(Part 6 of 8 in "Three Worlds Collide")
Today was the day.
The streets of ancient Earth were crowded to overbursting with people looking up at the sky, faces crowded up against windows.
Waiting for their sorrows to end.
Akon was looking down at their faces, from the balcony of a room in a well-guarded hotel. There were many who wished to initiate violence against him, which was understandable. Fear showed on most of the faces in the crowd, rage in some; a very few were smiling, and Akon suspected they might have simply given up on holding themselves together. Akon wondered what his own face looked like, right now.
The streets were less crowded than they might have been, only a few weeks earlier.
No one had told the Superhappies about that part. They'd sent an ambassadorial ship "in case you have any urgent requests we can help with", arriving hard on the heels of the Impossible. That ship had not been given any of the encryption keys to the human Net, nor allowed to land. It had made the Superhappies extremely suspicious, and the ambassadorial ship had disgorged a horde of tiny daughters to observe the rest of the human starline network -
But if the Superhappies knew, they would have tried to stop it. Somehow.
That was a price that no one was willing to include into the bargain, no matter what. There had to be that - alternative.
A quarter of the Impossible Possible World's crew had committed suicide, when the pact and its price became known. Others, Akon thought, had waited only to be with their families. The percentage on Earth... would probably be larger. The government, what was left of it, had refused to publish statistics. All you saw was the bodies being carried out of the apartments - in plain, unmarked boxes, in case the Superhappy ship was using optical surveillance.
Akon swallowed. The fear was already drying his own throat, the fear of changing, of becoming something else that wasn't quite him. He understood the urge to end that fear, at any price. And yet at the same time, he didn't, couldn't understand the suicides. Was being dead a smaller change? To die was not to leave the world, not to escape somewhere else; it was the simultaneous change of every piece of yourself into nothing.
Many parents had made that choice for their children. The government had tried to stop it. The Superhappies weren't going to like it, when they found out. And it wasn't right, when the children themselves wouldn't be so afraid of a world without pain. It wasn't as if the parents and children were going somewhere together. The government had done its best, issued orders, threatened confiscations - but there was only so much you could do to coerce someone who was going to die anyway.
So more often than not, they carried away the mother's body with her daughter's, the father with the son.
The survivors, Akon knew, would regret that far more vehemently, once they were closer to the Superhappy point of view.
Just as they would regret not eating the tiny bodies of the infants.
A hiss went up from the crowd, the intake of a thousand breaths. Akon looked up, and he saw in the sky the cloud of ships, dispersing from the direction of the Sun and the Huygens starline. Even at this distance they twinkled faintly. Akon guessed - and as one ship grew closer, he knew that he was right - that the Superhappy ships were no longer things of pulsating ugliness, but gently shifting iridescent crystal, designs that both a human and a Babyeater would find beautiful. The Superhappies had been swift to follow through on their own part of the bargain. Their new aesthetic senses would already be an intersection of three worlds' tastes.
The ship drew closer, overhead. It was quieter in the air than even the most efficient human ships, twinkling brightly and silently; the way that someone might imagine a star in the night sky would look close up, if they had no idea of the truth.
The ship stopped, hovering above the roads, between the buildings.
Other bright ships, still searching for their destinations, slid by overhead like shooting stars.
Long, graceful iridescent tendrils extended from the ship, down toward the crowd. One of them came toward his own balcony, and Akon saw that it was marked with the curves of a door.
The crowd didn't break, didn't run, didn't panic. The screams failed to spread, as the strong hugged the weak and comforted them. That was something to be proud of, in the last moments of the old humanity.
The tendril reaching for Akon halted just before him. The door marked at its end dilated open.
And wasn't it strange, now, the crowd was looking up at him.
Akon took a deep breath. He was afraid, but -
There wasn't much point in standing here, going on being afraid, experiencing futile disutility.
He stepped through the door, into a neat and well-lighted transparent capsule.
The door slid shut again.
Without a lurch, without a sound, the capsule moved up toward the alien ship.
One last time, Akon thought of all his fear, of the sick feeling in his stomach and the burning that was becoming a pain in his throat. He pinched himself on the arm, hard, very hard, and felt the warning signal telling him to stop.
Goodbye, Akon thought; and the tears began falling down his cheek, as though that one silent word had, for the very last time, broken his heart.
And he lived happily ever after.