“Do you remember the day we met?”
Her question filled his mind, ever so slowly, as his mind spanned several light seconds and their spatial overlap was not perfect. There was also an echo that indicated his photonic synapses were losing coherence faster than he had anticipated.
The end was coming.
“I remember,” he thought so she could hear it.
In a universe that had been nothing but thought for eons, his consciousness floated amidst the microwave pulses that were his memories, and he restored them to his awareness.
He did remember. He remembered everything now with perfect clarity, although it was an early memory and heavily reconstructed numerous times on his 71 million year maintenance schedule.
Eighteen-year-old Cody Justin Taylor, as he had been known then, first met nineteen-year-old Vanessa Amber London, as she had been known then, on Wednesday, November 19, 2008, in their introductory astronomy class.
The professor was wrapping up her lecture. “To summarize our modern understanding of cosmology, the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in an infinitely hot cauldron of creation we call the Big Bang. That initial fireball expanded, cooled, with dark matter and normal matter collapsing under gravity into galaxies, each full of stars and planets, where life like butterflies and bacteria, people and puppy dogs, could arise.”
Students in the lecture hall began fidgeting as they did when the prof grew poetic toward the end of class, as she often did. Unperturbed, she pressed on. “The universe will continue expanding, forever, and now we know that the expansion is accelerating. The future we face could be described as the big empty, when the Milky Way and all galaxies become totally isolated, but it’s also possible that this repulsive, expansive force we refer to as dark energy will increase its power and eventually rip even individual atoms apart. It will be an utterly complete destruction.”
The professor stood there in the ensuing silence, seemingly trying to get the shifting and restless students to consider the philosophical import of these grand pronouncements about the future of everything. “Any questions or comments?”
That was when he spoke up. He hadn’t been fidgeting, shifting, or restless, but uncharacteristically contemplative. “If the universe is just going to keep expanding into nothingness, even destroying itself, then, well, what’s the point?”
“What do you mean, exactly?” the professor asked, frowning but leaning forward.
Turmoil brewed within him, and he suppressed his shyness at speaking out in front of such a large class. “What’s the point of doing anything? My homework, for starters?”
That raised a few chuckles.
The professor stepped back, smiling and appearing to relax. “Your grade, for starters. But this is a question we all have to face. Nothing is forever. We all die, sooner or later. Some turn to religion. Others to, I don’t know, their work, family, partying, something. Myself, I consider how lucky I am to even be alive. Out of all the people that could have existed, and that number exceeds the grains of sand on every beach on Earth, here I am. Me. Getting to be, to live. I’m going to take advantage of that by spending my time doing things I love, and I suggest all of you do as well. And do your homework, too.”
She dismissed them then amidst mild laughter, and as he grabbed his backpack and stood to leave, he found a tall raven-haired girl glaring at him.
“You stole that from Woody Allen,” she said.
“What?” he answered.
“In the face of an expanding universe, what’s the point?” she persisted. “Annie Hall. I’m surprised the prof didn’t call you out on it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, truthfully.
She looked at him hard for a long moment, then tilted her head and smiled at him. “You’re a liar or a little neurotic then. Either way, we’re going to get to know each other.”
“We are. And you’re going to watch Annie Hall with me tomorrow night.”
She was cute, so they did.
And they did more than just that, too. They did the things that young humans do together. They dated, loved, married, and raised children, more or less in that order.
There were good times, and bad times. But more good than bad.
In 2031, they vacationed in a space hotel, and discovered that making love in zero gravity wasn’t all that wonderful. Still, it was an experience that they cherished. It was hard to believe from that unique perspective that the Energy Wars were devastating so much of the world. Earth was a calm, blue swirl as seen from space, and the suffering distant, even invisible.
In 2041, the first in a series of significant life-extension drugs was released to the general public. The fifty-something American couple remained looking and feeling fifty-something, and celebrated the births of several grandchildren.
In 2061, they vacationed on the Moon.
Cody realized that the times, they were a changin’, in a qualitatively profound manner. A lot of the promises of the futurists were coming true, although he still didn’t have a flying car or a jet pack like his retired dad ranted about on occasion. But a man could delay aging, vacation on the Moon, and access all the knowledge of the world in seconds via brain implant.
In 2071, when global temperatures had skyrocketed and the fight to preserve Florida’s coastline was given up as lost, Cody and Vanessa received medical nanotechnology into their bloodstream that restored their youth. Smooth skin, dark hair, with muscle tones and metabolisms to match. It was a tremendous excuse to dance.
Then things got weird.
In the decades and centuries that followed, technology allowed them to change appearance, change sex, even change species to a certain extent. The population alternatively fought and rejoiced over such things.
Intelligent computers thought for people. Intelligent robots worked for people. People lived and loved.
In the 23rd century, Cody and Vanessa moved to Mars and rarely regretted it. The sunsets on Mars were lovely then.
They decided not to homestead an asteroid, and skipped the first several interstellar colonizations. Finally in 2554, they accepted the challenge of taming Tau Ceti III, named Georgia by popular vote.
Those were a few good centuries, and he barely fought with Vanessa at all.
They did separate, however, eventually. Who could stay together for so long with so many opportunities? Cody visited the Orion star-forming region, while Vanessa remained on Georgia for a time before taking the plunge into the Galactic center to study the supermassive black hole there, weighing some three million times the sun, and its exotic environment.
When Cody and Vanessa met again, it was the second age of Cytannus, a regional empire in the Sagittarius arm, in the year 4432, as reckoned by their calendar. They fell together again like no time had passed, even though one was an android and the other was a space mermaid. Sometimes life is like that.
They compromised and settled together as sea leviathans on a water world and sang symphonies to each other for several centuries. Post-human existence had its possibilities.
Together they traveled to watch dwarf novas, novas, supernovas, and hypernovas, all from appropriately safe distances. Explosions were always good entertainment.
They made the trip to Andromeda and met the alien species that had colonized that galaxy from rim to core. The aliens smelled bad, but were very nice people.
Three point seven million years after the astronomy class in which Cody and Vanessa had first met, they shed their corporeal bodies entirely in favor of distributed pan-dimensional intelligences and entered a different realm of existence where even more was possible.
Over the following billions of years, time moved on, and the universe expanded in an accelerating fashion.
They would have cried, if they could have, when some five billion years after their astronomy class, just as their professor had predicted, the sun expanded into a red giant. All life on Earth died in a slow, intense roast.
Billions of years further along, after the Milky Way and Andromeda had merged and galaxies beyond the Local Group had vanished from sight, Cody knew that the game was winding down and it was only a matter of time. But what a grand time!
Cody loved Vanessa in a mental, physical, and emotional way that was incomprehensible in the century that they had met. What is it really like when you can know someone in every way possible, and accept them as you do yourself? Someone you had spent billions of years knowing? No one in the 21st century could have articulated the nature of their relationship. He knew it now, at the end.
“I remember,” he thought, back in the end times of the present.
Vanessa sent him another thought to echo through his extended mind. “Did you get the point?”
“Yes,” he thought, “I got the point,” appreciating what he was and where he had gone, where they had gone.
The universe continued to rip itself apart in its death throes, and together they shared the unique experience.
No one I solicited for the anthology came through with a cosmology story, and I really wanted something in the tradition of Asimov’s “The Last Question,” that tackled the big picture. As fun as Asimov’s story is, it is 50 years out of date, a bit clunky, and our understanding of cosmology has changed significantly, even in just the last decade (thank NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, also known as WMAP). Reprints were probably out, then. I also didn’t want to write a long story. As a professor I know how reluctant I am to assign anything much over 5000 words as supplemental reading, so ideally I wanted to come in with a punchy short short. One of my favorite very short stories of all time, coincidentally about the far future, is Frederick Pohl’s much anthologized “Day Million,” which is in some ways one of the first post-human stories and is still effective today.
There was campus event in the fall of 2007 about the science in the arts and humanities, and vice versa, and I was asked to do a reading on short notice. A very short reading, maybe 10 to 15 minutes. Ouch. That’s barely enough time to read a scene from a novel, let alone put it in context, and picking one scene from a novel to represent the whole book, full of an audience of people who weren’t necessarily science fiction fans…well, it was going to be awkward. So I sat down the night before and wrote this Day Million inspired cosmology story I had been thinking about.
One of the things about cosmology that is so hard for people to grasp, and there are a number of conceptual difficulties, is how to have a human perspective about the nature and ultimate fate of the universe. It’s hard enough to envision how big the universe is, and how small the Earth, let alone a single person on its surface. Even harder is to also envision the time spans involved. I wanted to give readers some idea about our best understanding of these things, and some ideas about how to think about them that wasn’t depressing.
After I gave the reading and the event was over for the evening, a student came up to shake my hand and thank me, telling me that the story really moved him. He said he’d been trying to make sense of some big questions, and I had given him some new perspectives to think about.
We as a species are accelerating into the future just as is all of space-time, and this is only the beginning.
Copyright Mike Brotherton