Seventeen thousand years is life enough for anyone. The truth of this came to me suddenly, and I have been unable to shake the gloom it brought with it. I tire easily and find little interest in a new day. Friends I once sought out with anticipation, I now avoid. I resent routine, in particular the unending rejuvenations that do nothing but condition me for more of the same, more of a life that has passed to the heavy side of tedious. Just a short while ago I was content, saw promise in the future, felt desire and love-of-life flow through me as forcefully as it had for seventeen thousand years. Now I feel dead inside.
I have seen this in others but never imagined it could happen to me. There is so much to my universe, so much still to happen, celestial bodies to be born, others to make a show of ending their existence, an unending variety of creatures that will someday reveal themselves, others that will evolve into something we can not even guess at. So much, yet I am bored. With all the power we humans possess, more than I have found a use for, you would think I could manufacture a way out of my lethargy. I have tried, believe me, though lately it is more lip service than determined effort.
We have the power to create life or influence its direction, and having a number of times enjoyed exercising this power, I thought a remedy to my problem would be to involve myself in it again. This worked for a time, the gratification it brought with it enough to capture the most reluctant interest--lesser creatures both awe and fear us, just as our early human ancestors awed and feared what they did not understand. But then, like everything else I tried, it failed.
There is no denying that we are superior beings, that we enjoy powers as godlike as anything yet devised by desperate imaginations. Not only the creation of life, but its termination as well. Were it in our nature to do so, we could eliminate all biological life on any given planet. Fortunately for those who share our universe, we are benevolent, having advanced beyond the need to support egos. Comfortable in our power, we do not hunger after praise or other pettiness that the primitives of old insisted was required of their gods.
Part of my problem is the knowledge that change for my species is impossible. Most of the time since early man began some five billion years ago, we have been evolving. But the pure energy form we have enjoyed for the last fifteen million of those years is so successful that change now makes no sense; it would offer nothing. We have long since abandoned our physical bodies, which near the end were more symbol than substance anyway, like the stub of the tail our human ancestors carried long after the tail itself disappeared.
All very logical, of course. As we propelled ourselves more and more by mental energy alone, we lost what we no longer needed: arms and legs. When we learned to function within an umbrella of energy, snatching sustenance from the stars, we had no need for a heart or a stomach or any other now-redundant organ--they disappeared along with the torso that held them. The last to go was the brain, first its shell then the brain itself, a distinct and separate entity for intelligence no longer necessary--intelligence now flows evenly within us. Finally, having no physical form and lacking ties to what once sustained us, food and shelter, we lost the concept of home. For hundreds of millions of years we have been content to wander the universe, absorbing the wonders it offers.
There is little I have not done in my seventeen thousand years of life. I went anywhere I wished to go, observed new suns as they struggled to be born, others as they suffered their death throes as red giants, novas or supernovas. I examined newly-formed planets, all types and sizes, many likely to develop life in time. I visited new civilizations, thousands of them on as many planets, some as primitive as that of our early human ancestors and some only a billion or so years from evolving into us. I have eased biological creatures along their evolutionary path, and even terminated some that were of no use to anyone, creatures who had evolved to the point where they, so wrapped in argumentative ways, presented a danger to other planetary systems. As I moved about, never spending more than a century or two in one place, I snatched what energy I required from nearby stars or, on occasion, from a black hole I was tempted to approach.
A black hole is difficult to resist. There is a great deal of energy in a black hole, five minutes of exposure to one enough to rejuvenate billions of my species for a century. But there is also danger. Brush by and you scoop up energy; get too close and you disappear--mankind has still not figured that one out. From time to time one of the more daring (or more foolish) among us toys with the event horizon, the point of no return of a black hole, hoping to discover its secrets without being caught. They are never heard from again. I used to pity them, pity their loss of immortality, but now I have doubts. Now I think maybe they grew tired as I grow tired and wanted to end their existence in a spectacular manner--that last part interests me. Or maybe they still live and like it just fine where they are. Maybe we do not hear from them because they have no inclination to contact us. Maybe they are even amused when we express our pity.
My friends are aware that I have reached that delicate point at which the spark cannot easily be re-kindled. They watch in sympathy as I spend a day skirting the outer limits of the universe then the next hovering above a meaningless rock in an obscure solar system. The signs are there, and I would be foolish to deny this. More wise would be to follow where it leads.
I have decided to surrender to the permanent sleep I once pitied in my ancestors but now covet for myself. And I will do it in a way that seems appropriate to me: I will return to the cradle of humanity and join its destruction.
Long since abandoned is a small rock planet orbiting a main-sequence star on the outer edges of an irregular galaxy--it was a spiral galaxy when mankind began some five billion years ago but has since suffered two galactic collisions. Most scholars agree that this is where we began, although they differ with regard to which of the three planets capable of producing life at that time it was. The inner planet, first of nine in that solar system, has been too close to the sun for all of its existence. The five outer planets are too far from the sun, and are more gas than the life-sustaining surface required of biological beings. That leaves three, all of them rock and all within that magic distance from the sun to produce and sustain life. My guess, and most of my colleagues will agree with me on this, is that the first of these is too hot, thus my efforts will be concentrated on the final two, the third from the sun called "Earth" for as long as any of us can remember and its smaller cousin some thirty-five million miles further out. One of these likely got us going.
My time is limited. Not because I follow a macabre schedule leading to a self-imposed extinction, but because this tired star is well on the way to destroying itself. The origin of mankind will soon be liquefied by the very sun that nurtured it for ten billion years.
It takes me no time to get there, the effort no more a challenge than bringing to mind where I wish to go. As I arrive, I pause to gather energy from Earthís sun, which is indeed expanding. Like this sun, I have arrived at some kind of end, although mine will not be as spectacular as this. It matters little to me any longer, but I sense danger here similar to that presented by a black hole, too much of a good thing. Although energy is crucial to our survival, over-consumption can be as fatal to us as over-consumption of biological matter was to the primitive creatures we once were.
I take a moment to appreciate what is happening. With both hydrogen and helium gone, the sun is no longer in balance. Its core is contracting causing the heating and swelling of its gaseous outer edge. The outer edge will ultimately slow its expansion, but because the core does not contain enough mass, the outer edge will not collapse back onto itself. This star will not reach supernova status; it will not explode. Earthís sun will become a red giant then, eons later when the outer edge cools then disperses into the cosmos, it will be seen as a white dwarf, a highly-compacted rock where one cubic inch of matter weighs close to eight tons.
And I will be part of it.
I will not just dare the event horizon of this red giant, I will leap into its grasp, there to embrace the sleep of no dreams it offers. In this solar system my ancestors began and it is fitting that I come back here to die. I will decide for myself which of the two suspect planets started us off then cling to its surface as its sun advances to gobble us up.
As I arrive on the fourth planet from the sun, what was once called Mars, I see how little time I have left. The close-in planet Mercury has already been swallowed; the larger Venus will soon follow. I open my sensors to the fullest to taste the ambient energy of Mars, knowing that its history would be written on it. It is immediately apparent that a thriving civilization of biological beings once occupied this planet, but it takes patient analysis of what is now only a faint trace, to learn what I really want to know, that they made a spontaneous appearance--life on the planet Mars did not evolve. Mars must have been terraformed, slowly brought to a habitable condition over hundreds of years.
It used to take that long. First they introduced a small amount of chloroflorocarbons. This created warmth that permitted the release of carbon dioxide which then accelerated the warming process to the point of permitting water to once again flow on the planet's surface. Having done its job, the carbon dioxide is brought to a manageable level by the introduction of plants, which gobble up carbon dioxide and spit out oxygen. Earth is the closest habitable planet, thus it is logical that it was they who brought this about. Earth is the birthplace of humanity, not Mars.
I transfer my energy to Earth but what I see there is not promising. Its oceans have already begun to boil leaving its atmosphere heavy with steam. My senses easily penetrate the steam, but what is revealed to me is more appropriate to the ancient concept of hell than to the cradle of mankind. Volcanoes are everywhere, their lava shooting skyward with such enthusiasm that, had any biological life continued to occupy this planet, it could not have survived this. There is little of Earth's surface that is not red hot and moving, little of the atmosphere that is recognizable. In place of life-giving oxygen there are toxic fumes, with more pouring from the earth like a waterfall in reverse. Fed by the shaking earth and winds that race across the land at hundreds of miles per hour, lightening strikes build to epidemic proportions. Little of the surface escapes its wrath.
Even with all this violence and the hell it quickly becomes, I am able to sense ambient traces of the civilization that occupied this place for billions of years, from primitive humans to something close to the pure energy form we enjoy today. As it has been more than a billion years since the planet was abandoned, no physical evidence of their presence remains, but I can reconstruct early forms of them in my mindís eye: ape-like creatures barely down from the trees, intellects growing and emotions slow to keep pace.
For the first hundred thousand years of civilization, my ancestors did everything wrong, and although many were aware of this, few were willing to buck the tide of ignorance that shadowed mankind for all of its pre-disaster existence. Had the ancients learned in time how to divert the last great asteroid to hit Earth, we would not be here--ironic in a way; civilization was saved by ignorance. What grew out of that giant hit (and taking a hundred millions years to get there) was a greater intellect, less inclined toward violence or superstition, less prone to permit emotions to govern its behavior. A hundred million years for humanity to get over the disaster, but no one can argue with the results.
Earth's sun continues to expand. I watch as it flirts with the outer atmosphere of Venus. Too short a time later this sister planet to Earth surrenders its independence and dissolves into fire. There is a sense of fatalism in this; I see no explosion, not even a momentary flash, just the equivalent of a sigh as the sun's deadly outer edge wraps its arms around it, then passes on. That will be Earth before long, and the realization of this brings about the first real emotion I have felt in centuries. It is not at all welcome, certainly not what I thought I would feel at my end. It is beyond regret; it is Ö fear; my moment of truth is approaching. But I will not waver, even as sadness stabs at my soul, sadness at the suspicion that, when it comes down to it, my life had no meaning.
By now the sky is mostly sun, and I feel energy like I have never felt before. It brings a deepening of the fear, but not so much that I am tempted to turn and run. I force a face of bravado and invite the approaching energy to do what it may. I even take pleasure in the tingle of what I know is the start of an energy overload, an overload that will lead to my demise.
It amazes me! Here I am, a witness to my own destruction, yet most of what I feel is the excitement of something new, something profound, something I had despaired of ever again feeling. Is this what it is at the end? Is this what all those trillions of long-gone Earth creatures felt as they were forced out of their lives?
I direct my thoughts back to Earth, seduced by a growing sense of presence. Perhaps it is nothing but overworked emotions, but I sense spirits here, spirits that share my nervousness. It is as if all that lived and died over the last ten billion years are crying out in protest at the impending loss of their home. I wonder if I am hallucinating. I try to believe it is the rocks ripping apart, racing to become what they were ten billion years ago, particles of a solar system in transit. But this is not like any rocks I have ever known.
As energy continues to pour into my system the hallucination gathers speed--there is a relationship here. I am able to make out ghosts of creatures of all sizes, shapes and forms, all of them vying for attention. I stare with my mindís eye, slow to accept that this could be real. But I am not enveloped in fear, nor am I suffering stress that is beyond my understanding. I am what I always was, and I was always sane and rational.
I am forced to accept that this is not a hallucination, that this first of my people's worlds really is objecting to its demise, that these spirits are as much a part of this universe as I. As I exist on energy, the remnants of what once lived here also exist on energy.
The energy provided by a sun that will soon be no more.
They surround me, pleading for understanding. Understanding of who and what they are, why they continue to roam their ancient birthplace and why they are afraid--unlike myself, they wish to go on living. I am humbled and chastised by these primitive creatures. Small and helpless, they show more staying power than I. I begin to see them as family, as children, as prized possessions to be cherished and ... protected. I feel a growing need to spare them the pain I had sought for myself, the final pain from which no recovery is possible. I want them to live.
The sun comes closer, covering a sky that Earth's former creatures would have trouble seeing, a sky thick with fire and ash and lingering steam from oceans that are no longer there. My ghosts--and I now think of them as mine--flood my senses with the volume of their collective agony. It brings on a desperation I have never felt before, and I have to wonder if it is the overdose of energy that is causing this. It is a moot point, for a resolve grows within me that will not be stopped. I shout out to the spirits to come closer, and realize as I do so that I am large enough to encompass them all--thick with new-found energy, I have grown. The spirits hesitate at first, but then, as if aware of how few options they have, they flee to my protective umbrella. I spread myself as a blanket, tucking each and every one of them into its fold before closing the gap. Then I gaze at the swelling sun and wait.
The earth moves all around me, flowing with increasing speed and periodically losing pieces of itself to the superior mass of the swelling red giant. I marvel that I am aware of all this, that I have not yet fatally overloaded. My energy absorption has not slowed, yet I function as well as I ever have. Is this also how it is in the end, one's abilities growing rather than diminishing? Will this continue to the point where I become a human supernova, dramatically exploding out of my life?
Far from consoled by such thoughts, my spirits resume their screams. It becomes more the screams of living beings, and I know by this that my ability to perceive continues to grow. I can now distinguish between the cries of a myriad of life forms, all the creatures large and small who once called Earth their home. Long dead, they still roam, and all are aware of what is about to befall them. Unlike myself who elected to stay, they are unable to leave, and even as I offer them protection, they resent me for it.
They fail to see that I am no more able to go than they. And this is more than the energy overdose that is already beyond the point of survivability; these spirits, these troubled Ö children have gotten to me. I am flooded with the need to protect them from the terrible fate that is inches from snuffing out what remains of their long existence. I squirm between the screams of agony and the rapidly approaching red giant in search of an answer.
As their world rips apart, the violence more than they can stand, my ghosts slip into shock. They watch in silence, unable to do anything else. I am heartbroken by their misery. All they were is destined to be lost, whatever curiosity they represented to us, their distant offspring, dissolved into myth. And I, who am here to witness their final agony will not survive to tell the story. I stretch to feel their pain, and cry out in sorrow that I am not able to soften it for them.
Or for me--I find I no longer want to die.
As energy continues to pour into me, I settle into the same sense of fatalism that has befallen them. The sun has all but enveloped us; there is little of Earth that would be recognized as such. I lift my senses to the unrelenting mass of gas as it snatches away the last of mankindís birthplace, aware that it signals the end for me as well. I struggle to be alert for the first sign, a fading of awareness--I am curious about the process of death. My ghosts are quiet, and I hug them tightly, wanting them to know that I understand, that I will keep my energy arms tucked around them as long as I am able to do so.
Our world is now all sun; we have officially entered the grasp of a red giant star. Earth is no more.
It takes a moment to realize that my energy absorption has not stopped. The flow has reached some sort of plateau, but it continues. Yet I do not feel even close to energy overload. My species are obviously wrong in what we think we can endure.
The spirits begin moving within me, and I realize by this that I have been lost in thought, for how long I do not know. We remain in the midst of a superheated star, but the light appears to be thinning--my spirits are quicker to sense this than I. Fascinated, we watch as a new world unfolds, one that none of us has seen before. It brings me to wonder whether death for me has already occurred, with this the dream that follows.
The outer edge of the sun slips on by, leaving us suspended between a red giant and its core, a white dwarf, a tightly compacted mass no larger than the Earth. The heat created by the white dwarf as it falls into itself is still warming the red giant and pushing its outer edges away, though my experience tells me this stage has to be nearing completion. A star with as much mass as our sun would not permit expansion much beyond Earth. The red giant which veraciously gobbled up the home of my ancestors will soon pause then begin to cool.
Still thinking I am on the threshold of death, I am slow to respond to all this. Indeed, I have no idea what "response" would be considered appropriate. But then, having no better plan, I begin moving myself and my charges toward the still-shrinking dwarf. It is brilliantly illuminated by the byproducts of nuclear fusion as lighter elements are compacted into heavier and heavier ones. With every "step" I wonder whether this is reality or the final throes of a dying brain, one that refuses to admit defeat.
The energy that once defined me pales in comparison to what I possess now. I look upon the nuclear explosions permeating the sunís core, and realize that all the energy it has sent out into space since my arrival now rests in me, with more being added each millisecond. I have become a storehouse of energy, all of it mine to use as I wish. I mentally gaze into the many eyes of my spirits and see, not fear of this power but trust, trust in me. Whether from desperation or resignation, they see in me their deliverance. I have carried them through the destruction of their world. They are still here, still alive. And I am as well.
I turn to the white dwarf and stare in thought. This former sun to the cradle of humanity has long nurtured these souls under its wing. I want to believe that it resents the prospect of loosing them, that with its hydrogen and helium gone, it is trying to seduce me with its waning energy, trusting that I, one of its children, will respond. It needs me as an aging parent needs its child.
As I consider the possibilities, I radiate with pleasure.
A symbiosis exists between this aging sun and me. It is physical and I am mental; it is a treasure trove of energy, and I am able to put that energy to good use. Together we are greater than the sum of us apart. Together we can provide salvation for all the creatures who lived and died on the planet Earth.
And in so doing, I will be saving myself.
I now understand what happened to those of my species who ventured into a black hole. They did not perish; they were called to a new level of existence, superior to anything they or I imagined possible. They became, as I will soon become, a shepherd of lost souls. For the billions of years it will take for this white dwarf to cool, then for however long beyond that my stored-up energy lasts, I will protect my ghosts, their wellbeing as dear to me as a newborn is to its mother.
I smile as I wonder whether this is humanity's next step on the evolutionary path, to imitate the gods biological creatures once worshiped.
Bio:NOEL CARROLL is a husband and wife writing team. Noel was a CEO and Carol a nurse before teaming up to co-author stories. Their published works include novels, short stories and satiric essays. Their latest work is a two-book series, Broken Odyssey and Starve The Devil, the latter to be released in December.
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