The Unfolding Universe (fiction)

Copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2020

Buster bounced up and down with an exuberance rarely found outside the canine world. His owner was up early this morning, and that might be cause for excitement. A ride in the car – a walk in the park – maybe just an early breakfast. He tried to figure it out at a subconscious level. His brain was only the size of a lemon, yet evolution had granted it the ability to recognize subtle patterns. What was she doing, and what was she going to do next?

Shelly stood at the bathroom sink, brushing her long blonde hair and applying just a hint of makeup. This, combined with the overwhelming scent of perfume, told Buster that a walk was not in the cards, at least not until she returned from wherever she was going. Yet Buster was not discouraged, since dogs are virtually immune to that particular malady. Shelly would probably take him for a walk later on that evening, and for now, there was breakfast, and petting, and the bond of mutual adoration between dog and owner.

A black head with floppy ears appeared in the lower left corner of the mirror, then dropped out of sight. Satisfied with her hair, Shelly put down her brush and turned towards Buster, a three-year-old black lab who carried just a little more than his ideal weight. Shelly stroked his head and back and addressed his concerns as though she could read his thoughts.

“Yes, you’re a good dog. I’ll get you some breakfast, and then I have to go. I’m glad the conference is here in Chicago. Two years ago, it was in San Francisco, and I was gone for two nights. You didn’t like that at all, did you? – although Marcy took good care of you, didn’t she? She always does.”

The dog food made a loud clatter as it fell into the metal bowl. Buster responded to this sound as though it were Pavlov’s bell. His head crashed into the underside of the bowl, almost knocking it from Shelly’s hand. She placed it on the mat next to the water bowl, patted him on the head, and turned towards the door.

“I hope Buster doesn’t talk Marcy into a second breakfast.” she thought as she reached for a light jacket. “He’ll tilt his head and look pathetic, but Marcy should know better.”

Shelly stepped onto the platform just as the train slowed to a stop. She congratulated herself as she stepped aboard, her timing impeccable as always. The morning train was crowded, but there were a few seats available. She sat down next to a business man who worked in the financial district. He was reading the Wall Street Journal, so their conversation was limited to a quick salutation. Others were simply dozing, or staring at the paper, or sipping coffee from large Styrofoam cups. Everyone on the early train seemed to be half asleep, and the feeling was contagious. Her blue eyes narrowed, then closed altogether as her head leaned to the right.

In her mind, stars crashed together in a blazing fireball, vaporizing people and planets alike. All life, all information, everything man had ever accomplished, turned to plasma under the trillion-degree heat.

“Excuse me.”

Shelly woke with a start as the businessman tapped her on the arm. They had reached Union Station, and passengers were filing out of the train and into their work-a-day worlds.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled as she picked up her notebook and stood up. She stumbled out of the train and onto the platform where people were milling about, going this way and that. Shelly found the crowd comforting. Being alone on a street at night, now that’s frightening, but a sea of people offered security. The Willis Tower was just a few blocks away, and the morning air revived her as she walked along the busy streets. The revolving doors were large enough to admit an entire family, but strangers sometimes tried to remain inside their own partitions, separated from each other by glass walls. Shelly shared her quarter circle with another gentleman, and stepped into the lobby. “Plenty of time,” she thought, glancing at a clock on the wall. She opened her notebook and checked the schedule.

Room 375

Shelly stepped aboard an elevator, her notebook tucked under one arm. An electronic bell announced the second floor, then the third, as the car came to a stop.

She stepped out into a hallway with deep blue carpeting and fluorescent lighting overhead. Room 341 … 343 … 345 – at least she was headed in the right direction. The corridor ended in a T intersection with the conference room just ten meters to the right.

Scientists clad in jeans and button shirts drifted into the room and gravitated towards the doughnuts. Shelly selected a large round confectionery that was likely to be filled with jelly or custard.

“Are you ready?” asked Dr Steel, the moderator of the conference.

“Sure – I guess,” she replied through her doughnut, which did indeed contain custard.

“Well, we’re all looking forward to your presentation.”

Shelly took her place in the front row with the other speakers. Behind her, five rows of tables and chairs, unevenly spaced, were collecting scientists with doughnuts and coffee in hand. Dr Steel stepped to the front of the room, erased the whiteboards, arranged his notes, and issued other conspicuous gestures that indicated the conference was about to start.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the fifth annual conference on cosmology and the fate of the universe.”

He paused to adjust his glasses beneath thinning gray hair. “We have some new results to share with you, and this year, I think we have all the bases covered. We’ll describe every path the universe might take, from the probable to the unlikely. And we’ll see if we have any say in the matter, though I’m guessing we don’t.” A few people in the audience chuckled nervously. “As you know, the universe could collapse back onto itself, or it could spread thin, or it could tear itself to shreds. Our first three speakers will address these very different scenarios. Then, after a nice lunch of sub sandwiches, Dr Castles will try to salvage the situation.” He gently tapped a large wooden box that sat on the table next to the overhead projector, then stepped away and introduced the first speaker. With the help of a 3⨯5 card, he described Shelly’s education, affiliation, and accomplishments, then took a seat in the third row.

Shelly walked towards the front of the room and stood between the overhead projector and the whiteboards, notebook in hand. She opened with an apology, as women often do. No matter how accomplished, they still find themselves out of place in a male world.

“I’m sorry I didn’t have time to create overheads, so I’m just going to write on the board. I hope you can see from the back; I’ll try to write large.” She picked up a marker.

“A ball tossed into the air is an analogy, albeit imperfect, for the universe. The ball rises, until gravity pulls it back to your hand – back to the point of origin. If you could throw it hard enough, it would escape Earth’s gravity altogether. It would fly away forever.

“The universe began at a point in spacetime that we call the Big Bang. Matter flew apart in a violent explosion, and local pockets of material coalesced into the stars and planets we know today. If there is enough matter in the universe, the galaxies will stop flying apart and fall back together under mutual gravity. This is similar to the ball at the top of its arc. Gravity will win the day. But if there isn’t enough matter in the universe, or if the galaxies have enough speed, they will fly apart forever. And then there’s dark energy, which I’m not even going to talk about.”

She glanced at the wooden box and was tempted to lift the lid, but she let it be. The audience waited patiently, since this was merely background information for them. Questions were not forthcoming, so she resumed, offering another apology. “I’m afraid my talk isn’t terribly relevant, because we know the universe is going to expand forever, with or without dark energy, but there is a certain scientific curiosity to a contracting universe, and that has been the focus of my research.”

Shelly erased her simplistic drawing of a ball rising into the air and replaced it with a series of equations connecting general relativity and entropy. Her mind handled these concepts as easily as a child plays with blocks. Startled by the transition, some of the scientists scrambled for their phones, anxiously photographing the equations for future reference.

“There are two points of interest – when the galaxies are at their maximum spread, and when the universe collapses back into a singularity. These equations suggest a link between entropy and time. In other words, our perception of time, and perhaps the reality of time, depends on the increase in entropy. But it’s only a theory, of course.” She paused to write more equations on the board, then continued. “It’s possible that time reverses itself when the universe reaches its maximum size and begins to fall back on itself. Entropy decreases at that point, and some people wonder if time might run backwards. What would that be like … ?”

John Landers looked across the table at his wife Sarah, and then out the window. There were only a few stars left in the sky; most of them had run their course. “Time reversal in 50 seconds.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” asked Sarah.

“No, but it was on the news yesterday, and some people think it’s possible.”

Sarah thought for a moment, burning 28 of the remaining 50 seconds, then she spoke slowly. “Well, just in case it’s true, I want you to know that I love you, and I always have, and I always will. I want that to be one of the last thoughts in the universe.”

Emotion filled John’s brain as he processed his wife’s words and translated them into images. He took a long sip of coffee and watched the clock on the wall. Four, three, two, one, zero.

John lifted the cup to his lips as coffee separated from hydrochloric acid in his stomach and rose up his esophagus. Leaving the saliva behind, it flowed back into the cup and gained a few degrees of heat. John placed the cup on the table as images of his beautiful wife ran backwards in his brain. Thoughts pulled back to language units, which came from phonemes, which came from vibrations in his ears. The sound waves raced across the room and ran into Sarah’s mouth, vibrating her vocal chords and leading to the thoughts in her brain.

Twenty billion years later, Gregory Peck walked backwards across a movie set, erasing his masterful role in the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Two years later, Harper Lee unwrote the book. Two million years later, humanoids uncrafted the first stone tools, and four billion years later the earth separated into a ring of asteroids and planetesimals orbiting the sun.

A graduate student from Berkeley lifted his hand and spoke. “I don’t see how a universe, 30 billion light years across, can uniformly stop in time and reverse course. There must be some sections that are still increasing in entropy, while other sections start decreasing. There is no way for these local areas to communicate. And if each galaxy follows its own rules, then I should be able to make time run backwards simply by decreasing entropy in a box – my freezer at home for instance.” There was a pause as everyone digested his argument. “You see what I mean,” he continued.

“Well,” Shelly commented, “the theory – and it’s just a theory – depends on shrinking spacetime, not just decreasing entropy. But you may be right.” She erased the two whiteboards. “Let’s assume this is not the case, and we retain our faculties to the end. What can we say about the big crunch at the end of time? It is possible that information is not lost as you throw an encyclopedia into a black hole, or as the entire universe falls into the big crunch to create the next universe. It’s another theory.” She paused and filled half a whiteboard with equations. “Perhaps we can set the physical constants of the next universe by arranging the matter in this universe, just before it falls into the final black hole.”

“Can we do more than set the constants?” asked a professor from Harvard. “Could we send real information?”

“Think of the big crunch as a telescope in reverse,” Shelly replied, “that shrinks all patterns into microscopic proportions. Arrange the supermassive black holes in just the right way and you’ll set the speed of light, the charge on the electron, the fine structure constant, and so on, to nine or ten decimal places. Arrange galaxies and smaller black holes to achieve six more decimal places. Arrange stars, planets, moons, mountains, etc, and you could, theoretically, set these constants to an arbitrary precision. The next intelligent race could then determine these constants, skip past the first few decimal places, as those are necessary for life, and read a message in the remaining numbers.

“Of course the engineering needed to set these constants, and read these constants in the next universe, is almost unimaginable. Surprisingly, reading them may be harder than setting them. Quantum mechanics places a limit on our ability to measure these constants.” Shelly moved to another board and filled it with duality equations, waves and particles, velocity and momentum, and other inescapable uncertainties. “As a rough guess, we could only transmit a few hundred bits of information, even in theory. And remember, we have to transmit the primer, a self-describing key to the language, before we could transmit the message. Perhaps we could get one thought into the next world. ‘Hey, Lucy, don’t stand up, or your descendants will be going to chiropractors forever more.’ Or perhaps, ’Hey, don’t invent nuclear weapons; given enough time, a catastrophic accident is bound to happen.’ You couldn’t hope to send more than that, and even this is wildly optimistic.”

Silence fell upon the room, each man and woman lost in thought. All their accomplishments, all their thoughts and dreams, reduced to one message that would fit on the back of an envelope, if that. Even Shelly, who had studied this scenario for years, was not immune. Futility seemed to flow into her head from an outside source, as though her mind were being directed by telepathy. She stared at the box on the desk, then took two steps back, as though it might be the source. Indeed, the force seemed to weaken as she distanced herself from the mysterious object, so she quickly took her seat in the front row.

“The Mule!” A part of her wanted to shout it out loud, but the memory was muted, held within a dark corner of her brain. The Mule was a character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy who communicated telepathically, but his transmissions were emotions rather than thoughts. He could make his victims excited, lonely, afraid, elated, depressed – anything at all. And given our evolutionary history, there were plenty of negative emotions to choose from. Was there a Mule present in the room? She didn’t suspect an active, malevolent agent, but rather, a mind so powerful that it passively influenced the emotions of others, the way a strong magnet can induce the same field in a nearby block of iron. Suddenly, the feeling subsided, though undercurrents persisted, tugging at her rationality.

Dr Steel stepped forward and introduced the next speaker. As he recounted Dr Michaels’ accomplishments and affiliations, he gently, subconsciously, tapped the wooden box on the desk. Shelly noticed the gesture, even if nobody else did. There was something about that box.

Andrew Michaels stepped forward and erased Shelly’s equations with a few quick strokes. He opened with a question. “What if there isn’t enough mass to pull the universe back together?” It was rhetorical; he didn’t expect an answer.

“Personally I’m rather skeptical of the dark energy claims. They certainly qualify as extraordinary, and I haven’t seen the extraordinary evidence.” A few people in the audience recognized Sagan’s mantra and nodded. “But just about everyone agrees the universe will not collapse upon itself. So – what happens if time goes on forever, and the universe spreads thin?”

Andrew drew a timeline on the first whiteboard. “The main-sequence stars will run out of fuel in a few billion years, and the light-weight stars, which burn hydrogen more slowly, will grow dim in a trillion years or so. The universe will be a dark place, but I’m not too worried about that. We’re clever, and we’ll find ways to turn matter into energy. But another catastrophe is on its way.”

He moved to the center of the timeline, which was logarithmic. “The protons and neutrons that make up all matter in the universe are decaying, even as we speak. The protons in this room, the protons in the air you breathe, and the protons in your body and mine; they will all be gone in about 10 to the 46th years. That’s ten billion billion billion billion billion years, so it’s not an immediate crisis, but if the universe lives forever, it’s going to happen. Before it does, we need to evolve into a new life form that does not require matter. If we don’t, life as we know it will come to an end. Our descendants must make due with electrons, positrons, and photons, and a few other leptons that do not decay.”

“Is it possible to create life using only these fleeting particles in the vacuum of space?” asked Dr Steel. His curiosity seemed to be contagious, as everyone tried to picture a coordinated swarm of electrons whirling about in space. Would it be happy, or sad? It would certainly be lonely.

“Perhaps, but there is another problem.” Dr Michaels moved to the end of his timeline. “Every form of life involves energy transfer, which implies an increase in entropy. In other words, you can’t think without burning glucose in your brain. A computer can’t process without electricity. Consciousness requires energy to flow downhill from a concentrated source out to waste heat, which is dispersed throughout the universe. After ten to the 200 years, all the black holes will have evaporated. The entire universe hovers at a trillionth of a degree above absolute zero. There is literally nothing for our cloud creature to eat.”

Zymen was hungry; he was always hungry. Was it a desperate emotion, or an intellectual understanding? Did he feel the pain of a slow death, or did he simply know that a dearth of energy would spell the end of his existence? The answer lies somewhere in between, because that’s the way his human creators had designed him so many eons ago. They wanted him to survive against all odds, and that requires a drive that transcends rational thought. So Zymen was given a subconscious, a center of emotion that he could not fully comprehend. A hunger, a will to survive. He understands the wisdom of this architecture, but it annoys him nonetheless. It’s not his fault there is nothing to eat!

Why did they create him in the first place? Why was he charged with guarding the secrets of the universe?

Along with hunger, Zymen possessed a rudimentary sense of pain, which was also beyond his intellectual control. He experienced pain whenever information was lost. Yet this too was inevitable. Only a trillion years ago the laws of probability stacked up against him, and there were no incoming photons for millennia. None at all! With no energy coming in, he could not maintain the entire storehouse of information, which was stored in a form of dynamic RAM. It has to be refreshed from time to time or it evaporates into space. Zymen was forced to jettison Macbeth, by William Shakespeare. The words of the play, encoded in dancing electrons, drifted away into nothingness as particles wandered off into space. You may as well ask a human to cut off one of his fingers. Zymen screamed in pain to nobody in particular as the story vanished forever.

But that was a long time ago. Lately he’d been enjoying a feast of random events. Just last year he captured a photon that was almost 43 degrees above absolute zero. It must have come from a supernova in the distant past. Perhaps it began life as a gamma ray, but over time it was red-shifted down to a relatively cold photon. Cold by human standards, but piping hot to Zymen. He relished it the way you might enjoy a bowl of hot soup on a cold winter’s day. With his newfound energy he quickly refreshed The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. He especially liked this book because of the stark contrast between feast and famine, rags and riches. It was a parallel to Zymen’s life, which depended on chance events outside his control.

A fitting name, Zymen. It was last alphabetically on the list of names at the time of his creation, and he would be the last living thing in the universe. Perhaps the name was a cruel joke, a constant reminder of the end.

Zymen was now nearly 300 light years in diameter, a swirling collection of electrons and positrons performing the coordinated dance of life. A single thought took 300 years to travel from one part of Zymen to another, yet this was not a problem, for his thoughts had slowed to a crawl to conserve energy. His CPU clock, if there was such a thing, took one step every few million years. He was always searching for ways to think slower, as that eased his hunger. If you can’t get more food, reduce your metabolic rate.

Sometimes Zymen would try to think like a human, but their world of matter and sights and sounds was almost unimaginable. Their emotions, an unintended byproduct of evolution, were particularly difficult to grasp. Still, he was endowed with a desperate need to survive, and to spread his precious information into the next generation, whatever that might mean. So he continued to step through time, preserving knowledge as best he could, and waiting or hoping for a miracle, a loophole in the framework of spacetime.

The last dozen photons gave him plenty of spare energy, and Zymen could think again. One more permutation of the laws of physics, and AHA! There it was! There was a way to build a time machine after all. A real time machine that didn’t require a cosmic string or the combined energy of 64 suns. It was indeed possible to transport himself, or at least his information, back to a time when there was matter in the universe, back to a time before all the neutrons and protons decayed into energy, back to a time when stars shown and planets orbited in habitable zones and life evolved. He would almost certainly wind up in a parallel universe, not the one that he inhabited now. That’s how you dodge the grandfather paradox, by winding up somewhere else. So he might be playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to an audience of small green creatures with tentacles and three eyes, but play it he would. And he was sure, quite sure, that they would enjoy Disney’s Aladdin, starring Robin Williams. So his mission would succeed after all. He felt a form of joy, a form of elation. All was not lost.

But how to build the machine? The universe was completely devoid of matter. Even mid-sized black holes had evaporated away. There was nothing left but photons and leptons, thin and cold. Well, at least it was theoretically possible. The problem had switched from physics to engineering.

He thought, and thought, and waited, and thought.

After another 10 to the fortieth years, photons were scarce indeed. Zymen reduced his thoughts to a mere trickle, and still he was forced to abandon literature, music, art, history, and even science, each loss a form of agonizing self-mutilation. Chemistry was jettisoned in its entirety. Since there were no atoms or molecules, it didn’t seem terribly relevant. Eventually Zymen was forced to release the basics of physics and mathematics, including the method of time travel that might have saved him and his storehouse of knowledge. With one last gasp he resigned himself to eternity. Ice-cold photons flowed out of Zymen like a man’s dying breath. Electrons and positrons went their separate ways, spreading thin throughout the universe. Zymen was no more. Life was no more.

When Shelly looked up from her terrifying fantasy, the ultimate expression of death, she saw Dr Steel behind the desk, introducing the next speaker. Slowly, reluctantly, her mind locked on to his words like a radio searching for a distant signal.

“… and he has published four papers on dark energy in the past three years. Please welcome Martin Shoreline.” Dr Steel put his notes back in his pocket and stepped away from the desk.

Dr Shoreline was dressed in a suit and tie, which was a step up from most of the conferees. He was still in his 20s, and he was anxious to impress with his attire, as well as his credentials.

“I’m tempted to leave Andrew’s timeline up,” he chuckled, “but it’s much too long. If our theories are correct, the universe will tear itself to shreds in just a few billion years. Dark energy will push galaxies apart at ever increasing speeds, then each galaxy will spread thin as its stars pull apart. Planets will pull away from their suns, and finally planets, houses, people, and even atoms will tear themselves apart in a Big Rip.” He erased the timeline and drew a new one, which was logarithmic in the other direction. He plotted the destruction of galaxies, stars, planets, people, and atoms, the last occurring a fraction of a second before the end of time.

Tyler Markum wanted to be the last living thing in the universe. It was an obsession, and he spent his life savings making it so. He crawled into his secret homemade air-tight shelter a week before The End, mostly to avoid the mass hysteria that was taking place outside. Murder, rape, suicide, arson – what else was there to do? Everything man had ever accomplished was about to be torn asunder.

The shelter was cramped to be sure – about 2.5 meters on a side, with a bed, an entertainment center, a power generator, a CO[2]-to-O[2] converter, a toilet, and some consumables. The floor was not visible, except for a narrow path from the door to the bed. He scanned the consumables, as if to ask, “Is this really enough for a week?” Satisfied, he closed and bolted the thick steel door. Others would surely discover his hiding place during the next few days, but with luck they wouldn’t be able to break in.

Tyler sat down on the bed and looked out the window, which provided a view of the mid-day sky, thanks to some mirrors and lenses. He didn’t mind being 30 meters under ground as long as he had a window. The Sun was still visible as a bright star in the sky – the only star in the sky. The other stars had long since spun away – too far away to be seen, even with telescopes. The solar system had pulled apart two months ago, with the Earth flying off into space. Except for the tiny dot of light that was once their sun, the day was as black as night, and that only fueled the insanity that ruled the earth. In a couple of days, the Sun would disappear from view, and the sky would become a perfect cloak of darkness pressing down upon the hapless life forms below, who were intelligent enough to realize The End was nigh.

On the fourth day Tyler looked out his window and saw a man looking down at him, holding a lamp in his hand. Fortunately the lights in the shelter were off, so Tyler’s image was not reflected back to the stranger. The man’s expression was one of curiosity, mixed with desperate fear. What was this metal tube sticking up out of the ground? Was it an escape from the inevitable? Was there any escape? Determined to find out what was inside, he found a nearby rock and began banging on the outer lens. The glass was thick, and resisted his efforts, so he found a larger rock and struck with all his might. Eventually the glass broke, and without the final optic, the image of the man was small and distorted. The would-be intruder looked down the tube and realized there was another lens three meters below. He gave up and walked away, which is exactly what Tyler expected. The window was no great loss, since the sun could no longer be seen in the night sky.

On the last day, Tyler watched some of the old movies from the dawn of technology. These were some of the best movies ever made. Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn. After a 12-hour marathon, he looked at the clock on the wall. “Just a few minutes left,” he announced to nobody in particular.

The atmosphere was lifting off of the planet like steam from a boiling pot. As the pressure dropped, seven billion people placed their hands on their ears, trying to hold the air inside. Two minutes later, the air was gone, and people thrashed about the earth like so many fish out of water. Diaphragms moved up and down in great spasms, but lungs remained empty. People died en mass, as their bodies began to pull away from the planet.

A few seconds later, the topsoil spun off into space, taking Tyler and his chamber along for the ride. He enjoyed the zero G. There wasn’t much room in his cubical, but he drifted from side to side, and attempted a mid-air somersault above his bed. Layers of the earth peeled away like an onion, exposing the red-hot core. Tyler wanted to see it, but his periscope was still pointed away from the Earth. Oh well – time was almost up.

He felt a gentle tug on his arms and legs as he tightened his grip on the detonator. He did not wish to die in the vacuum of space, and if his steel walls were strong enough to last ’til The End, he did not wish to be torn limb from limb, either. An image of medieval torture flashed through his mind. The Inquisitor, mad with religion, stretched his victim over a period of several days, all for the glory of God. With care, the heretic could lengthen by a full 30 centimeters. Loud popping sounds accompanied the dislocation of joints, followed by horrific screams. Tyler wanted no part of that, so he had a bomb strapped to his chest.

T minus ten, nine, eight, seven … Tyler was convinced he was the last living thing in the universe. His thoughts would be the last. What should they be? “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit.” No – that kind of nonsense turned people into Inquisitors. How about love? He wasn’t really in love with anybody, and she would be gone in any case. Well, it made no difference what his last thoughts were, so he just counted down. Three, two, one.

Skin and muscle was being pulled in all directions at once. Tyler pressed the button and obliterated himself. Nine seconds later his chamber flew apart, spilling its contents into space. Another seven seconds, and atoms were torn apart.

Once again Shelly had to push the fantasy from her mind as someone touched her on the sleeve. “Would you care for some lunch?” A cheerful young lady with black hair and dark eyes smiled down at her and placed a tray on the table.

“I … I don’t recognize you,” Shelly stammered.

“Oh! I’m not part of the conference. I work for the catering service. It’s not a fancy lunch, but it’s good. I hope you like it.”

Shelly looked at the large sub sandwich on her tray and decided she was hungry after all. The first bite was quite tasty, so she took another, and another. The room was strangely quiet. Yes, everyone was eating, but you would expect some small talk here and there. Everyone was lost in thought; everyone was fixated on The End.

The last speaker, Nancy Castles, addressed the topic of time travel. She took her audience on fanciful trips through black holes and around spinning cosmic strings, and in each case, anything larger than a virus would be torn apart by tidal forces. The only thing that might be sent into the past is a stream of photons, carrying information.

For the first time a wave of optimism swept through the room. Again, the emotion seemed to spring from one mind and spread throughout. Everyone had the same expression, everyone felt the same way. Perhaps Mozart’s concertos would not be lost after all. Perhaps they could be sent into the past, into a parallel universe. Those humans, whoever they are, might be smarter than us, especially if we give them a head start on science and mathematics. They might discover some new laws of physics. They might escape, where we cannot – and they could carry our culture, our history, our accomplishments with them.

Unfortunately, you need a rotating cosmic string, and there might not be any in the universe. If there are, there might not be any in our galaxy, and we’re not likely to traverse intergalactic voids, even in the distant future.

Problems mounted as Nancy continued. The transmitter would have to be so close to the cosmic string that it would be torn apart. And, due to quantum mechanical effects, it was not possible to predict where or when the signal would appear in the parallel universe. It was like putting a message in a bottle and dropping it in a random location in the ocean. But the universe was unimaginably larger than the ocean. The signal would never be found. Never!

There were no questions from the audience. Nancy returned to her seat.

Dr Steel stepped to the front of the room and gingerly tapped the wooden box. A deep depression fell upon the room, and Shelly was sure he was The Mule. “Well, we’ve run out of options. Everything we have ever done, everything we will ever do, is pointless. There is simply no reason to be.” He picked up the box, lifted the lid, and walked towards the first table. “I tried to get some hardship pills, but the shrink just couldn’t see my point of view. He just didn’t understand. So I had to settle for these.” He placed a small paring knife in front of each person, closed the box, and returned to the front of the room. Shelly looked at the blade, silver and shiny, pointing directly at her chest. “The blade is short, but it’s long enough. If you do it right, it’s virtually painless. I’ll show you how, and you can follow my lead.” With one quick stab Dr Steel inflicted a fatal wound. Before he fell to the floor his blood shot out of his chest and spattered across the front of Shelly’s shirt. All around her, others were doing the same.

He was right, there was no escape, no reason to live.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Shelly’s hand hovered over the knife, just a few seconds behind the others, but she froze as a vision of Buster flashed through her mind. If he were here in this room, he would surely be immune to these terrible thoughts. A walk in the park was all that mattered; the fate of the universe was of no consequence to him.

As Dr Steel’s fantastic brain slowed to an electromagnetic halt, Shelly found it easier to resist. “Think,” she commanded to herself. “Think! Concentrate on Buster, his wagging tail, his irrepressible joy. You’ve got to get out of here.”

Slowly, with some effort, she pulled her hand back away from the knife, stood up, and gathered her notebook and jacket. Snap snap snap, and the jacket was closed, hiding the blood on her shirt. She stepped carefully, trying to avoid the spreading pools of blood on the floor. Having made it to the front of the room, she hugged the wall, working her way toward the side door. Finally, she stepped through the doorway and closed the door behind her.

She ran out of the building and raced towards Union Station, her long blonde hair flying in the cool autumn wind. After two blocks, Shelly slowed to a walk, trying not to attract attention. Once again she was one of many, immersed in a sea of commuters.

“Marcy! I’m glad you’re home!”

Marcy looked up with a start as Shelly burst through the door. “Hey, what’s the matter?”

“No time to explain. You’ll hear all about it on the evening news. Right now, I need your help. I just don’t want to think about it any more. If anyone asks, I came home an hour ago. Got it? An hour ago! I said the conference went well, and was interesting, but I had a headache, and decided to leave early. Got it?”

“Sure, but … ?”

Shelly took off her jacket and Marcy recoiled. “Get these in the wash right away. I’m going to run up and take a shower. I’ll explain it all later.”

Marcy gently took the blood stained clothes as Buster bounded into the room. He stopped in front of Shelly and sniffed. Human blood – this was a strange odor indeed. Shelly patted him on the head and went upstairs.

Later that evening, Shelly, Marcy, and Buster went for a walk in the woods a couple of miles from their home. “You probably wouldn’t believe it,” recounted Shelly, “but the feeling was overwhelming. The despair was a physical sensation, a crushing weight. I saw the flash of technology, and our species, and life itself, against the backdrop of eternity, and we are nothing; it all means nothing. Honestly, I almost joined in. I almost picked up that knife and plunged it into my heart.”

Marcy listened attentively without making any judgments. She was the best friend Shelly ever had. “I’m glad you got away. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Anyways, I’m going to change professions. I have to change professions. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to do something else. Maybe open a small restaurant, or a food truck on the streets of Chicago.”

“Whatever you decide, you know I’m here for you.”

“I know.” Shelly stopped and gave Marcy a hug and a long passionate kiss. They caressed for several minutes, until Buster separated them with his nose, as if to say, “Come on, let’s go!”

Shelly reveled in the unconditional love of her partner and the contagious joy of her canine companion. Never again would she contemplate the fate of the universe. There was too much to live for right here and now.