He slept for four hundred years and waking up was the same, only worse; worse each time he emerged from his frozen slumber into the world of painful life.
He was woken briefly two hundred years before: the war on the planet had continued between the remaining First. There were only fifty of them left by then, and the message from Godwin warned him not to attempt landing. “Perhaps the next cycle,” Godwin had said, and then his image shuddered on the screen and was gone.
Now the ship told him there were only twenty-five left, and they were no longer on the planet.
“What do you mean, they’re not on the planet?” Boswell demanded from the ship.
The ship’s cough was the vocal equivalent of a shrug. “The remaining First moved fifty years ago to the Eye. I have had no further contact with them since then.”
It was one of those rare moments: Boswell wanted to go home. And knew he no longer could. “Show me the Eye,” he said. The ship obediently brought up the picture on the wall screen.
The artificial moon was the opposite of Boswell’s ship. Where the ship was a natural asteroid turned into a technological artifact, the Eye was an entirely artificial construct, a globe of strange metal and even stranger technology. When the ship had arrived in the system, it was the Eye that made contact with it first, requesting information, processing the human language and culture packets and, presumably, passing them on to the planet-bound First. Now, its grey and silver surface bloomed with pinpricks of light: swirls and eddies that flowed in intricate patterns Boswell’s eye couldn’t follow.
“Have you spoken to it?”
The ship produced another one of those irritating coughs. “The Eye has kept silent for the past fifty years.”
The ship was silent for a few moments. Then, “It communicated, from time to time.”
Boswell felt anger and frustration threaten to burst. “And?”
“What have you learned?”
Again, the ship did not answer. Boswell’s anger dissipated in a sudden cold. “What did it tell you?”
“We can’t leave.” The ship said it quietly, little more than a whisper, as if thinking the less audible the words were, the less likely they were to affect Boswell. “The First wish for you to stay.”
Boswell thought about it, later, during the routine of physical exercise. “I don’t want to leave,” he said to the ship. He found the idea of captivity did not bother him much. For the first time in his life, he had a purpose. Even so, he wondered uneasily what the First’s purpose was in keeping him there.
Two weeks later, a call came through from the Eye. The ship patched it to Boswell’s residential quarters without comment. An alien appeared, suspended in the wall.
“Godwin?” Boswell said, even though he knew that particular First must be long Joined by now.
The alien on the wall inclined his head. “It is good to see you again, friend Boswell.” He said the ritual words with the tone of Indira, the energy of Hobbs. “Will you name me?”
“I will call you Foucault,” Boswell said. He had already worked out a naming schemes for the entirety of the remaining race of aliens. It gave him something to do, for a while.
The alien’s face curved in immitation of a smile. “It has been a long time,” he said. “I would like to see you again.”
“And I you,” Boswell said, impatience suddenly rising. As if sensing that, the image of the alien reached out from the projection on the wall, one virtual hand stretched for Boswell’s.
And it touched him.
“Ship?” The touch of the alien’s hand was warm and strong. “Are you doing this?”
There was no answer, and the pull of the hand grew insistent, pulling him towards the wall of his cabin, into the screen. When his hand hit the wall, he felt nothing. It penetrated the surface, and the rest of his body followed. A moment later, the alien’s amusement echoing round his mind, Boswell stood on the surface of the Eye.
He was standing of the surface of the moon, and he was drowning in stars.
Boswell turned, and turned, watching the world in a 360-degree round view: iridescent flames shifted and merged all around him and it took him a moment to realize his perspective was wrong. The flames circled the globe.
Raging lights as large as small continents, flames the size of fjords danced in complex patterns across the moonscape, as if trying to escape their prison of metal and rock. Boswell and Foucault stood wreathed in shadows on the naked surface of the moon. Boswell breathed, tasting fresh clean air. A shimmering field engulfed him, intersecting Foucault’s, and he could see dust motes dancing inside it, where there was air, and warmth, and life.
“How?” he said, and then he raised his arms and laughed, warm air on his face, as all around him the moon went up in wondrous, shimmering flames, conveying meanings that he could almost comprehend, patterns that lingered in his brain for long moments before evaporating, on the edge of an understanding that never came.
“The Eye generates a contained atmospheric field around us,” Foucault explained. His voice carried easily, and he approached until he stood side by side with Boswell.
“Why did you move to the Eye?” Boswell asked.
Foucault shrugged. “When the last generations arrive, we who remember all that have gone before wish to recapture some of it.”
“And war?” Boswell said.
Foucault nodded. “War, too, is part of that. But we are no longer fighting.”
“That’s good,” Boswell said.
The alien beside him shrugged again. “Yes, that’s good,” he said. There was a small, strange note of regret in his voice. “But the last two cycles have not been without excitement.”
Foucault took Boswell down into the bowels of the moon. The First, Boswell had noticed, were much more comfortable underground, in large, yet closed, spaces. He and Foucault were sitting in a small, bullet-shaped vehicle that sped through endless tunnels, silver flashing against gold as lights danced in the passageways like living beings.
When they emerged, it was into a vast cavern in which a miniature world had been re-created, reminding Boswell of the idyllic land in which he first met the aliens. Lush forested hills flowed down to green flatlands, where streams flowed and intersected below a small, yellow sun.
“This is a generation starship!” Boswell said, surprise making him loud.
Foucault shook his head. “It is only a temporary residence. We have work to do on the Eye before the time of the First.”
“The time of the first?”
The alien shook his head again. “You will see.”
They moved through the small world, Foucault introducing Boswell to the remaining First, and in a tradition set when he arrived eight hundred years ago, he named all twenty-five of them: Friedman and Freddoso and Fulbright, Ford and Frost, Fenimore and Finch…
Boswell met them in ones and twos, the aliens dotted along the landscape like reticient mushrooms, working in places of natural calm where banks of machines rose from the earth like trees. He met them, and named them, but could not shake off of himself the memories of the war, and the bombs. Eight hundred years, and still he didn’t understand them.
Boswell stayed with the First for two more years this time. He was given leave to explore the Eye, and so he did, shooting through the tunnels from one hidden cave of treasures to another, mostly alone, sometimes accompanying one or two of the First as they went about their unexplained business.
One time, he discovered a vast and frozen terrain in which giant sarcophaguses rose from the icy earth and disappeared into the depths of night above, columns of coffins that formed endless rows that disappeared into the horizon. Another time, he stumbled into what seemed to be a zoo, full of the movement and noise of alien creatures. He reached out to stroke the furry neck of something resembling a miniature giraffe, but his hand went through the creature as if it were not there. It wasn’t real, but a recording of some sort, and Boswell felt as if he had unwittingly entered the projection of an ancient movie.
The end of his stay came when Foucault’s image appeared in the space Boswell had made his own and asked him to come to the surface. A bullet car was waiting for him; it took him upwards at speed, until he arrived on the surface of the moon.
He exited the car, and a warm, heady atmosphere engulfed him in a protective hug. The lights flashing and swirling all around the moon now converged on a circle of flashing silver: the First. He joined them and saw in the middle Foucault, who stood next to Fenimore and Freud to form the point of a triangle. Boswell knew what was coming, but a cry still escaped him at the combined emotional force of the three as they began to Join.
The First formed a circle, arms around each other’s shoulders, and then began to move, almost as though dancing; lights hundreds of kilometers high burned and flashed and flared all around them, extending as far as the eye could see, all the way around the moon. Longing and fear, desire and memory, combined and drilled through Boswell’s skull, into his brain. He shuddered and fell to the ground, and the circle of the First moved closer and closer together, still rotating in their dance, and he tensed as he felt them Joining, merging with each other, three into one. The impact of their Joining sent his mind through explosions of light and shade: rapid blackouts replaced with bouts of blinding brilliance.
When it was over, Boswell’s mind was full of stars. And in the centre of the silent circle of First stood a single figure, silver and grey, that moved towards him and cradled his aching head in its lap.
“Will you name me, Boswell?” it asked, and its voice was that of Jameson and Indira and Hobbs and Foucault. And Boswell, his body shaking without control and his mouth filling with the taste of blood, called him Engels, and then passed out.
“I will miss this place,” Erasmus said.
Boswell looked up. The dome rose above their heads like a delicate, transparent shell; beyond it, light filtered through layers of ocean water, glinting off the silver strands of buildings.
“It is beautiful,” Boswell said. “But what do you mean you will miss it?”
Erasmus looked at him with a small smile. “You haven’t figured it out yet?”
There was a faint emotion emanating from the First. Sadness, tinged with an emotion that was the equivelant of a shrug that said, “Let’s get on with it.”
“You’re not coming back,” Boswell said with sudden realization. “The Eye, the oceans–you’re saying goodbye to them.”
Erasmus nodded. “You will understand,” he said. “Later.”
Boswell nodded, thinking about the meaning behind the alien’s words.
This time, when he was woken up by the ship, the call came through to him immediately. The First (there were only twelve of them left) were no longer on the moon. He was instructed to land by the shore of a small island near the equator; when he landed, he found Engels and Erasmus waiting for him in a silver craft that was submerged in the water. He was taken down–and down, the submarine moving through the ocean until it arrived at an alcove in which the domed city rested.
It was set in water shallow enough that light filtered through and artificial coral reefs spread away in every direction in a cacophony of colour. Inside the dome, the silence was profund, with only the hum of distant machinery remiding Boswell that he was not himself a being of the sea.
The remaining First worked, but what they did was unclear to Boswell. He tried to think of their movements, their behaviour–the migration to the city, the inexplicable war, the Eye, and now this, the bottom of the sea, where ancient cities dotted the seascape like pale azure flowers.
The First moved from city to city, from dome to dome, and Boswell joined them, following Erasmus and Engels in their underwater journeys across the planet. They visited cities buried under eternal darkness, where even if there had been fish, none could have lived, and where the pressure of the water above them was immense; they visited cities whose domes rose half-visible from the surface of the water and glinted wet in the sunlight. There was, Boswell had come to understand, a chain of underwater cities that encircled the entire planet. The First visited each one in turn, spending days or weeks at each long-abandoned habitat before moving on to the next.
He spent a year with them, this time. A year of silence and water, that ended with the Joining of Erasmus and Engels in the shallow waves of a tropical beach where the last domed city squatted in the water: it was a peaceful time, and a peaceful Joining, that left Boswell unaccountably calm and dissipated, like a log bobbing gently in the waves.
When the Joining was complete, the broken shells of Engels and Erasmus floated away from the figure of the young First that floated in their place, his eyes reflecting the fading sun and the waves.
And Boswell, feeling happy and carefree for the moment, named him Diogenes before returning to the ship and the long, frozen sleep that halted time.
He woke up to the silence of the ship.
Boswell stumbled through the rocky corridors of the ship, his breath freezing in front of his face. He called for the ship, but there was no answer.
In his quarters, he soaked himself in a tub of boiling water. He breathed the air. Everything seemed to be working, but the ship’s voice was gone.
As he stepped out of the bath and put on his clothes, three figures materialised in the air in front of him. Silver skin reflected light. They stood in a line like sentinels.
“Diogenes?” Boswell said.
But the alien in the centre of the three shook his head. “I apologise, friend Boswell,” he said. “You have slept longer than you wished. I was Diogenes, in the previous cycle. Now, there are only us three.”
“Will you name us?” asked the one on the left.
He did, feeling unsettled in the act of naming. Camus, Chomsky, Cicero. The First nodded and smiled.
“What’s happened to my ship?” Boswell demanded.
“It’s safe,” Chomsky said. “But we have had to isolate it for some time. There are only the three of us now, Boswell. Only us–and you, our observer. Do you wish to follow us?”
“The ship is unharmed?”
Camus nodded. “The core identity is stored with the Eye. It will be returned to its body when we are finished, without its recent memories.”
“Why?” Boswell said simply. Chomsky shrugged, in that human expression learned so long ago from Boswell. “There will be no record,” he said. “Only yours.”
They reached out to him, and he took their hands and felt himself dissipate as if each atom of his body was swirling away at high speed, reaching for infinity. They re-formed on top of a mountain.
Mount Parnassus, Boswell had called it following the ship’s initial survey of the planet. It towered over the landscape like a cyclops. Cold winds threatened to throw him off the rockface until, at a motion from Cicero, warm air descended on him, and the winds stopped. Boswell could see the outline of the atmospheric field shimmering at the corners of his eyes.
He followed the First into the mountain. An opening led into a tunnel, carved in the rock, which led in turn into a deep cavern.
Inside the cavern, silver screens showed different views of the planet: some were aerial, but others seemed fixed in place, capturing not a continent but a meadow; some showed the now-ruined buildings, and others the silent underwater cities. Several screens showed the Eye, and on one he even saw his own ship, hanging in space like a rock without the momentum to move.
“What do you do here?” Boswell asked.
“What we have been doing for as long as you’ve been with us,” Chomsky said. “What is needed to be done.”
“All that was missing was you,” Camus added. “The Observer.” He made it sound like an honorific.
Boswell stood undecided as the First worked around him in the cavern. The views on the screens flickered and changed. “And now,” Cicero said, “now we can begin.”
There was no warning.
Light flashed on all the screens. It began with the Eye: the moon seemed to suddenly contract in on itself, like an egg breaking inwards. The strange patterns of light on its surface flared and grew into a fireball. Boswell covered his eyes, and when he opened them, the moon was gone, the screen showing black, an empty space where the moon had been.
The light spread.
Boswell saw the underwater cities send shockwaves through the ocean as they consumed themselves, breaking apart neatly like clothes being carefully folded until they were no more, and all that remained was the motion of the water. On land, slender towers flared silver in the sunlight before being consumed. The cities died, leaving nothing behind but scorched land, bare of life and its artificial products.
Explosions racked the globe. Where the fire touched, it consumed with a hurried hunger, removing all traces of the First. Cities burned on land and underwater, and in the bowels of the earth, immeasurable caverns flared in the darkness and were gone, filled by landslides.
Boswell stood immobile in the center of the raging firestorm displayed on the monitors. The First were destroying all signs of their existence. He thought back to the questions he wasn’t asking himself: why the war in the desert; why the move to the Eye; why the return to the underwater cities? He had thought they were simply visiting the places of their childhood, but he had been wrong. They were erasing them.
He thought of all that time, hundreds of years spent carefully laying the foundations for today, for the force that so casually ripped apart everything the First had built. He looked from monitor to monitor, helpless to do anything but watch, as all traces of the First were removed from the body of the planet as if in the hands of a careful, confident surgeon.
Sadness and joy, a mixture of emotions that acted like a drug on his brain, invaded him, and he realized without quite knowing how that the time had indeed come. The three remaining First gathered together at the heart of the cavern, lit by the calculated destruction on the silver screens. And he realised his naming was off by two generations, that there would be no more First Joined to each other to form others: there were only the three in the cavern, and their journey had come to an end.
The emotions he felt, he realised, were not his. They filtered into his mind like the scent of flowers, enveloping him in a cocoon of alien feelings. Through eyes that threatened to close, he watched the First as they huddled together. They seemed to melt into each other like liquid silver, their shapes flowing until it became impossible to distinguish between them.
Their emotions were no longer comprehensible to him. As wave after wave washed over him he felt his body trying to separate, organs trying to spin away in different directions. There were echoes of sadness in the raw emotions, but also triumph, love but also a bitter melancholy: they hammered at his awareness and threatened to unravel his mind.
In the heart of the cavern, the First Joined. Their bodies shifted and melted, becoming one. Light still flashed from the monitors, illuminating the aliens in a silent tableau, light reflecting off their silver and porcelain-white bodies. And then there was only one.
Boswell rose to his feet, shaking as the assault of alien minds suddenly stopped.
Before him stood the First.
Its body shimmered and wavered in the monitors’ light. A body that shifted and altered, a body with no face, and too many. The First.
It studied Boswell for a long moment, as around them the silver screens began to fade, the images they showed erased of all signs of occupation.
And it said, I remember.
It reached out and without moving, it was suddenly standing beside Boswell, touching him. Boswell’s mind flared again in ecstasy and in pain: he watched as a silver meteor crashed into the crust of a barren world, filling it with innumerable beings. Watched the beings work, and build, sculpting the land, constructing dwellings in the sea and on the land; watched them as they mated and their population began to shrink, as slow as the movement of continents.
And saw, at last, the planet, complete and empty, the being of silver light that stood in front of him the sum of all its parts.
“What now?” Boswell whispered. His throat ached and his eyes fought to close.
Now? The First said. And it laughed, the laughter of Boswell’s friend throughout the year, the laughter of Jameson and Indira and Hobbs and Godwin and Foucault and Erasmus and Diogenes. Now, I will do it all again.
A second time it reached its hand towards Boswell, and for a moment, for one brief second, the voice of Boswell’s friends, woven together in a tapestry of sound, emanated from the First. “Will you come with me, friend Boswell?”
And Boswell, knowing then that his journey had only just begun, grasped the First’s hand in his.
The First moved its hand, and patterns of silver light formed an ark around the two of them. Boswell felt the world surrounding them dissipate slowly as the cavern, the last testament to the presence of the First on this world, began to cave in on itself, filling with earth and snow and silence.
The ark of light flared, once, and collapsed into nothing.
And in orbit around an uninhabited planet, a ship with no memories awoke and watched in wonder as a silver meteoroid shot away in an arc around the sun before disappearing into the black depths of interstellar space.