by Aaron Emmel
Thin clouds of ionized gas expand across the void like exhaled breath from long ago when we still had lungs, streamers fading between the dead galaxies. We jump from one gravity well to the next, the enormous black holes that have devoured the sky, the ancient white dwarfs and neutron stars that are all that remain of the last suns. We are testing our final engine, tracing its repeaters across trillions of light years, because we will have only one chance. If there is a mistake, no one will be left to correct it. This engine is the largest and most complicated structure ever conceived.
At least in this universe, which is the only universe we can ever know.
For millennia we follow the filaments of our design across an eternally darkening night. While we survey and confirm we also build simulations from our records and relive our pasts. We visit the ruins of our last terrestrial civilizations. We decant ourselves into flesh and walk beneath constellations drawn by a dazzling abundance of photons. In one of our oldest memories, we hover in machines of metal at the edge of a galaxy above a black dwarf that we calculated was once the sun of our home system. We wonder if our ancestors roamed the ice-brittle worlds that still circle it.
And now it is time. To stoke the last fires, to ignite the chain reaction that will tear through what remains of this universe and collapse all that exists into a point that will give birth to a new cosmos on the other side, ordered and pristine, filled with possibility, a doorway we cannot enter, a universe we can never reach. Wait too long, and not enough energy will remain to turn the engine on. Then there will be nothing left but to fight to keep our thoughts from splintering into confusion as our cognitive processes slow and we succumb to the cold.
We were immortal, once, but when universes die, even immortality ends.
As long as we had the engine to build, we had purpose. We dismantled and reassembled planets, wove fields to channel and redirect dark energy, while light dimmed around us, and we knew that consciousness still mattered. Now, at the end, there is only one thing left to do.
The trigger waits for our final act.
A chorus within us begs us to stop. Surely, it pleads, we can risk waiting a few millennia longer. Once the engine spins, twisting space-time around itself, it cannot be undone, and when this universe ends its information can never be retrieved again. Can’t we return to our memories before they are lost to oblivion?
Walking on two legs over firm earth beneath red and yellow suns. The first time we harnessed the full energy of a star. The first times we abandoned our clumsy bodies for the interstellar web—all that information, all we have learned. Surely, there is time before we light the last fire. Surely, it’s worth cutting it close.
Aaron’s stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. Thanks to the patience of his wonderful wife, and despite the impatience of his wonderful children, Aaron also writes essays, graphic novels and interactive fiction. Find him online at www.aaronemmel.com.