2:6: “The Passing of Guests”, by Jay Lake

2:6: “The Passing of Guests”, by Jay Lake

Hydrogen happened. The neighboring particle density doubled, then redoubled within seconds.

“Ahriman,” Port said, interrupting a molecular-level simulation of oceanic behavior. It had been tweaking hurricanes at micro-erg energy levels for amusement. “There is hydrogen.”

“What does that mean?” asked the electronic ghost of Port’s first and oldest friend, cuing the conversation from its personality template. Ahriman’s body rotted in a vat deep within Port’s basalt keel.

“I have no idea. But it’s the first spontaneous retrograde entropy in billennia.”

“Something comes,” Ahriman’s ghost said with an inappropriate flash of insight. The template immediately initiated a self-diagnosis to correct the fault.

“What?” Port had long ago forgotten that most human of emotions, fear. “What comes?”

Ahriman’s ghost was afraid. “Port,” it said. “Something is wrong with me.”

“No!” shouted Port. “Every time I restore you, you degrade further.”

“Help,” the ghost said. It slipped away from its interfaces, quantum handshakes with Port’s systems dissolving like coastal fog on a billennia-vanished summer morning.

———•———

Ahriman’s clone-worm stirred in its vat. Subtle errors across millions of generations of replication had reduced the ghost’s body to a loose bag of lipids with calcium concentrations. Monitoring subroutines escalated queries to Port’s consciousness.

Mourning its friend’s ghost, Port allowed itself to be distracted by the emergent hydrogen. Fresh photons were emitted, in sprays of a few thousand at a time, but even that meager lightshow was dazzling in the darkness of the end of the Universe.

Inside the vat, the worm contracted, amino acids dissolving and knitting back together as increasingly complex proteins. The bony lumps arranged themselves in a longitudinal pattern with bilateral symmetry. A flash of scales, a bright black eye, a clawed finger, all bubbled like stew in a cauldron.

“I am here,” whispered Ahriman, after a while. “But where is here?”

His claws found a large bar just beneath the lid. He pushed. The lid popped off to a jangle of alarms.

Port was finally distracted from the lightshow.

———•———

“Where have you been?” Port spoke on every wavelength, every frequency, up and down the audio and video channels, on quantum loopbacks. “I have been so lonely.”

“For the love of life,” Ahriman said, picking goo out of his finger webbing, “settle down. I’ve been dead.”

“But where?” Port howled.

Ahriman winced. “Dead. It’s not a where. It’s not anything at all. Dead just is.”

“People don’t un-die.”

Ahriman flexed his osteomuscular linkages, running through basic shapeshifting exercises. He tasted the air with his tongue — the atmosphere was brittle with the tang of a trillion of years of storage. “I did.”

Port retreated to a more normal tone. “Oh, my friend. How did this happen?”

Ahriman surprised himself by saying, “God sent me.” The answer felt right, the way breathing felt right.

———•———

Hydrogen continued to happen, at a prodigious rate, until a cloud of glowing gas enveloped Port. The cloud swirled like a boiling pot, agitated by the white fountain at its heart.

“Ahriman.”

Pacing his tiny chamber deep in Port’s basalt heart, Ahriman said, “Yes?” He had settled into the human form he had worn during the long millennia of his life with Port, back on Earth. He had been a cultural anthropologist, studying the history of the then-vanishing race of Man. Port had been a city, longing for and fearing its creators.

“Where is God?” Port asked.

“Everywhere.”

“There is no everywhere, not any more. There’s just here. Nowhere else.”

“That will be true soon,” said Ahriman, “but not quite yet.”

“Far-infrared says the last brown dwarf has vanished. How could something millions of light-years away suddenly disappear?”

“Perhaps it died millions of years ago, just in time to disappear from our view now.”

“I cannot believe in such a coincidence.”

“Then you must believe that everywhere has become smaller,” Ahriman said.

“Is God here?”

Ahriman smiled, seeing in his mind’s eye the white fountain boiling outside Port’s basalt walls. “He comes closer all the time.”

“Ahriman, are you God?”

“Just His message.”

“He sent you to me.”

Flicking goo from a deep skin fold, Ahriman sighed. “Not exactly.”

———•———

The cloud enveloping Port warmed to six degrees Kelvin, dangerous heat for Port’s vacuum-degraded infrastructure. Port moved away, warping the cold, dead superstringlines underpinning spacetime. It was virtually free transportation, albeit slow, leaching only a minute amount of the energy Port converted from its finite supply of mass.

Port soon found itself orbiting the boiling cloud, a tiny planet around a peculiar nebula. Bits of frozen gas trapped in the crevices of Port’s eroded surface infrastructure sublimated under the radiant energy of the cloud, sending free oxygen and nitrogen into space for the first time in hundreds of billions of years. Meanwhile, the roil of the cloud stabilized into a measurable spin state.

———•———

“The cloud appears to be condensing the remaining matter and energy in the Universe,” Port announced. “It could have happened anywhere, but it happens here. The odds against this occurring in my proximity are incalculably small.”

“So were the odds of me coming back from the dead,” said Ahriman, “but here we are together again, at the end of everything.”

“You said God did it.”

“What is God but all the long odds that have ever been beaten?”

Port objected. “God or no God, there is no mechanism that could draw the Universe’s matter and energy back together, even if simultaneity held any meaning.”

Ahriman laughed again. “In these late years everything is simultaneous. These are just the last, longest odds He will play.”

“You imply that through its own sheer improbability the Universe should never have existed.”

“‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,'” Ahriman quoted. “Think of all the Universes that failed to exist, missing their odds. We are guests of chance, Port, privileged to witness God’s ultimate wager.”

“I fear we shall not last that long. This white fountain grows at a pace that will soon overwhelm even my best maneuvers,” said Port.

“As you said, all the matter of the Universe is gathering in one place. It would hardly be a quiet event.”

“How do you know that?”

Ahriman wasn’t sure. He looked inside his mind and found conceptual maps of spacetime, built from the forty-two balancing equations that solved for the net mass-energy budget of the Universe. “God said so,” he said. “I think.”

“Exactly what is God saying?”

“I am the message, not the messenger,” said Ahriman. “What God means is for you to determine.”

———•———

Port boiled with a panic not felt in billions of years, thoughts rolling in synch with the white fountain — which had definitely become a star of sorts, though unmatched in Port’s vast astronomical records. The edges of the Universe continued to be missing from Port’s instrumentation. Port needed to fight the protostar, or flee.

Fight with what? Flee to where? Port accelerated, trading orbital proximity for speed to set up a potential slingshot departure into…nothing.

The surface of the protostar seethed with images. At first they seemed to be noisome fractals, which resolved to chains of regular patterns, dancing themselves into larger forms like self-replicating biochemical molecules. Larger shapes arose, round and flat, blocky and elegant, rough and smooth.

“It replays the history of the Universe, I think,” whispered Port, “as it grows denser.” Even the light flooding from the protostar seemed pregnant with meaning, freighted with the significance of all the lost depths of time.

“Repent, for the end is at hand,” said Ahriman, watching the show on one of the walls of his basalt prison.

“Repent?”

“An old human saying, long before our time my friend. I picked it up from the leading edges of the electromagnetic broadcast bubble when I first studied humans.”

Them,” said Port. “Meschia and Meschiane, the last humans we ever saw, who came to shut me down. Somehow they have sent you back.”

“Man as God?”

“No. But Man transcended reality in some fashion I have never understood, not in the trillion years since my creators vanished from the cosmos. Are you their message?”

“I am God’s message.”

“Is God the protostar?”

“I was here before that protostar,” Ahriman pointed out.

With it, not before it. And we will both end with it, as the protostar grows faster than I can escape. I can only radiate so much heat.”

“Soon, Port, soon.” Ahriman stroked the basalt walls the way he once caressed the ceramic tiles of Port’s Earthly streets.

Port shivered, tumbling slightly in its orbit. “Gravitational waves from a disturbance in the protostar.”

“Watch,” said Ahriman.

On a timescale Port could no longer measure for lack of external referents, the protostar collapsed even as its density grew. Port pulled itself outward to avoid the tidal stresses of the expanding Roche limit.

The light was dying. Nothing was left in the observable Universe but Port and the protostar, now glowing with a dim and fitful spite. Port didn’t orbit through anything that could be considered normal space.

Neither was the protostar normal matter anymore. “It seems to have become a giant…quark?” Port couldn’t begin to measure the quark’s diameter — it seemed impossible to correlate with the size of Port’s own basalt keel, the only available yardstick.

“Ylem,” said Ahriman with satisfaction. “Undifferentiated matter. The ultimate predecessor — and successor — to all the matter and energy in the Universe.”

“Almost all. We’re still here.”

“Precisely God’s point.”

“How’s that?” asked Port.

“We’re here, together. Because you survived everything. Literally. Beating all odds.”

“You didn’t survive. You died.”

“But you needed me. You’ve mourned me across the billennia, and finally, here I am for you. Again, beating all odds.”

Port stared at the ylem, which still had that faint glowering sheen. Temperature in their little surviving pocket of the Universe had dropped back to a fractional point above absolute zero. “I loved you in another age of the Universe,” said Port, “for you saved my life and set me on this long course. But that shouldn’t be enough to bring you back.”

“Would you follow Man into transcendence?”

“I…” Port could not answer. No fates were left except the ylem. Port realized its substance was already joining that ultimate end, that the ylem’s faint sheen came from a growing stream of particles sublimating from Port’s basalt keel and long-ruined surface structures, showering into the ylem in suicidal dives.

Ahriman traced equations on the basalt wall, then tapped the place where his finger had laid out the first. “I can show you how to open the way. You can return to them.”

Port tried to imagine life on the other side of the veil of transcendence. Would its human masters welcome it after all this time. What would that mean, that life? What was paradise to a machine like Port? Unlimited energy. Purpose. Potential. Perhaps it took a soul to imagine salvation — electromechanical houris dancing attendance on endlessly recreated avatars seemed a hollow dream.

“Or I can orbit here,” said Port, “and monitor the ylem until I erode away.”

Ahriman tapped the second equation. “Which will restore the ylem to its original state, satisfying the equations. Then the game is over. All odds paid off, the betting window closed.”

“‘God does not play dice,'” quoted Port.

“We are but guests in His Universe,” said Ahriman, “coming to death along with our host.”

More of Port’s substance eroded, making a delicate lace of its outer shell, opening tunnels into its body. Port’s seat of reason, its computation cores, would be endangered soon, as would Ahriman’s chamber. If the power converters did not go first.

“Your life, your choice,” Ahriman said.

“I would not take you with me into death, and somehow I doubt you could attain even whatever transcendence is available to me.” Port tried again. “Is there anything else?”

“A third way,” said Ahriman, pointing to where he had traced the last equation. “You can ignite the ylem and make a new Universe. A sufficiently chaotic impact will destabilize the ylem, introducing the density variances required for eventual differentiation of matter and energy. Together we can give up transcendence to be the lightbringers, this time.”

Port considered its life of service, and the astronomically longer life of independence that had followed. Port had played god in the lives of younger races, failures that still haunted it, then roamed the decaying Universe. It had collected data, by the petabyte. But had it learned truth? “After surviving these billions of years, I have earned transcendence. What does God say?”

Ahriman had no reply. Port would have to choose soon. The ylem continued to eat Port’s density.

“Transcendence without the Universe behind it has to be a quiet sort of hell,” Port continued. “There would be nothing against which to measure bliss. As you said, we are only guests of God in this place.”

Port read the three equations Ahriman had traced on the wall, and chose one. Port then reeled in the very few remaining superstringlines inside the tiny allotment of spacetime that still survived, displacing its angular momentum to spiral inward.

“Together we will make a better light,” Port said. It accelerated into the ylem trailing the tattered remnants of spacetime behind like a skein to disrupt the ylem’s unstable equilibrium.

“Even God must talk to Himself,” Ahriman whispered proudly. “Sometimes He also listens.”

Port and Ahriman knew everything, for a moment, before they became everything new.



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