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Heat Death

by Joshua Allen

We knew it would happen eventually. Heat death. It sounds

like something that would be quite warm, right? Well, it's not.

Heat death is not death by heat, it is the death of heat. It was

predicted some million billion trillion years ago by a guy named

Kelvin, your contemporary. Or maybe not. This time travel

business isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Yes, humans are still around, youngster. Things are a lot

different though, as you'd expect. You wouldn't recognize us, at

all, but biologically we're not all that different. We

communicate with acoustic vibrations. We can sense

electromagnetic light. We breathe, digest, and shed off waste

products. We no longer have faces or definition to the mass of

us, because we realized some time ago that long life meant

simplifying the system. Man, this talking business feels pretty

strange to me.

The universe has changed too. Most of the stars have gone


This is my first real attempt at intertime communication. I

can only hope the timescales are good and that I'm not talking
to a bunch of dinosaurs, or singing to a flock of trilobites.

It's harder now for us to calculate exact time on your scale,

but still not impossible. We live for . . . just god-awful long

times. I'm 400 years old and I'm barely a pup. Not too long

after your time (assuming you aren't a trilobite), we got sick

and damn tired of scientists telling us that we couldn't

understand the timescale of this or the magnitude of that

because of our lifespans, so we told the scientists, to make us

live long enough to understand.

Science warned us. Boy did it. But we didn't heed. Here's

an example: my father was almost a million years old when I was

born. Middle aged. He figured as long as he got to see me

graduate college, he'd be happy. He won't, now, of course. I'm

still three centuries shy of college and now Dad is dead. Died

perfecting the Escape, but let's wait on that.

Heat death. Death of heat. It's a bit like starvation, only

you're starving of heat. It's an inevitable consequence of an

ever-expanding universe. The galaxies are too spread out to

interact, and they begin to just go cold, and the matter breaks

up into constituent parts.

Okay, yes we accelerated the process of heat death. But we

didn't know we were doing it.

Once we got long lifespans, it didn't take humans long to

start exploring the stars. I believe it was a couple centuries

after Kelvin, give or take. (I hope Kelvin has been born or you

won't know what the piss I'm talking about. Oh, who cares, no

more distractions.)

We began to explore the stars, then the galaxies. This

turns out to be surprisingly easy once you get some wormhole

generators going. You just hope solar system to solar system,

leaving a nice trail of wormhole gates behind you to allow

everyone else instantaneous travel. Getting from galaxy to

galaxy was a little more challenging, but what's a few hundred

thousand years when you live a couple million?

As galaxies became mapped, and our exploration grew more

fevered, one startlingly obvious truth dawned us. As abundant

and beautiful as life was in the galaxy, intelligent life was

rare. The problem is, we found out, it's impossible to know what

exactly constitutes intelligence. The modes of thinking and

processing information, not to mention the timescales that those

communications occur on, can be so different that you could be

staring a tree for three centuries just to get a glimpse of it

talking to its neighbor. And that's an Earth tree, a

comparatively talkative critter. That's right, it took us about

three generations to realize that trees were intelligent. Who

would have thought a bunch of wood fibers in high quantities was

a way of thinking? Well, who would have thought what amounts to

piles of specialized bacteria would be capable of interstellar

travel? And yet that's all humans are, even you.

Trees aren't just smart either. They're freaking geniuses,

compared to you guys. You look at abundances of trees and you

think you know what you are seeing. You think the soil and the

animals are there independent of the trees. You think that the

little animals that crawl on the surfaces and live in the

knotholes are taking advantage. Don't believe it for a second,

sir. Trees are god damned cunning bastards. Their cities look

like nothing more than lumps of dirt. Their engineering feats,

extraordinary though we later realized them to be, are slow and

weird--beyond our understanding, or at least beyond the

understanding of those who haven't sat there for three thousand

years and just watched the bastards at work.

Of course, you do the math. By the time we figured out

their game, the sun had started to swell toward its red giant

phase. Smart as they were, trees had no use for interstellar

travel (which, I guess, makes them no different than other

intelligent life). We moved them to other planets, but they

never really took to the move. See, the problem is, we couldn't

explain it to them. We can listen, but we cannot speak to them.

That's the real trick of life. We can identify, and thanks

to our long lifespans, we can observe intelligence in action,

the engineering feats the subtle ways that different organisms

use their environment, but most of them we have no way of

speaking to. What they use for communication is simply outside

of our biology. It's depressing shit. Surrounded by life, but

still alone.

We've identified over six billion forms of intelligent

life, and put a superscript ten on that number to get just the

number of taxon of lesser life forms--although as Bark

Treemaster constantly reminds us, "lesser" just means we haven't

determined their method of intelligence yet. And we can

communicate with maybe a half a hundred of them. And believe me,

it's nothing you would see as communication.

The first problem was, of course, that we assumed that

there would be certain consistencies to the life plan. For

example, we assumed that all life would have arisen from

replication. False. We assumed that life would involve cells in

some way. False. We assumed that organic matter would always be

involved. True. But we assumed the ways in which organic matter

was independent of the planet you were on. Super False.

In your time you just don't realize how big a role Dark

Matter actually plays, though maybe you have hints. It took

seeing these long timescales for us to realize it. It warps time

and space. It does weird things to matter. And the shit is

everywhere. Oh, with the exception of Earth's solar system and

the half a hundred other systems where we have some chance of

communicating with the intelligent life.

So here we are. We are intelligent. We know about each

other (at least, I assume they know about is. The ones we talk

to, anyway). But we are isolated by a chasm of difference. It's

a lonely sort of knowledge, to know that intelligence is

everywhere and you'll never be able to share it. To them we

appear to be no more than what you see in a Petri dish:

squiggling, hyper little blobs. We just happen to be blobs that

stick around for a lifetime, their time.

Well, that was the situation anyway, before heat death

started kicking in. It turned out those wormholes, which burned

a lot of resources and energy to maintain, and those

intergalactic trips, which burned even more energy and

resources, so much so that it took three Sun-like stars worth of

resources for the first intergalactic trip, took a toll on the


At first it seemed like there would be plenty of stars. We

had strict rules about which ones we used. They had to be old.

We had to confirm that there was not a trace of any kind of life

in the solar system (a slow process, and one we probably fucked

up more than once, in our haste--long lifespans or not, we never

really become more than impatient children, wiggling bags of

sludge in a Petri dish). Then, we harvested the star. A

complicated process that involved, to put it short, blowing the

damn thing up.

It takes a while, but if you add enough mass to a sun, you

blow it up. We can do it much faster than how it happens

naturally, but it's still slow. And you always win, energy-wise,

because all you have to do is add mass to the star, and you

unlock magnitudes more energy than it is producing on its own.

There are other ways of getting the energy out, but they are too

slow. Novas are fast and fun. Supernovas are a real blast, but a

little more tricky to pull off. A good supernova can power a

ship pretty damn far, or keep a wormhole open for a couple of

megayears (that's a million year, look it up, assuming you live

on a post-Kelvin Earth). Plus, you get all kinds of great side-

effects, like heavy elements you can use for nuclear power to

keep oxygen generators going, and a really neat fireworks show

for the kids.

As you might have already guessed, in the short term,

blowing up stars gets you far. In the long term, it starts to

get sticky. Those supernovas might have formed new stars and new

solar systems, if they had been allowed to progress naturally,

but instead we stole the energy and used it for ourselves. So no

new stars formed. Yes, it takes a long time, but eventually,

when you factor in how much travel we were doing, and the

natural heat death occurring all around us, a few million

generations down the line and we started to run into real


Here's the thing: we're the only organism to ever do travel

the galaxies. We are the only organism who has ever even

attempted intergalactic travel. The Del'n'theranians (our name,

based on taxon and planet of origin--our words are meaningless

to them) called us . . . well a certain speed of dripping and a

pattern of radio light, but the translation of its words (which

took us about a million years to decipher) is, basically

"mailmen from the stars." The equivalent of mailmen is a beast

they use to help transmit messages. And they didn't mean it as a

compliment, no more than you mean it as a compliment to call

something a Rube Goldberg machine. No other intelligent life

ever had ambition to do this. They could communicate perfectly

well with each other. Remember those wormholes we had to blow up

stars to power? They did it as a matter of course. We didn't

know that until it was far too late, unfortunately. We learn

slow, and the method they use is very slow, almost imperceptibly

slow to us.

Most intelligent life tapped into this invisible, slow

communication system almost from its inception. We didn't. The

truth is, we are, to the rest of them, not much more than beasts

with a sliver of consciousness. They think it's funny--they

laugh at us--because we are blind, deaf, and unable to detect

molecules (smell), even relative to the other beasts of our


Trees knew. We were their children. And to everyone else,

Earth trees were youngsters, and dumb. Earth, to most, is just

disappointing mass of slop that took too long and never reached

its potential.

It's biology again. Our scientists talk of two timescales

each organism has. There's the life timescale and the daily

timescale. For most organisms, the perception on the day-to-day

basis corresponds pretty well with their natural life spans.

Trees live(d) a long time and think very slowly. Humans live a

short time and think at a hyper, frenetic pace. When we

lengthened our lives, we didn't speed up our perception of time.

We figured, assuming any thought was put into it at all, that we

would eventually adapt to our life spans, but we didn't. We live

the fast-paced life day to day, but we do it over these huge

timescales. We are like a colony of bacteria, devouring the food

around us, except that individuals don't die while the colony

lives on, but individuals and colony just keep on going.

This severe mismatch is utterly unique in the universe, and

utterly artificial. There are other factors, the nature of our

biology, our inability to communicate in ways that don't depend

on the vibration of air molecules, and our total disconnect from

our natural habitats, that adds up to the fact that we are the
only species who cares about exploring the universe. And we are

the ones who have, more or less, killed it.

We started noticing something was wrong a few generations

ago. We're hyper, but we're not stupid. We could see the pace of

our lifestyle was taking its toll. The total heat in the

universe was shrinking at an accelerated pace. No problem, we

thought. We stopped intergalactic travel. We closed nonessential

wormholes. We set off a few supernovas to recharge the universe.

It didn't work. We closed essential wormholes next, leaving only

a tiny communication portal open. Still didn't help. We closed

all but a few wormholes. We lost all communication with each

other. We reverted to lives much like you lead now (still

longer, of course).

It still didn't help.

The chain reaction we had triggered was spiraling toward

its inevitable conclusion. For too many generations we had

killed stars, and now they were killing us. Of course, we were

smart. We lived on these short perceived timescales, so we knew

when to leave a solar system. We reopened some wormholes. We

gathered, we centralized, and we moved when the cold started to

catch up to us, taking what life we could with us (so, so little

of it would go, even less survived).

The intelligent life we never worried about. Intelligent

life began disappearing about seven seconds after we calculated

the rapid acceleration of heat death. Where did it all go? We

don't know. They had an escape plan, I guess. They never shared

it with us.

Well, it was my father's generation that realized that this

was our last stand. They realized a plan of action was needed,

and it would need to be a drastic one. We, the mailmen of the

stars, were the only ones, apparently, so utterly dependent on

the continued existence of this very universe. We'd had so much

time, and yet we learned so little. It took us too long to

figure out what we were, too long to realize when we looked at

something to look at it not with our eyes, but with the eyes of

what might be, too long to realize what we were doing was

stupid. The mailmen from the stars brought one message, and it

was of death.

As an example, we originally carried guns when we went

exploring. Guns. We expected battles and glory. War. You know

what wars? Beasts war. That's true across the universe.

Intelligent life does not war. They laughed at us when they saw

our guns. We were an embarrassing monkey who had learned to

throw its shit across the galaxies.

My father's generation decided they had one last chance.

Our universe is dying, so we had to spark a new universe, or

reboot our own. How do you do that? Wormhole. You need to rip

open the mother of all wormholes. When a wormhole is big enough,

it births its own universe. That's how our universe came to be,

that's how every universe comes to be. And how do you do that?

Well, you blow up something big.

It took half a generation (that's a megayear, or so, if

you're counting) to figure out how to do it. Let me just tell

you that it probably won't work. I don't mean it has a 60%

chance of failing, I mean it has a 99.999999...% (as many nines

as you care to imagine, so long as you stop just short of

infinity, because clearly if we're here, it has happened.)

chance of failing. Universes are rare beasts. Universes with the

proper physics to enable life at all, let alone anything we

resemble as life, are the rarest of all. Ours is the only one,

so far.

So here we go. This is the last transmission. We're going

to blow it up. Not a star this time, or a solar system, not even

a supermassive black hole. An entire galaxy. A big one too.

Wasn't easy to do, but we had no choice. If we succeed in

blowing it up, and if everything goes just right, then we wake

up in a new, fresh universe that we can exist in. It'll be

different. The speed of light might be different, for example,

or the exact charge of the electron. But with luck, it will be

close enough. Good enough for the girls we go with, as you might

Wormholes are great. They allow us to send messages back in

time, or forward in time, or across great distances. So I

thought I'd use the last remaining power of my ship, The

Mailman, to tell you all in the past. I don't want to alarm you.

I know that you will by necessity make the same choices we made.

The N'Dak'Tarteth'ianaians figured it out 47 seconds after the

Big Bang: reverse time messages are possible, but cannot effect

the outcome of matter. The Law of Conservation of Outcome. Yes,

it is still a few billion years into your future before you have

to worry about it. I just wanted to let you know something,

something special that only humans have.

It is this: we never gave up or even tried to give up our

daily timescale. We live millennia, but we appreciate each and

every second of every day. And maybe all the other intelligence

laughs at us, but god damn it, I'm proud we love and live life.

We get drunk, we marry, we cheat on each other, we're kind and

cruel, noble and terrible. We never lost any of the stuff that

really made us human, not for a second. I'm proud to be a noble

beast. I'm proud we went to the stars and saw them and touched

them and tasted them and maybe once in a while fooled with them.

We will never be able to communicate to you again, even

assuming that one-in-googolplex chance we survive. But here's

the thing I've learned--and yes, I'm little more than a child:

heat death was inevitable. It always was. I wish like hell we

hadn't sped it up, but we did. And from the moment of our

pitifully arcane and roundabout conception by way of evolution,

we have had one timeframe above all others. A deadline, as it

were. And I think we did all right by it because we never gave

up living, dreaming, and adventuring. We go now into the void.

This will be the greatest adventure of all.