The Fortress at the End of Time

The Fortress at the End of Time

by Joe M. McDermott


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One of the Verge's Best Books of 2017

Captain Ronaldo Aldo has committed an unforgivable crime. He will ask for forgiveness all the same: from you, from God, even from himself.

Connected by ansible, humanity has spread across galaxies and fought a war against an enemy that remains a mystery. At the edge of human space sits the Citadel—a relic of the war and a listening station for the enemy's return. For a young Ensign Aldo, fresh from the academy and newly cloned across the ansible line, it's a prison from which he may never escape.

Deplorable work conditions and deafening silence from the blackness of space have left morale on the station low and tensions high. Aldo's only hope of transcending his station, and cloning a piece of his soul somewhere new is both his triumph and his terrible crime.

The Fortress at the End of Time is a new science fiction novel from Joe M. McDermott.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765392817
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 01/17/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,064,145
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

JOE M. McDERMOTT is best known for the novels Last Dragon, Never Knew Another, and Maze. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He holds an MFA from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Program. He lives in Texas.

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The Fortress at the End of Time

By Joe M. McDermott, Justin Landon

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2016 Joe M. McDermott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-9281-7


We are born as memories and meat. The meat was spontaneously created in the ansible's quantum re-creation mechanism, built up from water vapor, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and various other gases out of storage. The memory is what we carry across from one side of the ansible to the other, into the new flesh. My memories are as real to me as the hand that holds this stylus, though the flesh that carries them did not, actually, experience them.

Knowing the self is vital to clones, psychologically, and more so at a posting like the Citadel. If we perceive no origin, and there is no place but the Citadel, and all else is just a story, then I would prefer not to uncover the truth.

Therefore, I will confess the name I remember from Earth as my own, and tell the story of my sinful transgressions, to seek from you, my mysterious confessor, an appropriate repentance.

Ronaldo Aldo is my name. There are as many of me as there are colonies. My cloned brothers are undoubtedly punished for the crime they remember, though none of them committed the act. This is a compelling argument in favor of memory being our only truth. They are guilty for what they remember but did not do. I did it, alone.

I do not deny my guilt, and will never deny it.

I pushed a shiny red button. I pretended to be screaming of an invasion in a final, dying act along the securest ansible line. There were no intruders; it was all a sham. In the space of time between the admiral's results from a scouting patrol, and the filing of official reports about that patrol, I exploited a hole in the network emergency protocols. It was such a simple hack in a procedural gap that I can only imagine what all the networks of the universe will do to prevent it from happening again.

But let me begin my confession of sins from the very beginning. God will measure all my sins, not just my latest. I hope that He holds me up against my sins and not my sins against me; I hope, as well, that my final sin be held up against my life as the triumph it was. I was pushed to this great act by the station, the military protocols, and the lies I was told about transcendence. I sinned against the devil and beat his game. By grace of God, my sin against the devil is the triumph of my life.

* * *

Back on Earth, I was no worse than any other child of my place and position. Certainly, I was rude to my parents on the boat we called home, drifting across the Pacific Rim for my father's contract work on sea mining rigs and port factories. On our cramped boat, I threw things overboard to get my revenge. Once, I threw my mother's purse into the gyre. I was beaten with a stick and locked in the closet that passed for my room for two days without toys or dessert. I was allowed out only to use the toilet. I do not recall how old I was, but I was very young, and it seemed like the greatest punishment imaginable, to sit in a tiny room alone, with nothing to do, for hours and hours.

I had many venial and vaguely mortal sins, I'm sure, of the usual sort. I confess freely to being unexceptional in both my virtues and vices. I was part of a cohort school over the network lines and did student activities at whatever port we found, with whomever else was around at that working station. I had friends that I saw with the drifting regularity of work on the platforms, where our parents' boats washed ashore. I recall my only real fight, when I was thirteen and we were in Hokkaido. At a public park, I got in a fight with a little Japanese boy whose only crime had been speaking with an accent at me, to tease me. I spit on him. He took a swing, but it glanced off me, the larger boy. I bloodied his nose and didn't stop hitting him until he outran me, crying for his mother away down the street. I don't remember any consequences for that sinful deed. I returned home to the boat, and washed my hands. I was alone, and made a cup of tea. I hid my bruised hands and never spoke about it to my mother or father.

I stumbled into military service, in part, because I could not think of anything else to do upon matriculation in a position that would liberate me from my parents' boat. I did not wish to be a passing contractor technician, mining or recycling or tinkering in one place or another until the resource dried up, where all the oceans looked like the same ocean, and the whole world was rolling in waves beneath my bed. I joined the military and tested well enough, but not too well, and managed to secure a place as an astro-navigation specialist at the War College outside of San Antonio. I was to be a pilot and navigator of starships as far from my mother's boat as I could possibly be in the solar system. Perhaps it was sinful not to honor my father and mother, but it did not feel sinful. They were proud of me and encouraged me to go find my fortune in the stars, and to make something of myself in the colonies. Part of me would always remain behind, after all, on that side of the ansible, and that version of myself could worry about honoring them. I have tried to keep in touch with my mother and father, though our dwindling letters have little bearing on my life. I mourn the space between us because there is so little to discuss now. I do not consider gently falling out of touch with them to be a sin.

Perhaps my greatest sin, before I was born again on the Citadel, was the night before my journey here. After all the tests, all the preparations, and just before we received the announcements of our first postings, we feasted. The colony worlds are all unevenly resourced. Nothing is so well established with farms and water and stable atmospheres that we will ever eat like we can on Earth. Graduates spend the whole day drinking fine wine and expensive Scotch, eating all our favorite foods, and we go out to a fancy restaurant at night for the culmination of our orgiastic eating of all the things our clones would never have again. I had gone out with six of my fellow classmen, including my roommate, Ensign James Scott, and Ensign Shui Mien, a beautiful woman for whom my roommate and I had both fallen. The other three who had come with us had already surrendered their livers and gone home to bed. I had been trying to stick close to Shui Mien, pacing myself, and waiting out to be the last with her, or to leave with her. She was easing her way through the ecstasy of food and drink, slowly savoring everything a piece at a time, as if intentionally slowing down time. Ensign Scott was doing the same beside her, talking and cracking grumpy jokes and frowning at me. We were in competition to be the last with her, he and I; at least, I had thought.

The thought that a part of me would enter the cosmos somewhere far away and never see her again made my heart ache. Worse was knowing that soon we would receive our solar postings. Even in the Sol, we'd drift years apart among the asteroid colonies' shipping lines. That night was the last chance.

Ensign Scott had it worse than me. He couldn't contain himself around her. He often tried to touch her hand, which she inevitably pulled away to touch the golden cross she wore around her neck, anxiously. She had to know we both wanted her. As students, relationships were against the rules, and could get us kicked out of War College. We had to be ready to drop all our worldly commitments to extend ourselves to the stars. We could not be burdened with the weight of unfulfilled romance. We had to be free men and women, ready to embrace a colony of limited resources and limited opportunities. Many colony worlds had fewer people in them than a college campus. Even the established colonies had only a few million people, yet.

Ensign Scott and I were both there, and she was there, and the whole city was below us. We were on an ancient platform that spun slowly, high above the city, with a distant view out across the horizon. We were the last three. We sat beside her mercurial smile, sipping fancy cocktails and staring out at the city, exhausted and trying to speak about anything to keep this alive a little longer, to be the one to walk her home and request a single, impossible favor: just one night together before we were all cloned.

I was angry, and tired, and a little drunk — which is no excuse, rather it is only an explanation of what had weakened me — and I committed a grave sin against my friends, and I destroyed not only my relationship with Mien, but also my relationship with James. I proposed a contest. I proposed that we should toss a coin and see who would cover the bill. The loser would stay behind and pay, and the winner would escort the glorious and lovely Ensign Shui Mien to a hotel for a wondrous night that would carry in our memories through time and space.

She choked and scowled. "Why not you both pay, and then you both have your way with me. You could take turns. Or, even better, why not you two could have your memorable night of lust together without me." She said this with clear disgust on her face, and her arms. "I am not a trophy, Ronaldo."

"Seriously, Aldo?" said Ensign Scott. "I should punch you right now. You understand that I should punch you very hard in the face?"

"Come on," I said. "Why not? A part of us will never see each other again. What's the harm?"

"We still have to live with ourselves in this solar system," said Mien. "You could have tried actually seducing me, you know. It wouldn't have worked, but you could at least have tried." She stood up. "Good evening, gentlemen," she said. She went to the waiter machine and paid for her own ticket.

Ensign Scott glared at me. "Now neither one of us is getting laid tonight," he said. "Good job, Cadet."

"I don't understand," I said. "It was just a game ..."

"No," he said. "You clearly don't understand anything at all." He got up, too. "You're paying for my food. You lost the toss and you didn't even know it. You owe me now."

"What do I owe you?"

"I'm not punching you very hard, and repeatedly in the face with my angry fist," he said. "This is a favor I'm doing to you because you are my friend."

He turned and left me alone. The city was there, spread out before me, and I did not understand what I did that was so wrong. This is the nature of sin: Often, we do not understand the terrible consequences of even tiny failures of spirit.

I paid my bill alone, and went to leave. Ensign Shui Mien was waiting for me near the door, and I was breathless seeing her there.

She had her arms crossed. "Tell me you never knew about Ensign Scott and me."


"You have to have known," she said.

"I didn't."

"You had to know. You were his roommate."

"I guess I'm ... I don't even know what we're talking about."

"That's really pathetic," she said. "It was right in front of you and you didn't know?"


She uncrossed her arms. "You're serious? That's very sad, Ronaldo. The stars will be yours. I will never be. We are still friends. Good-bye."

Ensign Scott was hidden back beside the coat check line at the elevator doors, watching us. She and he left together, with their arms around each other.

I felt like such a fool.

Abashed, I walked alone to the bus station, still tipsy, but sober enough to make it into a seat by myself. Back at the dorm room, Ensign Scott was nowhere to be found. I knew where he was, didn't I? I didn't want to think about it. I showered and dressed and checked my messages. My assignment came in over the wires, along with a special summons.

The pit in my gut was vast. I opened the message and saw my posting and cursed to myself.

* * *

The Citadel, this hellish rock and the miserable station spinning above it, undersupplied and out far on the edge of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy, a listening post for the empty places of the Laika cluster. This is the deepest human station in time and space. It was spontaneously created by the remnants of the last great battleship of the last great war, when the ship was too broken to go anywhere but farther out. It was like stepping back in time.

The ansibles run precisely entangled at the quantum level, but time is ever relative. The generations on the planet surface of the Citadel move as they do, and have reported back that some seeds won't even grow because the shift in time, though subtle to us, is too much for the delicate seed. The gravity is slightly off everywhere, a bit heavier than Earth.

We make do where the last battleship collapsed chasing the last enemy fleet out of our corner of the known places in space and time. All the soldiers, back then, knew there was no way to travel home. So much time had passed with near lightspeed travel. It had been a thousand years since they left, or thirteen, or time isn't even real to be measured except as an illusion of man's cosmic folly.

The ansible rings true and through it all. The planet called Citadel is the farthest colony of man from Earth. The station called Citadel placed herself above the only desert rock they had in range with enough magnetic fields to sustain a planetary colony against the stellar winds. They gathered ice comets and liquid moons and hurled them upon the surface to inject life into the ground before the damaged battleship's supply ran out, but it is not enough to sustain a complex economy like Earth's. It is described as a desert in its lushest places, a wind-blasted moonscape where man has not begun to change the ground. Terraforming is always slow, and as distant as they are relative to the center of cosmic gravity, the speed of terraforming seems even slower to the solar system. Every year, Earth is three weeks faster than us on the Citadel. It is Sisyphean to consider a place like this, and it is Sisyphean to sit here in my little cell and write about what is obvious to everyone: This is a terrible posting at the edge of the human space and time, and everyone here knows it, even you.

I remember the oceans of Earth, staring out into the empty sky above the water, knowing always that below my feet swam giants. I had no love of deserts, or of God. These dreams I have, these memories of deep water and whalesongs through the walls, only make me long for something I will never have. Perhaps this is my call to faith now.

The children born here must feel cursed. The generations to come will wonder that anyone called this blasted hell a home, a place of peace. Whatever sins I had accumulated until the day of my posting, the cloned version of myself paid for them at birth out here, in our infernal home.

* * *

The morning after my gluttony and failure with Shui Mien, I had gone from feeling terrible because of the previous night's rejection to feeling worse than ever before because I had been given the least desirable assignment in all of space and time, a distant world removed from everything, sparse and barren, staring out into the void between galaxies on the cusp of the Laika cluster's blackest edge. My whole life would be spent watching for the return of the enemy that would likely never come, and if it did, we would be ill prepared to stop it for centuries and more.

Shui Mien texted me. Are you awake?


She called me. "I'm going to Lacaille Station. I will be working with the whale colonies on the moon over Planet Che. What did you get?"

"Citadel at the edge of the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy," I said. "Farthest inhabited star of the whole Laika cluster."

"That one? The emergency colony from the damaged warship? The listening post?"

"Of all the hundreds of potential postings ..."

"I'm sorry your clone will not fare better. I hope that he promotes and transcends quickly. Do a good job, and you will clone out to a second colony in three years."

"The commandant wants to see me, too. I have no idea why. Am I in trouble for something? Am I being punished?"

"I wasn't asking for you to be punished, but I cannot speak for James. I doubt he said anything about your morals violation. We'd be in just as much trouble as you. He is still asleep. He would be upset that I called you at all, in fact, but I told you, we are still friends. I have seen his message. He will be stationed in Sirius A, the Ancient Aregosa. Part of me will never see my beloved again. I am glad I don't have to make peace with that here."

"Peace ... You both have amazing postings in well-established ecosystems, and you'll have the memory of love. I have nothing, Mien."

"That's not true," she said. "We'll talk again, someday, when you've stopped being so selfish. We're going to need you to stop being a jerk before the wedding, you know."

She hung up on me. I was slow to leave. I had a headache from the day of gluttony; I had a pit in my gut from reality. I truly didn't know, or I preferred my ignorance subconsciously. I felt so stupid, and so impossibly defeated by fate. I sat out under a mesquite tree in the courtyard and gazed up into its sweeping, feathered limbs. I saw the sky beyond the ragged green tatters of leaves, blue and clear as an ocean with white foam clouds. I was going to have to start again, and I took great comfort in knowing that the me that was on Earth was going to be a lift runner to Jupiter's moons and back. My clone had a terrible posting, but there, my original self would be free in eight years with an AstroNav pilot license, and there would be other beautiful women, a cosmos full, and at least I was cloning at all. Beneath the mesquite, the reaching branches thick and gnarled, I looked up at the sky and swallowed my shame and my heartache and saw a future where all these terrible things would be behind me forever. I saw resurrection in the sky, and I felt the promise of transcendence. The commandant's office's order to meet was a strange command. I stood up from beneath the tree and went to his office on the other side of the school. I was early but the assistant waved me back. I stood at the yellow line like a good cadet, though he wasn't there yet.


Excerpted from The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott, Justin Landon. Copyright © 2016 Joe M. McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Begin Reading,
About the Author,
Also by Joe M. McDermott,
Copyright Page,

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