26 Aug This is How the World Ends
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"This is How the World Ends"Written by Katherine C.
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Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
What does it take to destroy a universe?
A cataclysm? Apocalypse? Do those things destroy a universe? No. We assume that the collapse of all we know is due to the effects of some fated, predicted catastrophe that strips daily life of all its rules, laws, and foundations. But that is our mistake. You see, these things are the effects of a universe in freefall. We mistake effects for cause, and spend all of our life searching for “signs of the apocalypse” so we can prevent was has already happened. Trust me, once you see the signs, it’s already too late.
We can conceive of what a destroyed universe might look like, but the cause is far beyond us. It is terrifying in its utter alienness. Because for the universe to be destroyed, there must be a fatal flaw in the processes we so certainly depend on. Or, perhaps more chillingly depending on your religious bent, there is something far larger than any of us waiting to turn off the light.
So, what does it take to destroy a universe?
I worked for DelSanto Labs for fifteen years. I had high hopes of reaching some heretofore unknown peak of human intellect and advancement with my tiny projects, plying my hands at the great unknowns. It was all a pipe dream until Dr. Swanson asked me to be her lab assistant for her latest project. In conspiratorial whispers she told me about their goals to model the macro level processes of cosmic organization, tracing the development of the laws that held our planet spinning in place. She showed me the lab, rows of gleaming and pricey equipment meant to provide a safe haven for a universe all their own. I was hooked, drunk on the potential for new knowledge and discovery.
Despite my eagerness, I resigned myself to my position as a lowly cog in the machine, not privy to the secret underpinnings of how you create a self-sustaining universe. Still, I glutted myself on the scientific morsels that dropped from their table as I dutifully kept notes and monitored the myriad displays for any important changes. I was a glorified scribe, a sentient computer program that recorded rote data day in and day out. “But we need the human element,” said Dr. Swanson, her passion dripping from her words. “We’re breaking the laws of computing, so I can’t trust a computer to see it.”
The goal was staggering; we sought to create an environment that would evolve, exist, and balance itself out much like our own universe. Of course, it was trying. How can you create a blank slate and build a working universe of physics and nature? That was the first hurdle and the one no one thought we would actually achieve. I mean, we were attempting to shatter every law of nature ever known or thought of, and even a few we did not even know we were breaking yet. It is a miracle—though I feel that is the precisely wrong word to describe it—that we ever achieved it. But they did. And I watched on with childlike wonder at the power of creation.
I watched on as they verified again and again their first major breakthrough. They had created a magnificent void, suspended through the well-calibrated workings of a dozen different machines. It was ultimately artificial, yet ultimately the most real thing that had ever existed. There was nothing to misperceive or misunderstand; it existed as pure nothingness. I found myself lost in that nothingness more times than I would like to admit, and I’m certain it nearly cost me my job. Some days I wish it had. I could have held onto my wonder and innocence, cursing the missed opportunity that became such a burden.
This breakthrough alone should have been enough for fame, notoriety, and the next decades worth of Nobel Prizes, but Dr. Swanson kept a tight lid on any information leaving the lab. She would not breathe a word of the breakthrough until she finally had what she wanted—a living model of the universe to be picked and pulled and ultimately deconstructed into omniscience. If anyone else found out, she would whisper with a paranoid glint in her eye, they might try to sabotage them. There was more luck than perseverance in the first success, and she would not let any meddle in her work. I think she also feared others would discover more quickly than she did if she ever revealed how to create such an impossible space. I was sworn to secrecy and diligence; I kept my promise for those of those until today.
The nothingness, while impressive, was not her ultimate goal. She needed to see how this blank slate of universal principles would ultimately order itself, which meant there needed to be something to order. With the boundaries and limits of the void faithfully maintained, she provided matter.
You’d be amazed at quickly existence begins. In some ways, I knew even then that time in that space was not like time in ours, but the speed at which order triumphed over chaos was still startling. The few atoms we spewed into the void hung there, initially lost and confused. There was no set of unbreakable principles that arranged their structure or gave them a purpose. Yet existence has a way of fighting, and over the course of a week, the matter began to assemble. It began to set itself apart according to rules that were unknown to science up until they sprung into existence under our watchful eyes. That patch of matter coalesced, drawn together by a strange magnetism that at once resembled our gravity, even as it denied the very fundamentals we learned to trust implicitly. The atoms clung together like survivors cast upon alien soil.
On Day 16, it exploded. The tiny bits of matter we introduced had reduced down, crushing in on top of themselves, fighting to develop a hierarchy of rules and existence. Finally, it ruptured into a brilliant glare on our monitoring equipment, a dozen different readings spiking to unimaginable limits before settling back to a new level of activity. I saw it happen, shielding my eyes from the brilliance. No matter what else happens, I can say I was one of the handful of humans alive that ever saw a universe bloom into existence. That is a beauty worth fighting for. The Little Bang, as we called it, marked a new beginning. Suddenly, the universe we had created had a shape and a purpose.
I typed pages and pages of notes, observing ever minute alteration or fluctuation. The silence of the void was replaced by a flurry of activity, most of it beyond my limited ability to understand. We had every sensor you can imagine pointed at it, taking temperature, electrical, ion, weight, size, gravity, radiation, and a dozen other metrics. I studied the recordings, but it was not my job to make interpretation, merely to dutifully record what I saw. I also had the boring task of calibrating the equipment nightly, an endeavor that took up the scant hours of time I had left. While others were engaged with manipulating that data, breaking it open and reading its secrets, I was merely a scribe and technician. They were the gatekeepers of the profound secrets of the universe, walking hurriedly, wide smiles stitched across their faces even as their eyes hung heavy with fatigue. They rode the high of exploration for longer than I thought possible, and it seemed the bounty was endless. Yet I am the one unfortunate enough to carry its burden.
Day 97 was another day of relatively little activity. It had been about nine weeks since everything settled into an orbit. We had hoped for galaxies upon galaxies, but the matter we provided generated only a few spinning hunks of dust and pinpoints of impossible light. The energy output was startling, but manageable. I left the camera trained on the tiny plantelets as I went about my night calibrations. There was something soothing about watching a small collection of planet orbit their sun—something omnipotent and existential about it. When I had gazed up at the stars before, from out on a beach or mountaintop, I had always felt so small and insignificant. With the stars of my universe, I felt unstoppable.
Pausing in my task, an odd change caught my eye. One of the quarter-sized blips of the planetlets had changed. It sat there, spinning slowly as I tried to figure out what was different. Clouds swirled over it like a milky marble, obscuring the surface from time to time. And then, there was a sudden sparkle of light beneath the clouds. As I watched, a softly glowing trail rippled across the planet, lighting up the tiny sector of space.
I rushed to the console, zooming in as far as I could see. And then I immediately called Dr. Swanson on the phone.
She did not believe me, of course. But, to her credit, she rushed into the lab and looked down at the screen. There it was before us, a network of lights covering the dark side of the planet. Eve as we watched, the sun rose and the lights faded from existence. But we knew what we had seen. She demanded I investigate further, and so I dutifully dialed in one of the cameras, stretching it to its technological limit. The closer we got, the clearer the organization became, the more distinct became the arches and solid forms of buildings. Most importantly, the more terrifying became our ultimate creation.
I turned my awe-filled face to study her, see her break into the same joyous wonder that I felt swelling within me. However, her face was pale, bloodless, and drawn. She stared at the screen with quivering eyes, and her voice was just above a whisper. “Shut it down.”
“What? We can’t do that—“
“We can’t have done this,” she whispered. Her words were haunted, spoken more to herself than anyone else. I saw true terror as she considered the implications of creating a whole group of people built in a lab. Organisms had never been the goal; they had been a risk, potentially creating something that could destroy everything we knew. I had sat in on the rigorous meetings about proper decontamination should any infectious agents appear. But these were not single-celled bacteria or unique viral agents. No, our trial run as God had resulted in impossible outcomes. Despite all our monitoring, we never realized that the birth of beings would leave no discernible ripple on the universe. We had missed it. “Shut it down,” she commanded again, her eyes finally leaving the screen. They were grim and determined.
“I won’t do that,” I said with more surety than I truly possessed. I was here to take my stand. Unfortunately, all my bravery was useless in the face of her absolute terror. I have played this scene through again and again in my head. I should have grabbed some piece of the equipment—something heavy and sturdy—and slung it at her head. I could have knocked her out, bound her. Ultimately, I would have had to kill her, I think. I should have barred the doors and made my last stand, buying those denizens a few extra days on their world. Eventually, the others would have broken through and shut it down. It was protocol, after all. Biological agents discovered? Violent decontamination.
But those hours or days in my universe might have bought them a generation for all I knew. Maybe I could have even got a speaker rigged up, spoken into the great void in hopes they could hear me. I doubt they would understand my English, but at least I could have warned them. What do you say to a doomed planet? Hug your children, tell your family you love them, do that thing you’ve been putting off. Enjoy life while you have it. I think that’s what I would have said. I think that’s what you say to a doomed world.
But none of that happened. Instead Dr. Swanson pulled the plug herself, and I watched the laws of the universe fall apart beneath our watching camera. The fields that had carefully cradled our test tube universe disappeared, and its own laws tore it to shreds. It fell prey to a world of laws and scientific rules that were not its own. The computer display showed me how the tiny planet came unglued at its core, flinging red hot streaks of magma across its surface. The stars fell from the sky, the lights went out. Whatever had once kept tiny people and their tiny lives safely anchored on their home gave way, and I tried not to notice the tiny particles floating throughout the faltering universe. The sun at the core of our system finally succumbed, and white hot heat purified whatever could have remained. I watched the temperature readings spike, then resolve back to the carefully maintained 73 degrees of our lab. A pile of ash and sludge caked the floor, the only remnants of what we had created in our foolishness.
I left DelSanto that day, the ringing of the emptiness echoing with me, and began the years-long process of ridding myself of the unbearable guilt. It was trips to therapists who considered me delusional, trial runs of alcohol and drugs that dulled the senses but left a howling ache where they had been. Medications were mostly useless. We destroyed the nothing, but I felt I carried it around deep inside my chest, an emptiness that no law of our world could hope to fill. As much as I would like to say I found the cure, that I somehow saved some sliver of that world, I cannot. Instead, I carry their burden daily and hope that counts for something, some memorial of a forgotten race destroyed by fear. Some nights, I imagine I hear their screams.
So, do you see now what it takes to destroy a universe? I can only hope that whoever is out there observing us is not quite so cowardly and fearful. Hopefully, they are as full of wonder as I was, brimming with joy and appreciation for the tiny world on their screen.
If not, well, I’ve seen how the end plays out. At least it will be quick.
Credit: Katherine C.
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