“When’s the last time you made a decision that mattered?” he asks her, tapping the heavy wand against the window’s peeling fibreglass frame.
Sylph Tørnquist lifts the cig to her marble lips. Twists the base, selecting CONVICTION from its radial dial. Puts her full lips around its end as the enzyme cocktail combines in the narrow tube like a witch’s brew. She starts to take a puff.
Chad’s hand is a blur, striking the cig from her mouth before she can inhale the emotion.
“No cheating,” he warns. “Answer me please.”
She looks to where the cig had struck the glass. A tiny smudge of chemistry forms a tear on her reflection.
“I don’t … don’t remember,” she manages, fumbling again for the cig which has landed like a spear in a stack of sugar packets. “I decided to shellac my body. Impervious to bullets now. Maybe that counts.”
“It doesn’t. That was a selfish, cosmetic upgrade.”
“I’m selfish and cosmetic, what can I say?”
Chad sits back in the diner chair, the leather creaking under him. He taps the wand to the window once more. His new toy. Every century, he has something strange, some desperate attempt at curing his millennia-long boredom. This one is a hypersonic resonator.
He points the wand at her. “When did you last decide to do something that actually affected the universe, Sylph?”
“It’s been centuries,” she admits. “I haven’t been in a decision-making mood, what can I say.” Something like sludge pushes languidly through her veins, and she chances to add, “And neither have you. Last I heard you were riding a comet with those hedonists. Went around the sun three times …”
“Twice,” he corrects her, looking out the window towards the harbor with textbook blankness. Sylph expects him to say more, but he just keeps that blank look, as if his nerves have been cut, as if he’s fallen asleep with his eyes open. Icicles droop like glassy prison bars from the gutter. Sylph thinks they look beautiful. Like fangs of some unknown predator. She’s staring at them, appreciating their odd geometries, when one suddenly explodes.
Chad laughs. He squeezes the trigger on his toy once more, and the remaining ice bursts apart in the frosty air.
“Childish,” Sylph says. She’s got her cig again, considering a puff. Wondering if once upon a time, she’d feel anger at what he just did. She liked the icicles.
Chad lowers the wand. “By the way, your diner sucks. Where the hell are the customers?”
“I always wanted to own a diner.”
“Never wanted to wait on customers, though. So I bought up the bay and ordered this place constructed far back from the main road.” She hesitates. “Does that count as a major decision?”
“Are you kidding?”
“I created this diner, Chad. Before me, this was merely a rocky shoreline. College kids — back when colleges still existed — would sneak here to mate. But nothing permanent was here until this diner.”
“It doesn’t affect the universe, Sylph.”
Shadows glide across the tabletop; above, memory sprites float like a shoal of fish, crammed with old memories in fifty-year blocks. Smartpaper sprites grafted onto nanocrystalline frames, riding the viscosity of air.
Chad produces his own cig. Fiddles with the settings. “Let’s see our little friends.”
Sylph hesitates. She drags her finger to the switch that’s hidden amid the floral wallpaper. A section of wall slides back. The secret window, the glass ant farm, appears.
Only there aren’t ants inside.
“Have you named them yet?” Chad asked, taking a puff on his cig. The dial reads EUPHORIA – MILD.
Sylph studies the creatures in the glass. They’ve built a labyrinth of tunnels. She thinks: I made you! A thousand years ago, I mixed amino acids into a laboratory cauldron and watched you grow from protozoan impulses to multicellular scaffolding.
“I call them philosopher-kings,” she murmurs.
Chad makes a disgusted sound. “Oh? Have they invented writing yet?”
“They’ve invented art.” She taps the window with one marble finger. “Look. In this chamber, they’ve painted the walls with their blue-black excretions into deliberate, intricate swirls and shapes.”
“So it’s a bathroom.”
“No. It’s —”
“A messy bathroom.”
“They actually have a bathroom for regular waste removal,” she says. “They created a tunnel to the outside, letting their waste drip down the side of the building. Keeps their colony clean. There’s even a hatch, to keep the bitter cold out. But this chamber is for artistic expression!”
“Kill them,” he says.
Sylph stares at her coffee. “It took thousands of years for them to evolve to this extent. Why would I—”
“Because you’ve never experienced that emotion. Anger, love, jealousy … they’re all used up. I spent two years on a fucking comet and explored every single physical pleasure a Solstock body is capable of. I changed my gender, my size, my erogenous zones.” He waves to the memory sprites floating overhead. “Want to see?”
“No,” she says, knowing that centuries of sexual indulgence are stored somewhere overhead in her own memory-sprites.
“Thousands of years, we’ve seen it all. Done it all. Except you’ve never wiped out an entire species that you created.”
“You haven’t done it either,” she says, stalling.
He puffs deeply on the cig, his eyes like lanterns. “I have. I’ve created and wiped out three burgeoning cultures. One of them had invented a form of art unlike anything else in the known universe. They learned to transmit entire epics through sharing saliva — like termites — and each one would add to the story, so that by the time the spit was shared through the whole society, all had contributed and ingested. A tribal song rendered in pheromones.”
“And you killed them.” She’s breathing hard. “How did it feel?”
Chad leans back, glancing to the sprites. He holds up his hand, and one of the sprites — gold and scaled and with strange red glyphs on its belly — swims over. He grabs it. It links to his palm and glows.
At once, tears sprout to his eyes. Chad keels over, losing color.
“I started a fire in their colony,” he whispers. “Watched it spread tunnel by tunnel. My little creatures were … they were throwing themselves onto the flames, trying to squelch it! They shrivelled up and burst, white foam erupting from their bellies. But they kept fighting to contain the fire … until finally … they began battering the glass with their mandibles, as if they knew I was watching them! As if they were reaching out to their creator!” Chad is shuddering violently, his face wet and miserable. “I … I … touched the glass. Felt the heat. Watched them vanish from the universe …”
He sobs openly, while Sylph watches impassively. He releases the sprite, practically hurling it back into the air. The emotion fades quickly. He wipes his cheeks and smiles politely.
“You need to experience this,” he says.
“But they’re my little philosopher-kings …”
“You have to feel it, Sylph.”
“I don’t,” she snaps, trying out anger. It sounds flat and artificial in the empty diner. Her fingers scroll to RIGHTEOUS RAGE, but she doesn’t take the puff.
“Kill them.” He hands her the wand. “This could do it easily, Sylph. One squeeze of the trigger, the glass breaks, and their chitinous little bodies shatter. The emotion … well … it can’t be explained. You have to feel it.”
She accepts the wand. “They’ve been developing here in peace, no one to disturb them …”
“Disturb them. You can always make new ones. We have forever, Sylph.” He touches her marble hand.
She stares at her reflection overlaying the philosopher-kings as they proceed with their daily routine, feeding morsels of lichen to their babies.
“We have forever,” she agrees.
They finish their coffee in silence. Outside, wind reshapes the snow like time-lapse footage of million-year horizons.
“See you next century,” Sylph says at last.
Chad frowns and then nods slowly, twisting the cig to RESPECTFUL HUMILITY. Takes a puff, dons his winter coat and goggles, and departs the diner. His memory-sprites link together and settle like a cloak over his shoulders. Sylph watches him trek down to the docks. His ship is already powering up, buttery light kindling in his luxury cabin. A moment later, it blasts off from the frozen marina and dissolves into the black sky.
Sylph aims the wand at the secret window.
She squeezes the trigger.
The glass collapses like river ice.
Low setting. The tiny philosopher-kings are alive, suddenly free, crawling in wonder across the diner table and window molding. The world, she thinks, has gotten so much bigger for you now.
Sylph tosses her cig away.
Presses the wand to her forehead. Selects the highest resonator setting. The wand is oddly warm against her marble skin.
They used her ears as a pair of nurseries.
Her teeth became border stones.