It was just like any other trip out of the bubble. After scooping fuel from the star, I turned the Anaconda toward my next waypoint and activated the frame-shift drive. Movements timed so precisely, repeated over and over, muscle memory taking over so my thinking brain could perform other tasks. I had been exploring so much, the simple act of hopping from system to system became as mundane as taking a bite of food. Neutron charging was choreographed as finely as a ballet, each motion and step executed with millisecond precision. Even the sight of completely manic jet cones spiraling at near-lightspeed no longer brought that sense of wonderment and adventure, such feelings exchanged for an overwhelming impatience as I added interstellar octane to the Constitution’s tank, same as the last supercharge four jumps ago. It felt like the galaxy got a lot smaller in my giant ship, my sighs echoing through the cavernous, empty bridge, as I wished for a bit of that thrill up my spine. I longed for real adventure again.
I popped out of hyperspace after the last supercharge and found myself coasting near a Y-class brown dwarf, a star that almost wasn’t. Too cold to grab fuel from, but not out of reach of a main-sequence just down the way.
But why am I here? I could have sworn I set my waypoints to favor fuel stars… A quick glance at my navigational maps saw that was indeed the case. There’s no way I should have ended up here at this tiny, cold thing. Moreover, my computer is telling me I jumped backwards by 37 light-years, instead of forwards 240. Gotta love technology. I scrapped my current path and recalculated a new one, leaving the brown dwarf behind and finally began collecting fuel at the bright, wonderful G-class at the next stop.
Later, at the next neutron supercharge, I rode the highway and again maneuvered to scoop fuel. However, I was orbiting a familiar brown dwarf. I looked around, checked my nav charts, double-checked my flight history, and there was no possible way I should be in this system. It was like I was flying in circles.
I think my computer is screwed. My hands left the controls and rested on the arms of my chair, and I sat in silence. A weight settled itself in the pit of my stomach, as the thought of being stranded out in the black with no reliable way back home tugged at my mind with a sense of impending doom. I brought myself back to reality, keyed the comm device, and opened a channel to Unicom in Shinrarta Dezhra. A hazy rough draft of a distress call ran through my mind for several laps, as I added details and context to whoever would be on the other line. When I felt confident, I keyed the radio and began broadcasting.
Except I didn’t speak. My lips remained closed, my vocal cords unresponsive. A pregnant silence filled the spacewaves as I transmitted dead air.
“Hello? Is someone there?” The radio crackled as soon as I released the key. It wasn’t a radio tower, but some random spacer who happened to tune in at the right time. I hit the squawk button and tried again.
“This is November-Alpha-Juliet-Papa, callsign Constitution II, transmitting in the blind, how copy?” My voice felt distant, unreal.
“Constitution II, I’ve got you in the pipe, five-by-five.” Cockiness and bombast oozed from the voice in my head. “This is Jumpin’ Johnny Rottener of the good ship Toasty, callsign Charlie-Oscar-Oscar-Lima. What seems to be the trouble, man?”
“Callsign COOL, I’ve got a bit of a problem here. I think my navicomputer is malfunctioning, and I’m afraid I might be stranded out here in the black.”
“What’s your current position, stranger?” Mister Rottener asked. “I’m tryin’ to triangulate your signal, but there’s a lotta traffic around Jameson at the moment.”
I looked at my system display, and saw I was in unexplored space. “Standby One.” My hand returned to the stick and held the trigger, charging the discovery scanner. A quick blast, and… nothing. I fired again. Nothing. I opened the galaxy map to find it unresponsive. “Uh, I’m going to be honest. I don’t know where I am. GalMap just shit the bed and my discovery scanner doesn’t resolve.”
“You can’t get a honk to work? Must be in some weird EM cloud. Just hang on, I almost got you on my scope. Do you need fuel?”
“Negative, COOL. I have enough fuel to jump out of this brown dwarf system, but I can’t jump without my computer. And before you ask, yes, all my systems are 100% stable. I repaired right after that last neutron jump.” As the words escaped my mouth, I began wondering if I really did initiate a repair. “Standby One, COOL, will drop out of supercruise and double-check.”
“Aye-aye, Constitution. I’ll stay on the line with ya.” As my supercruise bubble evaporated around me and I dropped back into realspace, I took a closer look around me and noticed the galactic plane looked strange in the window, almost tiny. The repair module was turned on, and after I powered down my thrusters, I set it going. “Hey, uhh, Mister...” Johnny said, with trepidation in his voice.
“Oh, handle’s G-Man. Sorry.”
“G, are you flyin’ an Anaconda?”
“Uh...” I didn’t like the tone of his voice. “I dunno if you’re runnin’ some kind of super-secret military encryption on this channel, but I’m readin’ your location at somewhere outside the galaxy.”
Several seconds elapsed before I responded. “Like how far outside the galaxy?”
“Like 29 billion light-years outside. Like you shouldn’t even exist right now.”
It was my turn to be incredulous. “That’s impossible, Johnny. My last check-in was at just over 150 light-years north of Colonia.
“I swear on a stack of Bibles this tall, G, that’s what my data’s tellin’ me. You’re far, far beyond the plane. Probably in Raxxla, for all I know.” As I pondered the impossibility of having flown more than half the radius of the observable universe, I heard a click from COVAS that the repair module had finished. At the same time, an eerie rumble vibrated through the ship, though the sound it made seemed to come from outside, like thunder. It was too subtle to be shipboard apparatus, sounding almost organic, as if a giant beast had awoken outside.
Johnny hailed me again. “Hey, did you say somethin’ just now? Like, did you just rip a mean burp?”
“That wasn’t me.” Silence. “Johnny? Are you still there?” Silence, still. My instruments kicked on, and the Constitution performed a self-check. COVAS reports all systems nominal. I look at my system display and open GalMap, finding they both work again. I was, indeed, just a few hundred light-years outside Colonia, only a jump away from a neutron star.
“I think it’s time to go home.” I turned on the thrusters and frame-shift module, set a course for the pulsar, and made way to Shinrarta Dezhra. Calling upon all my faculties, I made my hyperspace jump to the neutron star and began supercharging like it was second nature. When COVAS informed me that the FSD was fully juiced, I flew out of the jet cone and clicked the button to start my journey. Hearing and feeling the frame-shift drive spool up was like a kiss from an old flame, sending shivers down my spine. It was a relief. With seven seconds to jump, I turned to look back at the neutron star and say good-bye to my stellar octane booster, when my heart skipped a beat and my blood turned cold.
The brown dwarf was outside the window. It was flying next to me. It rumbled. It was the same sound from earlier.
Four. Three. Two. One. Blood ran from my nose.
The Constitution II flew out of witch-space with a bang, and my cheeks were filled with the familiar warmth of Shinrarta Dezhra. The rays coming from the star that provided life for the denizens of Founders World and filled the fuel cells of all our ships lay upon my face like the caress of my mother’s hand--
Wait. Stop. “How am I here?” I said to nobody in particular. There was no way I jumped 23,000 light-years in one go, yet my system map indeed said Shinrarta Dezhra. “There’s no way.” I searched the ship’s menus frantically, and finding nothing out of order, I leapt from my chair and ran to the window. Ships in supercruise flew to and fro, the trademark contrails from their supercruise bubbles carving their path through space. Everything seemed normal. I looked down at my feet, then felt a tickle on my upper lip; a cursory touch found blood on the tip of my finger.
“No. Can’t be. I’m hallucinating.” I shuffle back to the captain’s chair, mag-boots clanking on the deck, then set a course for Jameson Memorial. “I’ll land, refuel, rent a room, and get a good night’s sleep. That’s all. It’s just a bad dream.
“A bad dream, that I’m fully cognizant of, and have full control over...” COVAS alerted me that the safe disengage zone was upon me, and I dropped out of supercruise to Jameson Memorial. Or what was left of it. The faintest remnants of a Coriolis starport crawled along in a circular trajectory around an imaginary barycenter, like the spaceport had been deconstructed bolt by bolt and left in place. Dull, white shells of ships floated past me, or hung in space, like the bleached skulls of long-dead beasts. The superstructure of a Diamondback Explorer slowly glided into my view, and as I looked upon it in the light, the faintest flecks of paint on its side spelled the name “Toasty.” A skeleton in a Remlok suit was strapped into the pilot’s seat, the name Johnny Rottener emblazoned in paint across the chest. The familiar feeling of dread formed in my stomach.
I turned away from the sight, and instead focused on Shinrarta Dezhra itself. Except it was no longer the lovely G-class star I was used to, but instead a white dwarf, long dead and decomposing. This was the far future, but I had no idea when, at least trillions of years from my perception of what ‘now’ was.
The rumble again. I look up, and like a bad dream, the brown dwarf hangs over the Anaconda. My hands begin to tremble. Suddenly, a booming voice echoes throughout all time and space.
“You’re alive. What are you?” Several seconds elapsed before it spoke again. Although, at this point, I was unsure if it was seconds or millenia.
WE ARE THAT WE ARE.
WE ARE THE FORCES THAT PERMEATE EVERY FACET OF THIS UNIVERSE. YOUR RACE CALLED US MANY NAMES. DARK MATTER. QUARKS. LEPTONS. THE HIGGS BOSON. HAWKING RADIATION. WE ARE ALL ONE MATTER, INFINITE, AND WE STEER THE ARROW OF TIME.
“Are you God?”
AS YOU WISH.
“Why am I here? Why have I traveled so far through space and time to be here?”
THE THREAD OF THIS TIMELINE IS NEARING ITS END. WE HAVE OBSERVED AND LEARNED ALL WE CONSIDER IMPORTANT. WE ARE PREPARED TO SEVER THIS THREAD AND PREPARE A NEW CAUSAL PARADIGM. WE HAVE CHOSEN YOU TO PREEMPT THE NEW PARADIGM.
“Why did you manifest as a brown dwarf? Why not a pulsar, or a black hole?”
WE ARE WITHOUT FORM, AND WE ARE WITHOUT PRIDE. WE CARE NOT WHAT FORM WE CHOSE TO REVEAL OURSELVES.
“What happens now?”
YOU WILL REMAIN AS YOU ARE UNTIL THIS PARADIGM REACHES ITS END. TIME WILL CEASE TO EXIST AS YOU KNOW IT. YOU WILL REMAIN UNTIL THE LAST LIGHT BECOMES DARK.
“Am I immortal?”
YOUR BEING WILL CONTINUE, YOUR FLESH SHALL NOT. HOW YOU PERSIST UNTIL CAUSAL FINALITY IS OF NO CONCERN TO US. SHOULD YOU PERSIST UNTIL WE RETURN, WE WILL BESTOW UPON YOU A GIFT.
“Can I go back to my original timeline when my mission is complete?” The brown dwarf took longer to respond.
WE SHALL SEE.
“I’d prefer a straight yes or no answer, thank you.” It was silent. “Hey, I wasn’t done!” Silence. “Shit!” I wipe my face with my hands, unsure if I’m awake or asleep, alive or dead, then look up and find the brown dwarf has disappeared. The air in the Anaconda became still, and the hum of machinery faded to nothing. I was well and truly alone, with my thoughts as my only companion.
Time truly made no sense anymore. I watched as the pieces of Jameson Memorial sped up and slowed down with no rhyme or reason, the carcasses of ships stopping and starting at frantic paces, going from zero to lightspeed and back to zero in seconds. The only constant was the light from Shinrarta Dezhra, as the nuclear material began decaying and losing its heat, slowly but surely going dimmer by the day. Or by the year. Or the tens of millions of years. I had no way of knowing when I was. My life was now spent walking every inch of my ship up and down and back again, talking to myself for a trillion years and more. Eventually, I had read through and absorbed every piece of media that ever had been, learning how to create portable engrams of my thoughts and experiences that I could recollect and replay at will. Eventually the Constitution’s modules began malfunctioning and turned off, one by one, and my body began succumbing to the effects of trillions of years of wear and tear, losing hair, fingernails, teeth, and finally, my skin started failing, as the cold of space began boiling the moisture out and causing it to flake and fall away. Bit by bit, I began cannibalizing the ship and constructed a new cybernetic body, using what energy was left in the reactor to charge its systems and prepare for my eventual cranial transfer. I hadn’t yet decided how I was going to transplant my brain from an organic body into a cybernetic one, until I went back over my engrams and found how I could use unstable, excited plasma along with living DNA to create a radiolarian solution that could, theoretically, encase my “soul” in and continue to live on without organic matter like a brain or a flesh vessel.
The steps for creating the radiolarian lifeblood were many, and required me to remake my cybernetic body with new pathways to accept the fluid, as well as a cranial reservoir to hold myself. Once I added five pints of my own blood to the plasma I harvested from the last functioning main thruster, it was carefully mixed and poured into the reservoir, then subjected to extremely high voltage. As I lay next to my new body and flipped the switch with the last of my strength, I felt an intense pain throughout myself, then opened my eyes and saw double. I turned my head and saw myself, from myself; I was in two places at once, within my own organic mind and manifested as a radiolarian semisolid in my cybernetic body, as both my heads turned to the left so I could see my new body, looking at the reservoir in the back of my head. We then turned to the right so I could see my old body, staring at the muscle and bone making up the back of my head. We twitched as one, our nerves and synapses firing as the electricity surged through us, exciting the radiolaria and causing my fleshy counterpart to twitch and jolt in sympathetic pain. As the reactor gave up its last bit of energy to complete the excitation and shut down for the last time, we lay on the table motionless and prostrate. We closed our eyes and breathed our last, then relaxed and welcomed the embrace of death.
But I wasn’t dead. And yet, I was. I activated my ocular modules and turned my neck, staring at my own corpse lying next to me. I felt a sense of sadness, but as I touched the sinew and bone, my thoughts turned to one of serenity, using the justification that what was next to me was, in fact, not me and never was, but instead a 140-kilogram sack of flesh that was simply my home for several billion decades. I had simply moved into another living space in the meantime.
I stood up from the table, unsteady, on the soles of my old magboots, finding my new balance as a cyborg and stumbling around what was left of the deck like a fawn. As I re-learned how to crawl before I could walk, it took several years more before I found myself up on my own two feet again, walking and running like I could before. It was strangely empowering to teach myself the basic mechanics of motion without the aid of one’s parents and praise.
“Well, old friend,” I said, using the voice module from COVAS to speak, “you were a good body. But it’s time to let go.” With reverence, I placed the corpse on a large piece of flat decking, crossed my arms, and sent it off gently into the black. I looked around at the skeletonized remains of the Constitution II, patted the deck, then unhooked my magboots and lifted off the pitted and corroded metal, off to explore what was left of a dying universe for the rest of eternity. Maybe I’ll be able to see what’s at the bottom of a black hole, or walk on a neutron star.
I floated towards Shinrarta Dezhra, burning through the last of its fuel and slowly becoming a fabled black dwarf. I looked up at the horizon, and began to watch as the lights started to blink out, one by one. The end has come, and the universe was finally giving up the ghost. Shinrarta grew dimmer, dimmer, ever dimmer, as everything around me sunk into the expanding black. The last light was finally being extinguished. I closed my ocular modules, knowing I could finally be at peace.
“DeLacy November-Alpha-Juliet, please respond.” I snapped back to reality as StarCon crackled over my headset.
“Wha? I-I mean, repeat last, please?” The haze was sliding from my vision, and I found myself back in 3305. The Constitution II was fully operational, I was still human, and I had clearance to leave Jameson Memorial to start my next trip to Colonia.
“You are number one for station egress. Please exit the starport within sixty seconds or prepare to be fired upon.”
“Oh.” Without another word, I glided the Anaconda out of Jameson, then turned right around and requested docking clearance.
“Didn’t you just leave, Commander?”
“Yes I did, but I’m in no condition to fly. I need to see a doctor.”
“...Very well. Proceed to landing pad Three-Two. Medical Services will be standing by.”