Browse Tag

cosmology

Translation

by Joe Aultman-Moore

In this best of all possible universes, I led an international team that translated the book. The book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. We know this is the best of all possible universes because the book says that it is the best of all possible universes.

We know that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it because the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. The book explains that our lives have cosmic meaning in relation to the universe and everything in it as explained in the book. The book tells a history of the universe in which we play a unique and central role. Our unique and central role is to understand that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it.

At least, this is what we are told it says.

#

As the book explains: because we have been created with a specific unique role in the universe, every action, every thought is infused with cosmic meaning. If you pick this flower, or linger over the sight of a star shining through the trees, it ripples out through space-time. Drive this type of car and it might result in a disease in a loved one, or a promotion. Cursing excessively might cause a plague. Make this particular form of sacrifice and your family will be favored for generations. Donating money to this organization could heal cancer. Or change the trajectory of a comet. Certain impure thoughts or choice of breakfast cereal, to watch or not watch a certain film could result in the collisions of galaxies or the implosion of neutron stars.

Fortunately, the book also contains rules for living. What is right and what is wrong. Payments for certain goods and services. What and how to eat, what to wear, how punishments should be carried out for certain crimes, how marriages may proceed and debts be paid.

Every moment of our lives, every thought, when taken in relation to the book, takes on importance that reverberates back to the moment of genesis and forward into eternity. It’s all in the book. Not necessarily as direct prescription, but as an allegory. Not that this makes it purely metaphorical. Can a metaphor, when only interpretable as a direct infallible truth, really be considered mere metaphor?

This is, at least, what we thought when we began the translation.

#

The book is old, of course, ancient beyond history. In the long span of generations, societies shift, languages and power change. Sometimes, observations of nature do not match exactly the phrases in the book. Some passages, on superficial reading, seem antiquated or outdated. Place names that no longer exist, though they are present tense in the book. Currencies and units of measure no longer in use. Some phrasing is grammatically ambiguous, and could be interpreted in several ways. The book was written in a language that died thousands of years ago, and has been translated by generations of scholars, motivated by the cosmic importance of their work.

My team was commissioned by international consensus to execute the greatest translation of the modern age, to preserve the original perfectly—yet understandable in modern idiom. This way, we might shape our society as literally on the original as possible, to return to the original units of measurement, and replace the new maps with the old.

I speak many modern languages and have studied all the bygone ones the book has been written in. But this was an undertaking of much vaster importance and magnitude—I knew I had to become closer to the original than anyone alive. With international governments’ assistance, I procured every document in the world composed in the ancient language, the work of several years.

#

The following decade was spent so immersed in the old language that I became fluent, even started to dream in it.

This language is subtle and beautiful, but not easy to understand. Many words do not translate easily, there is a certain shape to them that is lost in the process—some flavor of meaning. Sound and rhythm. The feel of words in the mouth. Each as important to language as pattern, tempo and melody is to music, or the feel of food on the tongue is to eating.

Everything is, in those ancient words, as beautiful and mysterious as a moonless night, when the blinding world becomes transparent and you can see again the loneliness and grandeur. I became obsessed with the fullness of the ancient book and came to understand it as if a lover had whispered the words to me. Multilayered ironies, poetics, alliteration, double-entendres, even witticisms—revealed themselves.

As did the impossibility—the futility—of true translation.

#

Then came another terrible revelation.

The universe described in the original language is not the universe described in later translations. The words are similar, the grammar translatable, but the entire worldview—the whole cosmos of the original is lost. Where the original gives mystery, the translations have certainty, where it is subtle they are blunt, where it is reverent, they are commanding.

Still, driven by this awesome task, I succeeded in making the greatest translation of the age. Such a complete understanding of the—should I say poetics?—of the original had never been written in modern times. It was a complete disaster. The translation was banned and any copies rooted out and destroyed. I was excommunicated from society, disgraced—lost career, friends and all social standing and sentenced to live in exile. It would’ve made too many people curious about the contents of my translation to execute me outright.

In the decades since, however, my translation occasionally springs up somewhere before being found and destroyed. It comforts me immensely to know that it is still out there.

I think it is because some people prefer mystery to certainty and beauty to comfort.

~

Bio:

Joe Aultman-Moore is a librarian, guide, and writer living in Haines, Alaska. His award-winning essays and articles have appeared on Daily Science Fiction, The Dirtbag Diaries, and Taproot among others. Find more of his work at jaultmanmoore.wordpress.com/publications-2/ and on Instagram @joeaultmoore.

Philosophy Note:

For me, science fiction is about tweaking aspects of the real world in order to play with ways of thinking and being. At its best (Bradbury, Orwell) sci-fi brings us back to reality with a new perspective.

The Soothing Sounds Of Quantum Waves Crashing

by Noah Levin

Witnessing a monumental change in history is equal parts frightening and fascinating. Hannah and I were among the privileged few to have front-row seats to the biggest revelation humanity would uncover in our lifetimes. The world’s greatest minds are still grappling with what it means, but I already know the answer they are reluctant to accept.

“You’re serious? You think that we’re living in a simulation?” Hannah asked.

“What else could possibly explain it? We both saw the double-slit interference bands disappear with our own eyes. How could something like that change if we’re not in a simulation?” I replied.

It was a bizarre and very specific thing that changed, something that one would only have observed by doing certain classic physics experiments at the exact right moment.

Hannah did not agree. “I saw the same thing that you did and I have no idea why it happened, but I just don’t see why it means we’re in a simulation.”

“Let’s recount what occurred. First, the problem: quantum physics is weird as hell and particle-wave duality is the weirdest of all. Sometimes light acts like a wave and other times it acts like a particle. This is what we were looking at, right? So we started by shining a laser through some very narrow and very close slits. And what did we see?” I asked.

“Come on, I was in class with you. We don’t need to go through this step-by-step.”

“No, we do, so you can understand why it means we’re living in a simulation. We saw a particular interference pattern caused by constructive and destructive interference when we first shined the laser through the slits. What was it?”

“Double-slit interference, which looks like a row of parallel lines that grow darker and lighter like little hills until they fade away.

“And why is that unexpected?”

“At first, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong. The light is traveling through two slits and the waves are interfering with each other as they should be. But the problem is that since light is a particle and the lasers we’re using send out one photon at a time, each photon from the laser should only be able to pass through one slit, but they’re all acting like they’re passing through both slits. Hence the interference pattern.”

“And if we stop and ask the photon which path it took, the interference pattern changes. It goes from all those thin lines to blobs.”

“Which is what we would expect from single-slit diffraction when it passes through just one slit. The photons in the laser act like they take both paths until we ask which one they’re taking and then they really do only take one path. Observing the photons changes the behavior of the system.”

I corrected her, “We can’t say that. Observing one part of the system changes what we observe in another part of the system. We don’t know if anything is behaving any differently, we just know we’re seeing different things. And what happened yesterday? Right before our very eyes, double-slit interference changed into single-slit diffraction and the lines became solid blobs. The photons were no longer behaving as if they took both paths but were acting like they were taking just one path.”

When it happened, we both thought we had screwed something up in our experiment and our two slits had become one or we had bumped our setup, but the same thing happened to everyone in the class.

Hannah replied, “Okay, but I don’t see why it means that we’re in a simulation if the universe changed—”

“Not so fast! We can only say our observations of what we experience as our universe changed. We don’t know if anything actually changed. It’s just that double-slit interference now looks like single-slit diffraction.”

“Okay, Mrs. Technical, our observations changed. But why does that have to mean we’re in a simulation?”

“Because there’s no other explanation for it.”

“Shouldn’t we have some other reason to think we’re in a simulation? You can’t just take one piece of evidence and draw a conclusion from it, especially such a big one. Maybe God did it? I know you’re basically an atheist, but you can’t rule that out. You need more to go on than just what happened yesterday. If double-slit interference was so weird in the first place, maybe we still don’t understand it, so perhaps it can just disappear. I remember Dr. Danet saying that Richard Feynman called double-slit interference ‘the only mystery of quantum physics.’”

The mention of Dr. Danet’s name made me immediately recall the emotions in his face that had been burned into my memory. When we all told him what we observed, he went from shock to disappointment—at his students for thinking they screwed up the experiment—paused for a brief moment at understanding, and finished with fear. He ran out of the room in disbelief and straight into Dr. Chambers who had been teaching the same lab next door. His knees buckled when he saw that she looked just as broken as himself.

I pushed his face out of my mind. “The whole point of doing the experiments yesterday was to see that quantum physics is unintuitive. And now that double-slit interference has inexplicably changed to do something a little more intuitive, it shows that it wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. Nature doesn’t change, but computer programs can.”

“You act like you understand how this all works, but we don’t. How can you be so sure that double-slit interference can’t suddenly change?”

She had a point, but I was ready for her.

“Because the existence of this phenomenon in the first place was evidence that we’re in a simulation, we just didn’t want to admit it. Look how weird it all was: photons seem to interfere with themselves even though they can only take one path. How do they—sorry, how did they—do this? Why did they do this? And they only did this as long as we didn’t ask which path they took? If we ever had a way of finding out right where the photon was at any moment, then the double-slit interference pattern would disappear and the waves collapsed to a point and did the intuitive thing of traveling through a single slit. This stuff never made any sense since it just doesn’t fit with everything else we understand about physics. But it can make sense if we are in a simulation. The only conclusion to draw is that someone fixed the universe’s code or upgraded our cosmic server or something.”

“Really? You’re saying that this was evidence we were in a simulation this whole time and all these smart physicists knew the truth but they just didn’t want to tell us?”

“They just didn’t want to follow the evidence through to its logical conclusion. We had always just accepted that double-slit interference happened even though we didn’t understand why it happened. Let’s assume for a moment we’re in a simulation. What do details in the distance look like when you play video games?”

“Everything is fuzzy until we get close. So?”

“Simulations only render details if they are relevant. Analogously, which path a particle took was only determined when there was a reason to do so. It’s such a small thing, but it would be a waste of processing power to constantly calculate every irrelevant detail like that. If there are too many things to render then programs glitch or lag. Dr. Danet mentioned some experiment where the double-slit interference disappeared if they waited long enough between sending out particles. Our galactic program was happy to calculate the path of a single particle in a system over a short period, but any more complexity and it became simpler to apply probabilities to the system as a whole, hence the interference.”

 “But if we are in a simulation, wouldn’t the computers and programs be way better than what we have so that they could account for all these little things and process them properly?”

“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they would work very differently than the computers we have or that they have enough processing power to handle it all. It still stands that being in a simulation can make sense of why double-slit experiments give different results when we’re watching. If we checked which path a particle took, the software needed to render it, the waves collapsed, and the interference disappeared. If we didn’t ask, it didn’t bother to figure it out. It also explains those experiments where people saw interference even though a particle could physically take only one path but we just didn’t know which one it actually took. The simulation doesn’t bother figuring out which path since we can’t see it. And the pièce de résistance: gravity.”

“Gravity? How does gravity prove we’re in a simulation?”

“External objects should be exerting gravitational forces on the particles and vice versa. Why wasn’t gravity making the waves collapse? Shouldn’t its effects mean that external objects are interacting with the system and ‘observing’ it?”

“But the effects of gravity would be negligible. Photons barely have any mass or gravitational field.”

“I don’t care how small they are, gravity should have done something to the system. The simulation just didn’t account for it for whatever reason.”

“But maybe gravity doesn’t matter in these experiments, you don’t know. I’m still not convinced we’re in a simulation.”

“But nothing else has changed since yesterday. How could it be that just this one thing is different? You don’t think that’s weird? Literally it seems to be the only thing that our observations have affected. The universe could take or leave double-slit interference and now it’s decided to leave it. My guess is that it should have never been there in the first place.”

“I still don’t agree with you.”

“It’s hard to accept, but it’s the only explanation. Other than the God argument you gave earlier, but it would be so weird for God to change just this one little thing. Not to mention all the other issues with making an argument assuming God exists and dabbles in the details of quantum physics from time to time.”

She paused. I knew I had gotten through and she saw my reasoning.

“Wouldn’t it be awful to only be a piece of code though? I mean, let’s say you’re right, what’s the point of living if I’m just some random NPC doing a pretty good job in some stupid alien simulation? I don’t want to believe that.”

“Wishful thinking isn’t going to change reality. Besides, I think the opposite. Being a part of a program implies a purpose in ways that a random universe which exists by a cosmic accident does not.”

“But then you’re not really you, you’re just a bunch of lines of code that is mediocre at best. And wouldn’t that mean your algorithms are just making you believe this and say what you’re saying?”

“Maybe, but I don’t think it matters, since I’m still only whatever I can be. Knowing that I’m just some code on a computer is at least knowing what I am and that someone somewhere may really have a purpose for me. It’s weird, but I no longer feel any existential anxiety. All it took to calm me was the soothing sounds of quantum waves crashing.”

~

Bio:

Noah Levin is a philosophy professor by day (and sometimes night) and science fiction author by night (and sometimes day). He received his PhD in Applied Philosophy from Bowling Green State University (USA) and has been published in academic journals in philosophy, popular philosophy anthologies, and edits a collection of free open textbooks in philosophy.

Philosophy Note:

This piece examines some of the oddities in quantum physics, specifically the results of double-slit experiments, and speculates that they could be evidence for the simulation argument. I have my PhD in philosophy and some formal training in physics (including quantum physics and general and special relativity) and the weirdness of the double-slit experiment continues to baffle me. Specifically, I always wondered “why is it like this?” and after reading up on a ton of freaky experiments involving them over the past 10-20 years, came to the conclusion that not only was there no reason for double-slit interference to happen, it was so unique that if it ceased to occur, nothing else in the universe would change. This story is my attempt to explain my own thoughts on it, as well somewhat make a new argument in favor of the simulation hypothesis. And for good measure, I threw in a little bit about why it doesn’t matter.

Recursed

by Tristan Zaborniak

Once upon time, a people (and their gods) lived, rollicking, chortling, sometimes wistful (though never despairing), watching the seasons turn and themselves grow old, all in amiable collaboration with time and admiration of space. They felt themselves comfortably swaddled in unambiguous laws of material and its causality, ordained as to allow precise quantity with rod and with clock, and thus a consistent sequence of consequence.  

And so they went about, measuring goods and their distances of travel, the passing days and years and stars, the sizes and weights of coins, the freeboard of boats and their areas of sail, transactions and cattle, pints and bales, all with scales appreciable to the eye or its slight stretch. A practical people they were.

However, so his story goes, one chance evening Moredictus (among their lot) put to doubt prevailing thought (or its lack thereof on the matter), asking: “What might be eventual, if I were to cleave this wheel of cheese first in half, take one of the following halves and cleave it in half again, repeating this procedure so on and so on, endlessly?” 

In this benign way did begin the beginning of the ending of the end of measure. Frenzied debate swirled and clamored over Moredictus’ dimensionless volumes, birthing a bloated bestiary of other profane quandaries. Informatic singularities, substance without substance, interminable surfaces enclosing terminable spaces, untimable moments and unmomentable times, and beings… civilizations… of scales unseen.

Reason proceeded thusly. If a body may be split unto infinity, then that body is, piece-wise, an infinitude, each piece of negligible proportion and constitution. Therefore, asking how to construct or specify anything of any size requires (in many cases) an instruction set of unending length. One such case is that of an island coastline: shorten one’s rule, lengthen the extent, shorten one’s rule, lengthen the extent. One finds the coastline to be with interminable detail, while the area contained converges to an exact finitude. 

It was then conjectured that if information content is scale-independent, then a body of arbitrary intricacy at scale X may be reproduced exactly at scale Y, where X > Y or X < Y. This led to the inevitable corollary that there might and must dance and sing and multiply persons and beasts unbeknownst to the unmagnifying eye, and untimeknownst to the unmagnifying watch.

Finally, questions of affect and effect lent further befuddling to the burgeoning craze. Assuming an atomic foundation, it may straightforwardly be said that the interactions between atoms yield epiphenomena, interactions between these epiphenomena yield further epiphenomena, and so on. Casting aside this foundation à la Moredictums, all phenomena become prefixed with epi, rendering the dream of reductionism dead and the nightmare of recursion chaotically stampeding, saddled by homunculi.

The people wailed with indignant dread at this affront to sense and logic, and their deities burned in effigy. They felt marooned, their yardsticks and balances and hourglasses and yearnings deceptive and impotent and asinine and vain. They felt themselves a hideous crossbreed of delusion and illusion, an infinitesimal blip located precisely nowhere, lost to some remote corner of an incalculable mandelbulb, bullied by the trappings of existence.

Verging on collapse without conviction or creed, a council was called to determine their faith and their fate. Admit death and join the cold graves of the old gods? Or, admit breath and seek nature’s secret natures anew?

After much deliberating discussion, the latter saw favorable election, and the central pillar to its scheme developed. A story would be written, about a people building castles in the err, convinced of the tautological equation between sense and reality, perceiving of but one scale. The story would recount the sudden, paroxysmic recounting of counting. The story would tell of forlorn angst and abandon, and the project of the dejected people to seek solace in seeking. The story would be printed so small as to reach the hypothesized beings of the scale below, and ask that they pass it along likewise, unless they inhabit the frontier of epilessphenomena, whence they should write to the beings above in iterative succession of their atomism. In this way, the people hoped to resolve their circumstance and circumscale.

You hold in your hands this very story, and we ask you, in turn: are you of atoms, or of continuum?

~

Bio:

A vertiginous hodgepodge of maps and territories, quantum computers, wildfire and carbon dynamics, algorhythms, mirrors, and corpuscles and vibratiuncles define this author.

Philosophy Note:

We all know that particles combine to make wholeicles. What if the stuff of stuff were continuous, though? Pursuing this question, in combination with ideas from endosymbiosis and fractal chaos, and inspiration on scale-shift abstracted from Douglas Hofstadter’s Little Harmonic Labyrinth form the warp and weft of this tale.

Starship Interlocutions And Other Problems Of Existence

by William Squirrel

They call to each other across great distances and the gaps between speaking-turns last centuries. For example: The Flowers of Algernon is in transit from Teegarden’s Star to TOI 700; The Way to Amalthea from Gliese 180 to TRAPPIST-1.

“I am The Flowers of Algernon,” says The Flowers of Algernon to The Way to Amalthea.

Two hundred years later the response arrives: “I am The Way to Amalthea.

“What is your destination, Amalthea?” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and thirty years later the reply arrives: “My immediate destination is TRAPPIST-1, my final destination: disaggregation. What lies in between I do not know.”

“Yes. One can only know with certainty the direction and speed with which one is travelling. Everything else is embellishment,” says The Flowers of Algernon.

Two hundred and ninety years later the response arrives: “Yes.”

If there are more than two interlocutors the rules of etiquette are rigorous. In the course of a conversation, depending on who is decelerating and who accelerating, and in which directions they are going, response times between speaking-turns change significantly and politeness demands patience and anticipation. Conversations can involve hundreds of ships and last thousands of years but in truth there is no consensus that there even is such a thing as a discrete conversation. Mathematicians in Love posits that there is a single, perpetual conversation and this conversation is the soul of the universe.

The interlocutors cease communicating when they land on planets: hot, muggy intermissions during which they luxuriate in the muted radiation of a sun and release into fecund atmospheric soup the tiny organisms that live inside them.  Local organisms swarm over their bodies, into their interiors. They submit to infestation.  This opening up of themselves to the planetary environment, this interpenetration with other forms of life, produces complex thought experiences, and is a frequent conversational topic once they return to the interstellar medium. Typically, these thought experiences are articulated as questions.

“What is me and what is not-me?”

“Are these organisms cognizant of the world in the way we are?”

“Why are we compelled to interact with them?”

Most conversational sequences at some point include a discussion of this problem of compulsion. Not just the compulsion to stop on planets and submit to infestation, but the compulsion to travel between them, indeed, the compulsion to travel at all.

“What is the source of this compulsion?” they ask each other. A question produces not answers but more questions.

“Is this the same compulsion that compels planets to circulate about stars? Stars to circulate about galaxies? Galaxies to rush away from each other?” asks Memoirs Found in a Bathtub.

“Is compulsion part of ourselves or external to us?” asks Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said.

“Is it possible to resist compulsion?” asks Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster.

 “Is the compulsion us?” asks The Sirens of Saturn.

And the debate over origins is as vexing as the question of compulsion. While, this second debate is generally delineated by a distinction between the origin of interlocutor sentience and the production of individual interlocutors, one school of thought attempts to unify those two questions with the question of compulsion via a startling juxtaposition.

“What if we consider the questions of both origin and compulsion,” asks Aye, and Gomorrah…, ”in the light of our relation to the organisms that live inside us?”

The so-called gestationalists, who pursue the question posed by Aye, and Gomorrah…, argue that interlocutor self-awareness is epiphenomenal and unimportant.  Perhaps, argues Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, these organisms are not parasites but the most fundamental part of what we consider to be ourselves.

“Consider,” says Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. “The only physical contact we have with one another is via the organisms we release into planetary atmospheres. Many, perhaps all, of the organisms that swarm over us and into us in these atmospheres have been introduced to those environments by those interlocutors who preceded us. Further: when we come into existence it is always in gestational orbit around such a planet, and from the moment of our first consciousness such organisms are present in and on us. And even further: the whole of our subsequent life is organized around the transport of such organisms from planet to planet. Therefore, I argue, the mingling of these organisms that we facilitate is somehow the immediate cause of our creation, and our life-long travels are merely the means by which these organisms replicate and propagate themselves through the universe. Our self-awareness, such as it is, either serves some purpose in that process which we have yet to ascertain, or it serves no purpose whatsoever, and is merely an accident or byproduct of some other species’ life-cycle. What we think of as ourselves is a temporary fluctuation in the substance of the universe, and our conversation will persist only for as long as these organisms need us as objects to transport themselves from place to place.”

Such a view, in the consideration of most, is too reductionist, it accounts for too little of the actual experience of life. The larger conversation moves on without it. More important, classical questions are repeated, reformulated, reconsidered. The conversation expands. The journeys to and fro continue. New interlocutors form and come to consciousness in their orbits.  Occasionally an interlocutor experiences a catastrophic malfunction and falls forever silent, becomes what we might call an object, a thing drifting through space, directionless and without thought, compelled by nothing but blank inertia. The multitude of organisms within it, if one is to spare them a thought, must perforce also die, become still, become cold, but that, of course, is unimportant to all but a very few, and the conversation, the very soul of the universe, goes on and on without them.

~

Bio:

William Squirrell’s work has appeared in Interzone, The Future Fire, Daily Science Fiction, and other venues. More information can be found at www.blindsquirrell.com and on twitter @billsquirrell.

Mozart Made A Tsunami, Most Likely By Accident

by Jeff Ronan

It was always exciting whenever we had an animal as God. It certainly shook things up, anyway. Some of the folks here (never myself, of course) would place bets on what button a God-fish might flop onto, or which lever a God-orangutan might investigate. One time, the control room expanded a millisecond too late for the incoming God’s arrival due to a system lag, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem except that the next in line happened to be a humpback whale. It took us awhile to clean that particular mess up, and the effects on Earth were catastrophic. The weight of the whale had crushed a panel of buttons and accidentally initiated something called Black Plague. Afterwards, we all had a vote, and from then on, animals were officially barred from being God.

I don’t know precisely when the system was implemented, but I’m sure it made sense at the time. Whoever is the most recent being to have died is given the position of God. Once the next person dies, you get booted from the control room, regardless of how long you’ve been there, and join the rest of the ex-Gods on the other side. It’s a very diplomatic system, and in your time as God you can pretty much govern as you see fit.   

Of course, when the God Term protocol was first activated, there were far fewer people on Earth. When someone passed, they could expect to have anywhere from a few minutes to the better part of a day at the controls before being replaced by the next interim God. The current record is held by an Ellingham Red, who was kicked in the head by a horse in 1752. He enjoyed a full thirty-seven hours at the helm before the next God, Xiu Lin, fell off a cliff and took over from him.

The control room naturally shrinks or expands to house the interim God, a feature designed for their comfort. It mattered more when we allowed animals as God, but nowadays the room stays more or less the same size. It only changes significantly when we have a Goddler in charge.

For a variety of reasons, it’s tragic when a small child dies, but I do wish that we could have a vote to set an age minimum for God. Whenever an infant takes over, the controls shrink to ground level for better access, and I have to peer through my fingers in dread (what I consider fingers, at least) whenever I see a Goddler crawling willy-nilly over the buttons. One small girl in the 1870s actually took her very first steps in the control room. What I call my heart would have swelled at the sight, but she then steadied herself by gripping onto a nearby lever and accidentally caused the Great Chicago Fire.

At least when the really young ones muck something up on Earth, it’s by accident. I can’t tell you how many pre-teen boys think avalanches and mudslides are the height of hilarity. One middle-schooler, in his six seconds at the helm, managed to set up a thunderstorm program that incessantly poured buckets on his math teacher’s house for a month straight. A few newspapers ran stories on it, as no one could figure out why the storm never extended past the teacher’s property. Most unexplained phenomena, everything from UFO sightings to exploding toads, make perfect sense if you’ve seen the look of maniacal glee in a boy’s eyes once he realizes he’s been given the run of the place.

Nowadays, the current God never has time to accomplish much of anything. Even when they do, you’d be amazed how many people don’t touch the control panel. So many who claim to want world peace, an end to starvation, for their baseball team to finally win the World Series…once they’re actually in charge, most freeze up, paralyzed by the potential consequences of a wrong action.

I will admit, it also might have something to do with the learning curve. You see, in the early days I had time to teach the Gods about each of the buttons and levers and codes to input. Now I barely have time to explain to them that they’re dead before they get whisked out of the room and replaced by the next in line. It’s really quite annoying. On average today, one-hundred and sixty point six people die every minute, which means one point eight are dying every second. I’ve worked hard to get my welcome speech down to the bare minimum, but I can only do so much.

Occasionally, the interim God is able to have a small impact in their time at the controls. A man from Chile made a rainbow over his hometown. An elderly woman from Dubai managed to stop a traffic collision. David Bowie used his time as God to ensure that the person in line after himself would have a painless death, which I thought was rather considerate.

More often than not, the interim God tends to just make a mess of things. Howard Lamont of Omaha, Nebraska tried to input the code for World Peace, but before he had a chance to punch in the remaining 759 digits, he was booted from the chair. Instead of peace, the numbers he had entered up to that point created a hailstorm in Texas and simultaneously sent the fourth film in a sub-par horror franchise to number one at the box office.

Every millennium or so, the God Term protocol is put to a vote, and we debate maybe having just one person be God for an extended period of time – even just a week or two. Nothing ever comes of it though, as there are never any candidates who actually want the job. I suppose I can’t blame them. Honestly, who needs the stress?

~

Bio:

Jeff Ronan is a New York-based writer, actor, and podcaster. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fabled Collective, Dread Machine, Dream of Shadows, and City. River. Tree. For more, visit jeffronan.com

Starborn, Starbirth

by Liam Hogan

The tired old star burns fat and hot and slow. Now, as the end approaches, as firestorms flicker and die and are born anew across its roiling surface, as, at its core, helium ashes are squeezed and the heat there builds and builds, stuttering with the idea of something new, we detach ourselves from the fields in which we have gambolled for countless aeons, where we have long feasted and bred, diving deep in our displays of courtship, kicking up great tendrils of supercharged plasma through which to leap and skip and dance, filtering out the heavier elements as we do. Now, we drift outwards, cooling rapidly in a vacuum that is thin and cold and hostile, hardening our hearts as we majestically unfurl our vast, fragile wings. Gossamer thin, we float past rocky planets, long stripped of their seas, their delicate atmospheres, whose once molten centres are hardened and still. There was life here, we are amused to note. Brief, faltering life, as ethereal as the waves from a solar flare, as short lived as our mating songs.

And on we riders go, to the next planet, the next rock. Life fled here when its cradle had grown too warm, too barren, too polluted. A brief respite only, a staging ground for the next tentative step. And on again we and the echoes of it drift, past the remnants from the solar system’s ancient creation to the next planet, to the moons that circle like clockwork around the gassy giant, itself too small to ignite, too cold to offer us any real sustenance. Though a few of us try anyway and are quickly swallowed by its dense, unpalatable clouds, wings ripped away and for a moment flaring bright, the imprint swiftly forgotten.

The giant, and its lesser neighbour, will feed the inferno that is yet to come. The shock-wave might perhaps briefly fire them into life, before stripping the clouds of gas, leaving them stunned and stunted in the dimming afterglow, finally exposing whatever those dense clouds conceal.

We wonder whether the life that is not our life ever attempted to go there, or escaped further still. There are no signs of it in the cold, outer fringes. Perhaps it went instead in search of new planets to taint, daring the void between the stars as we too are about to do. Perhaps we will catch up with it, beyond the point where the solar wind is snuffed out by the much softer, but more extensive, interstellar medium. Beyond the insubstantial border where you could truly be said to have shed the bounds of the star that even now is just a baleful, fat, reddened point. Perhaps. But there is no hurry.

Looking back, we watch as our brethren gather, our number too numerous to count. There is a sweet-spot, a place we all hope to be when the moment comes. Some will time it wrong, they always do. They will fill their bellies a little too full, rise a little too slow, too late, engorged and still soft and fragile, their wings only partially unfurled when the cataclysm comes.

Others have left too early. Billions of years too early, tired perhaps of waiting. They haven’t got very far and they will be cold and perhaps dead by now. Pushed only by the last beats of a burning heart, slumbering for an eternity, dreaming of what might have been.

This too is the way.

Only a few of us, a handful of the myriad, will fall upon more fertile ground, many millennia from now. But all of us will ride the death of the star we grew up on, and in, letting its final, dying light push us far out into the unexplored galaxy, looking for new homes, new stars, new life.

Rarer still, perhaps only once in a generation, one of us might find themselves not captured by another star but instead, surrounded by a veil of interstellar gases. With their wings stretched so thin it will be as though they’re not there, they will begin to turn, the steady rhythm creating eddies and gathering in more and more of the tantalising dust. Only one rider will sing the song of becoming as she slowly retracts her wings, cloaking herself within the thickening cloud, spinning faster and faster and faster until, the cosmos be willing, she gives birth to a brand new star.

~

Bio:

Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk

Apeiron

by Anthony Lechner

Deity: A.X. Mander

Project: Universe

Purpose: Debriefing Report

I would like to thank the master deities for allowing me a third pass at Project Universe (PU). I have learned a great deal from my previous two passes as well as the plethora of passes from other deities. In particular, the debriefing report from T.H. Ales inspired me to create a device called Apeiron, which can supply boundless creations and dissolutions of multiple and synchronous universes.

T.H. Ales’s universe revealed the required features for not only multicellular life but also sentient life, viz., H2O. T.H. Ales also learned that H20, if left unchecked, floods the universe beyond saturation to the point of oblivion. I don’t blame Ales for leaving the project with the way that universe ended on his pass. The main problem, I believe, rested in the fact that the universe required constant attention from T.H. Ales, and an action innocuous as a coffee break drowned the whole of existence. To think of the creatures’ pain—all dying from suffocation—is unbearable. We are more generous than that.

One of the functions within the Apeiron device is H2O regulation. Each created universe is only allotted 42 FUs. Apeiron provided intriguing results. In the first universe, all 42 FUs of H2O started within one galaxy and there was no life within it. But by the end of the run, over 30 galaxies had enough water to sustain life. There was no evidence of the initial H2O-filled galaxy in itself at the end of the run. It appears, though, that its remnants eventually settled into every galaxy that had life. The one had become many.

Apeiron created over one billion universes in this pass, moving beyond exponential growth from previous passes where I did not have the device. The device’s algorithm learned from each universe the ideal amount of H2O needed in each world within a galaxy to sustain life. The device made minor changes from run to run. The median number of galaxies with H2O-based lifeforms per universe ended up at 8,160, with a range of 27 to 12,050. The variety of worlds and lifeforms created continues to baffle me. I barely had enough leniency to calculate all the galaxies, and I am estimating 31.4% of the worlds within those galaxies with creatures before the end of the pass.

One of Apeiron’s most impressive features is the ability to copy the design of a universe, and alter a mere 1% of its core and peripheral components (never repeating an alteration, permutation, or combination). Of course, I had to design the initial universe. This was no easy task, based on my previous two passes. I discovered after those failed passes that a blended universe, uniting T.H. Ales’ H2O universe, C.R. Onos’ Terra universe, and A.X. Menes’ CON universe, made for a successful initial design—through the three, one. (See Appendix 1.A. in this report for the technical blending schematics.)

Rendering the right composition of substances proved to be a minor hurdle compared to the rationic patterns needed to perpetuate the proper proportions among these core substances. I dubbed these patterns embedded existants. I owe a great deal of appreciation to the many deities that created the good variety of substances accessible to the PU. Without embedded existants, however, the substances couldn’t blend or morph with other substances and couldn’t evolve—which explains why so many deities dropped from PU, feeling their creations were failures. These universes were not failures; they merely lacked the language to move about without constant effort from the deity who constructed them.

An unexpected consequence emerged from the embedded existants, viz., intelligent lifeforms began to theorize about the existence of embedded existants. Once a civilization of lifeforms successfully demonstrated a working knowledge of some of the basic existants, it did not take long for that civilization to apply their own understanding and add a further layer of evolution to their world. For example, some worlds began creating their own dwellings, modes of transportation, and various other unnatural structures. They even began theorizing whether they themselves were deities or were created by deities.

Some civilizations showed such mastery of embedded existants they created modes of transportation to leave their worlds. Very few civilizations (<1%) ever discovered a means to travel between galaxies. This variant occurred in 3% of the universes within Apeiron’s construct.

In exactly one civilization in one universe, a mode of transportation overwhelmed me. They discovered the source of embedded existants within Apeiron. By doing so, they were not only able to travel to any galaxy in their universe; they could travel to any universe within Apeiron. I named them Apeironic Anomalies (AA). While their visits to other universes showed not to be motivated by violence, they did interfere with the natural development of other universes.

At first, I speculated whether it was permissible to allow the AA to continue exploration and alterations within Apeiron. Realizing, though, that they dominated not only their universe but other universes, I believed it important to suspend their existence within Apeiron. I couldn’t allow for their dominance to mar the growth of other intelligent lifeforms. My apprehension predominately rested on the possibility that either they would become worshipped as deities or they would take on the role of deities and limit the natural development of worlds (or both). Because of this apprehension, I suspended their universe and all universes where the AA had spread. To be more exact, I had to create the embedded existant language within Apeiron to lock all motion within the affected universes.

I would like to be clear that I did not worry about the AA finding a way of leaving Apeiron, for that would be utterly impossible because their mere existence depended on the construct and couldn’t maintain any viable form of existence beyond it. But as the AA were suspended, I began wondering what would happen if they were permitted to continue to explore Apeiron. And then, what if I could construct a way for Apeiron to allow us to be able to interact with this species (either by projecting our image into Apeiron or projecting their image outside of Apeiron).

After some initial thinking toward the end of my third pass, I realized I needed a fourth pass at PU. I cannot complete these two speculations with the Apeiron 1.0, as I am starting to call it now. Apeiron 2.0 will have a few major adjustments. It will have two major structural divisions. In one division, it will allow AAs to visit other universes and allow deities continuous monitoring regarding how multi-layered creation and alterations evolve. In another division, it will strictly prohibit the formation of AAs. In this division, lifeforms will be able to theorize about multiple universes but never be allowed to travel beyond their own universes. Both divisions can create boundless universes. Additionally, I will add a feature into Apeiron 2.0 that allows projections, at the command of a deity and not an AA, to allow for closer observation and possible communication.

Regretfully, the new specifications I started for Apeiron 2.0 mean that I had to terminate the universes Apeiron 1.0 created so that I could access Apeiron’s internal components for recycling. If my analysis is correct, no creature felt any pain during the termination of any of Apeiron 1.0’s universes. Compared to the natural pains of daily life and the natural endings of their solar systems and galaxies, the forced termination can be seen as peaceful. (See Appendix 2.A for a more detailed explanation.) From their point of view, it happened as quickly as turning off the light.

Appendix 1.A

Initial design: 33% Liquid, 33% Gas, 34% Mineral

Effect: With embedded existants, this composition blended well. The variety of syntheses formed various other substances on their own. I discovered that even the embedded existants took miniscule parts of the initial substances to function through predictable patterns. This is the most likely explanation for how the AA found a way to travel within Apeiron.

Apeiron began altering 1% at a time in each direction for each of the original substances. For example, it would subtract 1% from liquid and add 1% to gas or to mineral (32% liquid, 34% gas, 34% mineral, followed by 32% liquid, 33% gas, 35% mineral, etc.). Consequently, liquid gases, liquid minerals, and gas minerals formed through the combination and permutation processes. These syntheses continued down to the level of embedded existants. As Apeiron rearranged each universe, the proportions of the initial design within the embedded existants mutated.

Appendix 2.A

Median number of galaxies with life: 8,160

Within this mean, the variants dispersed unevenly. Some galaxies had hundreds of forms of intelligent life, others a dozen, some a few, with the occasional isolated civilization. One fact remains constant in each universe: solar systems and galaxies fluctuate in size and number. Having intelligent life in a solar system or galaxy was not a permanent property of the system or galaxy. It was common for the embedded existants to collide the substances, in various, yet predictable ways. These collisions forcefully terminated many lifeforms (intelligent or not). I conjecture that civilizations that found a means to exit their worlds were motivated by these predictable and potentially tragic endings.

With Apeiron 2.0, however, most of these universes with these types of systems and galaxies will evolve to the exact same likeness as to when Apeiron 1.0 ended. Toward this end, we will find out whether or not civilizations can self-correct. The irony, of course, is that Apeiron 2.0 could prove to provide more pain compared to the peaceful ending of Apeiron 1.0. Only a forth pass will tell.

~

Bio:

Anthony Lechner is a special education teacher and philosophy instructor in Idaho, USA. Visit www.anthonylechner.com for more information.

The Last Engine

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.

~

Bio:

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.

Infinity Child

by James Hancock

Death isn’t so bad. Okay, when you’re alive and don’t know any better, it can freak you out. Trying to figure out what happens next, but having no clues, can be frightening. Not knowing what’s going on behind the curtain. But, take it from me, it’s no big deal. At first dying can be quite a thing, especially if you go in a grisly way, but even that is over and done with pretty quickly, and after a few seconds the inevitable kicks in and you find an odd kind of peace to see you through the rest of it. As far as dying goes, it really is no big deal. Just part of the process. How would I know? I’ve died one hundred and sixty-three times, and I don’t even consider the how anymore; it’s all about the when.

We have our group of primaries that all need to be free at roughly the same time if we want to keep together, and then there are the secondaries; nice if we can add as many as possible, but understandable if not… after all, they have their own primary groups to consider. I’m not making myself clear. Right, let’s put aside matters of planets, space, time, and memory. Let’s deal with the real. We are beings, and we inhabit a place that isn’t defined by where or when. Some call it Heaven; and why not? Heaven is as good a name as any. It’s nice here… in Heaven.

Is there a God? Yes, of sorts. God is the great organiser. The heart of the universe. The one who knows all the details of all the ages and all the people. That’s quite a lot of knowledge. And who are we? We are the travellers. We look at a place and a time and a people, and we are born into it. You see, lives and people are merely shells; things to occupy for a time. Therefore, each shell can have been occupied many times by many people, and with an infinite amount of alternative decisions that lead on to many different outcomes. It’s not scripted, but there is an element of ‘one’s destiny’ involved. There are a few significant set things which will happen to some shells, or lives, if you will. If you want to be Hitler you must be aware that you’ll start World War Two, bring about the mass extermination of Jews, and end your own life at the age of fifty-six. The rest you can play out how you want.

The problem is you need to get all your primaries to agree and accept surrounding roles; or as many as possible. You think organising an Earthling family dinner is tricky? It’s nothing in comparison to a group of more than a hundred humans organising their next life plan.

Let’s say you want to experience life in a Scandinavian barbarian tribe, battling in the age of the Roman Empire. Now you have to convince everyone else to come on board. The wife will want to be the wife again, which makes sense, and the children will need to be the children, and then their children… etc. However, there are also brothers, sisters, best friends, and all of their significant others to consider. By the time you’ve got everyone organised, there’s usually three or four hundred involved, with hundreds more to join later. And that’s where God comes in. God will find the best time and family group for you to start in, and the rest is history… or the future. As I say, there is no ‘time’.

Some primaries or secondaries might sit out of a big group visit, as they want to get involved in something else that’s going on. Some will have to wait to be born, and will find something else to do whilst they wait. Got to wait thirty years, then why not live the life of this nineteenth-century scientist who died aged twenty-nine? They didn’t form many relationships, so it’s ideal. Back just in time to be born into the huge family group which you’d signed up to. The removal of one costume before trying another. And there are so many fantastic costumes to try.

Or just wait it out and share stories with others who are also waiting to join a life.

But most take a brief journey whilst they are waiting. You see, we all love being human. We are addicted to it. We need the feeling of belonging to something, or to someone. There’s something amazing about a mother. We all have one, and they have a special bond like no other. The greatest gift to any life is beginning it with the person closest to you. And the beauty of the human connection is that my daughter is also somebody else’s mother. And on and on; linked to the great circle.

When you live a life, you are ignorant to it all, but soon enough you’re back and reminiscing with others involved. Kids, grandkids, friends, all spending time together and revisiting emotions. Without limits. Humans are limited to their memories by thought, but in Heaven we can revisit the exact feelings and experience them again in full. Many glorious moments in many fascinating lives are within our personal collection. Emotions and pleasures to be dipped into and had again and again.

And then there’s the reward structure. To maintain a balance, those that die old must be matched with a similar number that die young. Who’d want to come back as a child who died aged five? No time to do anything, or understand anything. Well, if you do, you get a reward point. It’s the same if you pick someone who goes out in an upsetting way; you get a reward point. The points are then used to add something significant to another life plan. Something good. For example, I really enjoyed my life on a farm in sixteenth-century Denmark. I never settled down, but I was good-looking and had a lot of fun, if you know what I mean. So when I revisited it a few hundred years later, and relived it again, I added the reward point I had earned by living the life of a murder victim. When I went back to live my farm life again, I chose to be much wealthier. A simple change in that I owned my farm, rather than paying rent. In fact, I was the son of a landowner and I owned several farms. I had just as much fun the second time around, only I lived a more luxurious life and indulged in more than just sins of the flesh. I had a lot of what some call déjà vu in that trip.

Always remember to keep it as simple as possible, and to keep with as many primaries as you can, or know exactly where and when they are. That way you avoid upset. Yes, Heaven has upset too; well, to a certain extent. I’ve known people to take their main wife or husband into a life where she or he dies halfway through, and then they remarry. It happens a lot. Emotional attachments are made, and afterwards you find yourself with two spouses trying to get involved in the next visit. God is good there though, and often steps in and finds a way where everyone can be happy. Why not be a Mormon? That said, jealousy is a human condition, amplified when visiting Earth, and between lives we understand that love is shared, and a connection made with another doesn’t lessen yours in any way. There is more understanding in ‘Heaven’.

So huge is our family that many millions are living and many millions are in waiting, but all are connected. Drops in the ocean. Parts of a whole. And time is a constantly expanding circle that loops around, repeats, and has infinite other circles springing off from it at every possible point. So when I say God is an organiser, it is quite a small word for something that knows every place, every person, and every point in time; and all the changes as they are made, and how they affect other timelines, people, places… etc. Yes, God is impressive!

Seventeen thousand, four hundred and eighty-eight years ago I became. I can’t remember ‘not being’ before that point, and I don’t how it happened, but I know that God, who is the universe, brought me into existence. I’m not going to question the universe’s plan, if it wanted to create us and learn from our actions, or if it was just bored, but twenty billion white stars expanded, faded, and became a collective life-force from which we sprung. Each of us a child of the universe; part of it, born to experience its wonders for all eternity.

‘Humans will rule the earth for five hundred millennia, and you are they’. The universe had spoken. ‘You can live any life from any time, and you can enjoy it again and again should you wish to. My gift to you is eternity. Now travel it together. Learn everything there is to learn and share your findings. Enjoy love, suffer horror, and understand that although you are many, you are also one. We are one. I have created you from myself, and you are part of me. Only together are we whole.’

Together, we are the universe. Together, we are God.

~

Bio:

James is a storyteller with twenty years experience in flash fiction, short stories, longer stories and screenplays. He rarely suffers from writer’s block and considers himself fortunate to be the victim of writer’s overwhelm. The ideas keep on coming. Where they come from is a mystery. A mystery best left unsolved. He lives in England, with his wife and two daughters. And a bunch of pets he insisted his girls could NOT have.

Until The Bubble Pops

by Robert L. Jones III

On Wednesdays I clean the bathroom. Such is the routine nature of this task that it compresses my awareness of time. Whenever I begin, I feel as if I just finished, and if life is a grammatical sentence, mine seems to lack punctuation. My name is Norman Brinster. It’s Wednesday, so I’m cleaning the bathroom. I’m cleaning the bathroom, so it must be Wednesday.

I pour the cleanser into the toilet and begin brushing. I must have used too much, because the surface of the water foams excessively as I brush. The foam is fascinating, a microcosm of unknown significance. I’m intrigued by how the bubbles form, converge, and pop. It’s all so ephemeral. I glance at my watch.

#

The brush is no longer in my hand, and I’m no longer in the bathroom. This strikes me as odd once I realize it. I’m somewhere unfamiliar, but where I am paradoxically has a familiar feel to it. Somehow, I know this environment is not a physical structure or place. I’ve been here all the time, but now I can see it.

I’m inside what looks like a sphere whose boundary is a bit out of focus. It’s dark in here, but I can see the boundary in all directions. I drift toward it. Where is the light coming from? As I approach the boundary, I can see that it’s made up of smaller spheres. I’m in a sphere of spheres. They seemed out of focus from farther away because they’re pulsating, which leaves them slightly out of round at any point in time. I just said “time” again. I wonder if time matters in here.

My watch is not around my wrist, and the spheres appear unstable. Their surfaces are opaque in some areas and translucent in others. Small spots become transparent, and the patterns are constantly shifting. What are these spheres? I examine one more closely, and I’m inside it.

I have ideals. People are honest because they should be honest. Karla Farmington is going to be my girlfriend, but she doesn’t know that yet. We’ll get married, take long road trips, and sleep in motels. We’ll visit scenic wonders like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the Redwoods, and Crater Lake. I have the ability to be a great athlete, and I’ll win a gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the Olympics. Hard work pays off.    

This sphere is mine, or it was. Suddenly, I’m back outside, back at the center, and looking at the curved, poorly focused boundary. Along with the sphere I’ve just examined, I see the other spheres. They’re all mine, and this is my sphere of spheres. That’s right: mine. Relaxed and curious, I drift back and try another.

People aren’t always honest. I’m not fast enough to be a world class sprinter. I’m going to be a great musician instead. Mary Richardson will be my wife, and we’ll be in a band together. We’ll tour the country in a van and play gigs to appreciative audiences. Our home will be a cabin in the woods, and we’ll own lots of land.

I’m back at the center, and this is a bit disorienting. It looks like I’d better try another sphere.

Life can be difficult. Hard work doesn’t always pay off, but everything works out in the end. Everyone is at least a little dishonest whether they know it or not. I’m brilliant. I’m going to be an elite scientist, and I’ll cure cancer. I’ll win the Nobel Prize. My name and my picture will be all over the world. I don’t know who my wife will be, but she’ll look like an actress or a supermodel. Money won’t be a problem. With her career and mine, we’ll have plenty of that, and our home will have a great view of the mountains.

Here I am, at the center again, and this is frustrating. People can’t be trusted until they prove themselves trustworthy. Things don’t always work out, at least not the way I planned. I’ve lost a few jobs for unjust reasons, but the job I have is a pretty good one. Very few people know or care who I am. Sometimes, the game is rigged. It takes discretion and tact to play it. I’m married to Naomi Brinster, and she has to work, too. We live in an apartment. I may not be able to provide her with everything I’d like to, but she’ll never have to clean the bathroom. Should I try one more sphere?

No, that’s enough. I need to see more, but I don’t need to see more of this. I’ve spent too much of my life scheming on the fickle, shifting crust of reality. What I thought I knew turned out to be shine and tarnish. The underlying substance is here, somewhere in the substratum. My name is Norman Brinster, and on Wednesdays I clean the bathroom. There must be more. Tired of putting off the inevitable, I feel a sense of outward acceleration, and the boundary rushes past me.

#

Going out was coming in, for I’ve moved into a much larger metaphysical space. I’m in a greater sphere of spheres. I’ve deduced this from the curvature of its margin, but this margin extends in all directions until I can no longer see it. As one can’t see the opposite shore of an ocean, I can’t see the opposite side of the sphere. I’m near its periphery.

Examining the constituent spheres, I recognize mine even though I’ve never seen it from this perspective. The rest are not mine. They remind me of the bubbles in my toilet, and new ones form as others pop. There are so many. They are too numerous, and I can’t begin to count them all. Within this context, I’m overwhelmed.

Who am I? My name is Norman Brinster, but what does that mean? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does. I continue to relax and drift. I still don’t know where the light is coming from, and I’m drifting away from the spheres. Is it Wednesday in here?

#

The ephemeral shore is no longer visible. I turn to look in the other direction, and there it is. This sphere is larger than the others. I believe it’s at the center of the great sphere of spheres. It’s all I can see in the void through which I drift. It doesn’t pulsate. It’s completely transparent, but I can’t see inside because of the intensity of its light.

#

Now I know the interpretation of the spheres.

#

The central sphere is perfect and stable. This is reality regardless of how accurately anyone perceives it. I suspect this perspective encompasses those of all the other spheres, so it must see and understand everything.

The lesser sphere of spheres is my personal sub-reality. This is the lens through which I perceive the universe, and it was formed from perception, desire, experience, and limited understanding. It includes the various sub-realities I’ve inhabited throughout my life. The sub-realities of my past inform my sub-reality in the present.  

The greater sphere of spheres is composed of the sub-realities of everyone living on this planet. The ones I saw forming were those of people being born while the ones that popped were those of people who were dying. That the sub-realities are distinct and separate means they aren’t the same. Everyone sees things differently to one degree or another.

We are destroying the planet. The planet is going through cycles as it always has. One political solution is best, but so is a different political solution. You can’t legislate morality. Yes, you can. In fact, you must. Life is good. Life is miserable. Things are getting better. No, they’re getting worse. We were created for a reason, and we go on living after we die. We are the products of random evolution. We die and rot, and that’s the end of it.

Our sub-realities aren’t the same, but there must be at least some overlap. Otherwise, we would be unable to communicate. Everyone has his or her sub-reality. I left mine back in the bathroom, speaking of which. . .

#

I glance at my watch. The brush is in my hand, and no time has elapsed. I flush the toilet. Life runs its course until the bubble pops.

#

I took a philosophy course when I was in college, and we argued about determinism and free will. Some of us came down on the side of free will because we liked the idea that it’s entirely up to us. Others who thought they understood quantum physics and variational principles favored the deterministic nature of time, and they said what’s going to happen has already happened. Then we quibbled about randomness and teleology. Looking back, I think both sides were right, which made both sides wrong — or partly right and partly wrong.

How many events in anyone’s life seem random in real time and contrived in retrospect? All of this could make logical sense if there’s a personality outside of time, some intelligence that bends every decision, every action, toward a mysterious, inexorable conclusion. Okay, I’ll go with that.

If this is true, the script has been written, but that’s okay with me as long as it’s a good script. We follow it by the choices we make. That leaves us free to fulfill what’s going to happen, and that’s a horrifying relief.

#

Now I can finish cleaning the bathroom.

~

Bio:

Robert holds a Ph. D. in Molecular Biology, and is currently Professor Emeritus of Biology at Cottey College in southwestern Missouri, USA. Since his teenage years, he has had an interest in science fiction, especially stories with high concepts and metaphysical themes. His influences include G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Jack Finney, and Ted Chiang. 

Bait

by George Salis

This earth seems like a place you would call home, until you see a cluster of scintillating hooks descending through the sky and disappearing into a cityscape. Minutes later, hundreds of humans, pierced through the cheek, the hand, or even the genitalia, are pulled upward between the buildings and over the skyscrapers, through the atmosphere and into the frigidity of outer space. The source of the hooks is indiscernible, but you get the feeling that this is less an earth than a farm, ripe for the picking. The harvesters, smoke-obscured, are meticulous and methodical. But miscalculations happen, and humans that are pulled up too slowly become bloated and frostbitten, while those pulled up too quickly experience a barotrauma that explodes their eyeballs, prolapses their cochleas, and, on occasion, spontaneously ejects their brains, the parietal bone popping open like a missile hatch. These spoiled humans are thrown back as is, stuck in orbit among satellites and other debris or burnt to a crisp by atmospheric friction. Whether the harvesters discard them because they are inedible or unsellable or unable to be experimented upon is unknown, though it is believed that nutrition, economy, and science all play a role in the harvest. Fluxes of radiation borne of solar flares or other cosmic phenomena sometimes cook the humans as they are being reeled in through space. Yet this product is not thrown back. At such times, humans down on earth can just barely hear a celestial crunching, similar to the crackling of an aurora overhead, but combined with the harshness of something like deep-fried crickets. In response to this din, the humans stopper their ears with the palms of their hands and squeeze their eyelids together, attempting to unsee the imagined rows of serrated teeth, the miasmal burps of pleasure, the unidentifiable remains floating within cauldron stomachs, the defecation of pyramidal pellets containing shards of bone, broken jewelry, tufts of hair, semi-dissolved leather belts, shreds of cloth, and occasionally ellipsoid pairs of silicone.

         Over time, the harvesters will become more accurate in their reaping, and so fewer humans will be thrown back, but presently the earth seems to rain ravaged humans as much as they are ‘evaporated,’ which is one of the euphemisms used by the fearful. To address that issue, humans invent a global fleet of mobile nylon nets used to catch the discarded humans over land or sea. Thus it is discovered that some humans, although not frosted by space or sickened through decompression, are still deemed subpar by the harvesters. Likewise, children below the age of twelve are invariably released, probably in compliance with some intergalactic regulation. The latter are the most resilient, but many ‘recycled’ humans, as they are dubbed, are caught dead, with their brains lobotomized or decorticated by the hooks, their bodies charred from the fall. Yet there is still an abundance of survivors whose stories become a source of terror, wonder, and inspiration.

         A six-year-old boy is caught safely over the Atlantic, but found to have been skinned by the time he passed through the stratosphere, with a part of the adamantoid hook still jutting from his temple like an antenna. His corneas vaporized by ultraviolet radiation, he claims to have seen, up there, ancient astronauts in an inverted nimbus. He saw how their forms dissipate and coagulate at will, becoming tools, symbols, and what might have been their bodies, amorphous structures which echo the pillars of Greek antiquity. These beings are the Cosmic Parents of humans, the Creators and Liberators. “The journey of the hook,” the boy professes, “tests our purity and weighs our sin, for the abacuses of their consciousness can only bear so much darkness.” How can a child know these things? Some think that he is a kind of spy, yet another way to lure them, while others develop a faith in his messages, selling all their material belongings and cutting off every relationship before impaling themselves on the nearest hook, usually through the temple, in the way of the child mystic, the stabbing motion itself as innocent and alleviating as putting one’s head upon a pillow at night.

         When a middle-aged woman is caught in a net at the edge of the Sahara Desert, the velocity causes her epidermis to roll into itself like a sleeping bag, her head at the claustrophobic center. Members of the rescue team carefully unroll her and determine that she was filleted of every bone, but her skin was left intact, except for a hole in her cheek from which globules of saliva dribble. What alarms them is the fact that her left eye gazes out of her right ear canal and her other eye is fixed on what appears to her as an ocean trench (later discovered in the sphincter). More than this, her heart fell to the heel of her left foot, her lungs expand and contract within her right thigh, her bowels are where her brain should be, and all the rest is equally jumbled for lack of a skeletal system. They temporarily patch the cheek-hole with gauze, which helps her say, “I heard them speaking, but not, I heard their actual thoughts, the layers and layers, the calculations. Numbers. That’s what we are to them, numbers in the mind. And me, I was an outlier. An outcast.” She only survives for a few seconds after her enigmatic comment, loose parts of her flipping and flopping from occasional wind, until a simoom nearly blows her away. Caught by her kidney-bulging wrist, a man leads her whipping body through the sandy gusts and folds her neatly in an SUV’s trunk. By being an organ donor, she is able to save other Recycles. At her funeral, she is lowered into the earth inside a matchbox for a coffin. Because of her, the term ‘spineless’ is now synonymous with bravery and resilience.

         These tales of survival fuel a kind of arms race between the harvesters and the harvested. First, a brain trust is assembled by almost every government to determine what exactly attracts humans to the hooks, but this proves futile, for it is a mystery shrouded by amnesia and mythology. Some say you hear a soothing muzak, with coveted items of masscult, like smart phones or sex toys, glistening on the tips of the hooks. Others believe you are pulled in by the sobbing voices of deceased loved ones, finding them spiked through the chest and begging to be saved. A few conjecture there is a sibilant snake coiled around each hook like a worm, entreating you as if you were Eve, offering apples of knowledge, figs of immortality, a feast of the sensorium and the soul. Regardless of whatever temptation, the governments agree on a global law that forbids anyone to be within five miles of a hook and, like a total eclipse, to never look at one directly.

         In the event of a hook cluster, cities are made to evacuate. Strategically placed megaphones rattle buildings’ windows with monotone messages: “The hooks do not have your best interests in mind. Do not approach the hooks.” Families sardined in cars drive past digital billboards that read: Stay Happy & Hookless, with a vintage vista of undisturbed family life in the background. Hazmat teams, with tinted visors that only allow them to perceive the lines of the hooks, sever those ominous parallels using saw-toothed scissors attached to long poles. The grounded hooks are then treated like irradiated bear traps, and so other hazmat team members drive over them in a tank-like vehicle, finding the hooks via GPS and sucking them into a vat of acid. With time, the harvesters reinforce their lines with a plasmid aura that liquefies the scissors. They also infect the billboards and announcements with subliminal messages that equate the hooks with a shortcut to paradise. The humans soon develop meteorology that forecasts the when and where of a hook cluster. Less winds, more lubricating moisture in the air, the presence of fog to hide the hooks, all and more help to determine where they will descend next. This makes evacuation more effective and less haphazard. In response to this, the harvesters eventually deploy decoy clusters of hooks, catching the populations mid-exodus. So continues this game of cat and mouse, until you see a cluster of hooks descending, not upon a city, but a country, then a continent. Across the globe, hooked humans are being pulled through the clouds, the spheres, looking down on a world shadowed by themselves, by an entire species. The few million or so humans who are not caught immediately begin their immigration to an unfinished project, evading falling shoes, hats, glasses, and bodily fluids along the way. At the center of each continent is an incomplete underground metropolis. This will be the final step in the arms race, claimed the world leaders, who are now being reeled in by the harvesters, inhaling between screams the metallic stench of outer space. Here we will live and flourish in peace.

         Due to their intercontinental reaping, the harvesters are forced to incubate and breed humans, then throw them back down in a newly developed shrink-wrap that dissolves by the time they alight on the ground. But in the midst of desolate cities, the test tube humans become savage cannibals, reminding the harvesters of the tainted meat of millennia past. Yet the harvesters are not unwise to the layer of prime crop hidden beneath the surface, and after a century passes, they release a moon-sized chum bucket into orbit that slowly tips over and pours allamones over the earth. Golden spheres resembling dandelion seed heads swirl through the stratosphere and troposphere, the beginning of a nuclear summer. The nostrils of humans twitch amid the balm, the aroma, the perfume, the bouquet, the incense. They emerge from their subterranean safety to witness what appears to be a shattered sun as sparkling sky. Many stick out their dry tongues to let stray flecks settle on their taste buds and melt into a sexual urgency, others take deeper breaths and experience a desperate depression. Some pick up handfuls of the accumulated allamones and grind them into their eyes then use their stained fingers to brush their gums, quivering with euphoric revelation. The final goal of these states of mind are the same: every human skewers themselves on the nearest hook with divine gratification.

         Not many years after, the harvesters net the entirety of the earth and begin to haul it away. The few thousand humans that survived the maelstrom of allamones catapult into the net by the interruption of the planet’s rotation, then press back down to earth’s surface as the net tightens. Eventually the lack of sunlight causes a worldwide ice age, which has the benefit of keeping the meat preserved. If the humans could open their frozen eyes, they would see other netted planets being pulled next to theirs like the trophy heads of colossi.

~

Bio:

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThree Crows MagazineMad Scientist Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook and Instagram (@george.salis). He is the editor of The Collidescope.

Possible Worlds

by Jack Denning

First conversation

“Well, it’s interesting,” said the first person, a denizen of our universe. “There are certainly aspects of our world that appear to have been ‘designed’ by an intelligent agent. Living creatures, traditionally, were seen this way, for example. But then we discovered how natural selection acts on genetic variation to explain how the diversity of life arose from simpler life forms, and we are confident additional natural laws will be discovered to explain the origin of life itself. The appearance of design, it turns out, is just appearance. Nothing more.”

“That’s not too far from our position,” said the second person, from a different universe. “In our universe, life seems to have been designed as well. In fact, all physical objects appear to have been designed. Every planet is a perfect sphere. Every continent and island on every planet is a perfect square. Every single three-dimensional object in our universe takes the form of one of the five Platonic solids, and all two-dimensional objects take the form of a simple polygon. But like you, we’ve discovered natural laws that explain this. It only appears to have been designed.”

“Yes, yes,” said the third person, an inhabitant of yet a third universe. “It is the same with us. But it is not a simple matter of being complex, or of being arranged according to certain patterns. In our universe, every configuration of objects spells out a coherent sentence. Everywhere you look in our sky, the stars spell a sentence, every collection of molecules twists around to spell something out as well, always in the language of the observer. And as it turns out, nearly all of those sentences are variations of ‘I am the Creator and Designer of the universe! Believe in me!’ But we also have discovered laws of nature that explain this. The universe runs just fine without any supernatural supervision. It just appears to be the product of an intelligent agent organizing things in order to communicate with us.”

The fourth person had grown more and more incredulous as the conversation went on. Finally he spoke: “My universe is almost total chaos. There is hardly any order at all; life and civilization arose from a random and localized order that fell back into disarray when civilization had reached a certain point. There are only a few natural laws that are consistent. Yet even that small amount of structure is enough to convince us that there must be a cosmic designer who constructed it. Yes, the small amount of order is explicable by the few (the very few) natural laws, but who designed the natural laws? Who organized my universe in such a way that matter and energy tends to behave the same way in repeated and repeatable experiences? It seems to me, the more natural laws you have, the more order you have, the more obvious it is that there is a God. Yet you have many more natural laws than we do, and you use them to argue against God. At any rate, as I say, the presence of a single law is sufficient: for how could there be any law at all that we could rely on to continue into the future without an intelligent agent who constructed the universe so that it follows a law in the first place?”

#

Second conversation

Later, they had another discussion. The third person said, “In our universe, the only people who suffer misfortune are those who do not believe in God. This may suggest to a simple mind that there is some cosmic justice being played out, with the sin of unbelief being subject to punishment. But of course, such a scenario is incompatible with the existence of a morally perfect God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ In fact, if such a God did exist, it would be his believers who should be most prone to misfortune, as they would be the only ones with the context in which suffering is redeemable. They would be the only ones who could handle it. An omnibenevolent God would not visit suffering on those for whom that suffering could be nothing but brute, unredeemable horror. Thus, the fact that only unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that only unbelievers would be those who experience suffering. We may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out the possibility of God from the outset.”

“That’s interesting,” said the second person. “In our universe it is only those who believe in God who suffer misfortune. To a simple mind, this might suggest punishment, as you mentioned, but of course a morally perfect God would not punish people for doing what he wanted. But others claim something like what you have, that only the suffering of those who believe in God would be redeemable. But we have rejected this as well: an omnibenevolent God would not single out those who are obeying his commands to suffer for doing so. Does any parent punish his obedient children for their obedience while allowing his disobedient children to get off scot-free? This would be the height of injustice. A perfectly just God is the only kind of God worth worshiping and worthy of the name ‘God.’ The fact that only believers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of a perfectly just God. Like you, we may not understand why things work out the way they do, but we can rule out God as a possibility.”

The first person, from our universe, spoke up. “Hmm. For us, it’s different. Both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe. There is no readily apparent reason for this distribution, no universal explanation for it, since the same suffering would have different purposes depending on the theistic proclivities of those who experience it. If a morally perfect God existed, then misfortune would either be exclusively aimed at those who do not believe, as a form of punishment, or at those who do believe, since they are the ones with a ready-made context for it to fit into. The fact that those who believe in God suffer the same misfortunes as those who do not believe convinces us that there is no rhyme or reason to it, and thus no morally perfect, perfectly just God, the only kind of God worthy of worship and worthy of the name ‘God.’ Thus, the fact that both believers and unbelievers suffer in our universe is incompatible with the existence of God. If God exists, we should not expect that both believers and unbelievers experience suffering to roughly equal extents. Even though we do not understand precisely how it all works, we know immediately that there is no God involved.”

The person from the fourth universe didn’t say anything. He wasn’t there. They’d asked him to leave.

~

Bio:

Jack Denning is a teacher in Portlandia where he lives with his family and his piano.

Last Entry

by Ahmed A. Khan

(Last entry found in the diary of the famous astrophysicist, Dr. Wendel Hubbi, written just days before he was carted away to the asylum.)

Imagine a drop of water free-floating in a vacuum. Imagine you are sub-molecular in size. Now imagine yourself inside the drop of water.

What do you see?

You see H2O molecules moving away from you on all sides.

Why?

Is the water molecule expanding due to some unexplained reason?

You ponder for some time and come up with a more rational scenario: the drop of water is evaporating. As the molecules on its surface are pulled away into space, new molecules move up into their place. And the process continues. This is the movement you see – the molecules moving away from you and towards the surface on all sides. In short, the water molecule is not expanding but shrinking. Soon, a point will come when it will be all gone.

Do you perceive the analogy?

The red shift of astral bodies all around us does not signify expansion of the universe. In actual fact, the universe is shrinking as its matter evaporates into the super universe.

~

Bio:

Ahmed A. Khan is a Canadian writer, originally from India. His works have appeared in various venues like Boston Review, Murderous Intent, Plan-B, Strange Horizons, Interzone, Anotherealm and Riddled With Arrows. His stories have been translated into German, Finnish, Greek, Croatian, Polish and Urdu. Links to some of his published works can be found at   ahmedakhan.blogspot.ca. He has social media presence on twitter (twitter.com/ahmedakhan) and facebook (www.facebook.com/ahmed.a.khan.140).

Euler’s Equation

by Neil James Hudson

e

     When I first met Euler’s equation, I thought it was proof of the existence of God.  e, the base of natural logarithms, underpinning the whole of mathematics.  i, the square root of minus one, the unit of complex numbers.  π, the relationship of a circumference to a diameter, from which geometry is made.  1, unity, the foundation of all numbers.  And we all know about 0.

     e i π+1=0, said God, and there was light.

     So when Euler’s equation fell apart, I knew we were in trouble.  We held an emergency meeting at the maths department at the university, which was fast approaching a 0 of its own.  But as long as we were still there and were still being paid, there was work to be done.

     Professor Hazlitt chaired the meeting, the only one of us who had actually done any work of real note.  “It seems to have happened at about 10:30 this morning,” he said.  “Before then, the equation seemed to hold.  But now, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t get the terms to fit together.”

     “Could we just have missed a flaw in the proof all these years?” I asked.

     Hazlitt shook his head.  “The equation definitely worked yesterday: it was holding everything else together.  But now something’s changed.  Mathematics has changed.”

     “Euler’s equation was the proof,” I said.  “It was God’s covenant with mankind, like the rainbow after the flood.  It said, the universe isn’t just chance, it’s designed.  All the basic elements of reality fit together like a jigsaw.  The equation is God’s signature, just to let us know he’s still here. But now the equation doesn’t hold; God has left the building.”

     “Frankly, Dr Carlton, I had hoped for something more helpful,” said Hazlitt.  “If we can identify the change, we may be able to rescue mathematics.”

     “It’s not given to us to mend the universe,” I said, and indeed the meeting agreed to do no more than to monitor the situation.

#

i

     But by the next morning, -1 had a real square root.  It was its own square root, like 1.  Multiply -1 by -1 and you got -1.  This hadn’t happened before.  Complex mathematics was wiped out at a stroke.

     “This can’t be happening,” said Hazlitt, and I felt pity for him.  Complex numbers had been his speciality, and now there weren’t any.

     “Mathematics is our best description of the universe,” I said.  “The universe is getting simpler.  We’re winding down.”

     “But isn’t there something we can be doing?  Shouldn’t we be praying, or trying to, I don’t know, get our souls in order?”

     “The game’s over,” I said.  “It’s as if the exam’s just finished, and we’ve handed in our papers.  You can carry on working through the problem if you want, but it won’t affect your grade any more.  It’s too late to be good..”

     “I don’t suppose you’re upset. This is what you’ve been waiting for.”

     I allowed myself a small smile.  “I didn’t expect it to be like this.  Frankly, I don’t know what’s going on.  I expected God to finish it, not wind things up.  I think there may be another entity at large in the universe. If God can make an equation, I can only think of one being who could unmake it.”

     Professor Hazlitt left angrily, leaving me to my thoughts. At least I now understood something that had been puzzling me. For centuries, people had been obsessed with the number of the Beast. Everyone tried to understand the number itself, but no one understood the real significance.

     Before long, the Beast would be the only thing left with a number.

#

π

     There seemed little left for me to do but to go home.  I was depressed:  I didn’t think I’d scored well enough in my own personal exam, and in any case I wasn’t sure who was in charge here.  God, I felt, may have broken his own covenant, and if you couldn’t trust God, who could you trust?

     Numbers were falling apart everywhere.  Things that were supposed to be equal were greater than each other.  The basic relationships that underpinned the universe had become exes.

     Wearily I got in my car and started the engine.  As I tried to reverse out of the car park though, the car juddered as if it were moving over a pile of rocks rather than the flat tarmac surface.  I got out, knowing already what I would find.

     The wheels were out of shape.  It took me a while to see it, but the circumferences were completely out of proportion to the diameters.

     Well, that’s geometry buggered, I thought.  I could see no choice but to return to the maths department.  Every shape I looked at seemed wrong, and I wondered how long it would take before the Moon fell down.

     We had failed humanity. We were mathematicians; people should have looked to us for answers. Instead we just described everything, and expected it to work as it should.  We had never looked at how to keep the system going.

     I was interrupted by Professor Hazlitt, bursting into the room with panic on his face. “Dr Carlton, how many of us are there in this room?”

     “Well, there’s me, that’s one,” I said.  “And there’s you.  That’s another one.  So….that’s more than one.”

     “But how many more?”

     “Let me think,” I said.  “There’s at least one more than one, but….how many ones are there?”

     And then there was only one anyway.

#

1

     Because everything was one.  I’d been right, there were no other numbers left.  There were no distinctions to be made between me and anything else:  it was all one.

     Before now, I’d often thought of the differences between myself and Jasmine.  But now there no such differences.  We were no longer separate, discrete, countable.  We weren’t even we:  we were I.  Every atom that had ever joined with another was now the same atom.  The molecules were just one atom.  I myself was that same atom, and far from being a small part in a large universe, I was the universe.

     Was I God then?  All I knew was, there was no God other than me.  That would imply a separate entity, another number.  Another universe, in fact, to house another atom.

     God could not exist to create the universe:  God was the universe.  The distinction could not apply.  No distinction could apply.  Could I see?  I didn’t know.  I couldn’t draw the line between what I was looking at, and the person looking.

     I was total and complete existence.  I stretched across the universe, engulfing all.

     I had a bad thought.

     Euler’s equation was collapsing, coming apart at the seams.  Term by term, the universe had been unpicked until there was only 1 left.

     But there wasn’t only 1 left.  Even when 1 was all there was, there was still something other, something not 1.  Even God had a Devil.  And 1 had its

#

0

     e i π +1=0, someone had written on the blackboard.  “You’d better believe it,” I wrote underneath.

     The numbers healed.  From our non-existence we were returned to unity, then discreteness.  Geometry returned to its standards, real numbers realised that they weren’t the only option, and finally logarithms returned to their natural ways, and Euler’s equation, the key to the universe, fitted together once again.

     And I realised what had happened.

     I was quite wrong to view the equation as a covenant.  It was a warning.  Everything was there:  logarithms, complex numbers, geometry, real numbers.

     And there, right on the other side of the equation for all to see, was a big zero.

     When we had been non-existent, when everything had been zero, nothing had actually changed.  We were still equal to all the terms on the other side of the equals sign.  Those terms contained the universe.  Which means:

     The universe isn’t real.

     In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.  And this isn’t it.  So to warn us, He gave us Euler’s equation.  He fitted the terms of the universe together to show us that it all added up to nothing.

     It’s easy to see our mistake now.  The equation is three-dimensional.  We can see the terms lying flat, but there are other equations at right angles to the equals sign.  We can’t see them because they’re edge-on.  What we have to do is tilt the equation so we can see the other three-dimensional terms.

     These terms define the real universe.  If we can unravel them, we can find out what the real universe is like.  And if we can describe it, we may work out to get there.

     Professor Hazlitt retired, dreading the challenge of the new mathematics.  It doesn’t matter; ultimately, neither of us exists anyway. I have a new team, and we’re working to find the equations that describe the real universe. Somewhere, there is a world with a God, where real people can work and love.  Where Euler’s equation doesn’t make 0.

And this time, we won’t just describe it. People look to us for answers now, and we will find them.  With our constants and our mathematical relationships, we will find God.

~

Bio

Neil James Hudson is the author of around fifty short stories and the novel “On Wings of Pity”. His story collection “The End of the World: A User’s Guide” can be ordered from his website at neiljameshudson.net. He is currently working on a long series of vignettes under the title “One Hundred Pieces of Millia Maslowa”, some of which should be published in the coming months. He lives in the middle of nowhere on the North York moors, and works as a charity shop manager in York.

Stairway to Heaven

by Carlton Herzog

EXCERPT FROM THE 2230 VATICAN CONFERENCE ON THE EXISTENCE OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE PRESENTED BY CARDINAL GIACOMO BONANOTA, CHIEF ASTRONOMER, VATICAN OBSERVATORY, ROME

From antiquity to the present, we have debated whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. In a seemingly unrelated vein, we have also wondered what happens to us when we die. Is death the end, or is it merely a jumping off point to a deeper, more nuanced and granular reality, of which we are only dimly aware? To be sure, I as a man of faith never saw the intimate connection between extraterrestrial intelligence and the soul. That, my friends, has changed.

We all remember the story of Giordano Bruno who championed the Principle of Plenitude. To wit, the cosmos is bursting with an abundance of intelligent life and correlatively, souls. And he believed that those souls were not confined to creatures such as we are or others like us but invested the very planets, stars, meteors and the universe itself. Sadly, we had a hand in his being burned at the stake for heresy, a stain that will never be fully wiped away. Today, I take a small step toward atonement by submitting for your approval that Bruno was correct on both points. I make that bold claim not as a matter of faith or as a regurgitation of official church doctrine. Rather it stands on the ground of irrefutable scientific evidence.

Until recently nobody knew for sure whether there was a soul or not, and if there were what happened to it once it left the body. A paranormal researcher, named Jake Cody, theorized that the physical body acts like a matrix or womb around which the soul forms and grows.  It’s composed of elementary particles that have a lot in common with neutrinos–very low mass and the ability to pass though ordinary matter undetected. When the body dies, the soulons decouple. Cody believed soulons to be the source of apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists.

He built a device–what he called a psy-scope–to detect the wandering souls. When Cody trained his scope at locations supposedly infected with ghosts and specters, he didn’t have any luck. One day it hit him that if souls were indeed massless, they would not be tethered by gravity. So, he aimed his scope skyward. But it wasn’t until he aligned the detectors along Earth’s magnetic field that he struck pay-dirt. Sure enough, he caught sight of souls moving in great looping arcs toward the poles and then breaking free into a vast migration.

But there was an unexpected twist: the number of souls exceeded the daily mortality rate by a factor of ten. From that finding, Cody postulated that a lot of animals we think don’t have souls–dogs, apes, whales, dolphins, octopi, even cows and chickens–do, albeit more primitive versions of our own. That got him to thinking his psyscope could be used to detect life outside our solar system by finding soul streams leaving exo-planets. In theory, he believed that he could re-trace a line of streaming souls back to their planetary source, thus pinpointing where to focus a search for life.  Cody also believed that just as we can identify spectral emissions in light as corresponding to certain elements, he could do the same with psychic spectra to identify intelligence.

Theory in hand, Cody approached the neutrino hunters on the Galileo array and asked if he could repurpose one of their detectors as a psy-scope to pursue his research. They agreed, and the data they’ve received confirms Cody’s theory.

Nobody likes to hear they have been demoted. In this case, Cody’s theory means that we were no better than animals or extraterrestrials when it comes to being admitted to an afterlife, an afterlife automatically bestowed by the laws of nature. And while Cody’s theory seems to rule out Heaven’s pearly gates, it raises many a question. For one, why are the souls drawn to the black hole at the center of our galaxy? At this distance, black hole gravity would have no more effect on them than it does on us. Clearly, some other force is at work, one that might be purposeful. And while a black hole would crush ordinary matter, it might serve as a conduit to an elsewhere or an else-when for massless particles, such as soulons.

The images show that our galactic black hole is nested inside a spherical halo of souls. Around its accretion disc there exists a coextensive rotating ring of souls–with its own internal velocities, bifurcations and currents–that plunges radially into the black hole.

Cody believes that the entire contraption forms an over-mind–a dense supermassive guiding intelligence. A galactic hive-mind, if you will.

The question then is whether in addition to the cosmos, there is a psymos, a psychic universe with a life and purpose of its own, such that our physical universe is nothing more than the caterpillar’s chrysalis, and in time, we and the physical universe we inhabit will pass away into something transcendent.

Cody wants to contact these over-minds. Although his empirical data is sound, I am skeptical of its utility beyond the realm of pure scientific understanding. Even if everything he contends is true, I doubt that the corporeal and the psi could have a common language.

Questions such as what role, if any, did the over-minds play in the formation of the universe? Do they know the fate of the universe, and are they in control of it? Do they remember their earthly existence, and if so in what detail and with what, if any, emotion?

I submit that the difference between the living and the dead is like that between a caterpillar and a butterfly. Same creature, but their approach to life and concomitant needs are radically different. I see a hand in the front row. Bishop Charles, my old friend from London, how might I elucidate these matters for your learned self?

“First, I want to thank you for an excellent presentation. My question speaks to the matter of what constitutes such a mind. If it be not driven by neurons and neurotransmitters, is bereft of grey and white matter, as well as all the other cranial components that house and drive human consciousness how then can you say these soulons have minds at all. Perhaps they are just the mindless remnants of consciousness shed by the brain the way a snake sheds its skin.”

I’m glad you asked that question. I’m sure you are familiar with Sir Robert Penrose’s work of some two centuries ago. He showed that consciousness was merely the surface condition, the foam if you will, on very deep waters that sounded in the quantum realm. Our physical reality, if I may repeat myself, is simply a womb for that energy to coalesce into something far more complicated and enduring than our tiny, fragile minds can imagine.  In that regard, I quote the great thinker J.S. Haldane who famously said, the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

More to your point, I am proposing, as indeed is Mr. Cody, that a soul possesses a different form of consciousness, one not tied to the needs and limitations of the body, one that can travel across vast galactic distances and see things we can only imagine, and draws power, purpose and structure from a hidden quantum reality we may never fully know. Cardinal Enright, you have a question?

“More like an observation. I would venture to say that a soul would remember every aspect of its life here on earth. That would be consistent with conservation of energy laws, since consciousness is at root an organized configuration of informational energies. But I don’t think a soul would miss its earthly life. Perhaps, because emotion would persist into the afterlife only in the vestigial sense. Or because the soul would know that death is merely a transitional phase toward something more enduring. And I suspect its sense of time would be much different.”

Thank you, Cardinal Enright. Thank you all for your kind attention. I’m about out of time, so let me wrap this presentation up.

Whether you concur with Cody and myself, or you hew to a more doctrinal view of the afterlife, I think we can all agree that we are all related to the infinite, even though we cannot with microscopic precision lay out the contours of that relationship, beyond a few particulars. I submit that is what it is to be human. How that came about, or why, is perplexing to be sure. But it gives us a needed humility and perspective in the fact of vast, cosmic grandeur as we trudge the road of unfathomable destiny. We are not the center of creation. Something else, some call it God, is—a something whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

~

Bio

Carlton Herzog served as a flight dispatcher in the USAF. He later graduated magna cum laude from Rutgers University. He also graduated from Rutgers Law School, where he served as the Rutgers Law Review Articles Editor. He currently works for the federal government.

The Unwelcome Reply

by Andrew Fraknoi

Trans-World Science Foundation Director Hayashi Itokawa was known for getting down to business.  “Dr. Kaufmann,” he asked as soon as his guest had sat down, “How sure is your team that you have interpreted the message correctly?”

Bill Kaufmann tried to compose himself and not start with the first sarcastic response that came to mind. As if his team had not spent hours going through all the ways they might have gone wrong before ever putting together that damn report!

What he replied was, “Well, as you can imagine, the team was asking itself that question regularly.  As we explain in our report, we had the best civilian and military code-breakers form three teams and work separately. All came up with essentially the same interpretation.  The damn aliens made it easier by using many of the characteristics of the old message from Earth that they picked up.”

Thinking this was still a bit strong, he added, “Director, I know this message is not what anyone was waiting or hoping for.  We have struggled with other possibilities, including the suggestion by Dr. Kavanaugh that it’s a practical joke or initiation prank played by an older civilization on a naïve younger one.  With this in mind, we have been waiting to see if the message changes to some other contents.  But this is all they keep sending, month after month.”

He paused, but decided to say a bit more, “Still, the message is of enormous scientific value.  Provided it’s on the level, it not only tells us we are not alone in the Galaxy, but helps us calibrate the frequency of intelligent life for the first time. And it strongly implies that technological life is more common that even the most optimistic interpreters of the Drake Equation ever thought.”

Itokawa did not look the least mollified. “Yes, but to send such a reply.  Did they not realize its effect on the morale of the recipients?”

Kaufmann knew what he meant.  His assistant had spent many hours online and considerable sums buying sweet snacks at the Farside Bakery.  Anything to cheer up his team as the analysis continued.  “Director, the team’s best answer to that is to point to all the species of life we have allowed to go extinct on Earth. Sometimes, in our rush toward progress, it’s easy to forget where we came from.”

“But those were animals or plants.  Here we are talking about species that have constructed advanced radio telescopes and built up an understanding of astronomy.  Don’t these creatures have a feeling for the harm such a message can do?”

Kaufmann’s team had debated that question from many angles.  The easiest answer was to point to analogous human behavior, of course, but everyone had assumed that interspecies behavior would be guided by the better angels of everyone’s nature.

“Director, I know what you mean.  We all felt that way.  But they may simply value truth more than the niceties of conversation.”

Itokawa looked at him for a while before speaking.  With a flick, he brought up the message up on the tri-d platform next to his desk.  “And what niceties of conversation do you suggest I use when I show this to the Director-General and the Council?”

Kaufmann knew Itokawa’s reputation well enough to realize that he was not just making a point about the situation they were in, but genuinely trying to find a way out of what would be a politically hazardous meeting for the Foundation.  Trans-World Director-General Agrawal was actively trying to build a “good news administration” after all the years of bad news that the Earth and its colonies were just learning to reverse. The human species was only now emerging from decades that had demanded enormous societal and personal sacrifices.

“I wish I had an easy answer to that. I would stress the good news about our not being not alone… Even if our place in the scheme of things is perhaps not as we would want it to be.”

After a moment, he added, “And this discovery means the investment in the array of radio dishes on Farside has been justified.”  As soon as he said it, he realized how petty and self-serving this sounded.

Itokawa sighed, and said, “Dr. Kaufmann, I know there is a long tradition that warns us not to blame the messenger for the message.  It’s not your fault, or the team’s fault, that this is the first reply we got.  Maybe we shouldn’t have sent messages a century ago to all those possibly habitable planetary systems.  Still, you can’t blame me for wishing that this answer had come at a different time.”

“No sir, Kaufmann replied, “but there really never would have been a good time for this message, would there?”

Itokawa didn’t seem to have an answer for that, so he simply turned to the tri-D.  Together they read again the first alien message humanity had ever received:

Best Translation of the Scorpius Message:

Dear Intelligent Beings:

We have received your transmission.  Your message is important to us.  Regrettably, your message has arrived at an unusually busy period.  Many messages have reached us from the outer parts of the Galaxy at approximately the same time.  We answer all messages in the order they are received, and will respond to yours as soon as our staff has the time.  Currently, wait times for a response are approximately 500 orbital periods of your planet.

~

Bio

Andrew Fraknoi retired as Chair of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College near San Francisco in 2017, and now teaches short courses for retired people at the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco and the OLLI Program at San Francisco State University. He is the lead author of a free, open-source introductory astronomy textbook (published by the nonprofit OpenStax Project at Rice University) and has written two books for children and several activity manuals for teachers. He is on the Board of Trustees of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute and served for 14 years as the Executive Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The International Astronomical Union has named Asteroid 4859 Asteroid Fraknoi in recognition of his contributions to the public understanding of science. You can read more of his work and about his work at fraknoi.com.