“We’re approaching the Node,” the shuttle’s recorded announcement sounded, the words nasal and tinny.
I leaned forward and switched on the screen. I’d never seen the Node before except in photographs, and those were from a long distance. Though it no longer mattered now, I wanted to remember as much detail as possible.
There was nothing special on the screen, just the stars sprinkled across the black night of space, unwinking points of light. I reached forward to fiddle with the resolution.
Beside me, I felt rather than saw the lady Farzana, better known as Umm Aiman, raise a hand. “Wait,” she said, and pointed. “There. Can you see it now?”
At first I thought it was just another star, and then I noticed that it was a slight but distinct bluish-green in colour. And then I saw that it was crowded around by objects.
“That’s the Station around the Node,” Umm Aiman informed me, unnecessarily.
“It’s huge,” I said. “I didn’t realise how huge it is.”
Umm Aiman glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Don’t let it overawe you.”
“I won’t,” I said. “I’d read the figures, but it’s different to actually see it in person.”
It grew, and grew. The Node was a ball of translucent light, white shading to green to violet at the edges, which flickered in and out of existence, so that the whole of it seemed to pulse slowly like a heart. Around its midsection, like the rings of Saturn, was the Station’s main section – an immense doughnut of metal, connected by shafts like the spokes of a wheel to the flickering light it had brought into being. As we watched, a greyish splotch drifted slowly across the screen, marking the rotation of the Station. And around it, above and below, were all the other parts and modules, which had been added over time – cylinders and blunt-tipped cones, spheres and cross-shapes, they rotated too, some attached directly to the Station by metal passages, others by tethers, and still others, presumably, only by the tenuous grip of its gravity.
“They’ll definitely have weapons trained on us,” Umm Aiman said. “Missiles, particle weapons, the lot.”
“Of course they will. But they won’t use them, not when they need us so badly.” I gripped my seat arms as a series of brief jolts shook the shuttle from the little braking rockets firing. “They may think about it when we’re leaving.”
“Yes. What have they got to lose then?”
“Everything,” I said. “They have everything to lose.”
A dark circle appeared on the surface of the ring, growing to a short tube. The shuttle oriented itself to line up with it, obeying electronic signals beamed from the cluster of antennae on the rim of the Station.
“Here we go,” Umm Aiman said, pulling on her veil, so that only her eyes showed. “Are you sure we can do this?”
I shrugged. “What have we got to lose?”
She didn’t say anything. We both knew the answer.
As we passed through the airlock into the Station, we were met by a tall man in a blue uniform.
“Abu Ismail?” he asked, as though there was any doubt on the matter. He looked as though he were in two minds whether to salute me, and then settled for a handshake. It was a quick handshake, to make the point that he’d rather not do it. “I’m Lieutenant Commander Gimler. I’m afraid I’ll need you to show your identity papers, both you and your, ah...” his eyes flicked over my shoulder to Umm Aiman. “Your lady,” he said, after struggling for a moment to find the appropriate word.
“Here you are,” I said with detached amusement, watching him go over the cards. He was unarmed, but there would undoubtedly be hidden weapons trained on us at this very moment, just in case. I’d have preferred an open armed guard – it would have been less hypocritical and therefore more respectful. “You’ll find they’re both all right.”
“If you’ll excuse me. One more step.” He raised an iris scanner and looked through it briefly at my eyes and then at Umm Aiman’s, before reluctantly accepting that we were, indeed, who we said we were. “Follow me, please,” he said, handing the cards back.
The gravity of the station, imparted by its spin, was low enough to be uncomfortable. We walked down a curving white corridor, trying not to bounce. Everything was white, from the ceiling to the walls to the floor. How could they stand this absence of colour?
“Where are we going?” I asked, as much to take my mind off all the whiteness as because I wanted to know.
“Rear Admiral Ley’s office,” the Lieutenant Commander said. “He’s in charge of the, ah, negotiations with you.”
“Rear Admiral Ley,” I repeated. “Isn’t he...” Umm Aiman jabbed me sharply in the small of the back, and I shut my mouth so quickly I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood. She was completely right, though. This wasn’t the time to raise the fact that one’s counterpart in negotiations was a wanted war criminal in one’s homeland. “Isn’t he the Station Commander?” I asked instead.
“No, but he’s the one who’ll talk to you.” Gimler said shortly. We passed a couple of women in uniform coming the other way. Their eyes went straight to Umm Aiman, who was of course walking a pace and a half behind me, and I could sense exactly what they were thinking. “Poor woman, not only does she have to cover up, but he won’t even let her walk beside him! And she’s likely kept too ignorant even to know what she’s suffering. Such savages.” Umm Aiman knew what they were thinking as well, and I could imagine her smiling behind her veil. Well, drawing her lips back from her teeth, anyway.
Gimler stopped at a round door set in the inner wall of the curving corridor, and pressed an almost invisible panel. It slid open and he saluted before turning to us. “Please go in.”
I’d seen pictures of Ley before; who hasn’t? But those had been taken when he was much younger, before the war between our sides had settled down into a hostile semi-peace. He was balding and thick-bodied now, but the blunt face still held the same bulldog aggression that one could see in the old photographs. His dress uniform was meant to impress, too – a single braided epaulette on the right shoulder, his chest lined with rows of medal ribbons, golden rank stripes on his sleeves. In my turban and comfortable old salwar kameez, I looked a bumpkin in comparison, and was presumably meant to feel like one.
But they wouldn’t have called in a bumpkin to solve their problem for them, and all four of us in the room knew that.
There were two chairs set across Ley’s desk, and Gimler motioned us to them. I took one, but Umm Aiman, of course, chose to stand to one side of the door, her back to the wall. I saw Ley’s lip curl in disdain when he saw that. That was all right. Gimler wasn’t sitting either.
“Rear Admiral,” I acknowledged. “I won’t waste your time and mine. You have a problem with the Node, and you can’t solve it. So you’ve called us in to help.”
“Hmm...yes.” His mouth twisted bitterly, involuntarily telling me how much he hated having to call for help from us. “It remains to be seen whether you can do anything, though.”
“I’m sure I can try,” I said cheerfully. “I assume this problem is that something is blocking the Node?”
He didn’t show any surprise, nor should he have. “If it were anything else – if the Node had slipped out of phase – we could have handled it ourselves. After all, we set it up in the first place.” The words “...not you” hung in the air, unstated but understood. “So, yes, something is blocking the Node. You are correct.”
“Equally obviously, whatever’s blocking the Node is not a corporeal, physical entity. If it were, you would have destroyed it with weapons or other physical means.” I sat back and rubbed my fingers through my beard. “So what is it?”
He muttered something under his breath, which I thought I hadn’t heard correctly at first. “Did you say vampire?” I asked.
He nodded unhappily. “An energy vampire of some kind, yes. It appears to be sucking energy out from the Node generators, and is draining them continuously.”
I frowned as I considered this. “I assume that you’ve tried switching the generators off?”
He looked at me as though he’d just realised I was an imbecile. “Of course we tried. It would have collapsed the Node and caused an enormous amount of delay and expense, but we tried, yes.”
“And...?” I prompted, though I knew.
“They wouldn’t shut down.” His bulldog jaws bit off the words. “It’s taken over the entire generator system, and is keeping them going even as it sucks the power from them.”
“I see,” I said, though the “seeing” was as yet fully metaphorical. “Is it perceptible? Visible?”
“In some ways, yes.” It clearly caused him effort to say all this to me, the Enemy. “But it isn’t photographable.” He looked over my shoulder at Gimler so he wouldn’t have to look at me. “Can you fix it?”
“What makes you think I, or indeed, anyone from our side, can fix it?” I asked. I’d been wondering about this since the Amir had summoned me to his office, down in New Baghdad, to tell me what he wanted me to do.
“Do they think we’re responsible for this problem, whatever it is?” I’d asked. “Do they imagine that, having created it, we can call it off?”
The Amir had tapped on his desk with his fingertips. “I’m sure the idea has crossed their minds. But they must also know that our science isn’t a patch on theirs, so...it must be something that science can’t fix.”
Ley now confirmed that. “It doesn’t, ah, seem to be amenable to correction by the normal scientific methods. We’re compelled to look for, um, other options.”
“And these other options...include religion? Are you assuming that this vampire of yours is a demon from hell or something like that?”
The Rear Admiral looked uncomfortable. “We’re just trying everything. It seems that since there’s nothing more we can do, you might be able to help.”
“I’ll have to have a look,” I said. “Should we go now?”
“No!” he sounded panicked for a moment, and I wondered just what kind of pressure was being put on him, and by whom. “First, there’s the question of what you want in return.”
“I, personally? Nothing. But my side wants something, and you have already been told what it is.”
His heavy brows contracted. “Yes, and it isn’t acceptable.”
“I don’t see why,” I said. “You have the Node, which you’re using as a gateway into another, parallel, universe. Obviously, you aren’t satisfied with the one Allah gave you. We, on the other hand, are perfectly happy with this one, and all we ask is that you leave it to us.” I reached into the null-space pocket in my turban and extracted the holocube I’d been carrying there. My turban has all kinds of interesting gadgets inside it, most of which I hope I never will have to use. “You can ask the Amir yourself.”
He waved off the cube. “Your terms are not acceptable,” he repeated. “We can give you and your...” his gaze shifted momentarily to Umm Aiman. “Your, ah, companion, whatever you can reasonably want. Money, political asylum, even priority emigration to the Other Side. But that’s all we can do.”
I shrugged. “Too bad, then. My trip here’s been wasted, but after all, it’s just one trip, a few days lost. You, on the other hand, stand to lose a universe.” I paused to let it sink in and the lights flickered overhead. It wasn’t much of a flicker, lasting less than a second, and I’d not have even noticed it. But Ley looked up at the glow-globe in the ceiling apprehensively, and from the corner of my eye I noticed Gimler do it too. And I realised what it was.
“It’s not just the generator any longer, is it?” I asked. “It’s beginning to suck away the power system of the Station itself, isn’t it?” I began to push back my chair, not too hard, keeping the low gravity in mind. “Well, then, I assume you’ll just have to evacuate the Station before it sucks your power completely dry, while you still have your life support systems running. I’m sure you can build a new one later, elsewhere. But that’s none of our affair.” The lights flickered again, a little longer this time. “Come, Umm Aiman. We’re going back.”
“Wait!” Ley’s voice held real anguish. “I’m going to have to put this before the Station authorities, and they’re going to have to put it to the whole Council. It’s not something I can decide by myself.”
“And how long will that take?” I asked. “Going by the lights, you don’t have unlimited time.”
“One Cycle, maybe two.” Ley held up a hand. “We’ll give you accommodation till then. Please be patient.”
“We’re patient,” I said. “I wonder whether your guest is, though.”
As though on cue, the lights flickered again.
They gave us a room in the residential section of the Station, at the end of the crew quarters and near the section which was filled with the emigrants. These had been accumulating ever since the trouble with the Node had begun, and their section was so overcrowded that they spilled over into the corridors. Gimler had brought us to the room by access passages so as to avoid these emigrants, because, he said, they were angry and frustrated and might attack us.
I didn’t think the emigrants would attack us, but I wasn’t so sure about the Station staff. I’d seen the way some of the others, waiting outside the Rear Admiral’s office, had looked at us when we’d come out. Gimler was likely more worried about them.
That is what I said to Umm Aiman from the bed as she came out of the bathroom. “I see our hosts are taking good care of us.”
“It is a very good room,” Umm Aiman replied. “It has all the conveniences.” She meant that it was certainly bugged and we were under surveillance, which was, of course, true.
“With luck,” I said, “we won’t have to stay long.” This wasn’t code. I was just telling her what I thought. “We’d better rest, though.”
She nodded, the bedside lamp shimmering in her hair. She sat down in the least comfortable-looking of the chairs in the room, propped her feet up on the bed, and informed me that she’d be taking the first watch. “You go ahead, Abu Ismail. I’ll sleep later on, when I get drowsy.”
I glanced at her. Umm Aiman was fully dressed, except for her veil, shoes and stockings; her hands, naturally, were still sheathed in her elbow-length black gloves. She looked very beautiful, and I felt a momentary ache for her, an ache not of desire but of sorrow, because of what she’d chosen to become. Then I shook it off – there was what I’d chosen to become, too – and bid her good night.
Almost everyone imagines Umm Aiman and I are lovers. They are, of course, wrong.
We are much, much closer than that.
Nothing happened during the rest period. Nobody tried to assassinate us, or even break into the room. Nobody attempted to pump in hypnotic gases through the ventilation, to take us away and interrogate us for what we knew. After a few hours the alarm I had set in my turban woke me – I didn’t trust Umm Aiman not to sacrifice her own rest fully in order to let me sleep – and I replaced her on guard duty. She undressed the rest of the way, without any embarrassment, and went to sleep, while I sat in the chair and thought about the task ahead.
They’d give in to our conditions, of course. They really had no other choice. But would I be able to do my bit? Could I?
I’d talked about this to the Amir back in his office in New Baghdad. “I’ve full confidence in you,” he’d said. “I know you’ll do it, even if you don’t believe it yourself.”
“You know I’m not strictly doing things that are allowed, right?” I’d replied. “Some people would call what I do witchcraft, or sorcery.”
“What some people think won’t make a difference,” the Amir had said. “Think of this as Allah’s gift to us. We didn’t win the war – in fact, we barely avoided losing it – and we’ve most certainly been losing the peace, or whatever you call what we’ve got now. That lot over there have all the science, the economic progress, and the shiny gadgets that show they’re more developed. They’re literally squeezing us against the wall, seducing away even our own young people to their side. And then they developed the Node, and had parallel universes at their disposal – all they could ever want. Their victory was all but complete. Even I saw that we were lost.
“But now...” his voice had grown deeper and more vibrant. “But now, we have this golden opportunity, to win it all. They can have their other universes, but we will have this one, the one Allah made for us. Can you tell me how this could ever be without Allah’s specific permission and intervention? And, having done this much, will He let us lose?”
I replayed these words over and over in my mind until I almost believed them, and by then the rest period was almost over.
As they’d done with supper, they served breakfast to us in the room, and as before I took the precaution of wanding it for poison, even though we both knew nobody would try anything so crude. We were still eating when Gimler entered, causing Umm Aiman to drag on her veil over a mouthful of half-eaten food.
It was so obvious from Gimler’s expression that he was bringing what to him was bad news that I didn’t even need to hear him say it. “Your Council has agreed to our terms?”
He nodded glumly. “They called an emergency session, and agreed, though over some objections.” He didn’t need to say that his was among the objections. “Our acceptance has been conveyed to your authorities on New Baghdad, subject of course to you doing your part.”
Umm Aiman and I glanced at each other. “We’ll do our part,” I said. “Shall we go now?”
“Rear Admiral Ley is waiting for you,” he said. Outside, in the corridor, we found a couple of grey-uniformed guards with guns. This, of course, meant that there was some kind of actual threat, because nobody takes the idea of using projectile weapons inside a spacecraft lightly.
“Is there likely to be a coup or something?” I asked. “Has the news of your acceptance of our terms created that much anger?”
Gimler shook his head, briefly. “Not that I know of, no. But we have to safeguard your security from the emigrants.” He must have known this was a ridiculous excuse, given that the emigrants had no weapons and no way to reach us at the Node. Things must be even worse with them than I’d thought.
There was no doubt that the situation inside the Station was worse. The lights were perceptibly dimmer and flickering constantly. There was also a faint odour in the air, as though some of the air filters had been shut down in an effort to save what power there was.
“We’re keeping the approaches to the Node at normal power,” Gimler said, before I could ask. “We’ve also gathered all the equipment you might need.”
“Have you used this equipment to try and stop your vampire?” I asked.
He hesitated long enough for me to consider asking him again. “Yes,” he admitted finally.
“Then,” I told him, “I will not need it.”
We’d passed Ley’s office door, and Gimler paused to press a switch that caused a section of the inner wall to swing open. He then led us along a straight passage leading towards the Node at the Station’s hub. “This isn’t the way the emigrants go, of course,” he said.
“Of course it isn’t.” It was too narrow, and the emigrants in any case weren’t allowed in this section of the Station. Relative to the spin-induced gravity, we were headed straight ‘upwards’, but I didn’t feel any pull tending to make us fall over on our backs. They must be maintaining a separate spin here, probably rotating the passage itself around its long axis. The idea made me feel slightly dizzy. “Is there any way you can communicate with the other side of the Node? With those who have already, ah, crossed over?”
“No. The Node is the only way through, whether material or electronic.” That meant there was no way of knowing whether it was a phenomenon only on this side of the Node, or both ways. If it was the latter, and I could get rid of it here, it might still be blocking the Node on the other side. I decided not to point this out.
The passage ended in what seemed to be a blank wall. Gimler stopped to open a panel and press various buttons. The wall vanished.
“The Node,” Gimler said, pointing.
It filled the great round window before us, like a giant glaring sun, impossibly visible even in the airless waste of space. Through the transparent panel we could see the access tunnel to it, a thread of black that struck out across the abyss. At its far end we could just make out the arc of a second, inner ring, almost lost in the glare.
“It’s...impressive,” I said. “Is that the Node generator perimeter ring?”
Gimler glanced at me from the corner of his eye, obviously trying to decide whether I had some knowledge of how the Node was created. “It is,” he said finally. “But the details are classified. If you need to know them to do this job, the Council needs to...”
“I’m sure that if that knowledge was of any use, your experts would have solved the problem by now,” I said. “Where’s your vampire?”
Rear Admiral Ley had appeared behind us, unannounced, though of course both Umm Aiman and I had been aware that he was there. “It’s down at the Node itself,” he said. “You can’t see it from here.”
I asked a question I’d been putting off for too long. “Has anyone approached it before?”
Ley and Gimler exchanged a glance. “A couple of our technicians, ah, tried to get to it with electronic disruptors.”
A long pause. “One returned before reaching the vampire itself. He, ah, reported symptoms of acute physical distress, which made it impossible to go on. The other...”
“He disappeared,” the younger officer said finally. “We found no trace of him.”
“You were watching him on your cameras, of course.”
“Of course. He reached the vampire, and then vanished. We couldn’t detect anything of him at all.”
Umm Aiman touched my arm, her fingers coding a warning. I tightened my bicep, acknowledging her touch, but no more.
“Have you used weapons on it?” I asked.
“I told you. We used everything.”
“And what happened?”
Another hesitation, as they tried to decide whether I could be given that information. Then, even here, the light flickered, and that made up their minds.
“Nothing,” Ley said. “Nothing happened at all.”
“It took no notice of our weapons whatever,” Gimler said.
“All right,” I replied. “Let me get to it, then.”
“Both of you?” Ley asked.
“No, I will go alone. Umm Aiman will remain here.” I heard her angry indrawn breath, but ignored it. I didn’t know what I was heading into, but whatever it was, Umm Aiman’s considerable abilities didn’t extend in that direction. Also, I didn’t want her to be watching in case something happened to me. “She will be my liaison and backup.”
“All right.” Neither Ley nor Gimler obviously had anything but disdain for Umm Aiman, but that was no problem at all. “Go down these stairs, and straight along the tunnel at the bottom.”
“Do I need any life support system?” I asked, since they hadn’t mentioned it.
“No. The Node is self-contained. It doesn’t allow any leakage to space.” Gimler turned away to a console set into one wall, which hadn’t been switched on earlier. The screen glowed into greenish life as Ley joined him. Neither of them wished me good luck, and that was no problem, either.
Leaving Umm Aiman with the two armed guards, I went down the stairs.
The tunnel was simply a cylinder, of which one side was flattened to serve as a floor. The lights – from a series of strips set in the cylindrical wall – were so bright that I instinctively slitted my eyes at first before I could get used to them. The air should have been warm from their heat, but it got colder the further I walked down the tunnel towards the flickering light at the end which represented the Node.
It was not the Node.
The far end of the tunnel opened on to a platform, from which a catwalk stretched out into the vast open space at the very core of the Station. In the centre of this space, like a lumpy sphere put together from cylinders and ovoids, hung a huge object that flashed and flickered silver, green, blue and violet, in the reflected light of the Node. I couldn’t get a good look at it, though, because of the thing that was sitting astride it, embracing it with innumerable legs.
I cannot, even now, clearly describe what the Vampire looked like. It draped itself over the sphere of the Node generator, like a titanic swollen tick, sucking in the energies that surged around it, making them part of itself. I can say it was translucent and radiated light the colour of distant ice-fields, and that its legs disappeared into the metal where they touched it. It was obscene, it was horrible, and it was the most alive thing I have ever seen.
For a moment that seemed to last forever, I stood there, my hand on the railing, and stared up at the Node.It had no eyes or other organs that I could see; I knew that if it was aware of me at all, it had no interest in me. I would be beneath its notice, the way a man might not even register an ant crawling across a windowsill. Only I wasn’t even as important to it as that ant.
Taking a deep breath, I looked around. The arc of the inner ring stretched out on both sides like embracing arms, until they were lost in the Node’s glow. Above and below, stars shone faintly through the glare, their images stretching, twisting and writhing as the light from them was filtered through the curtains between the universes as it reached me. And, here, I realised that it was a curtain, too; that it was a house of innumerable rooms, of which we – the Amir, Umm Aiman, I, and everything and everyone else I’d ever known – occupied just one.
I couldn’t stand here any longer, wasting time. There was work to be done.
With one final look up at the swollen monstrosity that bulged over the Node generator, I stepped out on the catwalk, and walked towards the Vampire.
I was still walking towards it when something seized me.
It was as though a fist made of a million billion stinging grains of sand had taken hold of me, and crushed me in its grasp until its fingers met somewhere deep inside me; and each of those grains was made of nothing but light, but light so pure and hard that it banished all trace of shadow. It was as though I had been flayed in an instant, gutted and filled again with something that bore no resemblance to anything that anyone has ever known, nothing to which I can even make a comparison. If I were to describe it, it would be as though I had been emptied, and filled again with a universe, and all million billion galaxies and stars.
Gasping, desperately trying to hold on to my sense of self, I leaned forward and forced myself to walk on.
All around me flared the pulsing light of the Vampire. I was vaguely aware of one of its many, many legs, within touching distance of my hand, passing through the very metal of the catwalk. And then I could no longer see, or hear, or touch; but I could sense. Oh Allah, I could sense.
It was as though I stood somewhere in an endless field, a field made of ribbons of light that were the colour of ice-fields seen far away. Far, very far away, on all sides, the ribbons rose, imperceptibly, until they must have merged high above, forming a glowing sky. And all along those ribbons were clotted little lumps of condensed light, moving slowly along, waxing and waning and snuffing out, only to be replaced by others. One crawled towards my feet, and I could not move; I felt its feather-light touch on my shoe, and that slight touch broke it apart, shattered it, and sent it crumbling away into vanishing dust.
And what I felt then wasn’t even the whole of it; it was only one little facet, one perception of something so huge, so utterly enormous that such a concepts as space, or time, would be alien to it. It was as though I stood in one single organelle of one cell of an organism whose proportions were to a blue whale as its might be to the smallest bacterium; and even that, only in the sense of a dimensional model in which a word like size had any meaning at all.
On and on it went, like mirrors opposite each other reflecting the same image, into infinite distances. It had no beginning, no end, no meaning and no need of meaning. It just was.
I felt myself consumed, burnt to ash, reconstituted, over and over, a thousand billion trillion times. I had no hands or feet, no eyes or face or body. I was a part of it and I was nothing at all.
I think I screamed, as far as noise had any meaning in that place; as far as I still had a voice, a throat and lungs to scream with. I think I threw my head back and bellowed like a bull struck in the corridas of Andalusia. I do not know what I screamed; I do not know if it had any words, or if words had any meaning.
Nothing I had ever encountered, that I had ever thought or dreamt or imagined, had ever given me any preparation for this. Nothing could. I felt myself begin to drain away, to be turned into a drop of light, and dimly I knew that this was what had happened to the technician who had vanished. In another moment, it would happen to me, and Umm Aiman would be left all alone, wondering where I’d gone. Knowing her, she would try to follow, to rescue me; and the Vampire would take her too.
I began to stretch, to thin out like a sheet of rubber, and I felt myself smeared across endless todays and tomorrows and the times that had gone before; the here and the now, and the far, far away, so far that distance ceased to have any meaning. I contained the universe, the universe contained me. Cold dead corpses of what had been stars stood beside the incandescent blue suns they had once been, or perhaps were still elsewhere, or might be again. Realities were born and died in an instant; and then, only then, did I at last acknowledge to myself what I must have long since known, the manner of thing I was dealing with.
So then it was that I drew the last scraps of my consciousness together and threw at it the only weapon I had. It was not a weapon I’d known I possessed; if I’d known I had it, I would have been appalled, and would have tried to rid myself of the knowledge. But now it was there, and I used it, simply because I had nothing else.
I took the weapon from what remained of my mind; I rolled it into a hard mass, like a ball, a piece of stone, and I hurled it from me up into the ribbon-laced void among the billion trillion voids, as hard as I could.
At first I thought I’d already waited too long, that I was already too late; and then I thought that the weapon was only one in my imagination, that I had been totally mistaken. But then the first jagged rip appeared, somewhere in that immensity, whether above or below me I could not tell. It cleaved through me as well, spreading like a crack in shattering glass, the ribbons buckling and tearing and flying apart, taking pieces of me with them. And from outside, like a torrent of night, the darkness flooded in to fill the empty spaces between.
I came to myself, standing on the catwalk, my fists clenched, my face wet with tears. Above and around me the Node gleamed, blue-white-green. The bloated thing they had, in their ignorance, called the Vampire was gone. It was freezing cold.
Forcing myself to move, feeling the blood sluggish in my veins, I turned back the way I’d come.
I waited until we were well away from the Station before I could trust myself to speak to Umm Aiman. “I am glad you are in one piece,” I said.
“I should say the same about you, Nuruddin,” she replied, using my given name for perhaps only the eighth or ninth time ever. The last time she’d used it was after she had eliminated an assassin who had come for me. He had been a very dangerous assassin, and had almost succeeded. “I was never in any kind of real danger, so you didn’t need to worry.”
“If you say so.” I recalled the scene I’d discovered when I’d returned from the Node. The coup must have been launched only just after I’d left. It had started as an uprising in the crew quarters of the Station, and swiftly engulfed the rest of the sections not given over to the emigrants. And then they had finally reached the platform where Ley, Gimler, Umm Aiman and the guards had been waiting for me.
Gimler, when I returned, was dead. So were the guards. So were no less than five coup troops. None of them had been killed by our guards.
Umm Aiman and her gloves. What she has hidden in them, and the ferocity with which she can use them, terrifies even me.
Ley – having survived – had already been rallying the counterattack against the coup. He’d paused briefly to acknowledge my success.
“We shall keep to the terms of the agreement,” he’d said. “We don’t want this to happen again.”
“It would indeed be a pity,” I’d responded, and – leaving him to think over the implications of that statement – Umm Aiman and I had made our own way down to the shuttle. We hadn’t met anyone on the way.
With a touch on an icon, Umm Aiman brought up the image of the Station receding behind us. “What’s wrong, Nuruddin?”
“Nothing,” I said. And, because it seemed to need reinforcement, I added her name. “Nothing, Farzana.”
“Don’t lie to me. I can feel your misery.” She touched another icon, and a red light blinked. “I’ve shut the cabin recorders off. Nobody will know.”
So I told her. Once I started talking, the words began pouring out, as though they wouldn’t stop. By the time I finished, Umm Aiman’s face was as pale as her niqab was black.
“I don’t know what to say.” She bit her lip. “Are you telling me that there’s no Allah, then?”
I shook my head. “You don’t get it, do you? That thing was Allah. It was YHWH, and God, and Brahma, and Zeus, and Jupiter and every other deity the human race has come up with since the start of time. It was the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end of everything. It Exists. Everything else is...a shallow mockery.” I swallowed, my throat tight with misery. “And I’ve chased it away.”
“What was it doing at the Node?” she challenged.
“Feeding,” I said. “It needed energy. All it ever wanted was a source of energy. Everything there is, everything that was, everything that will ever be, in this universe or any of the trillion others is to it just a...source of energy. Think of the Node, what it was – a point which pulled together the forces of all universes to make a gateway between them. Can you imagine what that must have been like to it, having wrapped itself around the coronas of suns and the gravity wells of black holes?”
She looked down at her lap and at me. “It must have been a banquet.”
“Yes. It had found food, more than it had ever thought to find, more than it had probably imagined could exist. That it was sucking the Station dry of power meant nothing to it. All it cared about was the energy feast.”
“Didn’t it care about us...for humanity and all the plants and animals, the bacteria and fungi and all the other life? Was it so evil?”
“I wish I could even say that it didn’t care,” I said. “I wish I could say it was evil. It wasn’t even aware of us. It had no sense that we existed, none whatever. We’re so insignificant to it that it had never even had a hint of our existence. And that was my weapon. That was what I used against it.”
I remembered that instant again, when, stretched out like a film of energy across time and space, I had taken the one thing I had left, my existence. I had rolled it up and pushed it together, and added everything that went with it. I had taken the red of a sunset, the sound of ocean waves on a sea beach, the flight of birds. I had taken the sound of wind in the leaves of a forest, the cold gleam on moonlight on desert dunes, the red gold and purple of dawn on a mountain peak; I had taken sparkling waters flowing from distant blue hills. I had taken the gasp of a woman in the act of love, the cry of a newborn baby, the streak of a meteor in the night sky, the pain of a skinned knee after a hard fall. And all of this, the thing I’d thrown in Its face, had screamed, shrieked, over and over and over, we exist, we exist, we exist.
“It reacted exactly like you might have if your food suddenly reared up and began screaming,” I said. “It was utterly, totally, horrified. It spat me out, and spat the Node out, and retreated from the Node, from this universe, to places where it could still believe that it could feed without such a thing happening again.”
Farzana, Umm Aiman, put her hand on my arm and squeezed gently. “Not your fault,” she said. “Of course, we won’t talk of this again, and I realise that you and I will both have to spend the rest of our lives pretending to a lie, that prayer or worship mean anything or will do any good at all. But it’s not your fault.”
“Isn’t it?” I laughed, bitterly. “I told you that it went away from this universe to where it felt safe, where it could still feed. Where do you think it went?”
Farzana, Umm Aiman, could have done a lot of things. She could have turned away. She could have struck me. Instead she leaned over and put her head on my shoulder, but she didn’t say anything.
“Look at that lot over there.” I pointed to the Station, now a fading silver dot on the screen. “We believe in a god, and we now know we have none. They don’t believe in any, and they have one now – and they don’t even know it.”
For a long time we didn’t speak. Umm Aiman’s hand stroked my arm, over and over.
“I wonder,” she said at last, “whether they are the lucky ones, or are we?”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016