The universe is the same, from top to bottom. There will always be people who believe in progress, and those who disagree with them: all that changes is the scale of their ambition.
As the magistrate read out the court’s decision, he saw the widow’s face fall. It gave him barely any satisfaction at all after everything he’d been through to reach this moment, and he was filled more with a sense of relief that it was done. Not as clean an end as he’d like, but now they could move on with the project. He stood up, shook his solicitor’s hand and then made his way out of the hearing as quickly as he could. He thought he’d gotten away, but then he heard her voice as he jogged down the steps and stopped short. He should have carried on walking – the car was right there by the pavement – but something made him turn around. She was walking towards him, drawn up defiantly, completely recovered from her momentary collapse when she finally faced defeat.
“Mr Carter,” she called out. Her voice was as cold and brittle as ever. He disliked her intensely, but he wasn’t unsympathetic towards her. Right now though, he just wanted to get away. Her own solicitor was picking feebly at her sleeve, murmuring something, but she ignored him and pulled away. She marched up to him. “I hope you’re happy.”
“This was never about my happiness, Mrs Parnell. I’m just a developer trying to do his job.”
“This isn’t over, you know,” she replied acidly.
“Actually it is, Mrs Parnell.” He pointed back towards the court’s doors. “Ask your solicitor. This was the last appeal you’re allowed to mount and, more to the point, the last one you can afford.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Money is all you care about, isn’t it?”
He sighed. “This again?” Carter felt like he’d spent most of the last eighteen months having the same conversation with this formidable old woman. He was so very tired of it all and he wanted this to be the last time he ever saw her. Somehow he doubted it would be though. He had visions of her chained to her garden gate when the bulldozers arrived.
“From day one, all you ever wanted to do was give me money.”
“Yes,” he said patiently, “and the compensation package we offered you was very generous. If you’d just settled, we could have avoided all this. Now, not only do we own the land, you also have to pay our legal bills.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a letter. “I was going to send this to your solicitor’s office, but I might as well tell you now: the shareholders have agreed to pay a percentage of what you owe as a gesture of goodwill to ease the…”
She batted the envelope out of his hand. “I don’t want your money! I never wanted your money! I just want to stay in my home!”
He started to get angry. He’d been holding it back for months in the name of diplomacy, but this battle was won now, the magistrate had decided in their favour, and he wouldn’t let this biddy push him around anymore. “Your home is built on my company’s land, Mrs Parnell. We gave you twelve months notice about the demolition, handed you a cheque that more than compensated you for the inconvenience and emotional trauma and you fought us every step of the way. Now it’s done, all right? We could take everything you have, but we’re choosing not to. Isn’t that worth anything?”
“Isn’t a home worth anything to you?” She was standing close to him now, angling her head up to look into his eyes. He could see the anger in her, but also the pain, the grief and, beneath it all, the fear. “My husband and I lived in that house for fifty years. Our children were raised there. We planted the garden together. He died there and I thought…I thought I would too…”
“I’m sorry,” he said, honestly, “but this is progress. It’s not personal. We have a contract to build new homes on that land – homes for other people to make memories of their own, Mrs Parnell. I wish it could be some other way.”
“You wish for nothing. You’re a soulless monster, happy to crush decent, hardworking people under your corporate boot. You only care about money.”
His jaw tightened. This wasn’t the first time she’d talked like this, but now it seemed to hurt more. He wasn’t a monster. He was a man, with a family of his own that he had to feed. Who was she to preach ethics at him? “Listen,” he said, leaning close to her, “I’m not happy this hurts you. I’m not happy anything hurts anyone. But this is the world we live in, madam. This is life. It’s not easy, it’s not pretty and it sure as shit isn’t fair, okay? I work for my shareholders, who pay my wages, and this is what’s happening. You took this as far as you could, and you lost.”
“I’ll take it further,” she insisted as her voice started to crack, “I’ll go above your shareholders. I’ll speak to your contractors, and you’ll lose all your investments. I’ll go to my MP. I’ll go to the Prime Minister. There’s already a petition, you know, on the internet.”
He smirked. “I’m sure there is. But it won’t matter. You’re one woman, and this is just the way things are. Go as high as you like, take it to the fucking Queen for all I care: you’ll get the same answer. From the very top to the very bottom, this is just how the universe is. Sorry.”
She had no reply to that, and he turned away from her and carried on down the steps to the car. He wasn’t proud of talking to her like that, but for the first time in months, he felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Things could finally get started.
Praetor Hexeran put one of his webbed hands to his forehead as the image of Captain Rolo, his least favourite person in the Quadrant, swam into view on the holoscreen of his flagship’s bridge. He should have known. The flotilla assembled in front of the Imperial fleet was a rag-tag affair, and he’d dearly hoped the Falcon-class cruiser they’d detected at their head wasn’t Rolo’s Starsprinter, but of course it was. Of course. Rolo smirked at him, and the Rigellian’s head spines flexed into the upright position as it to emphasise his smug triumph. “So nice to see you again, Praetor,” he said.
“Rolo,” Hexeran growled, “I was hoping to never see your rubbery hide again.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you know what they say about good enemies.”
“You’re not an enemy,” Hexeran told him as he pointed a claw towards the holoscreen and flared his gills threateningly, “you’re an obstacle! An inconvenience! And you can’t stand in the way of progress forever!”
“You call this progress? Destroying a star system?”
Hexeran sank down in his chair. His crew looked as tired by all this as he did. This was supposed to be a routine mission, a nice bit of relaxing development to give them a break from defending the Empire’s borders from the increasingly vicious assaults of the loathsome Colchids, but it looked like it was going to be another headache for them. “This operation is in full accordance with Quadrant laws,” he said, as if reciting from a script, “if you wish to lodge a complaint with the Imperial Senate, please do so following the proper ordinances, presenting your case in person on Sirius V to the Empress’s chosen representative.”
“It’s too late for official complaints,” Rolo said, clenching his fist. “We’re going to stop you ourselves!”
“You and your…your…” he waved a hand, “…protestors?”
Hexeran snorted. He would have laughed, but it was all so tiresome, and there was a good chance lives could be lost. He wanted to end this peacefully, as much as he enjoyed the idea of seeing Rolo’s atoms splattered across the cosmos, along with those of his blasted Starsprinter, he had a duty to the Empire – and to the Alliance of Free Peoples – to end it peacefully. “I have over fifty ships in this fleet, as I’m sure your sensors tell you. This vessel is an Onyx-class dreadnought and I have no less than a dozen cruisers, each of which outgun your puny ship by a magnitude. And what do you have? A few merchant cogs, which you’ve no doubt retro-fitted with ion cannon, some privateer frigates with ill-gotten fusion torpedoes and maybe a handful of cruisers of your own, none of which appears to be in fighting shape. We would annihilate you with one volley.”
Rolo seemed unmoved. “Do you really want to start a war today, Praetor?”
“There isn’t going to be a war!” Hexeran slammed his fist down on the arm of his chair. “This is one star system amongst millions in the quadrant! And if we don’t collapse that star, we’re never going to be able to navigate through this sector. You’re an explorer – you of all people should understand the necessity of this operation…”
“There are inhabited worlds in that system,” Rolo said, pointing towards the back of his bridge. His flotilla had positioned themselves between the Imperial fleet and the sun they intended to destroy. “Three by our count. Initial surveys showed life forms on two of the moons orbiting the outer gas giants, and we think the third terrestrial planet may also harbour life.”
“Not advanced life,” Hexeran said. “There’s no evidence of interstellar objects sent from worlds in this system.”
“The First Directive of the Alliance of…”
“Don’t quote centuries-old legislation at me, Rolo!” Hexeran roared as he heaved his bulk from his chair. He was getting really angry now, and all three of his eyes flashed red. “The First Directive it, at best, a tradition. I wish it could be any other way, but this star must die.”
“And we must stop you.”
“You can’t! We’ll obliterate you!”
“So be it,” Rolo said.
“Fine.” Hexeran flopped back down into his chair. “Have it your way. See if I care. Let’s all have a battle to defend some stupid backwater system that’s probably only home to a few billion pre-industrial bipeds. Like we don’t have enough of those running around, shedding their skin all over everyone’s ships.” He glanced at Ensign Pock, who was one of the few primates in the senior staff. “No offence.”
“We can’t just condemn them to death for living in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Rolo said, his voice sounding dangerously low.
“Yes we can. That’s the way of the worlds, Rolo. You know that. Stars must be collapsed to provide stable gravity wells, or none of us would be able to travel through space and if a few planets must be destroyed, then that’s the price they must pay for the greater good. It’s not personal. It’s progress.”
“This won’t end here,” Rolo vowed.
“Yes it will. This is how the universe is, from top to bottom. As you’ll find out when I blast your molecules all over it.” He jabbed the button to turn the screen off before Rolo could get the last word in. “Commander Groll,” he said to his Betelgeusian first officer, “charge the ion cannons…” He paused, “…but just try to disable their ships. Rolo’s right about one thing: good enemies are hard to find.” As his flagship moved into position and he felt the thrum of energy all around from the weapons beginning to power up, the Praetor finally felt like things were starting to go his way.
The Great Indifference had had about enough of this. As she manifested on the surface of the neutron star on which they’d agreed to meet, taking the form that she used most often – that of a Sothian hyper-serpent, a particularly fearsome creature from beyond the Great Attractor – her mood even threatened to make mock of her name. “Show yourself,” she bellowed into the plasma flares that spun around her scales.
The Lesser Agitator appeared. She chose the form of a tiny biped, something which always seemed to amuse her. Her binocular eyes frowned at The Great Indifference’s towering shape. “Is that supposed to scare me?”
“Why would I care whether you fear me or not? You know I am superior.”
“That’s up for debate.”
The Great Indifference flicked her tongue out. “You are foolish. I should scatter your essence to the vacuum for this insolence, but I am inclined to show mercy today. That is why I even entertain the notion of this debate.”
“How kind of you,” the Lesser Agitator replied with a thin smile on her strange, flat face. Why had she picked such an odd form? “As a member of the Eternal Conclave, I have the right to an audience, even with one of the Great.”
“Yes yes. Don’t quote The Agreements at me, child. Now, speak your piece.”
“You must abandon your plan.”
The Great Indifference swayed slightly. “Plan…?”
“Don’t try to be clever with me. I know what you and The Great Instigator are up to. He’s been planning this for over a million years now.”
“Nonsense. He and I rarely see eye to eye, especially on a project as grandiose as you seem to be imagining.”
“Oh,” the Lesser Agitator said, “then you’re not planning to destroy that spiral galaxy over there?” She pointed out with one of her stubby forelimbs, where the starry whirlpool that dominated the sky of the neutron star hung. So that’s why she’d picked this place to meet.
“That galaxy?” she asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. “I’ve never even seen it before.”
“Oh no? Then why have I heard stories about an iridescent serpent from civilisations on worlds across its length and breadth? You’ve been manifesting there for millennia, setting up apocalyptic cults, preparing the poor little creatures for their end!”
“You’re not fooling anyone! I’ve been there too, following in your wake, trying to figure out what you were up to. But now I’ve got you! You want to evaporate it to alter the gravitational profile of this supercluster and create a new Great Attractor. You’re playing with fire, Great Indifference!”
“Why would I ever want to create a new Great Attractor? The very notion is absurd!”
“Oh come on – you’ve always been interested in cosmological architecture. You have grandiose notions about entropy reversal. I remember your plan to change the gravitational constant by turning half the universe into a giant black hole.”
“It would’ve worked!” That one still stung, but she was over it now after a billion or so years of brooding.
“You can’t go rewriting the structure of the cosmos! It’s too dangerous!”
The Great Indifference drew herself up to her full, terrifying height, looming over her tiny adversary. The flickering blue plasma shined of her silvery scales and her eyes burned with the light of dying suns. “Who are you to place limits on the power of one such as I: a Greater Entity of the Eternal Conclave? I, who witnessed the birth of the first stars…I, who have travelled to every corner of the universe and seen wonders unnumbered…I, who have ridden the vacuum foam of the deepest atoms and spread my mind across the vastness of the intergalactic void. You are but a Lesser Entity, a pitiful insect beside my power, and you have no right to tell me what to do! That galaxy…” she craned her serpentine head up at the glowing spiral and frowned hatefully at it. “…that galaxy is in my way. And I’m going to turn it into a diffuse gas using only the power of my awesome mind. It would be hardly be the first time.”
“You can’t! It’s home to quadrillions of living creatures!”
“So is everything! I can’t be expected to care about all the little things that teem on their horrible little planets, living their short, angry little lives. I am the Great Indifference! I am beyond a god to them! If they understood but a trillionth of my mighty essence, their primitive minds would be shattered beyond repair! It is the way of the Eternal Conclave and the universe it rules from top to bottom!”
“Well…well…” the Lesser Agitator sputtered, “I’m going to stop you!”
The Great Indifference fixed her with a suspicious stare. “Stop me? How? No…a better question…why?” She peered at her, in the shape of a primitive biped, and something occurred to her. “You’re fond of them, aren’t you?”
“They’re interesting,” she replied quietly.
“No, they aren’t. I’ve met them. They’re small and insignificant, and they’re going to be destroyed because I will it. This isn’t personal: it’s progress. Now go away.” She reached out with her vast psyche and hurled the Lesser Agitator halfway to the next supercluster, scattering her mind for good measure so it would take her a few millennia to collect herself together and think of a good comeback. The Great Indifference now turned her attention back to that annoying little galaxy. She was going to enjoy this.
The multiversal firmament bubbled again. Alpha observed it. Universes tumbling over one another, coming into existence, winking out of existence. It took both nanoseconds and infinite aeons for there was no time here. Time was not a concept that had any meaning in this place. In fact, place was not a concept that had any meaning either. Alpha was outside of such petty concerns. She watched the universes, because it was what she did. Omega watched too. Omega was not separate from Alpha, but they observed different things and, sometimes, it seemed like they were two. But two had no meaning here either. There was just Alpha and Omega.
“Another one,” Alpha said, although ‘said’ wasn’t really right either.
“Yes.” Omega said.
“Pretty,” said Alpha. “Life.”
“Yes,” Omega agreed, “but not for long.” She popped the bubble.
“Shame.” Alpha, who watched for universes being created, said with what would have been a sigh, if that meant anything here.
“If you say so,” Omega, who watched for universes dying, replied. “I didn’t think it was that pretty.”
“Well, it’s your call.”
They went back to observing.