Epilogue: Atonement (8/​8)

(Part 8 of 8 in “Three Wor­lds Col­lide”)

Fire came to Huy­gens.

The star erupted.

Stranded ships, filled with chil­dren doomed by a sec­ond’s last de­lay, still mil­led around the former Earth tran­sit point. Too many doomed ships, far too many doomed ships. They should have left a minute early, just to be sure; but the temp­ta­tion to load in that one last child must have been ir­re­sistable. To do the warm and fuzzy thing just this one time, in­stead of be­ing cold and calcu­lat­ing. You couldn’t blame them, could you...?

Yes, ac­tu­ally, you could.

The Lady Sen­sory switched off the dis­play. It was too painful.

On the Huy­gens mar­ket, the price of a cer­tain con­tract spiked to 100%. They were all rich in com­pletely worth­less as­sets for the next nine min­utes, un­til the su­per­nova blast front ar­rived.

“So,” the Lord Pilot fi­nally said. “What kind of as­set re­tains its value in a mar­ket with nine min­utes to live?”

“Booze for im­me­di­ate de­liv­ery,” the Master of Fan­dom said promptly. “That’s what you call a—”

“Liquidity prefer­ence,” the oth­ers cho­rused.

The Master laughed. “All right, that was too ob­vi­ous. Well… choco­late, sex—”

“Not nec­es­sar­ily,” said the Lord Pilot. “If you can use up the whole sup­ply of choco­late at once, does de­mand out­strip sup­ply? Same with sex—the value could ac­tu­ally drop if ev­ery­one’s sud­denly will­ing. Not to men­tion: Nine min­utes?

“All right then, ex­pert oral sex from ex­pe­rienced providers. And hard drugs with dan­ger­ous side effects; the de­mand would rise hugely rel­a­tive to sup­ply—”

“This is inane,” the Ship’s Eng­ineer com­mented.

The Master of Fan­dom shrugged. “What do you say in the un­recorded last min­utes of your life that is not inane?”

“It doesn’t mat­ter,” said the Lady Sen­sory. Her face was strangely tran­quil. “Noth­ing that we do now mat­ters. We won’t have to live with the con­se­quences. No one will. All this time will be obliter­ated when the blast front hits. The role I’ve always played, the pic­ture that I have of me… it doesn’t mat­ter. There’s… a peace… in not hav­ing to be Dalia An­cromein any more.”

The oth­ers looked at her. Talk about kil­ling the mood.

“Well,” the Master of Fan­dom said, “since you raise the sub­ject, I sup­pose it would be peace­ful if not for the scream­ing ter­ror.”

“You don’t have to feel the scream­ing ter­ror,” the Lady Sen­sory said. “That’s just a pic­ture you have in your head of how it should be. The role of some­one fac­ing im­mi­nent death. But I don’t have to play any more roles. I don’t have to feel scream­ing ter­ror. I don’t have to fran­ti­cally pack in a few last mo­ments of fun. There are no more obli­ga­tions.”

“Ah,” the Master of Fan­dom said, “so I guess this is when we find out who we re­ally are.” He paused for a mo­ment, then shrugged. “I don’t seem to be any­one in par­tic­u­lar. Oh well.”

The Lady Sen­sory stood up, and walked across the room to where the Lord Pilot stood look­ing at the viewscreen.

“My Lord Pilot,” the Lady Sen­sory said.

“Yes?” the Lord Pilot said. His face was ex­pec­tant.

The Lady Sen­sory smiled. It was bizarre, but not fright­en­ing. “Do you know, my Lord Pilot, that I had of­ten thought how won­der­ful it would be to kick you very hard in the tes­ti­cles?”

“Um,” the Lord Pilot said. His arms and legs sud­denly tensed, prepar­ing to block.

“But now that I could do it,” the Lady Sen­sory said, “I find that I don’t re­ally want to. It seems… that I’m not as awful a per­son as I thought.” She gave a brief sigh. “I wish that I had re­al­ized it ear­lier.”

The Lord Pilot’s hand swiftly darted out and groped the Lady Sen­sory’s breast. It was so un­ex­pected that no one had time to re­act, least of all her. “Well, what do you know,” the Pilot said, “I’m just as much of a per­vert as I thought. My self-es­ti­mate was more ac­cu­rate than yours, nyah nyah—”

The Lady Sen­sory kneed him in the groin, hard enough to drop him moan­ing to the floor, but not hard enough to re­quire med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

“Okay,” the Master of Fan­dom said, “can we please not go down this road? I’d like to die with at least some dig­nity.”

There was a long, awk­ward silence, bro­ken only by a quiet “Ow ow ow ow...”

“Would you like to hear some­thing amus­ing?” asked the Kirit­sugu, who had once been a Con­fes­sor.

“If you’re go­ing to ask that ques­tion,” said the Master of Fan­dom, “when the an­swer is ob­vi­ously yes, thus wast­ing a few more sec­onds—”

“Back in the an­cient days that none of you can imag­ine, when I was sev­en­teen years old—which was un­der­age even then—I stalked an un­der­age girl through the streets, slashed her with a knife un­til she couldn’t stand up, and then had sex with her be­fore she died. It was prob­a­bly even worse than you’re imag­in­ing. And deep down, in my very core, I en­joyed ev­ery minute.”

Silence.

“I don’t think of it of­ten, mind you. It’s been a long time, and I’ve taken a lot of in­tel­li­gence-en­hanc­ing drugs since then. But still—I was just think­ing that maybe what I’m do­ing now fi­nally makes up for that.”

“Um,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer. “What we just did, in fact, was kill fif­teen billion peo­ple.”

“Yes,” said the Kirit­sugu, “that’s the amus­ing part.”

Silence.

“It seems to me,” mused the Master of Fan­dom, “that I should feel a lot worse about that than I ac­tu­ally do.”

“We’re in shock,” the Lady Sen­sory ob­served dis­tantly. “It’ll hit us in about half an hour, I ex­pect.”

“I think it’s start­ing to hit me,” the Ship’s Eng­ineer said. His face was twisted. “I—I was so wor­ried I wouldn’t be able to de­stroy my home planet, that I didn’t get around to feel­ing un­happy about suc­ceed­ing un­til now. It… hurts.”

“I’m mostly just numb,” the Lord Pilot said from the floor. “Well, ex­cept down there, un­for­tu­nately.” He slowly sat up, winc­ing. “But there was this ab­solute un­alter­able thing in­side me, scream­ing so loud that it over­rode ev­ery­thing. I never knew there was a place like that within me. There wasn’t room for any­thing else un­til hu­man­ity was safe. And now my brain is worn out. So I’m just numb.”

“Once upon a time,” said the Kirit­sugu, “there were peo­ple who dropped a U-235 fis­sion bomb, on a place called Hiroshima. They kil­led per­haps sev­enty thou­sand peo­ple, and ended a war. And if the good and de­cent officer who pressed that but­ton had needed to walk up to a man, a woman, a child, and slit their throats one at a time, he would have bro­ken long be­fore he kil­led sev­enty thou­sand peo­ple.”

Some­one made a chok­ing noise, as if try­ing to cough out some­thing that had sud­denly lodged deep in their throat.

“But press­ing a but­ton is differ­ent,” the Kirit­sugu said. “You don’t see the re­sults, then. Stab­bing some­one with a knife has an im­pact on you. The first time, any­way. Shoot­ing some­one with a gun is eas­ier. Be­ing a few me­ters fur­ther away makes a sur­pris­ing differ­ence. Only need­ing to pull a trig­ger changes it a lot. As for press­ing a but­ton on a space­ship—that’s the eas­iest of all. Then the part about ‘fif­teen billion’ just gets flushed away. And more im­por­tantly—you think it was the right thing to do. The no­ble, the moral, the hon­or­able thing to do. For the safety of your tribe. You’re proud of it—”

“Are you say­ing,” the Lord Pilot said, “that it was not the right thing to do?”

“No,” the Kirit­sugu said. “I’m say­ing that, right or wrong, the be­lief is all it takes.”

“I see,” said the Master of Fan­dom. “So you can kill billions of peo­ple with­out feel­ing much, so long as you do it by press­ing a but­ton, and you’re sure it’s the right thing to do. That’s hu­man na­ture.” The Master of Fan­dom nod­ded. “What a valuable and im­por­tant les­son. I shall re­mem­ber it all the rest of my life.”

“Why are you say­ing all these things?” the Lord Pilot asked the Kirit­sugu.

The Kirit­sugu shrugged. “When I have no rea­son left to do any­thing, I am some­one who tells the truth.”

“It’s wrong,” said the Ship’s Eng­ineer in a small, hoarse voice, “I know it’s wrong, but—I keep wish­ing the su­per­nova would hurry up and get here.”

“There’s no rea­son for you to hurt,” said the Lady Sen­sory in a strange calm voice. “Just ask the Kirit­sugu to stun you. You’ll never wake up.”

″...no.”

“Why not?” asked the Lady Sen­sory, in a tone of purely ab­stract cu­ri­os­ity.

The Ship’s Eng­ineer clenched his hands into fists. “Be­cause if hurt­ing is that much of a crime, then the Su­per­hap­pies are right.” He looked at the Lady Sen­sory. “You’re wrong, my lady. Th­ese mo­ments are as real as ev­ery other mo­ment of our lives. The su­per­nova can’t make them not ex­ist.” His voice low­ered. “That’s what my cor­tex says. My di­en­cephalon wishes we’d been closer to the sun.”

“It could be worse,” ob­served the Lord Pilot. “You could not hurt.”

“For my­self,” the Kirit­sugu said quietly, “I had already vi­su­al­ized and ac­cepted this, and then it was just a ques­tion of watch­ing it play out.” He sighed. “The most dan­ger­ous truth a Con­fes­sor knows is that the rules of so­ciety are just con­sen­sual hal­lu­ci­na­tions. Choos­ing to wake up from the dream means choos­ing to end your life. I knew that when I stunned Akon, even apart from the su­per­nova.”

“Okay, look,” said the Master of Fan­dom, “call me a gloomy moomy, but does any­one have some­thing up­lift­ing to say?”

The Lord Pilot jerked a thumb at the ex­pand­ing su­per­nova blast front, a hun­dred sec­onds away. “What, about that?

“Yeah,” the Master of Fan­dom said. “I’d like to end my life on an up note.”

“We saved the hu­man species,” offered the Lord Pilot. “Man, that’s the sort of thing you could just re­peat to your­self over and over and over again—”

“Be­sides that.”

“Be­sides WHAT?

The Master man­aged to hold a straight face for a few sec­onds, and then had to laugh.

“You know,” the Kirit­sugu said, “I don’t think there’s any­one in mod­ern-day hu­man­ity, who would re­gard my past self as any­thing but a poor, abused vic­tim. I’m pretty sure my mother drank dur­ing preg­nancy, which, back then, would give your child some­thing called Fe­tal Al­co­hol Syn­drome. I was poor, un­e­d­u­cated, and in an en­vi­ron­ment so en­trepreneuri­ally hos­tile you can’t even imag­ine it—”

“This is not sound­ing up­lift­ing,” the Master said.

“But some­how,” the Kirit­sugu said, “all those won­der­ful ex­cuses—I could never quite be­lieve in them my­self, af­ter­ward. Maybe be­cause I’d also thought of some of the same ex­cuses be­fore. It’s the part about not do­ing any­thing that got to me. Others fought the war to save the world, far over my head. Light­ning flick­er­ing in the clouds high above me, while I hid in the base­ment and suffered out the storm. And by the time I was res­cued and healed and ed­u­cated, in any shape to help oth­ers—the bat­tle was es­sen­tially over. Know­ing that I’d been a vic­tim for some­one else to save, one more point in some­one else’s high score—that just stuck in my craw, all those years...”

″...any­way,” the Kirit­sugu said, and there was a small, slight smile on that an­cient face, “I feel bet­ter now.”

“So does that mean,” asked the Master, “that now your life is fi­nally com­plete, and you can die with­out any re­grets?”

The Kirit­sugu looked star­tled for a mo­ment. Then he threw back his head and laughed. True, pure, hon­est laugh­ter. The oth­ers be­gan to laugh as well, and their shared hilar­ity echoed across the room, as the su­per­nova blast front ap­proached at al­most ex­actly the speed of light.

Fi­nally the Kirit­sugu stopped laugh­ing, and said:

“Don’t be ridicu-”