Karolle glanced up when the stewardling started to speak, but it was just the standard preflight safety briefing. Zie sighed and returned to hir book, but snippets of the familiar monologue penetrated anyway.
“–Flight 277143 to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Our trip time is approximately fourteen subjective hours–”
Damn, zie’d lost the thread again. Start again with the beginning of the paragraph and shut that damn stewardling out.
“–return to your seat immediately when the captain announces impending transition through liminal space, as–”
Why did they even bother with these things, anyway? It’s not like anyone listened. Everybody who’d ever flown before knew the rules.
“–any long-lost loved ones, deceased pets, or beloved characters of story and song, it is vitally important that you ignore–”
Maybe they should take aside the first-time flyers and give them the lecture, let everyone else have some peace. It was hard enough to find once the flight actually got going!
“–not liable should you become lost in a nightmare world derived from the darkest memories of the human species in general and your own worst experiences in particular. Thank you and have a safe and pleasant flight!”
“An ancient sage, both skillful and wise, spoke of a city of bliss unparalleled. But even there, that bliss was built upon the horrific suffering of one,” said the darkness at the end of time. “Some accepted this. Others could not bear it, and fled into the wilderness.”
“How is that any different?” demanded Salome. “They know of the suffering, accept it, and go on with their lives. Those in the wilderness are no different from those in the city!” For zie had been everywhere and seen everything, and in all the futures and pasts, all the alternatives and dreams, there was no world whose joy outweighed its suffering. There were worlds where the suffering of a few enabled the joy of many, ones where the suffering of many created joy for a few, ones where future joy was dangled as a reward for present suffering and ones where present joy was bought with future suffering, but in every one without exception humanity’s suffering was vast and towering, eternal and inescapable, while joy was as small and fragile, as corruptible and temporary, as a child.
“There is no difference,” said the darkness. “Those who walk away or those who stay, they are all the same, because they all abandon the child. There is no leaving the city, because wherever humans are, there too is the city.”
“But what alternative is there to the city? Can the child be saved?”
“No,” said the darkness, not unkindly. “It bears the suffering of a nation, a world. It is broken beyond healing.”
To hir surprise, Salome found that zie was weeping. “There has to be some other way! There has to be some way to leave the city!”
“There is not.”
“Then what is the alternative? What is there beyond acceptance and surrender? How can I make a place where there is no city? Please, I have to know, I can’t bear this anymore!”
The darkness spoke so softly that at first Salome wondered if zie had imagined it. But it really had spoken, a single word, a single syllable: