Author's Note: As I did last week, I'm putting this in the header rather than the footer; you'll see why.
I have a mailing list: /dks-list. Very soon now I will be starting an original novel; members of the mailing list will receive each chapter for free before it goes up for sale on Amazon. Due to Amazon's Terms of Service, once's it's published on Amazon it will not be available anywhere else.
The Entities spoke in universes; the child's query spawned a new one, energy springing forth from a series of detonations that could be labeled only catastrophic. It was a small, tight universe, far too energetic to allow for matter, and the blast waves of Creation bounced back and forth, interfering with each other both constructively and destructively.
Life sprang into existence in the chaotic vortices of those waves. Beings made of energy fields surfed the fires of Creation, exploring to the limits of their reality. They came together, communicating in modulated electromagnetic fields. Philosophy and poetry and science and art came to be and grew to great heights as each of the field-beings sought their own way to express the joy of their existence.
The universe expanded and expanded, its physical laws shifting as time passed. Quantum effects grew to affect the macroscopic level, worldlines growing and shifting and changing. The effects washed through the endless quadrillions of intelligences; many of them ceased to exist...and then came back...or didn't...or flipped between the two states...or suddenly had never existed at all. Energy blossomed from nowhere; in its wake trillions of lives were destroyed and created. And then the physical laws shifted once more and time ceased to be; every particle, every creature, every ray of light was frozen in its place, unmoving but filled with potential should time ever return.
The Entities spoke in universes, and the thought behind this universe was, for them, relatively simple. An ancestral human could not have understood the nuances and overtones, but the basic message might have been comprehensible:
Well?! What happened next, Daddy?!
Harry dropped into the chair with a sigh, taking his glasses off and scrubbing his face with both hands.
"No luck with Ignotus, huh?" Hermione asked sympathetically, sliding him a mug of butterbeer.
Harry put his glasses back on and took a long pull on the butterbeer. "Sort of," he said. "I mean, sure, he knows how to create another Resurrection Stone, but he didn't have any good ideas for automating the process. The best I've got so far is to have teams of wizards get together and do it. Except it requires a hell of a lot of power, and all that power is taken from the source permanently. We've tried feeding it power from non-human sources like magical animals and such...it works, but it's so inefficient it's not worth the trouble. It looks like it really needs human magic."
"Wizards on their death beds?" she asked, clearly just checking the obvious and not expecting a yes.
Harry shrugged. "Only way I can see to do it," he said. "Still won't help much. I did some basic calculations; given the average amount of power left in a wizard dying of old age, it'll require about a hundred dying wizards giving up everything they have left, plus another eleven wizards to focus and manipulate the energy—ten to gather it and direct it to the last, who actually casts the spells. Plus, the ritual takes a minimum of two days, and it can be up to a month depending on various factors, not all of which Ignotus understood."
She grimaced. "Well that's not good. We're not going to be able to produce enough of them like that."
Harry nodded morosely and took another pull on the butterbeer. "Tell me about it. Ten resurrections per day and thirty per week without draining the Stone too much...it's not even remotely enough. Just getting the Twin Towers victims all resurrected is going to take two years."
"I thought you were experimenting with recharging the Stone?" she asked.
He shrugged. "Yeah, we got it working, but it doesn't scale well. You can only feed power to the Stone if you're in physical contact and it's very inefficient. I did a Fermi calculation—if we got a hundred wizards roughly at Dumbledore's level to recharge the Stone as often as possible, and they all exhausted themselves each time, we could add another five resurrections per day, ten per week. There's maybe two hundred wizards in the world at that level, and ten of them are former Dark Lords sitting in Nurmengard."
"Do you need wizards that powerful?" Hermione asked. "Could Squibs do it? They don't have much power, but there's an awful lot of them. Maybe each one could give just a little power and together it would be enough?"
Harry shook his head. "There's an overhead cost just to get the connection started, and then a huge fraction of what you send down the connection is just wasted. A normal wizard like Macgonagall could barely contribute at all."
Hermione nodded and took a sip of her own butterbeer. She didn't used to like the stuff, but it had grown on her as she got older. "How's Professor Macgonagall doing, anyway?" she asked. "I haven't seen her in months."
Harry chuckled. "As good as ever. She's at Hogwarts again, terrifying the next generation of first years with her 'Transfiguration is dangerous' speech."
Hermione smiled. "Remember the look on her face when you resurrected her?" She drew her face up into a bitten-lemon pucker and looked down her nose at Harry. "I am not entirely certain that I approve of your interference with the natural order, Mr. Potter...but thank you. Now, where are my clothes? This hospital gown is drafty."
Harry smiled. "You have to admit, as first words go it's pretty memorable."
For the rest of the evening the two friends sat together in their private room at Mary's Place; it was the only time of the week that either of them allowed themselves away from the pressures of work. Both of them felt that what they did was too important to waste time on fripperies such as drinking butterbeer with old friends...at least, not too often.
Hal reached the top of the hill, unfolded his camp chair, and sat down. He looked out over the rolling Martian deserts, ancient red sands stretching as far as the eye could see. Off in the distance a dust storm was blowing towards him, a titanic wall of fury that would scour anything it touched with abrasive sand. The weather satellites said that it would sweep over the base in a few hours, but he had some time.
Twisting around he studied the base behind him. It didn't look like much; it was a squat bunker fifty feet on a side and ten feet high, with only two entrances: a personnel door that looked much like a fire door from Earth, and a garage-door-style cargo entrance thirty feet wide. Right now the windward side was half-buried in rust-red sand, and after the duststorm went through most of the place would be completely underground. According to the rotation, it would be Hal's job to bulldoze the doors clear.
The bunker was deceptive; it was nothing but the top of the elevator shaft leading down to Redsand City. Hal and his family had arrived three months ago, and he'd been amazed—it was one thing to be told that you would be living in an underground city of half a million people, but it was something else entirely to actually see it. The tunnels seemed to go on forever, and the Atrium at the center was two hundred meters high and sixty meters in diameter; the railings at each level were filled with planters that were mostly full of ivy and other hanging plants that tumbled down from one level to the next, making the whole place look like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
As beautiful as it was, it was also functional. The ivy had been heavily genetically engineered; the vines and leaves came in a bewhildering array of colors, all carefully calculated for their positive psychological effects. The leaves were the size of a man's spread hand, increasing the carbon dioxide absorption, thereby reducing the strain on the air scrubbers. The subtle perfume they emitted was relaxing and comforting, again to help prevent tunnel-madness. Psychological profiles on the earliest colonists had revealed that the all-red-all-the-time hues of the base were a primary cause in the stress and nightmares that everyone seemed to develop after a few weeks. A lot of effort had been put into widening the tunnels and adding aesthetics to the place—the plants, giant murals, even a waterpark.
Hal grinned behind his helmet. Wasn't that an amazing thing? A waterpark on a planet that was nothing but desert. It had been easy enough, though—Joel and Hermione had bounced a few dozen wizards up one day, they all cast the firehose version of Aguamenti and kept it going overnight and boom, giant waterpark.
Of course, the city wasn't that large, and they kept sending colonists up faster than new tunnels could be dug. Things were getting tight, and people were starting to complain. The crowding wasn't the worst part though, at least not for Hal. For Hal, the worst part was the noise. There was never a time when it was just quiet; there were always people running through the corridors outside his cubic, and the door wasn't thick enough to keep the sound out. When he was out in the city itself the noise was constant, and loud. For a guy who'd been raised on a farm in South Dakota it was like being hit in the face all day every day.
Hence why he came out here. Aside from the emergency frequency, his suit's radio channels were all on mute. Unless something went disastrously wrong he could just sit, contemplate the stark majesty of Mars, and enjoy the silence.
"Hey love, have you thought about the colony thing?" Jacques asked.
Monique smiled up at him. "Tell me again why you want to do this," she said. The sparkle in her eye and the slightly teasing tone of her voice made him cautiously optimistic.
"It's an incredible opportunity," he said with a shrug. "Aphrodite needs hydraulic engineers badly; they're paying a million francs a year. They also need doctors, so you won't be bored. It'll look great on our resumes—we spend a year there and we can write our own ticket when we come back. Plus...think about it. We would be part of the First-In team. The first humans on the first exoplanet. Every step we took would be the first time a human had ever touched that patch of earth. Even the stars would be different...new constellations, new views on the face of God. Everything will be new—the view in the telescope shows what Aphrodite was like eighty years ago. We will get to see what it's like now; it will be like stepping through time."
She leaned over and kissed him. "I love it when you get passionate," she said. "I've given notice at the hospital and reached out to my cousin to see if she'd like to housesit for us for a year. I know we can come home for weekends if we want, but the website said that there's a limited number of travel slots and we don't get paid for any time we're offworld. Better just to stay there the whole year, I'd say."
His eyes lit up; he grabbed her by the shoulders and whirled her around, laughing and kissing her time after time.
"Hey, honey, is it true about the genes?" Bill asked excitedly, giving his wife a kiss as she came in the door.
Helen looked at him in confusion. "What?" she asked.
"They said on the news that you guys found the Atlantean gene sequence and you're going to be able to turn mundanes into wizards!" Bill was actually holding his breath in anticipation; he loved his wife dearly, but if he was being honest it had always bothered him that she was a wizard and he wasn't. Sometimes, in the deep of the night when he couldn't sleep, he found himself wondering if she was settling. She was beautiful, rich, a powerful wizard, and even a candidate for this year's Nobel. He was an insurance adjuster; what did he have to offer a woman like that? But, if she really could make him a wizard...well, maybe then he could measure up a little.
She sighed and kissed him. "Damnit, I told Gunther to keep his mouth shut," she growled. "Stupid kid; the media always gets it wrong. I'm sorry, love but no—we found a group of genes that are present in every wizard subject we tested, but none of the mundanes. The Atlantean marker is probably in there somewhere, but it's going to be years before we can really identify it. And then a long time before we could even conceivably start inserting it into mundanes...and even then it would probably have to be done in vitro with a fertilized egg. The idea of turning adult mundanes into wizards...I'm sorry, love, but it's not very likely." She wrapped her arms around him and rested her chin on his shoulder; she knew perfectly well how he felt. One of the greatest failures of her life was her inability to convince him of how perfect he was; wizard or mundane, scientist or insurance adjuster...none of that mattered. What mattered is that he was him, the man she adored, who made her feel complete, who could always bring her out of a bad mood. He gave melt-worthy footrubs, his advice about how to deal with people had allowed her to navigate the political shoals of her career, and he cooked food that was better than most restaurants. And, of course, there was the sex...the mind-blowing sex that always left her gasping and unable to feel her feet.
Somehow, she'd never been able to convey any of that in a way he believed. And now that stupid little shit Gunther had leaked totally false information to the press and the love of her life was going to be miserable for days, even if he wouldn't show it.
"Oh," he said, looking utterly crushed. Ellen cursed mentally and swore that she would fire Gunther first thing in the morning. And then black-ball him from the scientific community. And maybe set him on fire.
She hugged Bill tighter, trying to physically press the truth of her love from her body into his but knowing she wouldn't be able to.
He held her for a moment longer, then stepped back and pasted a smile on his face. "Well, that's fine then; it did sound pretty wild. Anyway, your timing is good, because dinner just came out of the oven. I've got poached salmon, stuffed mushrooms, and for dessert I made a chocolate gelatto that came out pretty well. Why don't you get settled and I'll serve up?"
"Storage formula, version 86, trial 5. Caster is Mathilda Jones, researcher is Ben Johansson." Ben turned off the recorder and picked up his pad. "Okay Maddy, whenever you're ready."
Maddy dipped her left hand into the forty-milliliter jar of reddish-purple fluid and waved her wand in the right. "Wingardium Leviosa," she said, pointing her wand at the small lead weight on the table in front of her. The weight that she'd never been able to move in eighty-five versions and over five hundred trials...or, for that matter, in thirty-six years of life. Being a Squib was a frustrating existence in wizarding or mundane society.
The weight rattled.
Maddy's eyes went huge and her hands shook so badly she dropped her wand.
"Maddy, you did it!" Ben shouted. "And look, look at the formula!"
Numbly, Maddy turned her eyes down to the jar of liquid her hand was still resting in. Instead of the original rich red-purple it was now more of a pastel orange.
"I did it," she whispered. "It worked. Oh my god, it worked."
"Congratulations," Ben said, resting a hand on her shoulder. "Let me buy you a beer; we need to celebrate this."
She shook her head, scooping the wand up in determination. "Not yet. I want to actually see it fly. I think we just need more magic—how are we fixed?"
Ben jumped to his feet and pulled the cabinet open. Inside was a twenty-gallon tank of the prototype storage fluid, all of it the rich purple-red of stored magic.
"We had Wortlethorp in yesterday to charge it up," Ben said as he carefully dispensed a liter. "You got it to rattle with only forty, so let's start with a hundred and work up from there. I bet you'll have the thing flying around by dinnertime!"
In point of fact, it took one hundred and seventeen milliliters of stored magic and two hours of careful experimentation before Maddy, a Squib who'd never been able to float so much as a feather, was twirling a hundred grams of lead around the room like a frenetic butterfly.
"Congrachulationz ya pass the test the job pays twenny bucks an hour ya'll be drug tested twice a month they find anyt'ing yer fired do ya want the job?" the interviewer asked disinterestedly; he'd said these same words to forty people today and there were more than a hundred still in line outside.
"Yes, very much, please!" the kid in front of his desk said, nodding eagerly. Black kid, sixteen years old although he was probably lying about his age, skinny as a rail with a hole in his jeans; the only way he could have said 'wrong side of the tracks' more loudly was if he'd help up a neon sign. The interviewer mentally shrugged; he didn't care where the bodies came from as long as they were warm and could do the job. He had a quota to fill.
Fortunately, there were plenty of candidates. It had turned out that there were a lot of Squibs in the population, and a job charging Magion tanks was easy money.
Mandy paused to scratch her nose, then slid her arm back into the robot sleeve. This was the part of her job she loved the most—she was mundane as mundane could be, but give her a wand, a sleeve, and a hundred gallons of Magion and she was good to go.
She made sure that she had a good grip on the wand and her left hand in the Magion tank, aimed the wand at the palette of crates and pushed the button; the sleeve swirled her arm and hand in the proper pattern and a prerecorded voice said "Wingardium Leviosa!"
The palette and its contents rose obediently into the air; Mandy shifted it over to the appropriate spot on the freighter's deck and set it down carefully, then pushed the button to end the spell and checked her readouts.
And frowned. The gauge on her control panel said that her tank of Magion had dropped from 99.87% color saturation to 95.01%; the expected weight of a palette of coffee shouldn't have taken more than two percent, so something was wrong.
"Hey Joe," she called to her foreman. "Either they mislabeled the crates or somebody's smuggling again, because that palette's too heavy."
Harry Potter III and his brother Remus were on hand to watch with tears in their eyes when the first mass-produced Resurrection Stone rolled off the conveyor belt.
Remus smiled sadly. "Granddad would have loved to see this," he said.
Harry nodded sadly. "Yeah," he said softly.
In the tunnels of Lunar City, Joel sprawled comfortably in his lounger, a sippy-cup of whiskey in the cupholder to his right and an actual paper copy of Moby Dick in his hands. Peri perched on the left arm of the chair, watching his person quietly.
The room was small even by Lunar standards—four meters deep, two and a quarter meters wide, three meters high. Rooms this size were typically used by transients who were only here for a few nights. Joel loved it, especially after he'd set up some shoji screens to get it sectioned up into comfortably small areas. He'd done his share; he'd bounced half of the current colonists up here, deployed most of the nodes in the System Scan telescope, deployed two thirds of the asteroid-mining robots in the System, collected more tons of mined materials than he could remember, and even been the carrier for the first ever trip to Aphrodite. He'd kept working into his nineties; by any definition, he'd done his share for humanity. He'd earned his retirement, and the choice of how to die.
The Xanax had burned out his liver twelve times before they'd shifted him over to the newer, stronger Xocormen. That controlled the fear better and left him less fuzzy, but eventually the agoraphobia got bad enough that he was on nearly-lethal doses of that as well. Over the years, Peri had spilled a swimming pool of tears on him just to keep him functional. He was tired of it. He was tired of living with fear, of being unable to visit a friend in their perfectly-normal-sized-yet-terrifyingly-large home. He was tired of...all of it.
As of today, it was over. Today had been his last bounce; he'd taken the First-In team out to Vera. He'd loaded himself up with enough Xocormen ahead of time that he'd been able to look around for a minute; he wanted to remember the glorious red grass and puffball trees and what they meant about his achievements.
Now, he could just be quiet in a comfortable space. He had his favorite book in his hands, the taste of a perfect Macallan-25 in his mouth, and Peri beside him. The sleeping pills dissolved in the Macallan would kick in within a few minutes and he could peacefully drift off. He'd left orders that he wasn't to be resurrected.
He reached out and petted the firebird's back with one shaky finger. "We did our share, didn't we, old friend?" he asked quietly. The firebird stroked his head along Joel's hand, cooing softly, then hopped into Joel's lap.
Joel smiled and went back to his book, stroking Peri's back softly as the pills slowly killed him. His last thought as he drifted off for the Long Sleep was to wonder whom Peri would find next, and how amazing that child's life would be.
Universes were born and grew and died as the tale wound to a close. An allegory comprehensible to ancestral humans might perhaps have made the conversation sound like so:
That was a scary story, Daddy.
I know, little one. But it's all in the past now. Sleep well—and don't forget to clean up.
All the universes that the little Entity had spawned over the course of the bedtime story swirled into concepts and flew through non-space to join with their creator. All of the stars and planets and motes of dust from all of them were remembered in perfect clarity. All of the beings who had lived and loved and died in all of those universes became a tiny fraction of the Entity that was the ultimate culmination of their species.
And that Entity drifted off into sleep, shivering in delighted horror at the story of the long-gone thing called Death.
~= Finis =~
Thank you all for reading. It's been a real pleasure writing this for you and, if you enjoyed it, you should drop a thank-you to heiligeEzel on Reddit thanking her for creating "Following the Phoenix", of which this is a continuation.