After a long and tumultuous expansion, the universe began to contract. The speed with which it had cast itself out was finally overpowered by the inward gravitational pull of its own suspended matter, and so the stars and planets paused like weary travelers before beginning to drift the long way back toward one another. They drew together in great clumps, colliding with such force that they collapsed into black holes. Thus, all of creation devoured itself and was compressed down to a region of incredible heat and density. This situation was altogether identical to the initial conditions that had preceded the big bang. And since there was nothing to prevent that happy explosion from recurring, the universe inevitably sprang forth once more in a cycle that was without end. If this activity could have been viewed as a whole over an impossible amount of time, it would have looked as if the universe were steadily breathing in and out, in and out, in and out.
What’s more, because the various components of the universe were always cast out in the same order and with the same amount of force, the next universe was always indistinguishable from the previous one. Every galaxy, every mountain range, every molecule was arranged in space and time as it had been in all the other countless iterations of the universe. Even something as seemingly accidental and haphazard as the human race was reproduced perfectly and without variation. People were born into bodies that were composed of the exact same matter they had been composed of hundreds of trillions of years earlier. They were born at the same times to the same mothers and ultimately lived out the same fates.
Though individuals could make choices that were entirely spontaneous and in keeping with their own natures, they encountered all the same circumstances at all the same moments with all their same internal frameworks, meaning their choices—though made freely—were always inevitably the same. Whether it was an unpunished murder or the discovery of penicillin, the people involved would hit their marks perfectly, performing their roles with the unwitting urgency that came from the assumption that one had never in a previous universe lived one’s life before. That is, until the human race’s understanding of the universe expanded to include the indisputable fact that the universe and everything in it was repeating, at which point humanity was thrown into a state of existential crisis.
After all, it did take some of the charm out of free will to know that every decision had already been made and would be made again and again ceaselessly. People’s most inconsequential and private behaviors were suddenly stretching off in both directions of time in a dizzying symmetry, so that even as they were astounded by the apparent vastness of their own existences, they also began to feel robbed of themselves, deprived of all personal agency. In a way, the astrologists had been correct; an individual’s fate was no different than the position and movement of the heavenly bodies. Each well-reasoned or spur-of-the-moment decision was just another projectile flying from the universe’s center, each person’s will caroming off space and time in a pattern that was determined billions of years ago by the manner in which all matter had been expelled.
There was also a peculiar sense of loneliness in the knowledge that after a person died, another discrete version of that person would be created. This forthcoming self, though composed of the same snatch of carbon and poised to lead the same life, would be entirely separate. A man on his deathbed was forced to accept the notion that the most cherished moments of his life would be repeated without him, while his most shameful moments would be carried out again by a stranger with his face and name. The dying man, breathing unsteadily in a hospital bed, would feel envy, pity, and even anger toward this other self who would live his joys, endure his mistakes, and painfully achieve all the hard-won experience that belonged rightfully to him alone.
Similarly, a father watching his daughter ride her bicycle for the first time would experience a secret but undeniable sense of detachment once he understood that every aspect of it—the smile on her face, her excited shouts, even the vulnerable wobble of the bicycle’s front wheel—that would have otherwise seemed as unique as a signature would in the next universe be exactly the same. Months later, when his daughter wept hopelessly in her room because the other children at school had discovered that her name rhymed with something rude, he would be forced to accept the fact that while the pain she was experiencing was in many ways trivial, it was also eternal, that the infinite burden of her life would always be occupied at that moment with a pointless mortification that would forever change her in the same way.
Every terrible thing that should have been changed never would be, and every good thing that should have happened only once would be made meaningless through its perfunctory rebirth. Every great work of art would be churned out innumerable times, those perfect expressions of humanity revealing themselves to be little more than circumstantial ticks, infinitesimal ejaculations of the universe’s unending sameness. All atrocities and wars would likewise be reproduced with no diminishing anguish.
Human beings suffered under the weight of this knowledge for thousands of years. Just as the sight of a full moon hanging over a wide, empty plain had inspired in primitive man the first feelings of wonder and horror that over time drove human beings to climb into rockets and fire themselves out of Earth’s orbit, so this knowledge worked its way into the collective dreams and nightmares of all people, until the great and unspoken hope became that this universe might find some way to communicate with the next, thus allowing civilization to progress beyond its previous course.
This hope took the shape of a large international concern called the Center for Compressible Matter (CCM), whose sole mission was to create a material that could withstand the infinite compression of the universe and expand back out as soon as there was a return to present conditions. The material would be designed to endure the immense collisions that would take place during the Earth’s formation as well as periods of extreme heat and cold. Thin sheets of it would be produced and engraved in thousands of ancient and modern languages with what was agreed upon by the CCM committee members to be “advantageous information.” It was believed that this would allow the human race to develop for the first time at an accelerated pace.
Once this material was invented, it wasn’t difficult for the CCM’s dissemination experts to place those sheets in a capsule fashioned from the same substance. The dissemination team was also able to predict certain progressions in the capsule’s shifts in position during compression and expansion. If the capsule were left in a specific part of the Ural Mountains in the current universe, it would arrive in the next somewhere around the cultural hearth of West Africa. If placed in another location less than half a mile away, the capsule would end up lodged in the core of the moon or drifting out through empty space.
A few years after the first capsule was placed on the summit of just the right mountain, a much older one was discovered outside Serekunda. The documents contained within this second capsule were identical to those that CCM crew members had placed in the first. It was obvious that this capsule had been left for the current universe in the same way that the newly completed capsule had been left for the next. In a small sense, this meant that the capsule was a success. But when considered further, it seemed to be irrefutable proof that all efforts had been wasted. Since this older capsule had not been found until after the present one had been put in place, it meant that the next instance of humanity would not find the present capsule until a few years after its CCM had finished work on the next capsule. So while the capsules were indeed capable of enduring vast amounts of time and the unimaginable cataclysms that had unmade and made the world, the only thing that had been accomplished was sending a message that was exactly the same as the one that the CCM of the next universe had already written.
That would have been the end of mankind’s grand attempt to free itself from repetition if it weren’t for the discovery of a third and even older capsule accidentally unearthed by construction workers while they were digging the foundations for a development of condominiums in a fashionable neighborhood outside Toronto. When the capsule was sent to CCM for analysis, crew members were able to establish that the documents contained within it were also identical to those in the capsule still resting undisturbed in the Ural Mountains.
While the capsules had been intended to last until the next universe, they certainly hadn’t been designed against the possibility of lasting even longer. The capsule that had been found outside Serekunda was now being held in CCM’s laboratories for testing. One day it would most likely be moved to a storage facility where it would remain for as long as the CCM continued to operate. Over time it would be acquired by subsequent entities or lost or abandoned until it came to a final resting place where it would await the end of the current universe only to wind up in the next universe embedded under Lake Michigan or sailing toward Pluto or, in this instance, buried beneath a Canadian real-estate development.
Other capsules turned up elsewhere. Some were so old that the expanding and contracting of the universe had finally begun to break them down. More significantly, capsules were found with their lids missing and their documents removed. Perhaps the most startling find was by a young Egyptologist named Elizabeth Edlund who X-rayed a series of canopic jars only to find that several of them were CCM capsules that had been covered over with clay.
Within a few decades, institutions of higher learning all over the globe were in the grips of a brand-new discipline. Scholars poured over the history of human progress, looking for any instances in which the human race may have been directly influenced by the CCM documents. It was at once a fascinating field of study and an impossible one. Certainly there were aspects of every human achievement that seemed as if they could be traced back to the information included in the CCM capsule. But when the CCM committee had drafted those documents, the “advantageous information” they included had been only a summary of human achievement up to that point. Naturally there was a great deal of debate as to whether or not the CCM documents could simultaneously be the cause and the result of human progress. The CCM had not solved the problem of the universe remaining the same; their efforts simply complicated the problem by raising the question of whether each universe was a distinct phenomenon or an interdependent sequence of phenomena perpetually instigating and echoing one another.
Meanwhile, the hard sciences had begun to understand that because the present universe passed along not only its own CCM capsule but also each previous capsule, the universe was not staying the same at all. Rather, it was steadily accruing capsules. Though they were broken down by the constant collapsing and expanding of the universe, the capsules remained present in each universe even if only as a bit of unrecognizable dust. The capsules were also constantly shifting in position from one iteration to the next, gradually threading themselves throughout the universe. The contribution of each capsule was admittedly small; as soon as it was acted upon by any significant force, it would become, in keeping with its design, radically compressed. But as enough capsules accumulated throughout the universe’s repetitions, it seemed inevitable that their presence would eventually alter the initial trajectory of all matter. The chance collisions that had created the universe as it was, the solar system as it was, the Earth as it was, would all fail to occur in the same way, thus creating a universe that would be unpredictably new. In short, human intervention had made it so that the universe might fail to reproduce mankind.
The possibility of infinite repetition had been disturbing from a human point of view, but this new information made people nostalgic for the idea. They became swept up in a spirit of conservation that was more or less hopeless. Even if all the capsules that could be found were destroyed, the CCM could never recover all those that had already drifted so far out or prevent the next universe from making its own. Nothing could be done.
That same father watching his daughter as she patiently did her math homework now considered the fact that both he and his daughter, as well as all memory of them, would one day be gone from the universe. He experienced a rush of despair, as if his love for her were less defined by the actual content of that emotion than by the terrible void that now threatened to eradicate it.
After millennia of anxiety, endeavor, and thought, human beings were exactly where they were before the question of repetition had been raised. Life was again defined by the fact that it was fleeting and transitional. Though now there was the additional knowledge, typically embraced whenever there was cause for cheer, that this universe had managed to reproduce itself at least one more time. Whether an old couple was sitting happily in a park on a lovely fall day or young parents were being handed a healthy newborn child, such glad occurrences were met with a warmth surging up out of the past and extending uncertainly into the future, the old couple or the young parents uttering to the wide open park or the bundled infant that common blessing, the form of which differed from one language to the next, but that could always be taken to mean in whatever idiom, simply, “Hello again.”