Day 70. 69 pages, 32,792 words.
The sun blazed down. And yet, it wasn’t hot, not really. It was too listless to be hot. The day had all the relentless bright ferocity and all the wrung-out sluggishness of a murderously hot day, just without the actual heat.
Heat was one of the ways the universe released energy, the young man reflected. This … this empty light, this faded echo of physics-that-was … this was what happened when the universe had finished screaming. It was entropy, but without the dignified atomic death that ought to come as part of the deal.
He stood frowning at the patch of pallid white sand with its cracked crust. He’d run every test he could think of, and more than a few he hadn’t thought of until the existing tests failed him. Everything he knew, everything that science had taught him, insisted that what he was seeing was impossible. No, not impossible – not actually happening at all even though he was looking right at it.
After he’d realised this, he’d realised that his tests had become rituals bordering on the superstitious. He was no longer observing, hypothesising, experimenting, deducting. He was compulsively repeating the same phrases over and over until they lost all meaning. Turning the same switch back and forth until he had forgotten what it did in either position – just that it shouldn’t do this.
Someone had once told him that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing again and again, and expecting a different result. The same person, he was sure, had told him that the definition of stupidity was pretty much the same, and it all came down to which you’d prefer people whispered about you behind your back.
When a madman and a fool give orders, it’s the madman who is obeyed.
Had that been how it went? Or had it been the other way around? Who had it been who told him that? He could almost see the outline of them, shining gold like some canonised figure of folklore.
He shook his head. At the edge of the patch, the pale sand-that-wasn’t-sand gave way to sand-that-actually-was-sand, and then to an expanse of scrubby brush on one side and a sunken stretch of bleak brown-black swamp on the other. The desert and the swamp seemed to come together, feed off one another, cancel each other out and redouble one another by contrast. And none of those things made any rational geographical or geological or environmental sense.
Beyond the warped knot of broken landscape, a city. The city looked dusty, not necessarily abandoned … but getting there. Abandoning itself, perhaps. Forgetting its way, forgetting it was a city. None of that made sense either. It was like his brain had stopped trying to understand what his senses were sending him, and so his … his pancreas or something had taken over. And was doing the best it could with absolutely no training or experience.
His pancreas was pretty sure that what he was looking at was a mortal wound in the surface of the universe itself. If a black hole could express as something other than a super-dense gravitational event – he wasn’t an astrophysicist and he was beginning to wonder if he should go back to university and try to become one … either that or a priest – it might express as something like this. Instead of drawing in matter and crushing it into a singularity, it was … was spreading itself out over the underlying spirit of reality, and bleaching it into a … a … a-
Nongularity, he thought. For some reason the word – it wasn’t perfect, but it was close – gave him a deep chill of recognition. The world, the universe was bleeding to death, and the spreading rot was drawing out all the logic and sense and memory that gave reality’s matter any meaning. It was all leaking into this white, blazing-bright nothingness and forgetting what it was as it stared blankly into the sun. Bit by bit, slowly but surely, it would spread.
The young man went to his car, or wagon, or land-shuttle or whatever the thing was.
He pulled a sturdy box from the back seat. It was painted in bright colours and plastered with labels and logos.
The young man crunched out into the centre of the fifteen-foot patch of white hardpan.
He set the box down.
And then the Saint climbed onto the box, steadied himself, shuffled around to face the mouldering city, and he began to talk.