In the fullness of time all things wound down and ceased. The Great Empty Place at the center of the Universe patiently vacuumed up the last of the stars and planets and wandering bits of rock. Above the Rainbow Bridge there was only a gray blankness, devoid of starlight. Such illumination as remained came from the Bridge itself.
Grass glowed gray-green in the soft white light. Bare trees stood around the meadow, more fence than forest. Beyond the trees there was a nothing, a formless dark. The sole remaining path lay blank in the faint light, dust unstirred for millennia. The path wandered across the meadow, then climbed the grassy surface of the Bridge and vanished into a pearlescent haze.
The Electric Auditor came out of that haze and flew across the Bridge. The Auditor’s metal body was stained and dented from hard use. That body was constructed of star stuff and used the power of the Universe to move. Yet the way had often been hard and the journey long.
Hovering at the apex of the Bridge, the Auditor swept the scene with all manner of sensors, electronic and quasi-organic. A single blue ovoid eye glittered as the Auditor recited: “One Rainbow Bridge, one meadow, one forest, one path.” The metal head rotated slowly. “One small dog.”
The Auditor moved down into the meadow and stopped beside a tiny black dog of uncertain parentage. “You should not be here.”
Moving slowly, as if just roused from a long nap, the dog stretched and shook itself. “There were others…”
“They have gone on,” said the Auditor. It did not have to sweep the area with its all-seeing sensors in order to know that. Having swept once, it knew forest and meadow down to the last molecule.
“I remember a cat. And dogs. And others.” Tags rattled as the dog shook again.
The Auditor examined a simulacrum of the tags within its virtual mind. One tag was a license, out of date for several millions of years. The other was a simple steel heart with a name inscribed. “Your name is Toby?”
“I am Toby. He named me that. I have been Toby ever since.” The dog smiled up at the Auditor. “It is a good name.”
“Who named you?”
“He did. My boy. We were always together, my boy and I. Sometimes he went away, but he always came back.”
“Evidently he has forgotten you,” said the Auditor. “It happens.”
“Not my boy.” Toby looked up at the Auditor and shook his head. “He will come for me. I know it. He was there at the last, when I had to leave. His face was wet. I remember the salty taste. My boy will come for me.”
“You have been here a long time. A very long time. Others must have advised you to go on.”
“Oh, sure. There was a cat — I forget his name.”
The Electric Auditor sat down on the grass. “It is time and past time for you to go on, Toby. The end of the Universe approaches — the end of life on this side of the Great Empty Place. But all accounts must balance before I fall into the dark. I am Last, which is my name and task.”
Toby sat silent for a long time. The Auditor knew which beings had kept animals like Toby as pets. He tried to explain what had happened. “They abolished death. Your boy never died. Never found his way here. Later his people gave up their physical bodies and became immaterial, creatures of wave and particle. They went into the Great Empty long ago.”
“It is true that no people have come this way for a long time,” said the dog. “There were some — when I first arrived. Then they stopped coming.”
The Auditor stood up and gestured. The Rainbow Bridge ceased. The forest and meadow vanished. Toby and the Auditor stood on a dirt path fringed with gray-green grass. “We have to go, Toby. All the balances are correct — except for one small dog and one Electric Auditor.”
“My boy has gone beyond this thing you call the Great Empty?”
“He has.” The Auditor reconsidered his earlier words. “He might not have forgotten you. In his final form he may not have been able to find his way to the Rainbow Bridge.”
“Yes, he would have come if he could.” Toby’s jaws opened in a smile. Pale light shone in his eyes. “I will go into the Great Empty and find him on the other side.” With that, the little black dog trotted into the pearlescent mist and out of sight.
“Account closed,” murmured Last. With folded arms, the Electric Auditor drifted into the mist.
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.
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