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 kaputski. 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 universe. 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 sideeffects, 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 problems. 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 planet. 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 say.

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.

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