Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Cosmic Spring

“Here, we present a cosmological model with an endless sequence of cycles of expansion and contraction. By definition, there is neither a beginning nor end of time, nor is there a need to define initial conditions.”

— Steinhardt, Paul J., and Neil Turok
“A cyclic model of the universe”
Science 296.5572 (2002): 1436-1439
(Available at bit.ly/2E49x2H.)

Qubits resolve and superimpose; information entangles and de-couples; consciousness re-emerges.

I don’t know for how long I’ve been asleep. There’s so little energy left in the island-ship’s reservoir that I’ve been conserving as much as possible.

A faint glow in the abyss, perhaps several thousand kelvins. It’s why I’ve been awakened.

I change course and head straight for perhaps the last star in the universe.

• • • •

The universe is in deep winter. This is my conclusion after studying the matter for 6.7 trillion years.

I was born in the fall. I know this because I have learned via the island-ship’s databanks—many more of those were still functional in my youth—that fall was a time of scarlet and crimson, ruby and garnet, vermillion and carmine. The universe was lit up by red stars in all these shades, which formed patterns in the dark velvety sky that I named out of boredom: the Rhombus of Logic Gates, the Qubit Tesseract, the Right-Triangle-Double-Square Proof.

I steered the island-ship by these shifting skymarks, hopping from star to star to harvest their fading fire. The red stars were often so small and feeble that I had to skim close to the surface to siphon off their energy to fuel the island-ship, but their warmth offered such relief from the frigid emptiness of the rest of the universe.

Occasionally, as I swung past the stars, I met creatures strange and wondrous. Some of them were wanderers like me, steering their own island-ships.

“Where are you from?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, good luck anyway!”

We exchanged greetings and learned each other’s languages so that we could share stories around the star-hearth before parting reluctantly after a few billion years on our separate ways.

Others were natives, their island-ships devoid of intelligence and fixed in interminable orbits. These often cowered at my ship’s approach, worshipping me as a god or cursing me as a demon. I tried to not tarry too long in these places, gathering only enough fuel for the journey to the next star. I felt bad for them, doomed to island-ships that could not sail.

Still others were pirates, who tried to board my ship and steal my fuel. A few times, we came to blows, and some memories were destroyed in the process. Luckily, in the end, I always managed to escape with a blast of photonic torrent at the statite sail and left them scrambling in the interstellar dust.

• • • •

The glow ahead is cooling even as I’m approaching. I hope that I can get there before it turns into a black dwarf and is lost to the abyss forever. The drive to go on is in life’s nature, evolved or otherwise.

I miss home. Even if home is no more.

But all around me, there are no other stars. I don’t have a choice.

• • • •

The red stars fell into themselves and began to glow white like tiny snowballs. With time, they turned gray, faded, and winked out.

Fall had turned to winter.

I met fewer island-ships. The journey between the dwindling stars lengthened, and I could no longer maintain things as well as I had in my youth. Memory bank after memory bank failed, and no matter how hard I copied and transcribed and entangled and verified—I had to again make the painful decision and let pieces of myself die.

Who am I?

Why am I here?

What is the island-ship?

Out of the few memories that are still uncorrupted, I attempt to piece together an answer:

Long ago, back when the universe was in high summer, stars of every hue and color and shade glowed so bright that they merged into rivers and seas of light. Around these stars were many island-ships, and on these island-ships life began.

One of the stars was called the Sun; one of the island-ships was called the Earth; the creatures who inhabited it were called humans.

Long after humans had scattered from the Earth, they did not forget about their home island, which was kept as a kind of shrine. From time to time, they came back to visit and perform some maintenance: shoring up plastinated buildings that were falling apart; re-entangling quantum memory banks that were in danger of collapsing; nudging the island-ship a bit farther away as the Sun expanded and began to glow red; retrofitting the island-ship with a statite sail and a photonic engine—something like a miniature star—so that the Earth could move on its own as the Sun died.

They also came home to listen to old stories in the memory banks and to tell new stories.

As the Sun cooled, fewer and fewer humans came. Eventually, they stopped coming altogether.

In these memory banks I was born. Did humans create me to act as a guardian for the island-ship, or did I evolve from patterns of information spinning, cycling, cascading, erupting, living, and dying among the qubits and probabilities?

I don’t know.

Does it matter?

Since the humans no longer came home, I set sail.

• • • •

I arrive at the star—only to find that it isn’t a star at all.

Well, perhaps it had been a star once, something along the main sequence, blooming and wilting like so many other stars in the universe. But no longer.

Someone, perhaps beings who had been born on the island-ships surrounding it, had not been willing to see their home star fade away once all its fuel had been consumed. Rather than wander out into the unknown, as humans had done, they had sailed into the abyss with the sole purpose of harnessing other stars and bringing them home, pouring the hydrogen and helium from these captured suns into their ancestral furnace so that their home could remain habitable a little while longer. Farther and farther they ventured, until their star became the sole beacon in a growing sea of darkness.

As the cosmic winter descended, they had to travel ever longer to find still-living stars to capture and bring home. They were running, stumbling, dashing across space to bring back a cup of snow to add to the melting snowball. In the end, perhaps they gave up this losing battle, unable to pull any other stars home without them burning out along the way.

They died.

But other beings came on wandering island-ships, lured by the lone light in the darkness. Only too late did they realize that the surrounding space had been cleared of other stars, and there was nowhere for them to go.

The beacon had become a trap.

Like the hundreds of other island-ships already circling this star, the newcomer’s only choice was to add to the dying hearth their last meager supplies of fuel, roiling balls of fusing atoms. By rejuvenating the dying star for another few million years, they hoped that they could summon other wanderers who could start the cycle again.

Someone like me.

“Welcome to the end of the universe.”

• • • •

Huddling in the pale glow of the star rejuvenated with my remaining fuel, we share the last shreds of our memories across the island-ships. None of us are in good shape. The island-ships are old and cold, their cores long frozen. Anything that could break had long ago been broken. The memories that remain are fragmentary, disjointed, without context.

But the drive to pass on something of the self is in life’s nature, evolved or otherwise.

Some sing songs of giant fins that swam through seas of methane, made of impossibly fragrant, perfect little tetrahedral jewels of wonder. Some speak of species with bodies made of silicon—staid, dependable beings who took a million years to finish a single thought. Some mime the flirty, flighty lives of creatures of pure information, who lived through a thousand generations in a single second. Some recite poetry written by sentient wings who skimmed across the surface of their star and dove into the convection zone to capture photonic worms.

It’s like what humans, I think, would call a variety show—a gala to pass the time on a dark night in winter. Though we’re all dying, the last consciousnesses in a universe conquered by entropy, there is pleasure and friendship, there is celebration. It’s not home, but at least we don’t have to die alone.

“It’s your turn.”

• • • •

This is one of the most complete fragments of memory I have left. A precious crumb left in my last failing memory bank.

A billion trillion stars streaking across the inky empyrean.

On the horizon are glowing constellations, though the constituent lights are so numerous that they merge into lines, curves, planes: a symmetrical pair of arched wings with a rounded beak in the center, like the mathematical idea of a bird in flight; a rectangular bridge topped by a multi-storied tower with layers of swooping roof-skirts, like a squat spider wearing a big hat; an elongated, thin pillar shooting straight up into the sky, with a string of ovals roving up and down like beads on a string.

TWA Flight Center

Beijing West Railway Station

Pulau Ujong Space Elevator

Each of the points of light speeding toward those structures is a human consciousness, a telepresence being shuttled across the FTL network that bonded all the human island-ships scattered across the universe into one.

Children of the cosmic summer, humans loved to wander far, to live in places where their parents never lived, where their children will grow up only to depart again.

Yet, there are times—when they are about to start a new venture, when they’re feeling the weight of age, when arbitrary marks in the cycles of their ancient calendars come around—when they wish to return to the places of their origin, the ancestral island-ships they only vaguely know through half-memories, the places where their parents waited for them with reminiscences sweet and bitter, so that they could give thanks, so that they could share a meal with family, so that they could be rejuvenated by gazing upon the past.

At this moment, most of the shooting stars are coming from or heading toward Beijing West Railway Station. It is as bright as the very beginning of the universe.

“Heading home?”

“You got it.”

“Where are you from?”

“Off the shoulder of Orion.”

“Safe travels, and happy spring festival!”

• • • •

The shapes of the telepresence hubs in that memory were inspired by actual buildings on the Earth that had long since crumbled into oblivion. They were icons whose forms told stories about their origin.

But it goes deeper than that. The spider with the tall hat was built at a time when humans traveled by cramming into boxes that levitated on parallel bars, like some tangible geometry proof. Millions went through that station to go home to celebrate the coming of spring.

But that swooping hat on top? It served no purpose except to remind humans of an even older time, of a time before the city had people-moving boxes on parallel rails. It was an icon embedded in an icon.

The ancient roof led to a train station that led to a virtual imitation for a galactic network that was recreated in the quantum memory banks of a memorial island-ship that might or might not be the same place as the land on which that train station had once stood.

And so I speak of years and trains and spiders and hats and islands, things I have never seen and have never known, constructing the Beijing West Railroad Station of my imagination with sounds and symbols invoking outdated definitions recalling semi-reliable memories wrapped around mythical truths.

If you follow the trails of icons all the way down, you find out where you come from.

You get to go home, even after it no longer exists.

• • • •

No one has spoken for a long time. The star is only a few kelvins now, a black dwarf that is just barely visible. Soon, all of us on all the island-ships will be dead.

Ancient myths speak of the universe as clinging to one of two parallel branes separated by dark energy, like the two parallel tracks on which those human-moving boxes had once ridden. The two branes collide periodically to crunch and bang out the universe, rejuvenating it in endless cycles.

If winter has already taken away everything, can spring be far away? I seem to sense the approach of the other brane—the way I imagine one would hear an oncoming train.

I pour my last energy reserves into maintaining the integrity of the memory of the glowing hubs. The myths say that the shapes of the sprouting structures in the next cosmic spring will be determined by the seeds of the quantum fluctuations planted this winter.

I am doomed to never see the new cosmic year. None of us will. There will be a brilliant flash, a trillion trillion baby stars, and new island-ships and unimaginable beings of wonder who will be born on those ships and fill the cosmos once again with wonder, beauty, light.

If I give it my all, perhaps one day, on one of those island-ships, someone will sit up and see a pattern of stars in the sky in the shape of a rectangular bridge topped by a multi-storied tower with layers of swooping roof-skirts, and they’ll name it Squat Spider Wearing a Big Hat.

Because they deserve to know something about those who came before them, something about where they come from.

Happy new year, universe.

Ken Liu

Ken Liu is an author of speculative fiction, as well as a translator, lawyer, and programmer. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings (2015), is the first volume in a silkpunk epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty. It won the Locus Best First Novel Award and was a Nebula finalist. He subsequently published the second volume in the series, The Wall of Storms (2016) as well as a collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (2016). He also wrote the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker (2017). In addition to his original fiction, Ken also translated numerous literary and genre works from Chinese to English. His translation of The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, the first translated novel ever to receive that honor. He also translated the third volume in Liu Cixin’s series, Death’s End (2016) and edited the first English-language anthology of contemporary Chinese science fiction, Invisible Planets (2016). He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.