Chapter 26


It was unnatural to see Ashe-im waiting. Maxwell had only ever seen him doing things, even when he was standing still; the idea of motion was inseparable from Maxwell’s conceptualization of him.

Now, he was leaning against the business side of Maxwell’s desk with his arms crossed over his chest. For only the second time in his employment as Maxwell’s assistant, his datapad was off and lying forgotten on the desk where Ashe-im had discarded it with a finality that was chilling.

From the liquor cabinet, pouring his own gin, Maxwell watched him as he looked out the picture window behind the desk. Ashe-im’s eyes were a pair of shallow graves that the curls around his face did little to soften.

Maxwell cleared his throat, took a swallow of his drink, then spoke. “So what happens now?”

Ashe-im didn’t stir. “We must wait and see, sir.”

“I mean other than the waiting.” The rest of the gin burned down Maxwell’s throat, but didn’t do anything to thaw out the frost in his chest. He set his glass down with a thunk that resounded more than he’d intended. “What comes after that?” When Ashe-im didn’t answer, he added, “I know you know.”

“Of course I know, sir.” He dipped his head in a gesture that he had adopted recently, and Maxwell knew without seeing his face that he was smirking. His tone would have made the expression false, anyway. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you.”

Maxwell frowned and crossed to the other side of the desk, standing behind Ashe-im and eyeing the back of his head. “You have no sympathy.”

“Not for you, sir. I know you too well.”

Despite the note of finality in Ashe-im’s voice, it took only a few moments of idly playing with a pen on his desk for Maxwell to press the issue.

“So what, will you just...stop existing?”

Ashe-im put a hand to his forehead. “No. Nothing ever truly stops existing. It just changes form.”

“So what will you change into?” The idea of Ashe-im being anything other than Ashe-im was not a comforting one.

“It isn’t really relevant under the circumstances, sir.”

Maxwell’s frown deepens. “I’m standing around waiting for the world to end. I’m a dead man and I can’t know why?”

With a sigh, Ashe-im gripped the edge of the desk with both hands. Maxwell could hear his nails digging into the underside of the wood.

“At the end of the universe, all the divine power comes together to create the God that Becomes--”

“You.”

“Yes, me, in a way. With that much more power, the God that Becomes--”

“You.”

Ashe-im shot him a look over his shoulder and Maxwell was warmed by the fact that he’d gotten a rise out of him.

“For all intents and purposes, it would no longer be the me that exists in front of you.” He looked forward again, staring into the night past the windows. “The only thing I can think to compare it to is to suddenly becoming a synesthete after many years of living normally.”

Maxwell wasn’t totally sure he knew what a synesthete was, but he didn’t want to get Ashe-im off track now that he’d started talking. He nodded, waiting for him to continue.

“The God that Becomes absorbs what exists of the Universe Form and uses it to rewrite all time and space.”

“Good to know the Gaigulosians believed in recycling.”

Ashe-im dipped his head again, possibly smirking, but more likely despairing at his boss’s attention span. “The cosmic irony of the whole thing is that the rewritten world is the same. It isn’t recycling as much as it is resetting.”

Scratching the side of his neck, Maxwell followed Ashe-im’s gaze, trying to peer past the reflection of the room in the window to the city beyond. “Is it like giving everything another chance and hoping it’ll turn out differently?”

“No, sir.” Ashe-im shook his head, curls shivering around his face. “The God that Becomes writes out all of time as well as space. Every new universe is exactly the same.”

With one eyebrow cocked, Maxwell leaned forward against the desk to try to peer sideways and see Ashe-im’s face. Ashe-im’s hair was in the way and Maxwell rolled his eyes.

“That’s stupid.”

“That’s the way it’s always been, Mr. Maxwell.” Ashe-im’s voice was soft. “Always.”

Maxwell opened his mouth to respond, but was stunned into silence as the power went out. Suddenly able to see through the windows, he was further surprised to find that the entire city--at least what he could see of it--had gone dark. His eyes adjusted slowly and for the first time in his life, he could see the stars.

He’d always known they were there, that their existence was scientific fact and not just Old World myth, but he had never expected them to be so beautiful.

It was several moments before he realized that the backup generators hadn’t kicked on. Grimacing, he made a mental note to have those looked at when this was over.

Assuming they were still alive. He turned his head slightly to address Ashe-im, but couldn’t take his eyes off of the view out the window. There was a strong glow now visible at some distant point on the other side of the Core.

“Ashe-im--?”

He didn’t get any further than that into his question, silenced by the sudden rattling of every object in the room. The floor seemed to vibrate under his feet, and the glasses in the liquor cabinet chimed against each other. Grabbing onto the desk in surprise, Maxwell watched Ashe-im’s datapad dance across the surface of the desk toward him and dive over the edge. It clattered as it hit the floor hard and a broad spider’s web of cracks spread across the display.

Looking up again, he saw Ashe-im had moved to stand at the windows, close enough that his breath should have fogged the glass. Somehow, it didn’t. His eyes were on the glow hidden behind the buildings of the Core, all of his unwavering attention focused on that point in space and time.

A vice closed around Maxwell’s lungs. He swallowed with difficulty.

“...Ashe-im?”

Ashe-im didn’t turn. Whatever call he was hearing or seeing or otherwise sensing, it had usurped Maxwell’s position at the center of Ashe-im’s universe. It would have been humbling if the circumstances had been different.

“Ashe-im, I swear to god, if you don’t--”

“It is time.”

And then Maxwell could neither see nor hear.