Sea of Photons
By TL Huchu
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
I drift aboard the once illustrious ZSS Chaminuka afloat the never-ending Sea of Photons. I go neither north, east, south nor west, nor up, down, sideways, for it is all the same. My movement is stillness because there is no reference with which I can measure progress. High entropy casts no waves or ripples to buffet my hull and rock me to sleep.
And I haven't slept in a long time.
I close my eyes and am pierced by blinding white light bursting through my eyelids to my retina.
And so I see nothing, have seen everything. One and zero become one and the same. Everything the same forever. And ever.
An old scene plays in my head over and over. A small bungalow with pure white walls and a red roof. A sloping yard with contours, flower beds, fruit trees, bees buzzing in the air, a hummingbird with shining blue wings collecting nectar. The green grass turning slightly yellow in the sunshine, a girl in a white dress with ribbons in her hair.
It isn't a memory, rather fragments of a more vivid whole. Ephemeral. And it's all I have left.
In the fearsome silence I yearn for the sound of a voice not my own. I'm afraid to open my mouth and speak into the void because the sound that comes out might be the bellow of a beast in the abattoir. I can't even hear the beating of my own heart.
So I fiddle the knob and tune into multiple frequencies, searching for voices, echoes, the last signals from long dead civilisations doomed to drift through space without respite.
Life support's been down for a long time. I'm running out of power. So I take refuge in the bridge, black screens all round to save every ampere and divert it to the hull MGE coherence field, the only thing holding every atom in this ship together, myself included. Even my tardigrade gene-modifications couldn't help me without it.
My only indulgences are the echoes of the past that I harvest and show on my holoprojector: old Bollywood dramas of love and betrayal, reality shows from the Kaberone system, nature documentaries in the unspoilt Onaiwo reserves, blockbusters with superheroes, newsreels from the Million Year War. The pictures are seldom clear, too much interference, the signals have travelled too far out and lost their strength. It doesn't really matter, so long as I hear voices. I find it comforting.
The chair I sit on is freezing cold, little cumulus clouds form with each exhalation I make. The air is poisoned with neolyde gas, CO2 and a million other particles. This is the end.
INTRUDER ALERT -- INTRUDER ALERT
How can this be? Using precious energy, I power up the ship. The main screen shows a figure, a dot on the screen, walking from cargo towards the bridge. In the last part of the Cataclysm, space pirates terrorised the entire universe like comets of doom, looting and plundering in a desperate bid to survive one more hour, one more day. I shrouded myself in darkness and watched and wrote.
Until this dot I was all alone. Yet, someone has found me in the vast desolate desert that is space.
The option to activate my defences flashes up on my screen. I ignore it. The intruder draws ever closer, peering through different rooms as he walks along. It will take him a while yet. I blink and the screen changes bringing up the Class G243 Mutarian cruiser nose to nose with my ship. Her sleek silver hull has the blue glow of an MGE field. She's the shape of a spearhead complete with sharp point, all the better for piercing through the extra-dimensions.
There is a woosh of air as the door opens and the intruder walks in.
He raises both hands and dips his head slightly, the customary Mutarian greeting, even here in the desert of all places. He wears a shiny white suit, complete with golden visor to protect against the toxins in my air.
"ZvaatoriMaOne," he says -- Remarkable.
For a Mutarian, seeing a human like me must be like seeing the abominable snow man. I am but a relic of a long dead and extinct species.
My holoprojector captures the wave of an old movie, Wild Strawberries, and I recognise Victor Sjostrom walking across a field. I turn to it and watch until, two minutes later, it flickers and returns to darkness.
"No one actually believes you exist, Archivist," says the Mutarian, "You're the stuff of myth and legend."
It must be a strain for him, a post-human, to speak to me like this. It would be like having to speak with a child, reducing yourself to their level so that they can understand you. The sapling of humanity grew and sprouted into a great tree with many branches through evolution and miscegenation until it spilled out of the Milky Way marching out towards every galaxy and the very end of the universe itself. The Mutarians are but a leaf on that tree.
"They say you discovered the key to immortality and set out on a mission to map and record the entire history of the universe. Is this true?" he asks.
I open my mouth, but it is too dry. My throat has forgotten what it is to form words anymore. But if it's history he wants, I have seen civilisations huddled around red dwarfs for warmth like the embers of a dying campfire on winter's dawn, wars that had no beginning and no end, lovers die of broken hearts, children betray their parents, whole planets destroyed by greed, the face of God itself. And everything I've seen, I have recorded in my Book.
"This is the end," I say to him feeling my tongue scrape around my mouth. My lips hurt as I add, "Even I cannot escape it."
"There are others out there, ships full of people desperately trying to stay alive."
"No one and nothing can survive this."
The cold greyness of the Sea of Photons is infinitely terrifying. Imagine being in a sensory deprivation tank forever, without smell, sight, sound, touch or taste. Outside my ship is the infinite void, space rolling out into vast sameness. It would drive a lesser man mad. My father was a watchmaker and when the solitude gets too much for me, I take out an old Swiss timepiece, break it apart, and, painstakingly, put all seven hundred pieces back together again. However much I follow the design and assemble it according to specifications, the clock never works. But that's okay, for when I'm putting those tiny gears and springs together, I can, for a while at least, forget about the nothingness.
Sometimes I count from zero to infinity and pray somewhere in Plato's heaven numbers exist.
"We need your help," says the Mutarian. "Give us your ship."
"Your tech could make all the difference."
"I owe you nothing."
"Tell me your name."
My name. Yes, my name. I have a name. It's right there on the tip of my tongue. Oh, I've got it. No. It'... What is it? No one has called it in a long time. Why can't I remember? A planet called earth. Moonlight on the black sea at night. My mother used to call my name. She said it sweetly. She was a singer. It began with... I can't remember.
"You've been drifting alone for too long," he says.
The universe used to sing to me. It was loud and proud and bold, a full brass band, hydrogen colliding with helium, iron's fierce drum beat, shy sulphur and oxygen's trombone blasting through the cosmos. It sang for life, for those with the ear to hear. And if I close my eyes, it's there, the rat, tat, pom, pom. But silence reigns now, photons don't sing. Our two voices are the loudest in eternity.
"You just want to take what's mine," I say.
The Mutarian holds out both hands and a bright light shines between them for a minute. When it dies out, there is something there, a small shaving mirror.
"The Chegutus long discovered that what the ancients called dark matter was merely the influence of neighbouring universes on the fabric of our own," he said. "Long my people have sought a way out of this one into the next. The answer has eluded us until only now, almost too late. But it takes the power of a star to punch out into the next and surf the multiverse. There are no more shining stars, we need to find a black dwarf and reanimate it. We have flown from location to location, trying to find one, but we've found none. If there are any still, the ancient technology you are using to watch shows might, with modifications, help where ours has failed."
There is a thing in the mirror. It has black round eyes, a hole where the nose is supposed to be and sunken cheeks. The skin is moth-eaten cotton, tufts of beard -- moss. Frankenstein's monster in the mirror is my face. It is the product of organotransplants, nanotech in the blood, telomere modification, gene upgrades, cyborgification, treachery, deceit, robbery, murder, and all the things I've done across the eons to survive at any price. The cost to my soul is written in scars and cracks and the dead stare of my tearless eyes.
"We can take you with us."
"This ship is mine; you will not take it from me. Security protocol 132," I shout. "If your crew is listening to me, then they should know that I will kill you if you try anything."
"You're no longer human, just an old AI that thinks it is alive," he says. Then he lowers his voice, "The man you once were is long gone. Only the scaffolding is left."
"You're lying. You want to steal my ship!"
"Though our cause has never been more dire, our need never as great, our ship carrying the cargo of DNA maps of every plant and creature we could find, we would not rob you." The mirror in his hands vanishes. "We scanned this vessel before I boarded and found no life signs."
"Liar," I cry out.
"How else could you tolerate these toxic fumes and the cold with your life support down? Even the hardiest Chimanimanians could not survive this atmosphere."
At last I confront the greatest of all lies, the one we tell ourselves. The holoprojector flicks on again. A little girl in a red hood runs through a forest, branches and roots grabbing at her as she goes. The forest is thick and dense, but she runs anyway.
If I close my eyes I see nothing but a thick grey fog, never ending, never changing. The little girl runs in it.
"If you were still human, you'd have gone mad from the solitude by now. We met here at the end of time against impossible odds. The ancestors do not play dice, our chance encounter was meant to be," the Mutarian says in an even voice, his expressions hidden behind the golden visor. "You are our gift from the ancients."
Still, I cannot bring myself to say yes.
"Help us, Archivist."
I see it now. The prospect of rest. No more endless wandering from galaxy to galaxy. I've had to erase myself to do what I have done. No more cloaks with daggers. The Sea of Photons is my oasis, the place where I will rest.
"As long as you take me with you, so I can see the final act and record it in my Book," I say. My heart feels free at last, as if the doors of a dark dungeon have be cast open, flooding the room with light. "And you will also copy my records, so others too can learn from what I know."
One last adventure, the final hurrah by the sons of man against the night, a grand act of defiance against the eternal indifference of the multiverse. What a tale that will make. I give him my ship and everything in it. They will find their black dwarf, and use it to flee this dying universe. I will be there, watching everything as I always have.
And when they are gone, without the GME field to hold me together, I will slowly rust away, until nothing is left, except photons cooling to absolute zero. Time's arrow will stop flying mid-air. Nothing will ever change again. It will be perfect at last.
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