“Did Bernando successfully seduce Ms. Macnera?” Cognis asked, bracing himself for the answer.
“No,” the amphibians said, blinking again.
“I do not understand,” Cognis said. “You stated that you won.”
“Correct. You did not win. Bernando did not win. We won, and our master will reward us.”
The metal floor began to vibrate. At the planet’s core, the water would become ice. Beneath that, more layers of ice locked under tremendous pressure, heated to the temperature of magma, yet still ice, still water in a solid form. The sea monster was burrowing through that ice, digging its way to the heart of Bliss.
Gravity shifted. The mass of the entire planet pulled in every direction at once until the combined effects canceled each other out. Cognis became weightless and floated off the floor.
He tried to determine which emotion best suited the situation. He wouldn’t deactivate love, since Talie had instructed him not to, but he could turn on a second emotion. Perhaps fear or hate or sadness. In the end, he chose suspicion. He flicked the appropriate switch, activating his suspicion program, and as soon as he did his camera eye started recording.
“This submersible vehicle can withstand the heat and pressure of a planet’s core,” Cognis said. “Where did you acquire this technology?”
In zero gravity, the amphibians no longer stood together but drifted aimlessly through the room. Their bodies rotated to various degrees as they floated, but they all continued to stare at Cognis, their expressions remaining the same.
“Our master built it,” they said. “Just as he built this planet, just as he built us.”
Soon the sea monster reached its destination. With a screech of grinding metal, it stopped, and its jaws sagged open. The heated ice glowed white outside, filling a wide, spherical chamber with light. Cognis could not calculate the immense forces required to maintain this open space in the center of a planet nor could he comprehend the other physical properties at work.
The shredded remains of a spaceship–engine parts, hull plates, power conduits–orbited some common, central point, but Cognis saw nothing there. Shadows flickered through midair, but with light coming from every direction there should be no shadows at all. Even stranger, Cognis realized time had stopped moving. He double-checked his chronomagnetic sensors. Temporal strings, the filaments which wove history together, did not exist here, nor did many of the other strings and particles which formed the Known Universe.
Cognis saw a body adrift among the spaceship wreckage: Bernando. He had the same bright eyes and confident smile, but he was lifeless like a puppet with its strings cut.
When Cognis glanced back at the amphibians, he saw they too had become inanimate. They’d simply died–assuming they’d been alive in the first place.
“Mr. Cognis!” Macnera called from somewhere among the wreckage. “I was so afraid I’d never see you again!”
“You activated fear?” Cognis asked.
“No,” she said. “The fear came from a subroutine within my love program. I think the program is malfunctioning.”
“I experienced a similar malfunction,” Cognis said.
Tracking the sound of her voice, Cognis located Macnera clinging to what remained of a navigational thruster assembly. She appeared undamaged, though her wraparound looked tattered and disheveled and she’d lost her plastic crown.
Despite his pleasure at seeing Macnera alive, Cognis turned his attention away from her. His suspicion remained active. He suspected something else lurked in this impossible cavern in the planet’s core.
“Mr. Cognis,” Macnera said, “you should not stay here. This place does not conform to the established laws of the physical universe.”
“I am aware of that,” Cognis answered, “but I am unable to leave without you.”
Cognis pushed off from the sea monster’s mouth, aiming his trajectory to intercept the mangled thruster assembly and join Macnera. He continued to observe the peculiar physics of the chamber, recording each detail. He soon realized only some unseen object with enormous mass and a trans-dimensional shape could explain the irregular physics of the room.
Too late, Cognis found proof of this theory. Something moved around him. Something large. Something beyond the perception of three-dimensional organisms, cybernetic or otherwise. He could only detect the distortions its movement caused in space-time. He could also hear it laughing.
“The elegance of this prison is that people come willingly,” a voice said. “I lured this ship to get the genetic material of its amphibious crew. I lured the female cyborg with the temptation of knowledge, the male with the temptation of flesh. Now Talie Tappler will enter my trap, will sacrifice her life for the sake of her friends.”
“Identify yourself,” Cognis said.
“I am nameless,” the voice answered.
Floating in zero gravity, Cognis had no control over his momentum, but with forces he could not detect the nameless one grabbed hold of him like a child picking up a toy. Macnera was lifted as well, carried into the air as she struggled.
“Ms. Macnera and I are employees of the Tomorrow News Network,” Cognis said. “We are journalists, and the assault and kidnapping of journalists is a violation of the Intergalactic Freedom of the Press Treaty.”
“I did not assault or kidnap any journalists. You came willingly. Your laws will not protect you.”
The glowing ice began to fade. Cognis’s scans indicated the molecular forces holding the planet together had failed. Water separated into hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and the atoms came apart, bursting like soap bubbles. Bliss disintegrated–it’s vast ocean, its amphibious “natives,” and all its visitors melted into nothing. Only the spaceship wreckage remained, along with Cognis and Macnera and the intelligence which, on a whim, chose to keep them alive.
40 billion stars glowed in the inky black of space. Beyond them, more galaxies millions of light-years away, and more beyond that stretched across the infinite volume of the universe.
“Everything you see once belonged to me and my kind,” the nameless one said. “We ruled this universe. We molded it to suit our purposes, and none disputed our supremacy. Then Talie Tappler came, reporting the news of our downfall and mocking us when her reports proved true.
“Those of us who survived have sought her death. We tried to kill her parents before she was born, but they were time travelers too, and they did not live their lives in chronological order. We tried to kill her in her adolescence, but teenage hormones made her jumps through time erratic and unpredictable. In her career as a journalist, she is too cautious. We cannot even approach her.
“We have waged war against Talie Tappler for over 13 billion years. With her death, we will not only achieve our vengeance but gain the chance to alter the past. Our defeats will become victories, our failures triumphs. We will rule this universe again.
“Some say we cannot win this war, that Talie will eradicate us from the space-time continuum. But I know how she values friendship. She will come for her two cyborg friends. She will surrender herself to me, and I will glory in her destruction.”
Cognis did not recall covering a story like that with Talie. He did not recall any species ever controlling the entire universe except in the legends and fairytales of certain ancient cultures.
“Based on the information you have provided,” Cognis said, “the planet Bliss was part of your war effort against Ms. Tappler. Are you aware of Infinite Velocity Spaceways’ policy concerning active warzones?
“That will not matter when my kind rule the universe again.”
“I have recorded our conversation,” Cognis said. “I can transmit that recording to the Tomorrow News Network, and they can broadcast it backwards through time. The past will change. Everyone will know the truth about Bliss, and no one will come here. Infinite Velocity Spaceways will refuse to provide transport. Bliss will no longer be a popular vacation resort, and you will not have the opportunity to lure myself or Ms. Macnera into your trap.”
The nameless one did not answer at first. “You cannot do that,” he finally said.
“I can,” Cognis answered.
“You would create a paradox. If no one ever came to Bliss, if it did not become a vacation resort, you would not be here to record any of this. You understand the science of chronotheory. You know paradoxes are unstable temporal structures, and when they collapse they erase those involved from history. You and the female cyborg would disappear, having never been born in the first place.
“You cannot do this,” the nameless one concluded. “You are not that stupid.”
“Someone once told me,” Cognis said, “that love makes you do stupid things.”
Cognis pressed a button on his arm, and all his video–the interior of the sea monster, the amphibians’ identical faces, his encounter with the nameless one and the subsequent destruction of Bliss–beamed out into the universe on a frequency the Tomorrow News Network monitored.
The tapestry of time began to unravel. Its strings came loose and frayed. Cognis felt himself disappearing, but before he vanished completely he felt someone grab his arm.
Macnera held on to him, and he held on to her. Together, they vanished from history.
* * *
Existing in a place where time had no meaning, Cognis took out Talie’s watch. As far as he could tell, it had stopped working.