Ryan leaned his head back in the chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. The office Dianmu, Nabu, and he were occupying looked like a war zone, if the war had been fought with papers and push pins. Pages were scattered across the floor from where stacks had collapsed and they hadn’t taken time to clean them up. Each of the desks in the room were covered with piles and piles of papers, surrounding them with columns of paper. Promising pages were stuck to the walls with push-pins and post-its to indicate what on there might be useful.
Ryan had started to sweat, even though the room was cool. He was starting to feel sick to his stomach. It reminded him of cramming for finals in college, although the stakes were infinitely higher than his grades. Honestly, given how much you ended up actually using your degree, it literally is infinite, he thought with a bitter smile.
He glanced at his companions. They didn’t look like they were faring much better. Dianmu had rolled up the sleeves of her blouse and several strands of hair had come out of her bun, draping haphazardly around her face. It was less obvious with Nabu – he had taken off his suit jacket and loosened his tie by precisely a quarter inch. Given that Ryan had never seen him look anything other than immaculate; it was unnerving to see even that level of human discomfort in the Curator.
“We need a break,” Ryan said, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. “At least, I do.”
“Agreed,” Dianmu said, putting aside the paper she was working on. She took a moment to rest her head in the palm of her hands and take a deep breath. The work they were doing wasn’t draining on divine stamina, but Ryan understood how calming a deep breath could be, even if it wasn’t needed. “I swear the words on this page are beginning to move of their own volition.”
“I can keep going,” Nabu said, putting aside another page. “You two take some time. Fifteen minutes shouldn’t make much of a difference one way or another.”
Ryan stood up, feeling his knees pop at the motion. Apparently being a god did nothing to protect against getting stiff from sitting for too long. “How much longer do we have left?” he asked Nabu.
“Three hours,” Nabu said without checking the time.
“Let’s make it a ten minute break, then.” He moved to step out of the room, and Dianmu followed.
“We shouldn’t go far,” Dianmu said as they stepped up to the walkway outside the room. “No need to provoke more forms we need to fill out.”
Ryan grunted and leaned on the railing. “I can’t believe we can’t even take these into one of our nanoverses. You’d figure there would be a form to allow us to do that.”
Dianmu chuckled. “There is. I asked Nabu a little bit ago. I think you were deep in focus. Unfortunately, it takes seven to ten days to process those forms, and there’s no way to expedite it. And gets denied…what’d he say? Eighty seven percent of the time? Eighty eight? Something in the eighties.”
“Of course it does.” Ryan sighed. “I almost envy the others right now. They’re at least dealing with things our powers can work on.”
Dianmu nodded in agreement. “It rankles to lean that, for everything else we gain from godhood, intellect or wisdom isn’t one of them. It’s part of why we never tried to take science out of our nanoverse and apply it to the real world.”
Ryan frowned. “I always just assumed that was because it wouldn’t work the same. Physics being different and all that.”
“That’s the main reason why,” Dianmu said, leaning on the railing to watch the Curators bustling about. “But there’s also the problem of understanding what we’re bringing out. There’s always a narrow window where comprehension is possible.”
“I’m not sure I follow,” Ryan said.
“What was the most amazing thing you saw in your nanoverse? The one thing you’d want to bring out and give to the world if you could?”
“Wormholes,” Ryan said immediately. “Instant travel across the galaxy? Or at least near interest? It’s something I’ve wished was real since I was ten.”
Dianmu smiled and nodded. “How long do you think it would take you to learn the science required?”
“I mean, I’m good with math. Always was. But theoretical physics?” Ryan frowned. “Although I suppose at that point they were just ‘physics.’ I don’t know. Dozens of years, at least? Maybe hundreds? Although time wouldn’t pass in the outside world during that time.”
“You’re right, it wouldn’t. But imagine you spend those dozens, hundreds of years, and then come out to find out that they aren’t possible in our universe. Imagine that for every discovery, that’s a risk. And you can’t leave your nanoverse at all during that time, because time would skip ahead and you’d have to start from square one.”
Ryan frowned. “This isn’t helping with my headache,” Ryan grumbled.
Dianmu grinned. “Different time flows are nightmarish sometimes. Don’t think about it too hard. Really, the end result was, whenever we got ahold of a discovery we could learn quickly and easily, we showed it to our people. Beyond that, it became too difficult.”
“I suppose I can follow that,” Ryan said with a shrug. “I dunno. It just feels like there’s more that could have been done throughout history.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to explain it. Not fully. If you’re still confused by it in a thousand years, ask me then. Maybe it’ll make more sense.”
“It’s a deal,” Ryan said, his smile fading. “Assuming there’s even still a civilization at the end of it all.”
Dianmu put a hand on his shoulder. “There will be, Ryan. We will find a way.”
“How can you be sure of that?”
“Because there is no point in believing otherwise. I believe we will find a way because believing we won’t means giving into despair. Sometimes, being realistic is required to get through the day. But in the darkest of days, when all reason to hope has faded, then faith can sustain where reason fails.”
Ryan took a deep breath and looked back at the Curators scurrying about. “And if you’re wrong?”
“Then I can face the end content, knowing I did everything in my power to prevent the worst of it. There are worse ways to go, Ryan Smith.”
Ryan stared at the Curators and their floating filing cabinets. “I don’t know if I can do it,” he finally whispered. “I don’t know if I can be as strong as Crystal. If the sun is expanding and threatening to explode, I don’t know if I can let my hand be the one that ends all those lives.”
Dianmu shook her head. “Yes you can. I’m certain of that.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve seen enough of you to be sure of one thing. You don’t believe inaction absolves guilt. You believe that if something can be done, then choosing not to take action is still a choice. If that happens, you will do the right thing, because you’ll blame yourself either way.”
Ryan let out a soft sigh. “Thanks for that,” he said, unable to keep out the bitter edge to his words. “I feel so much better knowing that no matter what, it’s my fault.”
“I didn’t say it was,” Dianmu said firmly. “I said you’d blame yourself. The truth, in my opinion?”
“It’s only your fault if you give up. So long as you still can draw breath, so long as you can still push forward, and so long as you still do, you are blameless for the end result.”
After a long pause, Ryan took a deep breath, enjoying the feeling of air flowing through his lungs. “I think I can live with that.” He wasn’t sure if it would stick, but at that moment, it was at least a nice thought.
“Good.” Dianmu stood up and stretched her back. “Now. Why don’t we go and get back to it?”
Ryan thanked her and headed back to the thrice damned paperwork that awaited them.