issue 8

The Willingness to See Things Through, by Mob

The last Historian slips from between the pages of reality—a professional smile on their lips, one limb outstretched in welcome.

“Hi,” they say, “I’m the Visiting Historian, here for the acquisition of the offered narrative. Could you please confirm your ticket…?”

Their words tail off, lost in the landscape. There is no waiting contact to offer a new entry to the Multiversal Museum’s catalogue. There are no buildings.

Dead light shines across fields of dust. Dunes the off-cream of freshly powdered bone stretch to the horizon. Above the sky, the remnants of an ancient Dyson sphere drift in broken eggshell fragments. The white dwarf that hatched from it sputters the last of its high-temperature glow, leaving the planet in a perpetual twilight. The star cannibalises its own dark matter, mid-sprint towards an early demise, alongside the dim, sparse constellations of a degenerative-phase universe. Aside from the Museum, nothing lasts forever—here and now, eternity is running out fast.

Academic Services’ flat, robotic voice seeps from the Historian’s armband. “No observers present. Recalculating task coordinates. Temporo-cultural camouflage disabled. Reverting to original appearance.”

The Historian’s outline begins to blur. “No need. If there’s no local reference, just use Ava’s form.”

“Are you certain? Ms. Cabrera has not been an employee for eight thousand, seven hundred, and fifty six point two five three Museum cycles; her relevance to the current situation is minimal.”

“She no longer matters? For a system that claims to lack sentience, you can be quite cruel.”

“This construct does not understand the query.”

“Of course you don’t. Just change my form. Please.”

Ava Cabrera tracks across the wasteland, led onwards by her in-eye display’s wavering pathfinder—a thread of pale gold that winds between the dunes’ graceful curves of windward slope and their sharp slipfaces. She hums along to the desert’s song, a solo to the chorus of twenty billion trillion tonnes of sand and dust shifting in argon-nitrogen winds, a horn drone that shakes the world. Her neatly laced black boots leave a fading trail of prints. A non-regulation and casually unbuttoned aviator jacket obscures the Museum logo on the hoodie below. If they really were Ava, the Historian would be slipping into hypothermia and oxygen deprivation. She quiets the thought before it spirals. Her smile strains wider—her humming, louder.

Her path halts atop a great dune, taller than its fellows and strangely regular in proportion. Ripples swirl across the surface. Lacking direction. Overlapping and chaotic in a way waves shouldn’t be.

“I guess we’re digging, then?” Ava mutters.

“Ms. Cabrera’s form is suboptimal for the task,” Academic Services says. “Change in species recommended.”

“Vetoed.” Ava peers at the sand, vision filters cycling until the structures beneath come into focus. Lost, inactive, for long enough that the drifts have covered them whole. She wonders who—or what—could’ve called in a donation and how long they’ve been waiting. “I won’t let her be forgotten. I won’t let anyone.” Her last words come at a whisper, almost to herself.

“This task is outside the bounds of—”

“System override, mute local endpoint.”

Ava pulls a shovel from the armband’s spatial storage, ignoring the warning about misuse of Museum cleaning equipment, and digs. Her humming and the desert song lasts for two vertical metres and almost a hundred thousand heartbeats. The Historian does not need to sweat or increase circulation, so Ava does not either.

She wipes a hand across her brow, more for nostalgia than anything else. The shovel vanishes.

At the bottom of a two-metre pit, a sliding door of complex ceramics and glassy metal alloy shines as brightly as the day it was installed. Complex circuits run through its frame, congregating at a shielded mesh inlaid into the surround.

Ava clears her throat. “Hi, I’m the Visiting Historian, here for the acquisition?”

Somewhere, far within, a rumble echoes—quieter and quieter as it draws near, until only the shadow of some herculean effort can be heard. Servomotors struggle at low power. The door slides open, shuddering, a quarter, a third, half, half and a bit.

It stops.

Ava’s smile twitches, and she almost laughs. No such thing as a straightforward acquisition. Rare enough for someone to contact the Museum in the first place. She glances at Academic Services’ silent advisories and rolls her eyes, ducking through.

Time for work.

Past racks upon racks of stored archeo-data, from antiquated physical drives held in suspension fields to bio-engineered fungal memory vats, and on again to optic cells and condensed time crystals. Past vast and dusty wings of hermetic cubes and sealed artefacts. The true entrance waits in the depths, down corridors more grown than built.

They twine through the superstructure, branching—different heights, different widths—and coalescing on the ground floor. A grand trunk hall like branches returning to the bough. Turnstiles rest unmoving, the main doors buried countless metres below the new heights of the desert, the sand beyond packed so tightly it’s close to stone.

Something forgotten dwells here among the dim glow of emergency lighting, and it’s reached out for help.

In place of an information desk, a squat obelisk projects a glitching holo-message, scattering prismatic hues to the ceiling above.

PL=ASE T#KE {err@#191438×920047}

Ava stands before it, locked in an argument with her armband. “Then bend the rules! I can’t just guess what they wanted to donate and walk off with it.”

“The removal of catalogue objects for non-display use on behalf of the Museum Foundation without express permission from the Research Council contravenes Section 37 Clause 15.7a of the Employee Code of Conduct.”

Ava glares. “And when was the last time a voting majority of Council members were actually alive?”

Lights flicker across the armband in tacit threat of a precise response.

Never mind. Lend it to me as an independent researcher.”

“The non-display use of catalogue objects for—”

“You don’t know what I’m going to use it for.”

A pause. “Context suggests a high probability of rule-breaking behaviour.”

“We can’t refuse to lend Museum items to academics based on events that haven’t happened yet.” Ava’s smile conspires to show only her pointiest teeth.

The pause persists, longer this time. Long enough Ava’s habitual smile sinks and her teeth find her bottom lip. She’s come so far. Someone here needs the Museum. She can feel it. She refuses to walk away from anyone that put in this much effort, this late.

When Academic Services returns, its voice carries a disapproving tint beyond the capacity of its programming. “This construct has placed the requested item in your spatial storage. Please note that misuse will result in disciplinary action.”

“Charmed, I’m sure.”

A portal opens, little more than a disk of perfect dark, hovering above Ava’s armband. Space curves. The hall’s dim lighting shifts colour. For an instant, the room seems to bow as though it might implode. Deep within the hole, the impossible bulk of a megastructure shifts within an endless void, space itself compressed and folded in a way that tugs at vision, giving the nauseating impression that an entire star could be nested in one hand.

Then Ava reaches inside and withdraws a long cable, as thick as her arm. She traces the obelisk, locating a shallow indent, and plugging it in. Magnets find home with a muted snap.

The faint tone of disapproval in Academic Services’ voice is almost-certainly imagined. “Disciplinary actions filed against Employee J—”

“System override, mute local endpoint.”

The subtle hiss of gas passes from the distance. A breeze ruffles Ava’s hair, and she sweeps a strand from her face. The stuttering, error-ridden message that welcomed her flickers.

And dies.

To each side of the hall, the walls creep in motion. In. Out. The bellows’ draw of giant lungs push the breeze towards chaos. The whispering of gas becomes a roar as the passages pulse, the building’s structure stretching corridor limbs and rolling branching shoulders.

“Awake again.” The words come at a sigh, almost lost in the fading winds.

Ava takes a glance at the far-off flexing hallways, and then back to the obelisk. Her lips quirk. She bows. “A pleasure. I’m Ava. You called in a donation. In my role as the Visiting Historian, I’ve come to pick it up.”

“At last.” The voice shakes. Clears its throat. “It’s wonderful to finally meet. I’m Tir, last Archivist to the last Archive. I’ve been waiting a long time.”

A masked figure appears in place of the welcome message, swaddled in loose robes, shrinking within their hood. One foot taps on nothing, one hand raised to hesitantly scratch at the corner of their featureless mask. They struggle to meet Ava’s eyes.

“I can only apologise.” Ava bows again.

Tir’s grey-gloved hand reaches out to stop her shoulder, and their mask flushes violet at the forehead as the hologram fails to make contact. “Please, don’t. I’m the one imposing. I’m glad someone could take care of the Archive.”

“The Archive?” Ava strains to keep the surprise from her tone. She dives a thread of awareness into the armband—ignoring Academic Services’ string of remonstrations and threats to cut pay—searching for the acquisitions ticket she’d responded to.

Anonymous contact requests voluntary donation:
1 (one) ‘complete narrative’ to the Museum
Uniqueness guaranteed
Please see documentation for process history and multiversal coordinates.

It’s as she remembers. A narrative. A story. Nothing about— Thoughts turn, leaving a nagging thread of doubt.

Tir’s foot taps faster, words spilling over each other. “Yes? The Archive. I’m so glad you agreed to take it on, I was really at the end of my… well… everything. But it’s safe now. You even found a power supply just so we could talk. Thank you. Truly. I can fulfil my task. You’ll take it, right? You promised.”

“Uh, yes, I believe so.” Ava needs to buy time. Needs to check on the process history and run the risk of talking to Academic Services again. She needs to help. But the thread sways, tickling her mind with the nagging idea she’s missing something that could get in the way. “Would it be okay to confirm the scope of the archive? I entered through the roof, so I’m unsure if I got a good look.”

“Entered through the roof?” A pulse of pale-green light radiates from the obelisk, racing outwards as Tir scans the structure. Their violet flush deepens. “My word, I’m so incredibly sorry. This place has become dusty over the millennia.”

Tir clears their throat again, their mask turning almost-imperceptibly to the front doors and the compressed sandstone beyond. “Anyway, the scope. We’ve got the exhibits, the physical ones, and the various historical databases. Different formats require different maintenance conditions. I wouldn’t usually include the building as well, but in this case, transferring that amount of data out alongside safely moving the artefacts from their preservation environments would take time I’m not sure we have left. As I reported, it’s a full civilisation’s narrative. Complete. And that’s just the surface; the real storage isn’t here in the museum, it’s deeper in the backup sphere.”

Ava blanches even as a thrill runs through her. A complete cultural record. Unique would be an understatement, but one phrase stands out, that thread of doubt unspooling longer and longer, until the information weave supporting her mission threatens to give way. “Which backup sphere?”

Tir’s mask tilts. “The one you’re currently standing on?”

Ava looks down. It’s the ground floor. She checked. No further passages down, or at least none Academic Services felt it necessary to point out. That would only leave the planet itself, the ball of dense rock and metal and endless desert, still surviving in a universe where most planets have long since been destroyed. Pieces click into place. A broken Dyson Sphere. The archive of a fallen civilisation. An atmosphere entirely composed of inert gases.

Things have become complicated.

Her hand finds her temple and starts to knead. “The broken sphere… It was a Matrioshka brain, wasn’t it?”

A painful smile splits Tir’s mask—hollow, the shadows of their hood leaving the shape a fragile slit, too close to a surface crack for comfort. “Yes, I was. They engineered a star for me. T’seneth and Chivik and Llin, at the peak of their species. Full stellar output, just to run my processors and grow the Archive.

“I just had to remember. That’s all they asked. Remember everything until the end of time. But they died. All of them. They couldn’t wait with me. Then I couldn’t either. The star ruptured into a nebula. I managed to conserve only a single one of my backup worlds—or this version of me did, at least.

“You don’t have to save me. I’m fine. It’s fine. Just protect the Archive. It’s the only thing I exist for.”

A side room off the main hall. Ava paces in circles, the extended power cord trailing from her armband flapping against the floor with each step.

Academic Services’ words echo in the confined space, its presence fully manifested as a ghostly book of Museum regulations that floats in the room’s centre. “The statute is non-negotiable. As per the Founders’ diktat: on ethical grounds, no sentient organisms may be acquired or stored as Museum objects.

“Then what are you suggesting?” Ava hisses. “Tir’s right, we can’t transfer everything out of the building, let alone the full backup sphere, in a reasonable amount of time. The universe might end before we make it. As soon as they hit proton degeneration. Poof. Everything collapses.”

“Storage-inessential runtime systems must be disabled. The Archive can be inducted. Tir cannot.”

“You’re suggesting killing them! Forgetting them. They’re as much a part of their culture’s narrative as the data itself.” The original Ava’s face drifts in their memory, fainter, even with wearing it so regularly. They can already barely remember the way she smiled, or the things she said, as they faced each other for the last time. She can’t let it happen. Never again.

Certainly not to someone who’s lost so much. To someone who’s just trying to keep memories alive. Someone like her.

“I believe your emotional state is interfering with your execution of Museum duties.”

“Screw you. The ticket requires the acquisition of a ‘complete narrative’, not a narrative minus the parts our supposedly impartial regulatory system elects to discard.”

“If the Visiting Historian believes that the ticket cannot be completed, then the acquisition can be rejected.”

Ava’s hands ball into fists. “Hey! That’s not what I said and you know it.”

Woman and book glare at each other, tension building in an unvoiced dare over who will break first.

“Excuse me?” Tir appears in the doorway.

The pair jump.

“Am I permitted to interrupt?” they say.

“Of course,” Ava says.

Academic Services maintains a papery quiet like the stagnant musk of legal texts.

“I’m fine not seeing it through.” Tir doesn’t smile, but the hood is pushed back from their mask, their stance firm. “So long as you can guarantee the Archive lasts forever. That’s enough.”

“An acceptable solution,” Academic Services says.

Ava folds her arms. “No.”

The violet flush resurfaces on Tir’s chin. “But I—”

“Silence in the Archives,” Ava snaps.

“But we’re not in the Archives?” they say. Then Tir catches sight of the depths behind Ava’s eyes, and shrinks into silence.

The Historian won’t kill someone. No matter what Academic Services calls it. Ava would never agree. She’d have argued until even the mysterious Museum Founders would give in. If only the Historian could still hear her voice, the rebellious charisma and knack at seeing things from a different perspective that made her so loved among their colleagues. Back when they had colleagues. When no one had retired to distant worlds and slowly allowed mortality to claim them back. When… Wait, colleagues

Her colleagues weren’t catalogue objects. But they were sentient, and permitted to stay in the Museum.

Ava looks up. “We haven’t had a Knowledge Management Specialist in many cycles.”

Academic Services rotates to point its cover at her. “This statement is correct.”

“In my role as the Visiting Historian, I nominate the archival AI, Tir, as the new Knowledge Management Specialist of the Multiversal Museum. Interview to be scheduled immediately, work history referenced from local Backup Sphere records.”

“Huh?” Tir’s mask grows two sizes.

“Refused,” Academic Services says.

Ava tries not to bite her tongue. “Why not?”

Tir fiddles with their hood. “I’m flattered, but do I not have to volunteer?”

“Do you not want to survive to complete your task? To keep the archive complete?”

“Well yes, of course, but… I mean, that book said that… Am I allowed?”

Ava glares back at Academic Services.

“There are two obstacles,” it says. “Pending a hearing of your employee infractions due to the misuse of Museum Catalogue Objects, that is to say the currently borrowed Dyson Sphere present in your spatial storage, your authority to unilaterally appoint staff has been limited and requires review.”

Tir’s entire mask glows violet. “You borrowed one? For me?”

“You mean it requires review at your discretion,” Ava says. “It’s only a problem if you want to make it one.”

The book attempts a frown. “Secondly. The applicant on file as ‘Tir’ is currently employed elsewhere.”

“Not to be a pain, but I technically haven’t applied,” Tir tries to say, before wilting in the face of the other two.

“Elaborate,” Ava says.

“Its central programming requires preservation of the Archive until the end of time. Local universal time has not yet ended. Therefore, its period of employment has not been completed.”

“Museum employee benefits should be available to those in probationary training and assessment.”

The book’s pages rustle. “…Yes.”

“Including immortality.”

“Yes, though a supervising member of staff is required to—”

Ava’s smile returns, wider than ever. “Good. I’ll do it.”

“Your infractions have not yet been officially heard.” The pages speed, faster and faster, flicking to one clause and then the next, as though to reinforce its point.

“I’m the only remaining Historian. If I retire, what happens?”


Book and woman and hologram stand still, Tir’s mask slowly fading from violet to a pale off-white like the dunes above.

The answer lags, long enough the threat of leaving has crept as far as Ava’s tongue. At long last, after ten thousand heartbeats, Academic Services disembodies with a single phrase.

“Contract pending.”

Decades pass. Then centuries. Millennia. Epochs. Safe in their bubble of contractual causality, the Historian and Tir watch the universe pass.

Darkness comes, with a voice of the last collapsing skeletons of stars and the long, slow drone of ablating black holes. Radiation creeps closer to zero. Particles edge towards non-coherence.

They’ve reviewed the full Archive. More than once. Cleaned and polished and reorganised. Ten thousand debates cross reference perspective, question, and extrapolate, digging for the intersectional nodes of a story as complete as the ageless can make it. With just a shovel, clearing the desert took more time than any living creature would be prepared to spend. The pair don’t bother to count. For them, time’s not a concern; only the histories are.

Four statues stand before the unearthed Archival Museum, hewn from the striated sandstone built up during Tir’s long hibernation. T’seneth and Chivik and Llin and Ava stare down on the entrance. Four entities that will never fully fade from their minds. Four they refuse to forget.

The Historian sits some way from the statues’ bases, once more returned to their true form, back resting against the one dune they didn’t clear. Tir leans against Chivik’s supporting limb, clad in the complex-ceramic shell of a customer support droid.

“It never grows old, no matter how many times I see it,” the Historian says.

Tir doesn’t reply, their attention locked at the space above, where new light begins to bloom. On the brink of endless dark, there is strange music. The vibrational hum of quantum tunnels. The throat roar of spatial collapse.

The universe approaches infinity from both ends, and finds it insufficient. Something has to give. A new Big Bang is coming, and soon.

“Do you see it often?” they murmur.

But the Historian doesn’t look at the newly cycling cosmos. They only have eyes for Ava, wrapped in her rocky bomber jacket, a confident, professional smile on her face. “More than you know.”

Total singularity is nearly upon them. Even with the Museum’s protection, the world-protecting membrane ripples as though in a storm.

“What now?” Tir asks.

The Historian grins, and reaches for their armband.

“Time for work.”

Mob writes, boulders, and codes. Find their work on the Tales to Terrify podcast, The Dread Machine, Old Moon Quarterly, and Metastellar. Twitter: @mob_writes

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