On planets, they say, water always runs downhill …
Serena had no way of knowing if it was true. She had never been on a planet. Not in her brief million or so year life so far. Nor had any of her acquaintances. The very idea was absurd.
Few Grand Voyageurs ever got to see a planet. Yet, among them, some ancient truisms were still told.
That which goes up must fall, and will …
The clichés came out of a foggy past. Why question them? Why even care?
No matter how far down you fall, you can always go lower still …
Stunned and still nearly senseless from her passage through the maelstrom, Serena numbly contemplated truths inherited through the aeons from distant times when her ancestors actually dwelled on tiny slivers of rock, close to the bright flames of burning stars.
She had had no inkling, when she tunneled away from Spiral Galaxy 998612a with a full cargo, that the ancient sayings would soon apply to her.
Or do they? she wondered. Was she perhaps as far down as one could possibly get? It seemed to Serena, right then, that there just wasn’t any lower to go.
Systems creaked and groaned as her instruments readapted to normal space-time. Serena still felt the heat of her passage through Kaluza space. That incandescent journey via the bowels of a singularity had raised her temperature dangerously near the fatal point.
Now, though, she realized that her radiators were spilling that excess heat into a coldness like none she ever knew before. Blackness stretched in all directions.
Impossible. My sensors must be damaged, she hoped.
But the repair drones reported nothing wrong with her instruments.
Then why can I not see stars?
She increased the sensitivity of her opticals, increased it again, and at last began to discern patterns—motes of light—spread across the black vault.
Tiny, tiny, faraway spirals and fuzzy globes.
Had she been an organism, Serena might have blinked, closing her eyes against dismay.
Serena had traveled deep space all her life. It was her mission—carrying commerce between far-flung islands of intelligence. She was used to black emptiness.
But not like this!
Galaxies, she thought. No stars, only galaxies, everywhere.
She knew galaxies, of course—island universes containing gas clouds and dust and vast myriads of stars, from millions to trillions each. Her job, after all, was to haul gifts from one spiral swirl to the next, or to and from great elliptical giants, galaxies so huge that it seemed extravagant of the universe to have made more than one.
She had spent a million years carrying cargo from one galaxy to another, and yet had never been outside of one before.
Outside! She quailed from the thought, staring at the multitude of foggy specks all around her. But there isn’t anything outside of galaxies!
Oh, she had long used distant ones for navigation, as stable points of reference, but nearly covered in a swarm of nearby stars in a great galactic disk, vast because it lay all around her, a bright, restless, noisy place filled with traffic and bustling civilizations.
She had always felt sorry for the members of those hot little cultures, so busy, so quick. They flashed through their tiny lives so briefly. They never got to see the great expanses, the vistas that she traveled. Their kind had made her kind, long ago. But that was so far in the past that few planet-dwellers any longer knew where the Grand Voyageurs had come from. They simply took Serena and her cousins for granted. Packing her holds with treasures to carry to the next culture, in a never-ending chain of paying-forward.
No, she had never been outside before. For traveling among the galaxies had never meant traveling between them.
Her job was to ply the deep ways at the hearts of those galactic swirls, where stars were packed so dense and tight that their light hardly had room to escape, where they whirled and danced quick pavanes, and occasionally collided in brilliant fury.
Sometimes the crowded stars combined. In the core of every galaxy there lay at least one great black hole, a gravitational well so deep that space itself warped and curled in tight geometries. And these singularities offered paths—from one galaxy to another.
The great nebulae were not linked at their edges, but at their hearts.
So how did I get here? Serena wondered. Here, so far from any galaxy at all?
Part of the answer, she knew, lay in her cargo bay. Pallet fourteen was a twisted ruin. Some violent event there had bruised her Kaluza fields, just at the most critical phase of diving into a singularity, when she had to tunnel from one loop of space-time to another.
In disgust she used several of her remote drones to pry apart the tortured container. The drones played light over a multicolored, spiny mass. Needlelike projections splayed in all directions, like rays of light frozen in midspray. The thing was quite beautiful. And it had certainly killed her.
Idiots! she cursed. Nobody had informed her that antimatter was part of her cargo. In Kaluza space, normal means for containing it were inadequate. She had thought even the most simpleminded quick-life cultures would know to take precautions.
She tried to think. To remember.
In that last galaxy there had been funny little creatures who twittered at her in languages so obscure that even her sophisticated linguistic programs could barely follow them. The beings had used no machines, she recalled, but instead flitted about their star-filled galactic core on the backs of great winged beast/craft made of protoplasm. A few of the living “ships” were so large that Serena had been able to see them unmagnified—as specks fluttering near her great bulk. It was the first time she recalled ever seeing life up close, without artificial aid.
Perhaps the creatures had not understood that machine intelligences like Serena had special needs. Perhaps they thought …
Serena had no idea what they thought. All she knew was that their cargo had exploded just as she was midway down the narrow Way between that galaxy and another, diving and swooping along paths of twisted space.
To lose power in a singularity. Serena wondered. It had happened to none of the Voyageurs she ever encountered. But sometimes Voyageurs disappeared. Perhaps this was what happened to the ones who vanished.
Her attention kept drifting across the vault surrounding her. The brush strokes of light lay scattered almost evenly across the sky. It was unnerving to see so many galaxies, and no stars. No stars at all.
Plenty of stars, she corrected herself. But all of them smeared—in their billions—into those islands in the sky. None of the galaxies appeared to be appreciably above average in size, or appreciably closer than any other.
By this time her radiators had cooled far below the danger level. How could they not? It was as cold here as it ever could get. Enough light struck her to keep the temperature just near three degrees absolute. Some of that faint light came from the galaxies. The rest was long-wave radiation from space itself. It was smooth, isotropic. The slowly ebbing roar of the long-ago birth of everything.
Her remote drones reported in. Repairs had progressed. She could move, if she chose.
Great, she thought. Move where?
She experimented. Her drives thrummed. She felt action and reaction as pure laser light thrust from her tail. Her accelerometers swung.
That was it. There was no other way she could tell she was moving at all. There were no reference points, whose relationships would slowly shift as she swept past. The galaxies were too far away. Much, much too far away.
She tried to think of an adjective, some term from any of the many languages she knew, to convey just how far away they were. The truth of her situation was just sinking in.
Serena knew that a planet-bound creature, such as her distant ancestors, would have looked at her in amazement. She was herself nearly as large as some small planets.
If one of those world-evolved creatures were to find itself on her surface, equipped with the requirements to survive, it might move in its accustomed way—it had been called “walking,” she remembered—and spend its entire brief life span before traveling her length.
She tried to imagine how such creatures must have looked upon the spaces between their rocky little worlds, back in their early days. It was a millionfold increase in scale from the size of a planet to that of a solar system. The prospect must have been daunting.
Then, after they had laboriously conquered their home planetary system, how they must have quailed before the interstellar distances, yet another million times as great! To Serena they were routine, but how stunning those spaces must have seemed to her makers! How totally frustrating and unfathomable!
Now she understood how they must have felt.
Serena increased power to her drives. She clung to the feeling of acceleration, spitting light behind her, driving faster and faster. Her engines roared. For a time she lost herself in the passion of it, thrusting with all her might toward a speck of light chosen at random. She spent energy like a wastrel, pouring it out in a frantic need to move!
Agoraphobia was a terrible discovery to a Grand Voyageur. She howled at the black emptiness, at the distant, tantalizing pools of light. She blasted forth with the heat of her panic.
Galaxies! Any galaxy would do. Any one at all!
Blind to all but terror, she shot through space like a bolt of light … but light was far too slow.
Sense took hold at last, or perhaps some deep-hidden wisdom circuit she had not even known of triggered in a futile reflex for self-preservation. Her drives shut down and Serena found herself coasting.
For a time she simply folded inward, closing off from the universe, huddling within a corner of her mind darker even than the surrounding night.
Galaxies have their ages, their phases, just as living things do. Aim your telescope toward the farthest specks, motes so distant that their light is reddened with the stretching of the universe. The universal expansion makes their flight seem rapid. It also means that the light you see is very, very old.
These, then, are the youngest things you will ever see. Quasars and galaxies at the very earliest stages, when the black holes in their cores were hot, still gobbling stars by the hundreds, blaring forth great bursts of light and belching searing beams of accelerated particles.
Look closer. The galaxies you’ll see will be flying away from you less quickly, their light will be less reddened. And they will be older.
Pinwheel spirals turn, looking like fried eggs made of a hundred billion sparks. In their centers the black holes are now calmer. All the easy prey have been consumed, and now only a few stars fall into their maws, from time to time. The raging has diminished enough to let life grow in the slowly rotating hinterlands.
Spiral arms show where clots of gas and giant molecular clouds concentrate in shock waves, like spume and spindrift gathering on a windswept verge. Here new stars are born. The largest of these sweep through their short lives and explode, filling nearby space with heavy elements, fertilizing the fields of life.
Barred spirals, irregulars, ellipticals … there are other styles of galaxies, as well, sprayed like dandelion seeds across the firmament.
But not randomly. No. Not randomly at all.
Slowly, Serena came back to her senses. She felt a distant amusement.
Somehow her similes had taken on a style so archaic … perhaps it was a form of defensive reaction. Her memory banks drew forth an image of puffballs bending before a gusty wind, then scattering sparkling specks forth …
Fair enough, she thought of the comparison.
All sense of motion was lost, although she knew she had undergone immense acceleration. The galaxies lay all around her. Apparently unchanged.
She looked again on the universe. Peered at one quadrant of the sky, then another.
Perhaps they aren’t scattered as smoothly as I’d thought.
She contemplated for some time. Then decided.
Fortunately, her cargo wasn’t anybody’s property, per se. Gifts. That was what the Grand Voyageurs like her carried. No civilization could think of “trade” between galaxies. Even using the singularities, there was no way to send anything in expectation of payment.
No. The hot, quick, short-lived cultures took whatever Grand Voyageurs like Serena brought, and then loaded her down with presents to take to the next stop. Nobody ever told a Voyageur where to go. Serena and her cousins traveled wherever whim took them.
So she wasn’t really stealing when she started dismantling her cargo section, pulling forth whatever she found and adapting the treasures for her own purposes.
The observatory took only fifty years to build.
The galaxies were not evenly distributed through expanding space. The “universe” was full of holes.
In fact, most of it was emptiness. Light shimmered at the edges of yawning cavities, like flickers on the surface of a soap bubble. The galaxies and clusters of galaxies lay strung at the fringes of monstrous cavities.
While she performed her careful survey, cataloging and measuring every mote her instruments could find, Serena also sought through her records, through the ancient archives carried by every Grand Voyageur.
She found that she had not been the first to discover this.
The galaxies were linked with one another—via Kaluza space—through the black holes at their centers. A Grand Voyageur traveled those ways, and so never got far enough outside the great spirals to see them in this perspective.
Now, though, Serena thought she understood.
There wasn’t just one Big Bang, at the beginning of time, she realized. It was more complicated than that.
The original kernel had divided early on, and then divided again and again. The universe had many centers of expansion, and it was at the intersecting shock waves of those explosions that matter had condensed, roiled, and formed into galaxies and stars.
So I am at the bottom, she realized.
Somehow, when the explosion sent her tumbling in Kaluza space, she had slipped off the rails. She had fallen. Fallen nearly all the way to the center of one of the great explosions.
One could fall no farther.
The calculations were clear on something else, as well. Even should she accelerate with everything she had, and get so close to light-speed that relativistic time foreshortened, she would still never make it even to the nearest galaxy.
Such emptiness, she contemplated. Why, even the cosmic rays were faint here. And those sleeting nuclei were only passing through. It was rare for Serena to detect even an atom of hydrogen as a neighbor.
It is better, far,
to light a candle,
Than to curse the darkness.
For a time it was only the soft melancholy of ancient poetry that saved Serena from the one-way solace of despair.
To the very center, then.
Why not? Serena wondered.
According to her calculations, she was much, much closer to the center of the great bubble than to any of the sprayed galaxies at its distant rim.
Indeed. Why not? It would be something to do.
She found she only had to modify her velocity a little. She had already been heading roughly that way by accident, from that first panicked outburst.
She passed the time reading works from a million poets, from a million noble races. She created subpersonae—little separate personalities, which could argue with each other, discussing the relative merits of so many planet-bound points of view. It helped to pass the time.
Soon, after only a few thousand years, it was time to decelerate, or she would simply streak past the center, with no time even to contemplate the bottom, the navel of creation.
Serena used much of her reserve killing the last of her velocity, relative to the bubble of galaxies. All around her the red shifts were the same, constant. All the galaxies seemed to recede away at the same rate.
So. Here I am.
She coasted, and realized that she had just completed the last task of any relevance she could ever aspire to. There were no more options. No other deeds that could be done.
Irritably, Serena wiped her conversation banks, clearing away the subpersonae that had helped her while away the last few centuries. She did not want those little artificial voices disturbing her as she contemplated the manner of bringing about her own end.
I wonder how big a flash I’ll make, she thought. Is it even remotely possible that anyone back in the inhabited universe might see it, even if they were looking this way with the best instruments?
She caressed the fields in her engines, and knew she had the will to do what must be done.
“Hello? Has somebody come?”
Serena sent angry surges through her lingula systems. Stop it.
Suicide would come none too soon. I must be going crazy, she subvocalized, and some of her agony slipped out into space around her.
“Yes, many feel that way when they arrive here.”
Quakes of surprise made Serena tremble. The voice had come from outside!
“Who … who are you?” she gasped.
“I am the one who waits, the one who collects and greets,” the voice replied. And then, after some hesitation:
“I am the coward.”
Joy sparkled and burst from Serena. She shouted, though the only one in the universe to hear her was near enough to touch. She cried aloud.
“There is a way!”
The coward was larger than Serena. He drifted nearby, looking like nothing so much as a great assemblage of junk from every and any civilization imaginable. He had already explained that the bits and pieces had been contributed by countless stranded entities before her. By now he was approaching the mass of a small star and had to hold the pieces apart with webs of frozen field lines.
The coward seemed disturbed by Serena’s enthusiasm.
“But I’ve already explained to you, it isn’t a way! It is death!”
Serena could not make clear to the thing that she had already been ready to die. “That remains to be seen. All I know is that you have told me there is a way out of this place, and that many have arrived here before me and taken that route away from here.”
“I tell you it is a funnel into hell!”
“So a black hole seems, to planet-dwellers, but we Grand Voyageurs dive into them and traverse the tortured lanes of Kaluza space—”
“And I have told you that this is not a black hole! And what lies within this opening is not Kaluza space, but a door into madness and destruction!”
Serena found that she pitied the poor thing. She could not imagine choosing, as it obviously had, to sit here at the center of nothingness for all eternity, an eternity broken every few million years by the arrival of one more stranded voyager. Apparently every one of Serena’s predecessors had ignored the poor thing’s advice, given him what they had to spare, and then eagerly taken that escape offered, no matter how hazardous.
“Show it to me, please,” she asked politely.
The coward sighed and turned to lead the way.
It has long been hypothesized that there was more than one episode of creation.
The discovery that the universe of galaxies is distributed like soap bubbles, each expanding from its own center, was the great confirmation that the Big Bang, at least, had not been undivided.
But the ideas went beyond that.
What if, they had wondered, even in ancient days, what if there are other universes altogether?
She and Coward traded data files while they moved leisurely toward the hole at the very center of All. Serena was in no hurry, now that she had a destination again. She savored the vast store of knowledge Coward had accumulated.
Her own Grand Voyageurs were not the first, it seemed, to have cruised the great wormholes between the galaxies. There were others, some greater, who had nevertheless found themselves for whatever reason shipwrecked here at the base of everything.
And all of them, no doubt, had contemplated the dizzying emptiness that lay before them now.
A steady stream of very strange particles emanated from a twisted shapelessness. Rarities, such as magnetic monopoles, swept past Serena more thickly than she ever would have imagined possible. Here they were more common than atoms.
“As I said, it leads to another place, where the fundamentals of our universe do not hold. We can tell very little from this side, only that, charge, mass, gravity, all have different meanings. Tell me, then, what hope does a creature of our universe have of surviving there? Will your circuits conduct? Will your junctions quantum-jump properly? Will your laser drives even function if electrons aren’t allowed to occupy the same energy state?”
For a moment the coward’s fear infected Serena. The closer she approached, the more eerie and dangerous this undertaking seemed.
“And nobody has ever come back out again,” the coward whispered.
Serena shook herself out of her funk. Her situation remained the same. If this was nothing more than yet another way to suicide, at least it had the advantage of being interesting.
And who knows? Many of my predecessors were wiser than I, and they all chose this path, as well.
“I thank you for your friendship,” she told the coward. “I give you all of this spare mass, from my cargo, as a token of affection.”
Resignedly, the coward sent drone ships to pick up the baggage Serena shed. They cruised away into the blackness.
“What you see is only a small fraction of what I have accumulated,” he explained.
He gave her a number, and for a long moment there was only silence between them. Then the coward went on.
“Lately you castaways have been growing more and more common. I have hope that soon someone shall arrive who will leave me more than fragments.”
Serena pulsed to widen the gap between them. She began to feel a soft tug—something wholly unlike gravity, or any other force she had ever known.
“I wish you well,” she said.
The coward, too, began to back away. The other’s voice was chastened, somber. “So many others seem to find me pitiable, because I wait here, because I am not adventuresome.”
“I do believe you will find your own destiny,” she told him. She dared not say what she really thought, so she kept her words vague. “You will find greatness that surpasses that of even those much more bold in spirit,” she predicted.
Then, before the stunned ancient thing could reply, she turned and accelerated toward her destiny.
On planets, they say, water always runs downhill …
From the bottom, from as low as one could go in all the universe, Serena plunged downward into another place. Her shields thickened and her drives flexed. As ready as she would ever be, she dived into the strangeness ahead.
She thought about the irony of it all.
He calls himself Coward … she contemplated, and knew that it was unfair.
She, and all of those who had plunged this way, blindly into the unknowable, were the real cowards in a way. Oh, she could only speak for herself, but she guessed that their greatest motive was fear, fear of the long loneliness, the empty aeons without anything to do.
And all the while Coward accumulated mass: bits of space junk … debris cast out from Kaluza space … cargo jettisoned or donated by castaways who, like her, were only passing through …
He had told Serena how much mass. And then he had told her that the rate of accumulation was slowly growing over the long epochs.
And with the mass, he accumulates knowledge. For Serena had opened her libraries to him, and found them absorbed more quickly than she would ever have thought possible. The same thing must have happened countless times before.
Already space had warped beyond recognition around her. Serena looked back and out at all the galaxies, distant motes of light now smeared into swirls of lambent glow.
Astronomers of every civilization puzzle over the question of the missing mass, Serena thought.
Calculations showed that there had to be more mass than could be counted by measuring the galaxies, and what could be detected of the gases in between. Even cosmic rays and neutrinos could not account for it. Half of the matter was simply missing.
Coward had told her. He was accumulating it. Here and there. Dark patches, clots, stuffed in field-stabilized clusters, scattered around the vast emptiness of the center of the great galactic bubble.
Perhaps I should have stayed and talked with him some more, Serena thought as the smeared light melded into a golden glory.
She might have told him. She might have said it. But with all of his brainpower, no doubt he had figured it out long ago and chose to hide the knowledge away from himself.
All that mass.
Someday the galaxies would die. No new stars would be born. The glow would fade. Life—even life crafted out of baryonic machines—would glimmer and go out.
But the recession of the dead whirlpools would slow. It would stop, reverse, and fall again, toward the great gravitational pull at the center of each bubble. And there universes would be born anew.
Serena saw the last glimmer of galactic light twinkle and disappear. She knew the real reason why she had chosen to take this gamble, to dive into this tunnel to an alien realm.
It was one thing to flee loneliness.
It was quite another thing to flee one who would be God.
No wonder all the others had made the same choice.
The walls of the tunnel converged. She plunged ahead. All around her was strangeness.
© 1987 by David Brin.
Originally published in The Universe, edited by Byron Preiss.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
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