She was pretty, in a tomboyish way, this vessel the mind had inhabited, a girl of 15. A runaway, no one anybody would ever miss... not that it would matter after today, anyway. She had skill enough to trick automated systems into thinking she'd paid them, and this skill she'd used for the past two years primarily to hack transmat jumps. In this fashion she'd wandered many places in the Universe, never staying anywhere too long, though of course for all the hundreds of worlds she'd seen, it was but an infinitesimal fragment of the UC. She had no idea why she'd chosen to come to the capital today. Certainly, she'd never had any interest in government, nor in much of anything that regular society considered important or interesting. Nor had she any interest in symbolism, such as being at the seat of civilization for the end of civilization. She imagined briefly that some in her situation might like to wander into the capitol building and pretend to be the President of the Universe, given an unprecedented opportunity such as this one. But she wasn't some people, she was only herself, and she had no interest in such nonsense.
She supposed it was just that, of all the cities on all the worlds in the Universe, this one would be the most likely to be unoccupied today. Ironic, that one of the busiest, most populous cities in the Universe under normal conditions would be practically a ghost town, now. Hardly anyone actually lived here, especially since the word "commute" had become all but meaningless. There was no need for any of the tens of millions of people normally to be found here to actually live here. So, with practically everyone spending time in their own homes, she figured this would be a good place to be alone. And there was nothing she liked better than to be alone- something which was practically impossible, unless you wanted to get away from civilization entirely, and live in a cave or something. Which she'd done from time to time, but didn't really care for, usually. No, she liked the infrastructure of civilization, all the buildings, technology, the countless uesful devices... it was just the people she'd rather avoid. She considered this as she walked up to a vending machine, her usual source of sustenance. Hacking these things was practically her only way of obtaining food and drink, though she did get tired of depending almost exclusively on junk food. Then she realized... today, she could walk into any supermarket or restaurant and take whatever she wanted.
And so she did. She fixed herself a fine meal in the first restaurant she spotted as she walked through the city, and sat and enjoyed it leisurely, in a most comfortable booth. She hadn't really done anything she considered "cooking" since she'd left home a couple of years ago. Occasionally she'd roasted or boiled some wild vegetables or animals, when she stayed in the wild. But campfires weren't much use, in her opinion, for cooking up anything worth eating. She only did it as a change of pace from all the candy and chips and such. As she ate, now, in this modest restaurant, she remembered that she'd been a fairly decent cook, for her age. Her mom used to say she'd make a fine chef someday, but she didn't really care, even then. Still, she did sometimes miss it.
When she was done eating and relaxing, she grabbed a baguette and left the building. There had been a few varieties of baguettes in the kitchen, and she hadn't been quite sure which to take. Her favorite had always been honey wheat, but she liked all kinds of bread. Today, she finally chose sourdough. She stuck it in her small backpack, planning to eat it later, if she got hungry again before the end came. As she left the restaurant to resume her aimless wandering, she started thinking maybe there was some symbolism in her being here, after all. I mean she said to herself, I do like being alone, so what better way to spend my last day? Especially here in the heart of civilization? I don't suppose I could ask for anything more perfect....
She continued to roam the unfamiliar streets of the city for a few hours, never seeing anyone else. She stopped in a park for awhile, and sat on a stone bench in front of a table designed for chess. She sighed wistfully; she did actually enjoy the occasional game of chess. At least other people were good for something, aside from maintaining the infrastructure. It was a bit of a shame she wouldn't be able to play today, but she didn't really care that much. After a little while, she got up and walked off, yet again. She nibbled on her baguette as she left the park, and saw before her the capitol building. There was a boy of about her age sitting on the steps outside. She wasn't sure if she should turn away, or approach him. Finally, she supposed it couldn't hurt to talk to someone, one last time. Only for a little while, of course. So she began to walk toward him, gnawing off another bite of her bread.
As she got closer, the boy looked up, surprised to see anyone. A thought then flashed through his mind, that this girl, whoever she was, was kind of pretty. And he'd never had a girlfriend, or anything. He thought about the fact that he was going to die a virgin, if the instantaneous cessation of all life in the Universe could be called "dying." He allowed a half wistful, half ironic grin to cross his face. He'd never been too interested in such things, relationships and all. He always figured if he ever happened, unexpectedly, to fall in love, then that would be great, and a physical relationship would follow, at some point. If it never happened, well, that would be okay, too. He hardly expected to fall in love with some stranger, with only a couple of hours to live, so her presence here changed nothing. Still, he thought, she is pretty.
She reached him, and standing before him, asked if he'd like some bread. He said sure, and she tore off a piece and handed it to him. She sat down beside him, unable to think of anything to say. She'd never been good at thinking of things to say to people; not even responses, and certainly not conversation starters. The boy, as it happened, was the same in this regard. He sat and took a bite of the bread she'd given him, and after swallowing, said it was good. Then he asked if she happened to have any water. She didn't, but suggested there must be a fountain or cooler in the building they were sitting outside, so they stood and went in together. They found their water; actually a vending machine, which the girl hacked to get them each a bottle of water. The boy said that was cool, even though he could have paid for it. He had a card. She asked didn't he have a family he should be spending time with, surely his parents had given him the card? He said yes, but he wanted to spend some time alone. He'd take a transmat home before the end, maybe an hour before. His folks worked here, but he'd never much cared for the city, so rarely came here. Still, he knew it'd be empty today. He also said he wouldn't mind seeing the President's office. So they looked for it together. When they found it, the boy sat in the President's chair. He noticed the unwashed tumbler sitting on the coaster, and searched the drawers. He found a bottle, and whistled. He didn't know exactly what it was worth, but he was pretty sure it was more than his entire family would earn in a lifetime. With a wicked grin, he poured himself enough for a sip or two, drinking from the same glass the President had used the night before. It was the first alcohol he'd ever had, aside from a little champagne on New Year's Eve. This... had a far greater kick than that. His head reeled for a moment, but after all it was only a sip, and his head soon cleared. Good stuff, he said.
The girl wasn't really interested, though she did wander about the office, picking up objects here and there, studying each briefly, then returning each to its place. She barely exchanged a few words with the boy. After a while, he offered her the seat, but she declined. She said she really didn't care about such things. The only thing that really interested her in the office was the personal transmat. And even that didn't matter too much, as she didn't have any particular plans to go anywhere, today. She considered going to her homeworld, but didn't really see any reason to.
Finally, the boy tired of the office, and said he really should be getting back home, anyway. He said goodbye to the girl, and she said 'bye in turn, and he walked to the transmat, punched in his home coordinates, and vanished. His folks were glad to see him. They'd been getting worried he wouldn't come home in time, and had no idea where in the Universe to look for him. He'd left his comm at home, so they couldn't even call him. He told them where he'd just been, which everyone found interesting, but he couldn't think of anything else he felt like talking about. He didn't mention the girl at all.
The girl, meanwhile, was about to exit the office through the door, to resume her aimless wandering of the city. She supposed she'd still be walking around aimlessly at the moment the end came, and felt only a moment's discomfort about that before deciding it was for the best. But just on the threshold of the office, she stopped. It wasn't her choice to stop. Something... possessed her.
The mind, which hadn't thought of itself in terms of any gender for an indescribably long time, had watched the girl from the moment she'd stepped off the public transmat platform earlier that day. It knew it had to be on another world later on, but it felt like taking a quick look around the Universal Coalition's capital first. It also knew it would have to acquire a body, if it was to make use of the device. It wasn't sure where to find one, but it doubted it would be here. When a boy had arrived earlier, it considered taking him, but for the time being it preferred to watch the boy. Keeping a mental lock on him, however, the mind wandered about the city for a time. In the course of this absent roaming, it chanced to witness the girl's arrival. When it saw her, it started considering her. It still expected it would probably take someone else, after leaving for the world on which rested the device. After all, it would be best to use someone who hailed from that world, and the boy obviously didn't, though the mind was sure it would have been perfectly capable of surviving there, especially after the change. But this girl... she was obviously from that world, herself. So maybe she'd be the better choice, after all. The mind followed her, and was mildly interested that in such a large city, she'd randomly managed to cross paths with the boy he was already keeping tabs on. The mind watched their interaction, and was aware of the boy's thoughts. For a moment, it considered possessing the girl and letting the boy have her, but it quickly realized that even if she offered, he would decline. It was at this point that the mind entirely rejected the idea of using the boy as a vessel, such a boring, unadventurous creature, it found him to be. Its attention shifted to the girl's mind, when it released its lock on the boy's. It seemed she never thought, even abstractly, about the boy, in terms of anything beyond trivial conversation. Not that she thought him bad-looking, or anything... she just seemed to have even less interest in such matters than did he. The mind thought this might make her even more boring, but decided instead that not to do something you have considered is, after all, less adventurous than not to do something it never even crossed your mind to try.
Still, the mind thought it would be better to forget her, as well, and just head to its destination, and find someone there. Then, just as it was about to interface with the transmat computer to enter a new destination, after the boy disappeared from the machine, it reconsidered. The girl was about to leave the office, when it occurred to the mind that it was overdue for a gracious act. And it seemed to the mind that the most gracious thing it could think to do on this, the final day of the current Universe, was to allow every worthwhile sentience to pass on to whatever higher plane might await them. This girl, it realized, had an absolutely pointless existence. She didn't truly care about anything, not even herself. So, by choosing her as its vessel, the mind could be sure to spare anyone who deserved their final rest the indignity and torment of being ripped from their proper course in space and time, and plunked down unceremoniously in an unfamiliar time and place, the very dawn of time and place, without anyone else around. Surely any mind would go mad, under such unparalleled pressure. But this girl, who no one would miss... who wouldn't even miss herself... Yes, surely that would be the most gracious thing to do. So it seized her, just in the doorway.
It turned her around, made its own final sweep of the office, looking for anything it might want to take with it, then stepped (ah, it was good to step again, it had been some time since it had done that! ...even if the silly girl had given herself sore feet with all her pointless wandering...) onto the transmat platform, punched in the coordinates, and disappeared. It reappeared on a public transmat platform in a town near the woods it needed to get to, unaware of the research station that would have unnecessitated the walk from town to the woods, and then through the underbrush to the clearing. It was also quite unaware that anyone else would be there. The mind had not come to this place for a very, very long time. When it came to the edge of the clearing, it saw the President sitting outside. It hid behind a tree, and watched him. When he went back in the building, it crept to a window to watch him. It looked down at the girl's wrist in impatient irritation, and saw she didn't wear a watch. Why should I be surprised? it asked itself. Then the President stood in the doorway, less than a yard from the device. Still the mind watched, through the girl's eyes. So limited in scope, they were! It watched, and waited, and felt the hair on the back of its borrowed neck begin to tingle. It shivered at the sensation; it had forgotten the ways a physical being's more wary spirit could try to communicate with a body's consciousness....
The President leapt, and the mind followed suit. The Universe followed them both, far too quickly for the President to be aware of a young girl just behind him, nor of her landing just beside him on the device. To the limits of human perception, there was no space at all between the single-minded act of leaping and the coming of the end. No time to be aware of anything except the immediate and all-pervasive nothingness.
vol. 2, part one
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