone was afraid of breaking the spell that allowed her to get even this much out. “The Lemurians, that was me. We’re…we’re kinda like bird people. I actually used my old shape when I was with a Mesoamerican culture that predated the Aztecs. It was weird walking around people wearing it. Like I was wearing a mask made to look like myself.”
A deep, ragged breath came from between her lips to steady herself. “I didn’t have a mini-pantheon like what we’re becoming. I just had one guy, the god that found me not long after I found my nanoverse, the one who told me what I needed to know. I don’t remember his name in our tongue, any more than I remember my own. But like I’m pretty sure my name meant Crystal, I’m pretty sure his meant King.”
“I was…I think I was fighting a…” She clenched her fists, to the point where her knuckles were starting to turn white. “Damnit damnit damnit. I just had the word. The thing you fought on the moon, Anansi.”
She relaxed and let out a breath. “Right, a Szarmic. I think I was fighting a Szarmic.”
Crystal danced between the beams of the Szarmic for a long as she could, dodging and weaving and ducking. Each time it fired, she saw equations, rules and laws governing the refraction of light and diffusion of heat and firing angles. She’d learned that she could manipulate those equations, but doing so was hard when there were so many and they were coming so fast.
Plus, that wasn’t the point of this.
She landed on one foot (“no, it was a talon, I had talons back then.”) She landed on one talon as the Szarmic stopped its barrage of death. “Really, loves? That’s the best you can throw at me?” (“I didn’t talk like that back then but I don’t remember how I did.”
“It doesn’t matter, we understand,” Athena reassured her.)
“Hardly the best, Crystal.” The figure behind the control panel was someone important. Someone Crystal cared about who was also important. His face was in shadow. “But we don’t want to hurt you.”
“I told you, I got” (“I died somehow and came back. I don’t…wait, that can’t be right. I would have been nascent. But…ahh, screw it. Bloody sodding screw it. You know the details won’t be all right because I’m not alright right now, right?”
Ryan was the first this time to pick up than she actually needed an answer. “Right. Just tell us what you can remember.”)
“I’ll be fine,” Crystal said. “I can destroy this thing with a thought,”
“But there are things you cannot,” said another figure. This one stepped out of the shadows and Crystal recognized him. King. She’d seen him around…(Crystal frowned, then suddenly spat out with visible excitement. “No, I knew King was a god. That’s right! The gods were open and out in Lemuria, part of life. King ruled the province! That’s how I got on his radar.) “You are the Eschaton, Crystal. You cannot be allowed to die. If you do, unless we are extremely fortunate, the world will die in solar fire.”
“Yeah, yeah. But why waste my time fighting Szarmics?”
“I don’t remember why,” Crystal continued. “I think it had to do with Mu maybe? But anyway, that was the first time I’d seen King. He was…beautiful. I remember that. And smart, and kind. I think things would have gone well with us. He had a family though. Children, fledglings, and they weren’t divine. He wanted nothing more than for them to…he wanted to save them.”
With those last five words, her eyes grew wider, and tears began to form in them again. Inch by agonizing inch, Crystal brought her hands up to her face as she slid down the wall until she was sitting. “Oh. Oh that’s right. I’m so sorry, King.” She looked at them, her eyes wide. “Don’t you see? He wanted to save them.”
The sun pulsed again. A wave of hot wind rolled across the land, fast enough where it nearly knocked even Crystal and King off their feet. Only quick twists to reality kept them both upright. A tree burst into flame nearby. It was a heat burst, and it was near fatal.
The buildings were made of stone with reflective roofs. They would withstand the heat. Their windows were quartz, and they cracked under the blast. The next one would shatter it, shredding the family that sheltered within.
“King! Look!” Crystal pointed at the sky.
The sun, a generally warm and stable G class Orange Dwarf, had swollen to a yellow G class. (“That’s how close it came, oh damn I remember that now. It’s normal now but the sun was smaller and cooler back then.”)
“We’re going to fry, King! It’s too late, we have to do it!”
The air was growing hotter rapidly now, the kind of rapid heating. “I need to find my family, Crystal! I need to find my children!” King’s eyes were wide and darting about madly.
“Your children are dead!” (“Oh no, I actually said that to him. I said that to him because I needed him to listen!”)
Instead of listening, King whirled on her, hitting her with a burst of wind that nearly shattered her ribs. “Shut your mouth, you hideous worm. Shut your damn mouth. You’re going to wait here, and I’m going to find my family.”
Crystal had to pause here to take another series of deep and rough breaths. They almost sounded wheezy, and the sheer desire to go over to comfort her caused him to pull Athena closer. Dianmu did reach for her, but Crystal swatted her hand away. “Need to finish. Can’t lose it.” She gasped, and took a few more breaths before looking around the circle. “What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t…I couldn’t consider his children above the world. I couldn’t consider him above the world. The habitable zone had shifted! I had to…I had to move the world at the same time I killed everyone on it, or no one would live again.”
She tore her gaze away from them, focusing on the fire. “I had to.”
The Globus Mundi pulled up in Crystal’s nanoverse. A map of the entire world. The lush greens of Lemuria and Atlantis, the beautiful icy blues and white of Hyperborea, the crimson jungles of Mu, the strangely beautiful purple plants of Leng. All of it lay out before her. The last eyes that would ever see the world like this.
She remembered what King had told her. The Eschaton has one power no other god has. One gift no other god ever got. They could, just once, twist reality over the entire globe. A single moment where they could change the rules for the entire planet.
She hesitated. (“I was sure…I was positive he’d be along any minute. That he’d come bursting through the door with his children and tell me to pull the trigger on it, yeah? Or even one, even just one sodding child, just so he could have that, so he could know he did everything he could. I would have even been happy if it was just him, realizing all was lost. Does that sound callous? Sod it, it’s what I wanted in that moment. I didn’t want to make the decision alone.”)
No one came. Outside, through the still open doorway, she could hear the screams of a dying world, heating up by a degree every minute she waited.
Any longer, and she’d be saving a boiling hellscape. She gave one last glance for King, but he was not visible, he wasn’t anywhere she could see with the tears fogging her vision.
She closed the door. She couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t wait any longer. The Globus Mundi called.
There was only one option left to save the world before it fried. If she accelerated tectonic shift, it would pull every continent under the ocean, down into the mantle, and force new ones up at the same time. The force should be enough to alter Earth’s orbit. If she did it at just the right angle, it would pull it away from the Sun.
“I swear,” she said, looking again once more at the world that lay out before her, greens and blues and white and red and purple. “I swear I’ll never forget you.”
And then, she shifted.
Crystal was pale and shaking at this point. The glisten of sweat Ryan had seen earlier was now beads, and they slid down to join her tears. “I swore I wouldn’t forget. But I did. Everyone…everyone got sucked down beneath the waves, beneath the crust. I think they drowned before they were crushed. I hope to whoever made this sodding universe that they did. But it was so fast…Earth went jolting into a higher orbit, spinning end over end. It’s a miracle the poles stabilized the way they did, although what’s north now was south then. Venus was a jungle world back in my time. There were colonies there, since there wasn’t any intelligent life. If I hadn’t waited…maybe they would have survived.”
She sniffed, wiping at her face. “I keep saying I’m a million years old, but I don’t know how long ago this was. I left, you see. I had to. There were…there were bodies in the ocean. I couldn’t face what I had done. I found a world that was around a black hole. Some place where I told myself an Eschaton hadn’t made the choice I did. A lifeless place. I don’t know how long I was there in my time, and I have no idea how long I was there as far as the rest of, of the universe was concerned. It was so close relativity got me, yeah? I just..” She stared into the fire with hollow eyes, “I wanted to…to fling myself…I killed the world!”
That was it. She could fight it no longer, and she began to openly weep. Ryan didn’t know which of them moved first, but in an instant they were all with her, hugging her and holding her, and reassuring her.
It took her some time to let the tears dry up, and when they had she thanked them as they withdrew. “That’s why I came back, you see. Long before humans ever started walking this world. Because I knew it was going to happen again, and…and I wasn’t going to let anyone else go through that.” She fixed her gaze on Ryan. “You are not going to go through that, Ryan. You’re going to, to be able to be okay with the choice you make. Promise me. Promise me.”
“I promise,” Ryan said, and even though they both knew that it was a promise he couldn’t guarantee, it was enough. Crystal wiped her eyes again, and looked at all of them. “Oh, stop it, all of you. Don’t look at me like I’m some…some fragile little thing. I’ll be fine, once it goes back into memory. I’m just raw right now.”
“I certainly cannot understand how anything in that story would make you feel anything,” Dianmu said, with dryness so intense, it got a choking laugh out of Crystal.
“Ryan didn’t get a turn,” Crystal said, and shook her head. “I hope you won’t be offended if we skip it for now? Or at least I will, loves. I think…I think I need some sleep.”
Anansi looked at Ryan, “Final rule. Your turn to speak, your turn to pass.”
“Huh?” Ryan had almost forgotten the rules of storytelling, so it took him a second to process Anansi’s words. It didn’t take any time at all to decide. “Oh, hell yes, totally. I didn’t have any good stories you all weren’t there for anyway that you haven’t already hear. I was over here wondering how I was going to make the tale of the time I got scared during a play in third grade and I shouted “fuck” at the entire school anywhere near as interesting as those stories. I’m happy to give a pass.”
Crystal’s laugh this time was a bit less strangled. “Thanks, love. All of you…I don’t know how much of that I’ll remember in the morning. I’m…I’m forgetting some of it already. Maybe the parts I made up to fill the gaps. I’m not sure. But…don’t forget it, yeah?”
Ryan pointed to the drone that still hovered nearby. If he listened carefully, he could hear Isabel’s snores over the speaker. “It’s been recorded. We’ll write it down after we’re done here.”
“That’s…that’s good.” And with that, like a marionette with cut string, she slumped the rest of the way to curl into a ball and go to sleep.
Dianmu reached over, gently lifting Crystal’s head and sliding her pack under it. “She’ll be alright,” she said, as much to herself as to the group.
“Yeah. I guess we should all follow her example and get that last Hunger filled, right?” Ryan asked. Nods came all around, and one by one the gods settled onto the stone floor and fell asleep, after making a last alteration to make the stone beneath them and Crystal as soft as a mattress.
Ryan couldn’t fall asleep right away. He stared at the ceiling above him, feeling the aches of the earlier injuries in full without the distraction.
He couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been able to do it. If it had been Crystal out there, and he was in the nanoverse, and the world needed to end. Or if it had been Isabel. Or Athena. Any of those thoughts made him want to cry himself.
One final thought drifted across his mind as sleep finally claimed him.
I hope I never need to find out if I can keep that promise.