"This hurts," she said. "I hurt so much."
"We've let the medics know you're coming," said her instructor. "They'll be ready to treat you once we dock with the ship."
"What...what was down there? What happened to me?" she asked. "I was hanging. They all were—"
"You saw people who were crucified, along the river," he said. "I've seen them too when I've traveled to study the Terminus, many times—we call them the 'hanged men.' The QTNs crucify those people. They
"You said they're in my blood. Get them out, get them out of me—"
"Shannon, we've been through this—we can't get them out. We covered this in training. I thought you were ready. I warned you about them."
"No, you never did," she said, fighting to concentrate through the pain, the throbbing burn in her wrists. Her memories were confused, muddled...she remembered she had traveled to Deep Time on the USS William McKinley—to the year 2199, or one of an infinite number of possible 2199s, a distance of nearly two hundred years. A pale radiance hung over the Earth when they arrived, shining like a second sun—the entire crew had been astonished. No one knew what that pale light was. No one had warned her about QTNs or the hanged men. "You said you were taking me home, that's all you ever said."
"Shannon," said her instructor, helpless. He rubbed her feet again with the washcloth. "I don't know what to say. The hypothermia—it can cause amnesia. Maybe as you recover—"
"Rendezvous with William McKinley. Prepare for docking," said a voice over the loudspeaker—a voice she didn't recognize. She remembered black water rushing beneath her. She looked again at her feet. Some color had returned to her right foot, but the toes on her left were still black, and the lines reaching up her left leg had darkened. The sight sickened her.
"What are they? What are QTNs—what's inside of me?" she asked, rebelling against her bewilderment. "I don't care if you think we've been over this before."
"We don't know where they come from, or what they want," said her instructor. "They might not want anything. Quantum-tunneling nanoparticles. We believe they are extra-dimensional—they come through the White Hole, that second sun you saw. Sometime in our future. They cause the event we call the Terminus."
"The moment humanity ceases to be relevant," said her instructor. "No one is left alive. Not in the conventional sense, at any rate. There are the hanged men, but there are runners, too. Millions running in great packs until their bodies disintegrate or they run into the ocean to drown. Some dig holes and then lie down inside. Some people stand with their faces toward the sky, their mouths filled with silver liquid. On the beaches they line up and perform what look like calisthenics."
"We don't understand why, or to what purpose. Maybe there is no purpose."
"But this is just a version of the future," she said, imagining she could feel the QTNs like parasites in her blood. "This is just one
of infinite possibilities. So there are other possibilities, other futures. The Terminus doesn't have to happen."
"The Terminus is a shadow that falls across the future of our species," said her instructor. "Every timeline we've visited ends in
the Terminus. And it's moving closer. We first dated the event to 2666—but the next travelers to witness the Terminus found that it had moved closer, to 2456. And the Terminus has moved closer still, to 2121. You see, the Terminus is like the blade of a guillotine slicing toward us. Our Navy and its fleet have been tasked to find a way out from that shadow, and our vocation is to support the Navy. Everything I'll teach you, everything you'll see, is to help our species avoid the Terminus. We have to find our way out from the shadow."
"What else will I see?"
"The end of everything."