02 Jun NEVERENDING by Madeleine Vigneron
On her fifth life, Georgia stops trying to save the world.
She gave it her all. She gave it four of her alls, actually; didn’t even stop after the lucky third try left her smoldering on the metaphorical barbeque of a distracted amateur griller. Georgia spent four entire lifetimes trying to save the world, but the world simply does not want to be saved. So, she emerges bloody and wailing into the cold hospital air, she blinks her eyes open for the fifth very first time, she lives an unassuming life with an unassuming family, she touches The Orb at the age of sixteen and her four past lifetimes rush back into her body like a brass-knuckle punch to the synapses, and then she puts The Orb back in the dusty attic box where she found it, heads back downstairs, and decides get an early start on applying to university.
She’s never done university before. Usually at this point she’s learning forbidden secrets from a bald disciple with a penchant for the dramatic. It’s honestly impressive how many secrets those guys have hidden. Four entire training montages and they never once double dipped. Maybe if they’d just given her the SparkNotes the first time around, she wouldn’t have had her ass beat so many times. But the disciples know best.
That’s what Modesty seems to think when he appears in her dorm room two years later, bald scalp shining and deep blue robes draped artfully over one shoulder as always.
Georgia drops her backpack on the floor, kicks the door closed behind her, and says, “Seriously?”
“I’m confused, Georgia,” Modesty says. His voice is a calm stream rumbling over the grey face of a mountain, but the girl across the hall has friends over and they are being as nightmarishly loud as always. It kind of ruins the effect.
“What are you confused about?” Georgia asks. “What could possibly be confusing about this?”
“You’ve never shirked your duties like this before. You’ve received the necessary knowledge to proceed with your destiny, and yet you haven’t sought us out. What are you doing?”
“I’m seeking higher education,” Georgia says.
Modesty waits patiently.
“I’m seeking higher education that isn’t about the plane beyond ours. Or situated on a mountain. I’m seeking, like, medium-height education. Mid-tier but still pretty high up there.”
Modesty waits some more.
“Look,” Georgia says. She doesn’t have to explain herself to him, but actually, maybe she does. “I’m really tired of dying, okay? I did my best. Four whole times. It wasn’t good enough. If this was my destiny it would have stuck by now, but I still haven’t figured it out and I’m done trying. I just want to live a normal life before the Neverending comes and destroys everything. I’ve got a few good years left. I wanna use them for something that matters.”
Modesty says, “This is what you think matters?”
He surveys the room. Georgia’s schedule is tacked to a bulletin board, along with some pictures of her friends, and a to-do list. The list says things like Laundry on Tuesday and Outline history paper, not Learn to harness the boundless energy in the space between worlds and then fail to properly channel it once again when that space is cleft open, allowing the Neverending to successfully claw its way into our reality, take a giant bite out of the space currently occupied by Planet Earth, and also slap around a girl who is honestly trying her best before burning her to death with magic space fire.
Georgia says, “Yeah. I do, actually. And I deserve it.”
Modesty says, “Hm.” Then he says, “Hm,” again. Then he unsheathes a brilliant white sword and cleanly decapitates her.
On her sixth life, Georgia runs away.
After The Orb lets her relive that wonderful last moment, she drops it back into the box where she found it and legs it downstairs. She packs a bag and writes a note and gets the hell out of there.
The disciples don’t come after her immediately, likely because they assume that she’s seeking them out instead of playing destiny truant. After about six months, though, they figure out that she isn’t just struggling severely with directions to the sanctuary, and Modesty appears, shiny-headed and robe-swathed, in the small-town diner where Georgia managed to secure a waitressing job.
When Georgia spies him waiting patiently at a table in her section, she bolts. Modesty beats her to the bus stop.
Georgia holds her pepper spray aloft. “Stay back.”
“Georgia,” Modesty replies, voice low and disappointed. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“I am not,” Modesty says. “Now stop this and come with me.”
“You decapitated me!” Georgia shouts. “With a sword!”
“And I don’t want to have to do it again,” Modesty says, “but you’re putting things much bigger than you in jeopardy, and I can’t allow that.”
Georgia pepper-sprays him. The bus unfortunately doesn’t roll up just when she needs to make her emergency exit, so she sprints away, leaving Modesty coughing and hacking and rubbing his eyes with the midnight fabric of his robes. It’s a hike back to her apartment, so she’s hacking her lungs out just as much by the time she makes it home. Soaked in sweat like a despised teacher in an elementary school fun day dunk tank, Georgia unlocks her door with shaky fingers and staggers inside, collecting her prepacked escape bag. She opens the door again to leave, sees Modesty standing there, and screams.
His eyes are rimmed slightly with red, and his voice is less tranquil than usual. “Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be.”
Georgia fumbles for her pepper spray again, and in a voice that Georgia would almost dare describe as worried, he says, “Do not – spray me again – or next time I will go right to the sword.”
Georgia’s hands still. “What do you want from me?”
Modesty frowns. “I want you to fulfill your destiny.”
“I can’t!” Georgia says. “We’ve been over this! I can’t do it! You’ve got the wrong girl!”
“The universe does not make mistakes.”
“If not, then you do.”
Modesty raises an eyebrow.
“Am I the only one here who remembers how this has gone every single time I tried it?” Georgia asks desperately. “I’ve never understood the whole timeline situation, but I know you know what’s already happened to me. I can’t do it. I can’t! I know the world is going to end because I’m the only person between it and the Neverending and I’m just not good enough! So please just let me live my life before it ends!”
“Hm,” Modesty says, and Georgia genuinely thinks he’s considering it, but then he says, “No,” and decapitates her again.
On her seventh life, Georgia tells her mom.
Unfortunately, this almost gets her institutionalized. It does keep her under enough scrutiny that she can’t make a break for it this time around, but she doubts it would work anyways. She does briefly wonder if she is in fact crazy, so when Modesty appears next to her in the backyard only a month after her encounter with The Orb, she lifts the sunglasses from her eyes and says, “You’re real, right?”
“Georgia,” Modesty says, “we are much too far behind schedule for you to have an existential crisis right now.”
“Great.” Georgia relaxes back into the lawn chair. She’s learned her lesson about running away. “Deeply helpful as always. Please don’t kill me again.”
Modesty’s mouth puckers into a lemonlike little frown. “I’ve never intended to hurt you, Georgia. I really am trying to help. But you’re not cooperating.”
“Let’s play this out for a second.” Georgia stirs the little umbrella in her lemonade in tiny circles and takes an obnoxiously loud sip. “Say I go with you. Train again. Fight the Neverending again. Then what happens?”
Modesty says, “You die again.”
Georgia puts down her lemonade and sits up straight.
“Run that by me again,” Georgia says.
“You die again,” Modesty repeats. “You’re not strong enough to defeat the Neverending. Not yet. But every time it kills you, you take into yourself a piece of its power. Which is why we’ve locked you into this loop. But you’ve wasted two cycles now, and my sword can only harness a fraction of the energy the Neverending can. We’re behind schedule, and you’re going to have to make up for it before we run out of cycles.”
Georgia blinks. Quite a few times.
In a tone that is definitely hysterical, she says, “And you couldn’t have told me that the first time around?”
“No one wants to die,” Modesty says.
“Uh, yeah! No shit, Modesty! Me included!”
“Unfortunately, you’re going to have to.”
“I don’t want to! It hurts! A lot!”
“If the world ends,” says Modesty in a perfectly reasonable tone, “it will hurt more.”
“Why is this my responsibility?” Georgia demands. “You said – you’re the ones who made the loop? Why couldn’t you just have chosen someone else?”
“That is not information you can be privy to at this time.”
“I don’t want to die!” Georgia says. She’s certifiably yelling now. “I don’t want to exist to die! I want to live! I want to go to university and get a job and kiss a girl and move to another city that isn’t an arcane sanctuary that I’m living in to learn how to defeat a cosmic threat that’s managed multiple times to eat my reality!”
“You don’t have that choice, Georgia,” Modesty says.
Georgia throws her lemonade at him. The glass shatters against his shiny bald head and falls in equally shiny pieces on the grass underneath him.
“So kill me again,” she says.
“Kill me,” Georgia repeats. “What’s wrong? Forgot your sword?”
Modesty doesn’t respond.
“Oh, shit,” she says, heart racing, gears turning. Now that she isn’t all worked up about being a six-time sacrificial lamb, she’s connecting the dots. “You can’t. You’re too far behind schedule.”
With difficulty, Modesty says, “We are.”
“So,” Georgia says. “What now?”
The sun is in her eyes. She blinks the glare away, and Modesty disappears.
A month later, he appears in step with her as she walks to school.
Georgia’s heart kicks into overdrive. She really doesn’t want to die. She keeps her mouth shut.
“The mathematics are difficult,” Modesty says. “The fairest solution, I think, would be to allow you one normal lifetime before you return to your destiny. But we cannot offer that, because the world is going to end in five years.”
Georgia manages not to say Hate when that happens. She nods.
“But think of it this way,” Modesty says. “You’re already stuck in the loop. The best option is to just follow through. Once you’ve successfully stopped the Neverending, you’ll have the rest of your life to live normally.”
Georgia continues walking.
“Georgia,” Modesty says. “It’s not our fault that the world is ending.”
“And how do I know that?” Georgia says.
“You’re being extraordinarily selfish,” Modesty replies.
“Oh, definitely,” Georgia says. “You don’t think I’ve earned it?”
“You are not the only person affected by the apocalypse,” Modesty says. “Billions of lives are at stake. We have been working to save the world for longer than you can imagine.”
Georgia says, “So save it.”
“The Neverending will arrive whether you’re obstinate about it or not,” Modesty says.
“I know,” Georgia says.
They walk in silence.
“Give me the five years,” Georgia says. “I’m not stupid. I understand what’s at stake. I just… I need this.”
Modesty doesn’t answer.
“I still remember your training,” Georgia says. “I’ll come through when it matters. However many times it takes. I’ll die for the world, just let me live for myself.”
Modesty says, “Okay.”
The world ends in five years. Georgia tries to stop it, and for the seventh time, she dies.