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The Djinni Asked Me How I Wanted To Die

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  • The Djinni Asked Me How I Wanted To Die

    Not my characters, not making any money, Joss owns 'em all. I also owe a debt of inspiration to Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke, for the Time Odyssey trilogy, though the treatment is my own.

    I was never supposed to get this old.

    But then, I said the same thing ten years ago. And thirty years ago. help me...seventy. I remember when I wasn't sure what scared me more: that there would never come a time when I was wrinkled and grey, or that there would. Slayers aren't supposed to have leathery, wrinkly hands. Aren't supposed to have hair the color of silver. Aren't supposed to crackle when they talk. But then, after all, that was a lifetime ago, wasn't it?

    At least I still crack me up.

    We all knew what we did back then would change things. I wonder, though, if any of us had nearly guessed how much. Surely I didn't. Sometimes I think Giles saw (what was to come), more of it than the rest of us, at least.

    That year there were a few hundred of us. A year later, as the line replenished itself, over a thousand. Ten years, ten thousand. It peaked at twenty thou, dropping a little as the time finally came when we began to make a real dent in the demon population. By that time, of course, there was no more hiding. There were special schools. Special jobs. Slayers in the army, Slayers in the navy, Slayers in (bite your tongue!) the police departments.

    I remember Willow's speech to Congress about what she called the...the "Fermi Paradox". How, if life existed anywhere else in the universe, we ought to see it by now. And, of course, we had. More people had than not; we just blinded ourselves to it, because it wasn't the kind of other life we were expecting. Or the kind of universe, either.

    The door knows I'm leaving. I step out of my quarters and into the hall, placing my steps carefully. Fragile? Don't make me laugh. The doctors all tell me--for all my body has to say about it, anyway--I'll make it another thirty years. Maybe more; nobody knows thing one about what Slayers are supposed to look like at this age. I don't have arthritis, or Alzheimers', or heart murmurs, or osteoporosis. My muscles aren't what they used to be, of course, and I'm certainly not the talk of fratboys anymore, but I'm not sick. Unless living a long time is a disease. But they're still working out the kinks in artificial gravity, and sometimes the station sways.

    Of course, I stepped back years ago to let the kiddies handle the punching and kicking. I'm as much a Watcher now as a Slayer, maybe more. That the day would come when Slayers would be Watchers...somewhere Giles is chuckling at me. Especially when I lecture the young ones about dire consequences or insist they work on their meditation skills. But everyone ages, even us, and when I turned fifty-five, I began to realize that slowly but surely I had lost my edge. Since then, I've dusted a handful of vamps, when they came for me--not that there are that many, these days--but I stopped patrolling. I wasn't needed anymore, not for that.

    I sparred with the girls--still do, with the youngest trainees, who aren't expecting great-grandmama to be dangerous, which is exactly the first lesson they need to learn. Trust your instincts, not your eyes. I taught them how to use their Slayer senses, which I had, after all, gotten the hang of in time. I taught them history, and who to watch for in their dreams. I even taught them magic, the basics, at least. Willow always told me I was connected to a great reservoir of power, even if it wasn't the kind she could touch directly, and she was right. All it needed was practice, and time--the time few Slayers used to have, back in the old days. I never got to be her, of course, but I can float more pencils than you can shake a stake at, make a mean ball of sunlight, or raise a glamour like you'd never...well, like you would believe, since that's the point.

    I knock on Xander's door. I've thought, every now and then, of kicking it in, but that would just set off alarms all over the station, and for a joke that's sort of overkill. He's head of the project now, still in construction work after all these years. He told me he'd save the world again one day, and it looks like he was right.

    "Buffy." He's sort of stooped now, and of course he's lost his hair. Amusingly, he looks like the supposed older self he met at the wedding, only a bit more so, and isn't it strange how so many memories are still so clear? "You need something?"

    "Just a look at the progress schematics. We have time, but not forever." There was a time when apocalypses had to be resolved in less than a month. Some still do, of course, but evil plays longer games, too. If we make it through the next two years, no doubt we...or some of us, at least...will face a plan that's been developing for a hundred years, or a thousand.

    He steps aside to let me in. His metal left hand is cold, his glowing red right eye colder, and something at the back of my mind whispers (not dead, nor not of the living). Which, strictly speaking, is true, at least for those parts of him, but the world changes, and instinct stays the same.

    There's so much we've been through, so many times we've saved the world. Sometimes with armies at our back, sometimes alone. Even that doesn't go entirely away, not even on Planet Slayer. (David) (William) (Riley) (Angel) The truth is, you always face death alone, even when you're not. And, of course, with so many years behind us and so much power in us, we've endangered it a few times too. The time Amanda and Rona and their buddies went rogue, all at once. The year Wood turned Faith and they held the UN hostage together. Worst of all, 11/1/11, All Souls Day, which I don't expect to ever be forgiven for entirely. Even if most people have forgotten, the universe remembers. Willow told me that, once.

    She's dead now, of course.

    The screensheet shows about what I expect, of course. The shield is well underway, but a project this immense leaves a thousand thousand things that can go wrong. Even just holding things up for a while could be a disaster, if it's for too much time.

    Maybe, in a way, Giles's death was a warning. A monster ate the skin off him. A monster that went by the name melanoma. A monster none of us could fight, just like the one that killed my mother. But a monster that had a source, one that maybe we should have suspected a little more or at least looked at sideways from time to time.

    "Hello, Buffy." It's Chao-Ahn. Chao-Ahn Harris, I should say. Or is it Harris Chao-Ahn? I think they use both, depending on who they're talking to. They've been married so long, it's hard to remember (Anya) a time when they weren't together.

    "Wai, dim aa, Chao-Ahn? I was just wanting to see how things were going." I was just wanting to see Xander, too; I have screensheets in my room that could have showed most of this stuff, even some of Xander's notes. But Xander always did like possessive women. And the truth is, Chao-Ahn probably understands anyway.

    "Gei hou, Buffy. Xander is a wonderful foreman, even here in space. The demons will throw a fit when the time comes, and we'll just snicker at them." I snicker a little bit now. It feels good to laugh. It feels really good to laugh in the face of danger, even if it's a danger that isn't quite here yet. I wish I'd learned that sooner. Faith tried to teach me, long long ago, and sometimes I think if I'd listened, her life and mine might have been so different...

    The screensheet blurs for a moment, and when the image firms up, it's Willow. And Tara, which I had an even harder time getting used to. Will was a part of my life for so long, it was a surprise to see her go before me. But Tara was gone long before the soulnets began connecting up. Most of them don't come back, but the ones who had strong links to this dimension wanted to see what was going on. It doesn't get much stronger than between those two. The screensheet blurs again. Only not, really. I blink a few times to make it clear up.

    "I see the seals are getting close, Buff." I nod, silently. Before long, the seals will start coming online, pentagrams and hexagrams inscribed not in matter, but in laser light, spanning a distance that doesn't even exist planetside, unless you want to come back to where you started a couple of times. At least you don't have to worry that they're drawn crooked.

    "If they w-w-weren't," Tara teases, "you'd just reach out and move the m-m-mirrors, Will. You're still one bad-ass Wicca, even if you never d-d-did remember to stick on an 'n' when you're talking about a person." Tara's image jerks about when she "stutters", which is no speech impediment now, but just an old joke. A really old joke; I don't think even that many of us old fogies remember Max Headroom. I was just a kid, and I only ever saw the Coke commercials.

    " something wrong?" Will sees so much, so of course she notices I'm tearing up. I wonder if she's in Istanbul, too, talking to Oz. It would be like her.

    I put on a brave face. "It's us, Willow, the three of us. It's the end of the world again, and we're all here together for it. I'm happy, but...well, you know."

    Willow raises her chin and puts on her resolve face. "It's not the end of the world. I will it so. So mote it be." Xander puts a hand on my shoulder, the hand that's still organic; I hear Chao-Ahn sniff.

    "You go, Will," Xander quavers. "If you say it ain't the end, it just ain't."

    Tara smiles, softly, and puts aside the jerkiness; it's not a time for that sort of joking. "That's my girl. And even if it is, Buffy, we'll still be together. You know that. If we have to, we'll come back as ghosts and, um, do a little face-punching." All of us fall to laughing, even Chao-Ahn. Tara never was one for the face-punching; we've told enough stories that I think even some of the younger Slayers remember what she was like. Which isn't a bad way to be, when you're dead, or so she tells me.

    I turn a bit to look out the porthole. Up, I suppose it is, and to hell with what they tell me about there being no "up" in space, because I'm looking at the sun, after all. Straight at it, in spite of what they used to say; the smart filters will adjust. The others turn, too, and look with me, knowing what it is I'm looking at, drawn to the sight just like me. Three years.

    Three years ago, almost to the day, the first manned mission reached Pluto. The astronomers say now that Pluto's not a planet, not really, but Will and Tara say that guy...Lowell, I think...was right, and it is, and that perhaps intuitively, he named it right. The way whoever named Charon named it right. The god of the dead, and the boatman who takes you when you go. There was a sort of plaque on Charon, like a marker of sorts. Only when the first man touched it, it turned out to be something more. It lit up, despite having no wires or circuits there to see. Despite being made out of ammonia ice. Despite not even having any magic, of a kind we understand at least.

    A year later something tentacled fell into the sun, and out of it again, which didn't make a lot of sense, because the sun is way too hot for anything natural to be solid near it, and where'd the thing come from anyway to get there so fast? But the very unnaturalness left it pretty obvious what sort of thing was going on.

    The shield passes between us and the sun, leaving us in the dark. As it should be, of course. Darkness in us, and us in the dark. Wherever vampires go when they die, William is rolling on the floor laughing his ass off.

    To whoever it was that left the plaque, we're the demons. I've heard that some of the researchers think the beings who carved it live on a world close enough to their sun to boil lead, or maybe live inside their sun itself. We humans, to them, would be terrifying creatures of perpetual night. Which is so absurd, because we've done nothing to them. But then, maybe their planet is full of Watchers, or Initiative folks, or Knights of Byzantium, telling them we've got to be evil to live in a place like this. If so, screw them, as Faith would say.

    The sun throws off an immense flare, and the window darkens to keep our eyes safe. It does that a lot now, and it's going to keep getting worse for a while. The display is actually quite pretty; there's an awful lot of irony in what's happening, and the beauty is the smallest part. I wish Dawn could have been here to see this. I promised to keep her alive and safe, and I did. As long as she lived, which I had hoped would be much longer than I did. But she died old, and happy, in bed surrounded by her children and grandchildren, and I suppose that's as much as anyone could ask. I bite my lip and look down at the old hands that--so many years ago--held stakes and scythes and swords and kept the world safe. That held my friends, for protection, for comfort, for love. And--however indirectly--they're doing it again, at least one more time.

    I used to think, after it happened twice, I'd die and come back a few more times before the last one. I never did. The truth is, I really don't want to do it again now. I'm tired. I bore the weight of the world alone for so long that I thought I had set it down. In time I realized that everyone bears a little of it, no matter who they are. But if life comes again, it comes, and I'll go however many rounds it takes. I'll hold the line as long as it'll hold me.

    Sometimes Sineya still comes to me in my dreams. I'm not the only one now, of course. Sometimes, neither is she. Sometimes, lately, she comes to me waking. Every now and then, she talks, and she makes more and more sense every year. Is she really there, I wonder? As a spirit? Am I linked through time? Or is it something else, something I'm never really gonna understand? However it is, she seems...better. And I'm happy for her, if that makes any sense. Maybe the sweetest memory I have is the day we--me and Faith and Kennedy and Amanda and Chao-Ahn and lots of others--kicked open the portal and hauled them out, the Shadow Men who started all of this. She was there, too, and she smiled at me when I ripped the chains out of the walls, danced when I smashed the spiral rock painting on the floor. Giles and Dawn and Xander took immense pleasure in holding a Watcher's tribunal for them. They sputtered and protested and demanded that we submit. And then, having found them guilty, we took them to a place where they could finally die. I thought they would be angry, and they were. But I saw the look in their eyes as the light went out of them, and amazingly enough it was relief. I haven't lived thousands of years, but I have a feeling that's what my face will look like when I die.

    But it wasn't the end. And it won't be the end when I go, either, except for me. It never is, except maybe if we lose. We could, this time, just like we could have before. Who knows, maybe something new will come out of this apocalypse, the way it did out of that one, so long ago. Because I've been hearing this...echo lately. An echo that scares me, but also gives me hope.

    (From above you) whispers something, Sineya or Slayer instinct or some gloating creature of evil or just my aging mind.

    (From above you, it devours.)

    Like hell it does.
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