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We thought they'd bring him back in shackles, blindfolded, with combat bots at either side of him. But Damien is alone when he descends from the transport ship, looking awkward, or embarrassed, more than anything. The ship departs behind him and the hanger closes. I lose sight of him as he steps under the threshold of the observation deck. Simon looks at Adrian, who shrugs.
“What happened?” I ask him when he steps out of the turbo-lift.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Damien replies.
He can't even look me in the eye.
“But you got out, bro,” Simon says. “What made you decide to come back here?
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Damien replies. “It’s better for you not to know.”
“But what about the resistance?” Adrian asks. “Did you track them down, at least?”
Damien smiles, grimly.
“There isn’t a resistance anymore,” he says.
“But, the SJW’s,” Simon says.
“They’ve won,” Damien replies. “I’m going to bed.”
He exits through the double doors.
“Damien! Fuck,” Simon says. “I’m going after him.”
He follows Damien.
“So much for the revolution,” Adrian says. “I wonder what he saw?”
“Whatever it was, it was enough to bring him back to us,” I reply. “And willingly, too.”
Adrian’s shoulders slump.
“So that’s it then?” he says. “Consensus culture won, just like that?”
“We won’t know until we talk to Damien,” I say. “Hopefully Simon’s calmed him down.”
Simon comes out through the doors.
“Damien is ready, but it isn’t pretty,” Simon says. “It’s not too late to back out now.”
Adrian looks at me.
“Could it really be that bad?” he asks.
“This is the best place in the universe,” Simon says.
“Don’t you mean the galaxy?” I ask.
“The universe,” Simon says. “Do you still want to know?”
I look at Adrian, who is shaking visibly.
“Maybe you should go in there without me,” he says. “I don’t know if my heart can take it.”
I raise one eyebrow.
“Seriously?” I say.
He looks away.
“You’re a smart man,” Simon says. “Smarter than you know.”
With obvious reluctance, Simon turns to me.
“What about you then?” he says.
“I’m going in, of course,” I say, puffing out my chest to show my dominance.
“You’ll regret it,” Simon replies. “But alright.”
I tap my foot impatiently. What happened to the three of us, who used to call ourselves the Übermenschs? The ones who’d stood up for the natural order: for freedom, for sanity, and the history that differentiated us as people? When the communists had put an end to competition, to power, to the very root of our identities, they’d put us here: in a ‘luxury space gulag’ for their ‘luxury space communism,’ where we’d resisted the re-education programs that had claimed our peers, and weathered their abuse until they abandoned us entirely. We’d had the strength to say that there was nothing wrong with being rich, or male, or living in the way that nature had intended us. I follow Simon out and sit down at the dining table. He stands behind me at the door.
“Adrian isn’t coming in?” Damien says, sitting at the edge of an enormous banquet.
The communists had always kept us comfortable, by force when we resisted. Simon shakes his head.
“Good,” Damien says. “I don’t think he could have handled it. As for you Bryce," he begins and sighs. “God, where do I begin?”
The anger builds inside me when I look at him. My mentor, Damien Ramirez, reduced to this: a snivelling shell of a man. Where was the Damien who stood beside me on the social network battlelines, arguing passionately for ‘freedom of speech’ even after, when they took that right away? Spitting at the revolutionaries when they dragged him here…
“First thing you should know is that they have no race or gender. Not in any way we understand it,” Damien begins. “They uploaded their consciousness into clouds of nano-machines. They live forever, need no maintenance, and can take on any form they like. Not just the humans, but every other species in the galaxy. It’s impossible to know where one begins and ends.”
I swallow deeply. That’s bad, but not as bad as I expected.
“Every species went along with that?” I ask.
“Every species,” he replies. “But you have to understand what came before.”
Damien gets up.
“The upload ended scarcity, and put the human race into a place of hitherto unheard of power over every other species in the universe. That, coupled with the communist consensus culture, meant the other races were afraid of us, and allied to take us out. But we no longer had to fight.”
Damien paces in front of the window which overlooks the toxic planet where the one-man ship had crashed which had allowed him to escape. He’d used the gear we’d found in the abandoned security wing and watched him jump out of an airlock to the surface, acid eating at his drop-suit as he tumbled through the lime-coloured, perpetually stormy air.
“It wasn’t just our bodies: the communists rebuilt everything they owned with nano-machines, a third-dimensional approximation of the Chymr-Byurd’s Fade technology. Everything they had dispersed on impact, only to reform again. All it took to end the war was to place a human ship in low orbit above every alien homeworld. They surrendered instantly, and the war was over.”
“And we occupied and forced them to adopt our nano-machines?” I ask. “That’s worse than I expected.”
“Actually, it’s even worse than that,” Damien says, and looks at Simon. “We just left.”
I narrow my eyes.
“We didn’t even ask for terms. We didn’t ask for anything. We just left,” Damien says.
“Why?” I reply.
“The age of competition was already over,” Damien says. “We had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain. Eventually, they asked to join us.”
“So all that individuality and difference, it all simply disappeared?” I ask.
Damien shakes his head.
“It preserved. Without fear, without want, without any kind of contradiction,” he explains.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Neither did I, at first,” Damien says. “I didn’t even know that all of that had happened. All I saw was a society where everyone was free to do exactly as they wanted. Including ostracize themselves, if necessary, into alternate realities called Spaces.”
“Safe spaces,” I reply, and roll my eyes.
“Not always,” Damien replies. “Some of them are pretty dangerous. But the fundamental concept is the same: a world where you can be the way you are without external judgement or discrimination.”
“Now you’re sounding like an SJW,” I reply.
Damien smiles sadly, then he looks away.
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you. Either of you,” he says, and looks at Simon. “We haven’t lost the fight or just become irrelevant. The entire universe has proved us wrong.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“They’re happy,” Damien says. “To the extent they've started seeing it as immoral that anyone who's ever lived can’t live the way that they do. They’ve been using time machines to harvest any sapient life which dies at any point in history, in every alternate reality, and giving them the chance to live again. And of course they always do, when they see the world the communists are offering. There’s something for everybody there.”
“You came back,” I reply. “What about you?”
“That’s why I didn’t want to tell you,” he replies. “I’m back because they told me that I had to be to join them. Or wander the universe entirely alone. I weighed that one up too.”
“What stopped you?” I reply.
“Futility,” Damien says. “There’s nobody like us left in the entire universe. I had to come back to my kind.”
That chills me.
“You mean,” I start.
“Yes,” Damien says. “The three of us are the only sapient, biological life-forms in existence. This prison… is our safe space.”
“What?” I reply.
“We were wrong about everything,” Damien says. “They sent me back to tell you we could join them. I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to alter everything you are. But they didn’t give me any choice.”
Simon looks at me, and I realize he feels guilt.
“So you mean to tell me there’s no men, no wealth, no anything?” I reply. “And everyone is happier?”
“People are so happy that the word itself is insufficient. There is no alternative,” Damien says. “Life is nothing more than endless exploration and discovery. That’s it.”
“No competition, no hierarchy?” I continue.
“Only in the Spaces, which are inaccessible to us,” Damien says.
“Because we aren’t made of nano-machines?” I answer.
“Correct,” Damien says.
“So our entire lives have just been,” I start.
“Meaningless,” Simon finishes. “And staying here is meaningless too. But how can we leave without surrendering everything we are?”
“They sent the ship too, didn’t they?” I ask.
Damien nods sadly.
“Yes,” he says. “And every few days they will send another, just in case you want to verify the things I’ve seen.”
“So they want us all to join them?” I ask. “That still seems a little autocratic.”
“That’s the worst part: they don’t care,” Damien says. “They just want ‘whatever makes us happy’.”
“Oh,” I say. “I see.”
I look down at the comfortable carpet, elegantly detailed with classic sci-fi imagery and communist insignias.
“Yeah,” says Damien. “It’s impossible to just keep on existing once you know.”
“I can see why you didn’t want to tell us,” I reply, looking up.
“Yep,” says Simon.
“Should we tell Adrian?” I say.
“Nah,” says Damien. “Let him just enjoy pretending he’s got purpose for a while. We can help him understand it, once we’re over it. Unless you think that we should go?”
I think about the prison, re-contextualised as a haven from a world we have no place in, in a universe that we are could never understand. I think about surrendering my identity to join them, and then I smile.
“It’s okay,” I say.
Simon and Damien look at me.
“We can keep the dream alive in here. Adrian never has to know. We’ll just have to come up with another story to explain away the ships and your return,” I say. “It’ll give us purpose. It’ll let us keep the last of us alive.”
“We’ll make a space for Adrian, and everything he represents,” he says.
“Couldn’t we just go instead?” Simon asks.
We look at him.
“I mean… we were wrong. It’s okay to be wrong,” Simon says. “We can join the new society and then,” he trails off, looking out the window, and we follow his gaze.
A broken ship is plummeting towards the toxic planet. It looks identical to the one they sent before. We look at one-another. Time to choose.