Zha materialized in my front yard, having finally found me after an interval of roughly five million years, give or take a few millennia. He was human again, and male, wearing those ragged worn-out monk’s robes he seemed to cherish so much; they rippled and fluttered in the breeze, even though my little asteroid hosted no atmosphere and, therefore, no wind. Above us, the twin red supergiants of this system—which I’d long ago named Mother and Father, so much bigger and older than when I had first settled in this place—rotated in their dance of peanut-shaped illumination.
“Hello, Zha,” I said, continuing to rake pebbles into the form of a gigantic asterisk, the image reaching halfway round the asteroid’s face, taking patience and artistry and determination; he and I both knew what the message meant, and I suppose I’d done so in order to call him here. Despite millions of years of solitude, I supposed I still wanted the occasional contact.
Yha. My name was projected, sent directly into my mind. I preferred the physical act of talking, of sending air up my esophagus to vibrate my vocal cords and produce sounds. The fact that no air could be found in the immediate vicinity was irrelevant, and both Zha and I were past such trivialities. Have you finally decided to forgo this existence and travel with me into the Pure Land?
“Can’t a person call her former lover for a chat without leaping into the subject of existence-transcending? Has it been so long that you’ve forgotten how to engage in small talk?”
Zha’s expression remained neutral, but a dozen microscopic gestures flitted across his face. I smiled at the thought that I still knew how to irritate him. What would be the point, Yha? We have had every conversation that it is possible to have, in so many incarnations and iterations that I have lost count. Even after achieving enlightenment, I remained in cyclic existence in order to guide every last sentient being to Nirvana, including you, who are now the last. I am tired, and the stars are tired. It is time to end this foolish game of yours.
“Game? You think I’ve been playing a game all this time?” I threw my rake down onto the carbonaceous chondrite and began kicking at the pebbles of my asterisk, scattering the image into unrecognizability. It seemed that my message had been both prescient and affirmative: Zha was still an unbelievable asshole. “You still don’t understand me, you arrogant bastard. Not during the many incarnations in which we were married, not when I was your daughter, or mother or father or brother or sister, and certainly not now. You want games? I’ll give you games.”
I dematerialized, leaving behind my corporeal form, my latest home, and the plants and pets I had conjured up from the asteroid’s physical material and manipulated for my amusement and companionship; I left it all to crumble and became pure consciousness, leaping light years with but a thought, pushing myself beyond the bounds of the Milky Way, skipping from one star system to another as easily as I once had skipped over the paving stones on a pond filled with artificially-enlarged koi, the pond where we had first met, all those endless lives ago. After I’d slipped from a wet stone and splashed into the shallow pond, Zha, crouching on the bank, had laughed, not maliciously, but with a wisdom that already understood futility and acceptance; I had taken his hand then, and laughed too at my sorry state, and our karmas become forever intertwined, like a carefully sculpted bamboo.
I felt Zha’s presence dozens of light years behind me but closing the gap quickly. My path led directly through the hearts of moribund blue supergiants, immersed me in the violent radiation of hypernovae, and skirted the infinitesimally-detectable event horizons of supermassive black holes. I felt the urge to clutch every passing star to me and fling them back at Zha as casually as a clod of dirt, but incorporeal as we both were, the effect would have been negligible.
I ran, Zha chased, and billions of years flowed by. It gave me time to think, and to reflect on the gradual darkening of the space around us. The galaxies were burning themselves out, what had seemed like endless fuel and energy proving its finitude before my vision. Would it be possible to exist once the universe had expired? And, as Zha had so frustratingly pointed out, what would be the point? Damn him.
I became somatic once more and reposed onto the shifting plasma surface of a white dwarf on the outer edge of the known universe, warming myself with the dying star’s heat. The crackling and hissing of its radiation in extremis tickled my auditory senses. Why was I still clinging to this existence? Was I really so afraid of death? It was unclear how long I sat there contemplating my stubbornness and fear, but at some point Zha arrived, as I’d known he would. He didn’t say or think a word, and instead just rested next to me, still infinitely patient despite everything I’d ever said and done to him. Calm and resignation settled over me like a blanket as the white dwarf’s energy cooled.
“I’m ready,” I told him, and his response was not condescension or arrogance, but relief. He took my hand and vocalized the mantras he’d so long ago devoted himself to learning and tried to teach me. The ancient words flowed around us as a palpable living river, and I repeated them in sync with Zha’s utterances. All around us the stars winked out, but the chanted syllables took their place, filling every occupiable space in the now-cold universe with Om, our white dwarf the last to burn out, but deplete itself it did, bleeding its energy into us, into the words, lending us strength, and as its temperature reached absolute zero and its atoms ceased movement, a doorway of blissful orange light opened in my mind.
Zha turned to me, his smile both beautiful and beatific, his essence the very apotheosis of empathy and love, and held out his hand. I took it and followed him through.
(originally published in Strange Mammals, Infinity Plus Books, Oct 2013)