Bookwreck's front door is unlocked. Nobody is in. Illu and Aks find this puzzling.
"I think she's gone," says Illu, looking around the back rooms behind the shop: the stock rooms and kitchen. "Lots of stuff missing. No cooking equipment, no food. Tried upstairs? Hmm. Where's the bedroom?"
"Upstairs," says Aks, gingerly unhooking the rope across the bottom end of the aeroplane fuselage-cum-stairs.
"Upstairs has no roof," says Illu.
"Only half of it," says Aks. He climbs the steep steps which have been built into the plane's central aisle. The next room is square, and qualifies as being about halfway between "inside" and "outside". The oak sprouts upwards triumphantly through a metre-wide hole left in the flooring, and way up beyond where the ceiling should be, spreading branches over above the whole building, providing a moderate amount of cover from the elements. There is a broom and a stool and a bucket in the corner, along with a pile of recently swept leaves. There is a small wooden door to Aks' left, leading to the last room in the building.
"Wait here. She knows me," says Aks, going in.
The last room is quite dark for the time of day. There are light fittings in two of the walls but the ceiling is painted black, absorbing most of the light. The rest is collected by the books. The floor is almost completely covered with books and paperwork, odd little plastic toys and trinkets and artifacts, bits of clothing and empty glass bottles. Some of the book stacks are two metres high, propped against bookshelves that are even higher. Some of these books haven't been moved in years. In one corner is a bed, turned sideways and propped against the wall to yield more floor space. At the far end is a blacked-out window and under the blacked-out window is a desk, which is relatively clear, having only a pot full of pencils and a few pieces of scrap paper.
Sitting on a chair in front of the desk, writing, is Yuen. "It's about time," says Yuen, putting the pen down and turning around, "you almost missed me."
"This is a picture of you," says Aks to Yuen, handing over the photostat. Yuen looks at the picture. The face is hers. The name is hers. The date of the sketch is clearly visible. The date of birth of the person depicted is clearly visible. Any one of them could be wrong, and then everything would suddenly make sense.
Aks steps back a pace and looks around. He notices a poster hanging on the wall. A wide, dark blue rectangle of paper, laminated in plastic. There are two wide circles drawn on the paper, in white. Each circle is divided into sectors with thin white lines, and has thousands of white dots scattered across it. "What is this?"
"It's a chart."
Aks stares at the odd spindly white polygons which have been drawn between the white dots, and the tiny yellow names written next to each of the dots in an odd old script. Like most of the other artifacts in the room, the books and papers and ornaments and occasional tapestries, it is meaningless to him.
"What is actually going on here, Yuen?" he says.
"Every now and then somebody figures me out," says Yuen. "Every now and then. It's usually a historian. But mostly it takes a long time to get. You just jumped right to the key question. Not 'Who are you?' but 'How old are you?'. So I went and did some calculations." She picks up a stack of paper covered with dense notes and arithmetic. "Because I'd lost count. I really had. I wondered. My current set of papers says I was born fifty-one years ago. I have a new set lined up which sets me back to twenty.
"The truth is I turned ten thousand years old on that day. Exactly ten thousand years old. And usually I duck the attention. I run and make a new identity and keep my head down and just keep on doing what I do, because, as far as I can tell, it's the only thing I can do which doesn't invariably result in utter catastrophe. But you don't turn ten thousand every day."
"So you thought you'd throw me a bone," says Aks.
"It's good to tell the truth to someone sometimes," says Yuen. "Even if every word makes them think you're more and more of a lunatic. It keeps me sane. And you'll be dead in seventy years so what does it matter in the long term?"
Aks nods carefully, then turns his head to the door. "Illu?"
Illu steps into the room. "Yuen Pelloe. We have an arrest warrant in your name for murder, sabotage, destruction of property and assorted additional charges to be specified at a later date," he says. "Please come with us. Cooperative action will count in your favour."
"Of course," says Yuen, standing up and allowing her hands to be tied.
Illu leads her down the stairs and back to the auto. She is loaded into the rear of the vehicle and Aks and Illu take their seats in the front. As Illu pulls away, she begins to speak again.
"Sometimes the discovery becomes massive and everybody in the world finds out at once and I end up on a pedestal. Sometimes they make me their leader, sometimes they call me an abomination, sometimes I get arrested and studied, usually it's all of this at once. I've been everywhere. I've done everything, spoken every language, built a pyramid, survived re-entry. History goes in cycles. If you watch it for long enough you can see the tipping points coming and be there when they happen. I invented fire, the wheel, the electric motor, antibiotics, you name it, every era, every country. Fought in X number of wars. Once, I actually ruled the whole world.
"I've walked on the Moon barefoot."
Aks shakes his head and looks out of the auto window. This is because a simple thing like actually having someone sit in front of him and recite his theory back to him has completely shaken his faith in it. He has nothing. Nothing, really. A flimsy scrap of plastic, too good to be true. A metric tonne of loose conjecture. Illu is keeping carefully silent and concentrating on the road. They're coming up to the suspension bridge which spans the harbour mouth.
"You've lived through eight Crashes," says Aks. "So you know what causes each Crash? You know what actually happens."
"The Crash destroys information. Or rather, it randomizes information. Ideas. Formal conceptual representations in people's minds. And, up to a certain granularity, elsewhere. On computer discs and magnetic tapes, where the data is stored densely. When you take all the coherent knowledge out of a human being's mind, what you have left is an animal, a dumb hominid with dumb hominid instincts. Still capable of survival, of course. Still very much viable in this world, and still capable of reproducing and learning terribly fast. When we first evolved it took tens of thousands of years to get from there to here. But when one is surrounded by inexplicable artifacts begging to be explained and understood and operated and harnessed, one learns. One learns to learn. The Crash doesn't kill anybody. It just starts everything over again. There are far more dangerous weapons."
"So it is a weapon? It wipes people's minds and it wipes electronic records too? That doesn't make--"
"Weapon isn't quite the right word. 'Infection'? 'Targeting agent', maybe. It's like a hound, unleashed. It sniffs. The weapon is, itself, smart. It's complex."
"And you're immune to this. So you just let it happen," says Aks.
"I make it happen," says Yuen. "It's me."
Aks looks around at her, incredulity on his face. "Why?"
"Because humans are the first and only sentient beings anywhere in the universe," says Yuen. "And if you all die out, there may never be more. And if you've lived as long as I have, you come to realise how terrible it would be for the universe to exist without humans in it.
"Especially if you're the only person left alive in that universe. And you can't die."
Yuen holds Aks' gaze for a very long moment. Then she smashes the auto window with her elbow, and dives through it.
Illu curses explosively and pulls the brakes, wrenching the vehicle to a stop in the middle of the lane. They were moving much too fast for diving out to be in any way safe. The woman is dead, surely - run over by speeding traffic or cut to shreds by the glass or just battered to death by asphalt.
Vehicles are already queuing up behind them as Illu and Aks both leap out of the auto. Yuen is far from dead. She is already up and running down the central reservation, making good time, hands still tied in front of her.
"Stop!" The order barely reaches her ears. The police officers set off after her. Before they're even begun to close the gap, Yuen veers left across the lanes of still-moving traffic, weaves miraculously through them, plants a foot on the edge of the bridge and jumps. The drop is easily a hundred metres. Water hits like concrete from that height. Aks and Illu have to spend critical seconds persuading the passing vehicles to stop before they can follow her to the edge of the bridge and by the time they have reached the side to look, there's nothing to see, not even a fragment of foam from the splash.
Illu is livid, practically jumping up and down. "We lost her. We lost her. She spun us-- spun you that gigantic lie to distract you and then jumped off the bridge and we lost her. She was suicidally insane and locked in the back of a police auto and managed to kill herself from a standing start under our watch. I am going to get blamed for this. No-- I'm not. You are. I'm blaming you. This is you. Should've stuck with your history books."
"Or," says Aks, now merely playing devil's advocate, "she really is immortal and she survived the drop."
"And escaped? Yeah. I like my option better."
There is no night on the Antarctic continent at this time of year; after she is dropped off on the coast, the final leg takes her less than a week at a brisk walk. Cold weather gear is irrelevant, though the snow shoes help. All she really needs is the map, and once she comes within eyeshot of the enormous granite dome she folds it up and puts it away for the final few miles.
There are ragged remains of an exploration camp gathered in the dome's wind shadow, but all the explorers have left, either turning back or continuing onwards towards the south pole. They've left a mess. Litter is everywhere, ground into the snow.
Yuen locates the huge, heavy, hexagonal stainless steel bulkhead in the equator of the dome, which the explorers evidently spent some days trying and failing to crack open with ice picks. It is completely frozen solid. It is not designed to be removed. She begins hammering out a specific rhythm, and keep hammering for maybe half an hour, unable to hear any significant echo but knowing that the sound is reverberating all the way through the interior of the dome.
Eventually somebody walks out. He doesn't open the bulkhead. He just walks straight through it. He is dark-haired, and of about her age and height. He looks her up and down, takes her hand and leads her back the way he came, phasing them both through the steel like a finger poked carefully through the skin of a soap bubble.
The corridor beyond is utterly dark. The air inside is cold and smells of oil. The man keeps hold of her hand all the way to the other end, where they pass through a second bulkhead and into the dome proper.
The dome is actually a complete globe, not so much sitting on top of the pack ice as floating in it. Two walkways cross the entire space perpendicularly, meeting at a tiny hub, and dividing the interior into four towering vertical segments. The first two segments are completely filled with mechanical equipment. Enormous pistons and cogs and wheels and spinners and pipes and rods and gears and towers and gantries, made of brass and gold and steel and other, longer-lasting materials, reaching all the way up to the vault of the ceiling and based all the way down on the curving floor. Brilliant illumination is cast upwards from floodlights below the walkways, lighting the entire mechanism from below. The light is just enough to cast metallic reflections in every direction but still leave the depths of the mechanism in total darkness. It is just enough light to give the darkness shape. It looks like these could be the secret machines which power the whole Earth - the weather, the tectonic plates, the volcanoes, the ocean currents.
Most of the machinery is inert, but some of the smaller wheels are clicking as they turn. And other, larger wheels are beginning to spin too. They are accelerating.
A discussion is taking place at the hub.
"You're early. At least twenty years early. And at the very least, you could have called."
"I told a man about myself."
"...How much? Everything?"
"Not everything. But I told him how we do it."
"Was he convinced?"
"I don't think so, but--"
"There's a fair chance he'll just drop it all, but he could go forward and get people working on it. Informational weaponry. Or nuclear. There's a chance, Mitch."
Things begin clattering in the depths of the machine. A long column of hundreds of enormous metal plates descends from the ceiling, swinging from the bottom of a metal monorail. Each plate is square and has a dense pattern of holes punched through it. They are punch cards full of data. Exceedingly large, exceedingly durable punch cards. They are rattling along very, very fast. In the distance they begin to split up and are diverted to different parts of the machine.
The first few hundred plates have data on them, but the later ones are all blank.
"You kept it maintained, anyway. I'm impressed."
"I've been doing this for long enough."
"Since you mention it..." Anne doesn't even bother to verbalise the question.
"We're coming up to forty-nine percent completion."
The third quarter of the globe is not filled with mechanical machinery. It is full of tall, silent monoliths, laid out in a grid pattern, forming a dark grey geometric forest of sorts. Each one is covered with coloured blinking lights and swamped with drooping vine-like cables, connecting all the monoliths to one other. There are fat cable connections between the monoliths and the machinery, sending data across to where a POW mechanical rammer is meticulously POW punching square holes in the POW blank metal plates. This is data being backed up. The immense calculation is being suspended.
The lights over the server farm are slowly winking out, ceasing to blink one at a time. Scheduled downtime.
"Eight more Crashes after this one. Roughly."
"Roughly. I think... we should do some studies. There has to be a better way than calling it as we see it each time."
"I don't think there is."
The final quarter of the dome is completely empty except for four cables - one silver, one gold, one black, one white - which drop down from some unseen hook in the recesses of the ceiling and then loop up and finally plug into the end of a metre-wide platinum egg. The egg is sitting on the grille gantry at the hub of the room, with its electronic innards spilled out onto the floor where Mitch is performing a final check on them while he talks.
"You're not a sociologist."
"And you are? I've been everything. I've had the time."
"Your head has always been wired for science. Not people."
"My head is as full of litter as the rest of this planet."
"That's the last one," says Anne.
Time passes as the machinery files the plates, with their new data, back into the pile where they came from and clacks back into its neutral position. Every last part of the machine will need cleaning, tuning, testing and resetting after this. The prime programs for the server farm will have to be reinserted from the raw binary. But there will be plenty of time for that. And Mitch is very good at it by this point.
Mitch finishes his work on the egg and begins putting his tools away. "Any last comments?"
"People die every time we do this."
"Not directly. But people in aircraft. People in hospitals. People out at sea. When all that knowledge goes."
"Do you have any better ideas? And I ask this in all seriousness. If there are, there are, and fair play, I'll listen. But we've had so long to think about this. If there were, we'd have them by now. Surely. But I've done this. You know this. We can't stop them learning. By force, by persuasion, by breeding... It cannot be done without permanently perverting humanity as a species, and then the Zeroth Law or Golden Rule or whatever you call it goes, and the plan goes, and then - what, sixty thousand million deaths, cumulatively? - are for nothing."
Mitch slots the last component into the egg, hauls it over to the edge of the gantry. "They'd all be dead by now if not for us," he says. "Most of them would never have been born."
He stands back, gives the egg a solid push with his foot, and shoves it over the edge. The supporting cables pull taut and the egg traces a slow, quiet semicircle off into the darkness.
It's almost half a minute before the bob returns to them the first time, lazily swinging up towards them, close enough to reach out and touch at the peak of the swing.
"That doesn't make it right."
"So what do you want?" asks Mitch. He turns and faces her. "To make it right? To be somehow held accountable at the end of it all?"
Anne doesn't say anything, but Mitch is very close to the truth and he can see it.
"I can't help you, Anne. You're running the world, now."
As the bob reaches its furthest point for the second time - and it is invisibly small in the darkness at this point - something clicks inside it and it emits a bright white pulse of light. Components at the pointed end strobe in purple and ultraviolet for one complete period, then, as it swings out a third time, it clicks again and shuts off.
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