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The Embittered Hour

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Time dripped away. Planets melted and stars went out; constellations drifted apart and galaxies slowed - but there was always somewhere in the universe you could get a drink.

It was just as well: the thought of looking at eternity sober was not an attractive one.

Paul drained his glass (it was quaint, he supposed, the way he still thought of it as a 'glass') and placed it carefully on the bar. The barmaid refilled it without speaking. She knew him. A few centuries ago he'd have liked to get to know her, but these days it hardly seemed worth it. She wouldn't be around long enough.

Gradually, by no particular sound or movement, he became aware of a drinker next him. He looked round. 'Jack!'

He was as pleased to see Jack as he was to see anyone. Jack was reliable – well, not reliable in any conventional sense, but at least when you heard that one of your old friends – or one of your new friends – had died, you could be fairly sure that it wasn't Jack, and that was about as good as it got, these days.

'Paul, old buddy! Are you having another of those?' Jack turned to the barmaid. 'I'll have the usual, please, Meep. And stick whatever Paul's drinking on my tab and get him another one.'

'A pleasure, Captain,' Meep grinned.

Jack saw Paul glowering and said, mildly, 'Ever think you should have kept the “Captain”?'

Paul scowled. 'Didn't we have that debate about fifty years ago?'

'Yeah, but you might have changed your mind since then,' Jack said. 'But evidently not.'

'You borrowed your title,' Paul said, aware that his tone was a trifle catty. 'Mine was conferred on me by an organisation that no longer exists.'

Jack shrugged. 'Suit yourself. But you're still the same man.'

'Yes, well, that's half the problem, isn't it?' Paul found that he was holding out his hands as if to fend Jack off from a dangerous spot. Choppy waters. (Neither of them had ever been that sort of captain, but you learnt the lingo.)

'I guess.' A change of tone; a very obvious attempt to change the subject. 'What are you up to these days, anyway?'

'Drinking my way around the universe, mostly.'

'Interesting. Does the liver regenerate as you go, Prometheus style, or do you die of cirrhosis and then wake up again fully rejuvenated?'

'The latter,' Paul admitted, and almost smiled. 'It's the worst hangover of your life. Lives. I keep meaning to stop drinking before I do it again.'

'Stop, then,' Jack said, but there was no thrust to his words. They would not fight this battle, not this time, because after all, what is the point of stopping one thing when everything else carries on?

'Do you wonder,' Paul said, and drained his glass again, 'what the bloody point is? Of anything? There was a point to me, once: I was going to help the Mysterons. Then I was going to stop the Mysterons. Now there are no Mysterons left, and I'm still here and wishing I wasn't. I'd laugh, but the buggers never had a sense of humour.'

'If it's any consolation,' Jack said, and downed his own drink, 'the last time I had any sense of purpose whatsoever was the twenty-first century.'

'Right. Do you remember the Mysterons?'

'Not personally. I was in another galaxy by that time.'

'Buggers,' Paul said again, morosely.

'Did you ever try electricity?' Jack asked, as casually as if they were talking of the drinks on offer.

Paul nodded. 'Didn't work. Must have done something wrong. I don't understand it. It should have killed a Mysteron and it should have killed a human, so God knows what I am. You any closer to finding the answer? Your Doctor any good?'

'Spectacular,' Jack smiled, 'but he didn't have the answer, no. I'd try a black hole, but I don't like the sound of the event horizon.'

'Suppose we're waiting for the Big Crunch, then...'

'The Big Bang sounds far more fun.' Jack raised a suggestive eyebrow.

'What the hell,' Paul said. 'Where are you staying?'

A long time ago, when they'd first met, and worked out that they would both end up as the last man in the universe, they had made all the jokes and fallen into bed. Paul, who still occasionally woke to wonder where Adam was, even now, tried not to think about it too much, but it still happened, whenever they ran into each other. They had, he supposed, too much in common for it not to.

One day they would watch the last star go out and die from suffocation, or something. He hadn't worked it out yet. He hoped they would be together; he couldn't face the end of the universe alone, not having been so lonely through the rest of it. It was possible that they would find themselves resurrected in whatever came next, and really fuck up the new universe's evolutionary process. He hoped not. Maybe it would contain something that really would kill him. Maybe he wouldn't even have to wait that long...

'Paul?'

'Yeah, yeah. I'm coming.'

But really, what was the hurry?