The "Existential Maw Of Despair" National Park!

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Across the stars of the Second Night, beyond the Michaels Continuum and the Embargo Line, on one of the farthest stops of the Coal Roads, there is a tear. It's not a tear in fabric or paper, but a tear in reality, a spot where the laws of physics and common sense break down.

Some people call it a black hole, the greatest black hole of its galaxy. But it wasn't one. It was something else, where reality itself had begun to break before some chance event had stalled it. When people stared into it, they saw things that they wished they had forgotten. They saw themselves, the eternity that lay before them, the infinite smallness of even that. They saw the horror of existence, the faces of those they'd lost, the billions of ways they were irrelevant. They saw a darkness that gripped and maddened them and they could never turn it off, even when they closed their eyes.

So they turned the place into a national park and opened it up to tourists. It seemed like the fitting thing to do.

Look closer. There, on the edge, do you see? That ring of fire. The Engorged Line, they call it. A thin stretch of light where one reality meets another, flames pouring into the hole like melting chocolate. Hundreds of thousands of lightyears in diameter, an untameable mass of something that was made to be wrong.

At four points around the circumference, there are docking stations; vast, floating things where millions of tourists disembark every year. It's not so busy; it takes a certain kind of person to look into the Maw, the foolhardy, the insane or the despairing. But enough come by to justify the expense of maintaining the stations.

Then there are the explorers, those hardy few who are willing to brave any obstacle for riches or glory. Rickety pioneer-vessels would descend from the stations into the maw, letting their very beings distort and change for the sake of some frail purpose.

Most came back. Some did not.

But look a little closer still. Look between the stations. There, on the edge, balanced precariously, are the lookouts. Tiny stations, three-person occupancies, designed solely for the purpose of checking the edges of the line. Scientists stuck on the edge, repairing the fractures and the fraying threads, keeping the structure of the ring intact.

It's not too difficult. A little dangerous, perhaps, but it's all very basic kineto-fragmentation science. The real problem is the boredom, the loneliness. When it's just you, your mind and a couple of other people whom you've probably never met, you tend to get a bit warped. And there's always the temptation, eventually, to just stare out of the window and keep looking down.

It's too much for some, but others love it. Some can only see the beauty of the place; the fire, the endless night, the emptiness below. Many love the rugged feel of the frontier, the simple comforts of books or interesting food, or distance from the Empire's endless politics. It's a nice enough place to while away a few decades or centuries while you think of what to do next.

Because when you possess eternity, you often need to run away.

"Oranges." Mary's voice broke the silence suddenly, causing the dozing Mehmed to start. "That's what I really miss. Oranges."

"We can always import some", said Mehmed, yawning. His shift was coming up soon, but he'd had a late night watching old films. He liked old movies, books, anything like that; they gave him a feeling of connectedness to the past.

"You're on soon, aren't you?"

"Presumably, if Tsukiko ever gets out of the hole. What the hell takes her so long?"

Mary shrugged. "She likes to stare at it. Doesn't seem to affect her much, though."

Mehmed sighed, tapping his feet in boredom. He'd been out here for a month, now; Mary for two. They were complete newcomers, brought in after the last pair had decided to run away on the job out of fear of the Maw. The board at the back of the common room had photos of everyone who'd ever worked at Lookout 281, and Mehmed often looked at their picture. They were happy, smiling, postcard-perfect.

Tsukiko didn't talk much about them, but Tsukiko didn't talk about much of anything. Her body looked younger than theirs but it was clear that her mind was very much older. One of those faces that has seen too much, someone beaten and worn like old leather. She always wore plain black, unadorned but for an old medal strapped to her chest. She did her duty well, but Mehmed would often have to stop her staring at the Maw for too long. They said she'd been here for decades.

Mehmed didn't like to think about the Maw. Something about it unnerved him.

"Got any milk?" These were first words Tsukiko had spoken to either of them in days, and all they could do was shake their heads at her. It was one of those rare hours where nobody was needed on-call; Tsukiko had been reading a book in the corner while Mary and Mehmed played chess.

The huge window that dominated the wall of the common room was pointing towards the stars; they winked and danced at the trio. Mary could tell which was which just by looking: the Isembard Cluster, the New Jade Nation, Emily's Wake. Hundreds upon thousands of suns, each with their own sprawling stations and colonies. It hurt Mehmed's head a little to think how much life was out there.

"Ah, well." Tsukiko stood up, and stretched. "D'you want some tea anyway?"

The other two shared a glance. Tsukiko hadn't said more than a dozen words to either of them, and here she was offering to make them tea. Slowly, warily, they both nodded, to Tsukiko's amusement.

"I don't bite, you know." She got up and put the kettle on, considering them. "I bet I can guess the life stories of both of you."

Mehmed grinned. "Fine, but we get to do the same to you."

"Alright." She squinted at Mehmed for a long time. "Let me see… you're five, six hundred years old? Your parents were both Newcomers, barely older than you, and probably split up by the time you were five. You got into kin-frag work by chance, had some kind of personal tragedy, and came out here to get away from it all. That about right?"

"I'm only three hundred and twenty. But otherwise, unnervingly accurate."

Tsukiko laughed, a strange guffawing thing. It was nice to see her doing something other than glare. "Alright. And you, Mary, you're the opposite. Your parents are one of those rare few who have been together forever, stuck in some moribund monogamy for millenia. You're young, too, but not as young- eight hundred? Nine? And all you wanted to do was reach the frontier, to break away from it all, do something new. You probably studied kin-frag with the express purpose of coming out here. Couldn't wait to start this life."

Mary raised an eyebrow. "Did you look at my file?"

"Nothing so dramatic. I've just been out here long enough to have seen every type of person there is. The decaying, the mad, the dreamers, the broken-hearted nomads. At some point in their personal eternities, everyone will pass through here, or somewhere similar. It's like a caravanserai between one permutation of life and the next."

Mehmed cocked his head. "What about you, then? I can give it a shot. Ex-military, younger than you seem, so fed up with the world that you're looking for anything to give you a fix, even the Maw's oblivion."

Tsukiko chuckled as she brought their tea over. "One out of three ain't bad, kid. But that's a story for another day."

One night, they saw a ship plunge into the Maw. The thin metal rope suspending it from Northern Station simply snapped. The three of them stared from the window as it span around, twisting and flailing, until thin tendrils of night wrapped around it and dragged it all the way down.

Mehmed was horrified, Mary disturbed, but Tsukiko kept drinking her tea, almost bored. "I've seen it too often", she grunted. "The good old days of the sky-sailors, those heroes of the descent, they're long gone. They knew how to pull back, and when, but these new ones- well, they have no restraint. Too greedy, too warped. They'll do anything for glory or treasure."

"That's very cynical of you," said Mary. "Maybe they see it differently. Like a romantic adventure, where risks are part of the purpose."

Tsukiko looked at her sharply. "How many people do you think live in the sky? 500 billion in the Empire? Another three hundred in Celestria, another hundred in the Confederacy, Great Jade, and all the rest? And how many of them do you think are bored out of their skulls? Do you really want to call this "romantic", when that word can inspire millions to throw themselves down there?"

She reached out a hand and placed it on the glass. "We can't die. None of us can. Even if our bodies break, our brains survive. The things in our heads might be trapped by flesh now, but they don't have to be. Have you ever wondered what happens if you go through? We would have died in an instant, once, but now…"

The three of them stared, silently, at the Maw. Then they turned away.

That Tsukiko was hiding something had become clear to both Mary and Mehmed. She was very cagy about her past; guarded it like a close secret, smiling off their sporadic attempts to guess something about her life. They'd tried to get a closer look at her medal, once, while Tsukiko laughed at their schoolchildren's Japanese.

What Tsukiko wasn't cagy about, however, was politics. Mehmed, for whom politics was a foreign field, would watch with faint bemusement at Tsukiko and Mary's arguments about the pressing issues of the day. Mary, an ardent Haskellist youth, found Tsukiko's old-style Ericism almost offensive, and the two would spend merry hours throwing different utopias in one another's faces until the alarm for one of their shifts would go off. Then whoever was left would try to convince Mehmed of their line of thinking; he always found the views of one perfectly reasonable until the other returned and pointed out all the flaws.

"You can't just cut the Sallust quarters!" was Tsukiko's plaintive cry today. "They're just about the only thing stopping Celestria from gaining complete control of Andromeda, and God only knows where we'd be then!"

"Celestria isn't the problem, Tsu", came Mary's weary response. She'd just come off an eight hour shift and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep, but Tsu had been reading one of Mary's news feeds and was outraged over the "shameless Haskellist bias that has taken over the Times today." Mary had tried giving a few choice yawns as a hint but Tsu was miles away.

"Isn't that going a bit far, Mary?" came Mehmed's distant mumble, followed by a crash. His memetic protection suit was a size too large, and he was forever tripping over it as he stumbled his way towards his shift. Mary and Tsu rolled their eyes in unison, before laughing together.

"I know, I know," Tsu said, sitting down opposite Mary with her perennial tea. "I'm a horrid old reactionary, and you want your sleep. I'm sorry. I was raised without democracy, and it's always been a little exciting to me."

Mary looked up, surprised. "It's been over two millenia since we were last under a dictatorship. Just how old are you?"

"It's impolite to ask a lady her age", came Tsukiko's riposte. She sighed, and fingered her medal. "I'm very, very old, Mary. Older than you think."

There was a long pause, punctuated only by the roaring of the fire beyond the window and Mehmed's occasional swearing. Then Mary said, "You're an Original, aren't you?"

Mehmed, hearing this, stuck his head out of the door. "Are you? We were wondering…"

Tsukiko didn't reply for a long time, staring out of the window. Then she unclipped her medal and rubbed at it. "Great East Asia War Medal. Midway."

Mehmed's eyes widened. "How old wer- I mean, were you-"

"Ninety-nine. I was ninety-nine when the Reaper died." The fires roared against the window; the electric lights hummed and whined. "Born December 24th 1920. Christmas Eve, although in Japan that kind of thing didn't matter. Fought in the war. Almost died so many times. Managed to last until the end. Spent the years after… well, that doesn't matter. But when it happened, I was ridden with demetia, with a wasted life. Realised my regrets far too late. Regrets about my family, my gender, my work, my- my everything. And then a miracle happened."

She sounded more tired than Mary. Mehmed opened his mouth but shut it at a sharp glance from Mary, and ducked back into his room. Mary cleared her throat gingerly. "You must have seen so much."

"I did, but memory is fickle. You youngsters don't understand what it's like to be one of us, one of the first. You know why the population took so long to really start growing? Because we remember what it was like to lose people. To see your parents die, siblings die, to see your children buried before you were. I was the last member of my family left. It was cleaner, so much cleaner, than the torments of eternal life."

Mary took her hand. "I'm sorry, Tsu."

The older woman smiled. "It is what it is. Go on. Go and get some sleep."

It was a week after that that Mehmed found Tsu staring at the Maw again. A small rift in the Line had begun a few hundred kilometres away, so Mary had flown out there to fix it. Tsu had been a little quieter recently, but seemed happier, unburdened.

But now her eyes were wide and her hand was pressed against the glass, and she was weeping. Mehmed didn't really know what to do, so he put a hand on her shoulder in a vaguely comforting fashion. He glanced at the maw and saw Marcia's face calling for him, so he looked away.

"I've been out here so long, Mehmed." The words were unexpected. Tsu always seemed so tough, so confident. So self-possessed. But this was something new. Something worrying.

"Is it what you want to be doing?"

"Yes. No. Maybe. But I have to stay out here."

"Nobody's forcing-"

"No, no, you don't understand." Tsu sighed, and sat down in her chair. Mehmed shuffled to the kitchen to get her some tea, just as Mary came through the airlock. She glanced at the scene for a moment, before frowning.

"What did you say, Mehmed?"

"I didn't-"

"It's not his fault." The window had moved to face the stars. Tsu was still staring.

Mary sat down, Mehmed brought the tea, and they all drank in silence for a moment. Then Tsu said "There's something in my head."

The others frowned, quizzically, but Tsu didn't seem to notice. "A long, long time ago, before it all happened, a woman called Marion Wheeler put something in my head. Something that had to be forgotten, so they made me someone who forgot. Amnestics, they called them. It was an old technique to suppress an antimeme, but just about the only thing they could think to do with this one. I was old and retired, and would be dead soon, or so they thought. The idea would die, buried inside. And that would be an end to it."

The stars shone. Their weak light spread across the room. "But then Omega-K happened, and there was far too much to worry about. A lot happened back then. Too many breaches, too much that needed to be contained, too much… everything. I got lost in the cracks, and then they lost track of me, and… well, I couldn't remember anything anyway, so what did it matter? Wheeler was gone, and it was centuries before they could knit my brain back together."

"I've heard that term before", said Mary. "Omega-K."

"But then I started to remember again." Tsukiko's voice seemed to come from a mile away. "Amnestics can only work so long. It's still buried, for now. But it was dangerous; one of the most dangerous. As long as I'm near the maw, it- it twists my mind. Delays the memories from returning. But it won't last forever. One day, it'll come out, and I don't know what happens then."

Another long silence, another view of the Maw. Mehmed thought about rotations. Things spinning round and around, forever. That was the thing about eternity. When time stretches out, is drawn and pulped and dragged from point to point, it's not a succession of new events. It's the old ones done over and over again in the same configuration, slowly decaying, slowly declining. Nothing changing until there was nothing more that could be done.

So Mehmed stood up. "Then let's find out."

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