The Hotel Infinity jumps home with Ed and me still perched on its shell, and my knees go limp as the new view blossoms ahead of us. Previously we just had a sky of stars over our heads and dull orange light from somewhere below. Now, suddenly, we are dangling above Antarctica-minus-ten, with the ship's major axis pointing directly down at it. "Vertigo" doesn't even begin to describe this. Astronauts had it bad, but they were in free-fall - this feels like standing on a twenty-thousand-kilometre diving board.
"What are all these lights?" asks Ed. I tear my eyes away from the drop and look up to see hundreds of pale lights scattered across the heavens. Not stars: pale blobby blue shapes with data readouts next to them. It takes me a while to realise that they aren't really there - just projections on the inside of our invisible habitable bubble on the Hotel Infinity's shell.
"Andromedan ships of all races, classes and designations," says the ship, its silvery robot representative materialising in the bubble with us. "The smallest ones I'm detecting are about the size of basketballs. The largest, there..." - the robot points above us at hideous object drifting over our heads which looks like somebody took a long and dusty attic, waited a hundred years for spiders to fill it completely with cobwebs, then took away the attic but left the webs and lit them with maniacal, indescribable light - "...is almost three hundred kilometres long."
Most of them are orbiting the two Earths, almost enough of them to form a solid loop, though the ship tells us there are also small pods attached to networks of induction cables basking in the magnetic field of Jupiter, and building-sized chunks of what look like toffee slurping methane from Titan, and silvery bird-like things charging their solar cells inside the orbit of Mercury, and unidentifiable things doing nothing very comprehensible in the interplanetary spaces, and out around Neptune, and far above and below the ecliptic...
"And those are just the ones that aren't hiding."
"But why are they all here?" I ask, feeling like uninvited guests have barged into my house.
The robot shrugs, and answers, "Because twenty-four hours ago the universe changed shape."
It begins to gesture and the blobs of light shift colour, classifying themselves. "Many of these vessels have peaceful intentions. These three are harmless temporal scientists. That one is a sociologist like myself who is simply curious about the situation on your planet and relations between yourselves and the Eridanians. All over the place there are journalists, documenting the story for trillions of other people. The bulky ships at the equators are cultural support vessels; relief workers here to provide aid to your civilisation and bootstrap it up to Andromedan standards, something for which Krah and her fellow refugees were understandably reluctant to stick around. Then there are many people who are merely here out of curiosity.
"But there are also ecological protestors. They believe that time travel damages the universe. They think the difference between this universe and the one that went before is a blemish which should be nullified. There are people who heard about the galacticide of the previous timeline and, understanding that history can never undone, are here to see justice done - and believe me, every possible interpretation of 'justice' is represented. That ship contains a group of survivors from the Raft Mantissa, survivors no less angry than those who launched the asteroid attack, but smart enough to show restraint and get organised and armed before coming to exact their revenge.
"Ed, you and Krah and others created this universe as it currently exists. But you are also responsible for a galacticide in an alternate timeline. Do you understand what that means? How many prophecies you accidentally fulfilled yesterday? There are people who see you as something approximately equivalent to a god. There are others who view Krah as a goddess and you as a devil. You've made yourself the centre of the universe."
"How many of these people are armed?" I ask the ship.
"It depends what you mean by 'armed'."
"Is the Earth— are the Earths in any danger? Are we in any danger? There are thirteen billion people down there."
"A regular momentum cannon can turn any piece of matter into a bullet and an ordinary tunnel driver, properly configured, can pluck coronal plasma from a star. Both of these are standard equipment on spacecraft, and those ships with additional armaments could conceivably have everything up to energy virus technology at their disposal, so the simple answer is yes. Obviously there are significant parties here who would protect your planets in a battle but I can promise nothing."
"Then we need to defuse this situation now," says Ed. "The only reason nobody's fired yet is they can't find me. I'll take the Ed Rocks. I'll talk to them. I'll lead them away from Sol. We'll go somewhere safe and try to settle this. It was my plan all along."
Suddenly - finally - it sinks in. This was his plan all along. Whatever happens out there, he's not coming back.
He rapidly interrupts me: "The longer I wait, the more the danger grows. If there's anything desperately important you want to say to me other than the obvious, make it quick."
He's right, I think. I try to condense everything I have to say into as few words as possible.
"It's been awesome. Don't die."
That earns me a grin.
"Here goes," says Ed's voice, transmitted from the cockpit of the Ed Rocks, stored somewhere within the Hotel Infinity's extensive interior. Soon after that the tiny ship - low, curved, spiny, like a hedgehog crossed with a McLaren F1 - appears in the starry expanse above me, helpfully marked by a crosshair added by the Hotel Infinity.
Ed opens a public broadcast channel. "Th—" he continues. Then his ship implodes.
It's over in an instant. There's nothing left. Not even fragments. Not even a bright mark on my retina.
"Did you get him out? Did you get him out?" I hear myself screaming, but above me, the red lights representing hostile ships are already beginning to wink out. Leaving. They think he's dead.
"There was nothing I could do," says the Hotel Infinity. "It was a coordinated attack which came from a dozen angles at once. Peacekeeping forces are pursuing those responsible. They will have riders installed within hours. They'll never hurt anybody again."
As if that will help.
I spend several minutes with my forehead pressed against the rough surface of the Hotel Infinity, lost for what to think, or what to do next.
I spend a few hours on Earth-minus-ten, explaining to that Earth's Ed MacPherson why his destiny has already been fulfilled. He takes the news surprisingly calmly. He is uncertain whether he wants the future memories purged from his mind or not. I leave him to his decision.
I spend a quarter of an hour standing in the street outside my home on Earth-plus-ten watching the immense lights of Andromedan culture support vessels move across the sky, waiting for the right moment to introduce themselves to Humanity and give us free passage to Utopia. I spend most of that time thinking about how little we've done to earn it.
I spend two weeks formally concluding Ed's - hah - Earthly affairs. His funeral - entirely symbolic, there was no body - is surprisingly well-attended. According to his will, most of his creations are to be destroyed, though a few things have been left to myself and others for safe keeping. Just in case. They never get used.
I spend nearly two years working in SDC Earth/Andromeda Liaison, helping to build the perfect world.
I spend half a century living in it.
Ed never comes back.
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