it was a mistake, after all. Everyone did it back then, in the last
Gs of the Third Epoch. It was the new thing, and everyone wanted
to be part of something new. Stimulation of any kind was just about
all that was left to live for by then. Who knew we'd find the Layer?
getting it all out of order. That will not do. I can't let my mind
wander. He will see; he will know. And then he
I shall return to the beginning. I was born - yes, actually born,
thank you very much - about thirteen-hundred years after the advent
of space travel. With so many calendars to choose from, providing
a date would be useless. I should clarify, though, that by "space
travel" I refer to the first primitive boats that carried early
man out of the atmosphere of his home world. (I remain annoyed that
the name of our ancestral home is lost to antiquity.) So, in other
words, I am really quite old.
the time of my birth, humanity had deluded itself into thinking
it had achieved immortality. This was not strictly true, since people
could have the candle of their lives snuffed out by way of any number
of pathogens or even simple trauma to their delicate hominid bodies.
Certainly, the various processes of aging had been thoroughly researched
and brought to a halt. Life could no longer be defeated from within,
only from without.
back that far, to my childhood and adolescence and biological maturity
is like recalling memories of memories of memories. This is not
a sign of senescence, though! Absolutely not! This is natural for
those of my age.)
my home planet, was in the Third Ring of the Diaspora, about three
hundred light-years from humanity's crèche. It boggles my
(extremely lucid) mind that my forebears made that journey - in
fits and starts, to be sure - in self-propelled ships. Mind you,
this was before tessellations, before funnel-drives, even before
the first hopelessly dangerous FTL sleds.
many of my generation - oh, how few remain - I spent decades and
centuries at a stretch in stasis, traveling between the various
worlds humanity had conquered. In fact, and this isn't just braggadocio,
I was part of the first team to circumnavigate Big Blue. (Big Blue
was the nickname of the supermassive black hole at the center of
our home galaxy.) Think of it! To imagine humanity's confinement
to a single star system is an interesting thought experiment, I
suppose. But I remember a time when no humans had ever left the
Milky Way Galaxy. Fascinating!
treads of my rover catch momentarily on a rill of soil. He
pauses, metal eyes watching for signs I can't continue. His
bleak metal frame floats effortlessly just to the left and behind
while I am bound to the soil by gravity. I remember a time I thought
of him as a friend. That was a long time ago. A very long
do I rehash the past? Most of those in the Layer have no memory
of (or interest in) such ancient history. The other one-in-a-trillion
- my peers, my colleagues in survival - know it all too well. Perhaps
I remember it for him. In his dark, silent way, I
know he understands.
ended the First Epoch. We certainly didn't explore every planet
and moon and asteroid around every star in the galaxy. But we did
map them all, 161,343,194,884 of them. (I can't remember the names
of my biological parents, but that number is burned into my brain.)
That achievement sparked a party that lasted almost a milli-G. (The
children of the Layer don't know what a G is: the time required
for a single galactic revolution.) We were so pleased with ourselves.
By this point we were encasing our bodies in diamond-scales and
breathing through nano-filters. Immortality was almost a reality.
It would have taken a run-in with a stellar body to kill me then.
look over at him. Best not to give him any ideas.
this hill getting steeper? It's taking most of my will to push the
rover up the incline. Don't fail now. Not yet.
course, by that time, once the Galaxy had been dominated - and that
included the handful of other sentient beings we'd run across -
interstellar travel was simple, affordable, commonplace. And that's
when we realized we needed to truly sail the cosmic ocean and leave
the galaxy. A thousand light-years in an eye blink wasn't fast enough.
We needed to be able to travel a million light-years in an eye blink
if we were to colonize the rest of the universe. I certainly had
the time, but I didn't have the aptitude for that kind of invention.
Others who folded their minds in on themselves in freakish psychological
knots unlocked the deepest secrets of the universe. I don't even
know how a tessellation works. I think it has something to do with
sliding into the twisted geometries of the eighth - or ninth? -
dimension and squirting out at some unimaginable distance. The trick
wasn't getting the technology to work. The trick was transmitting
living beings this way.
one ever managed that trick, now did they? I wonder if, somewhere
in the cold expanses of the universe, there are still colonies of
biological humans, with beating hearts and pumping lungs. I wonder
if they still procreate with DNA rather than with psychotypes. Is
it better to pass your genetic faults on to your children, or your
of those who have a philosophical bent have asked the question:
Are we human? I'm here to tell you I am. I may not have a brain
anymore, but I have a consciousness matrix of thasers and argon-silicon
crystals that experiences everything - anything - a biological human
could. Like fear.
hill has to be steeper. It was never this hard before. He
hovers, waiting for his moment, the moment to fulfill the
destiny I gave him. That impassive, featureless head - save
for the glowing eyes - shows no emotion, neither charity nor passion
nor greed. It does show patience, endless patience. I wonder what
he'll do when the deed is finally done? How will he
Second Epoch was long, so long. We traveled the length and breadth
of the universe. At some point it became more of an event to meet
another human than to find a planet made entirely of copper or a
ring of liquid water circling within a star's habitable zone. There
are only so many configurations a star system can take. There are
infinitely many kinds of people. We became our own best audiences.
Someone - I never learned who - decided that merging the psychotypes
of two or more people wasn't the most efficient method of reproduction.
We evolved into sentient protozoa, splitting down the middle and
creating exact duplicates of ourselves. We had to do something.
It was all falling apart.
short-lived, hot stars vanished first. There weren't the concentrations
of matter to fire them up anymore. Oh, we could - and did - build
vast arrays of machines to force the stellar nurseries back to life.
But what was the point? Nothing could stop the universe from unraveling.
It had expanded too far. The Big Bang was simply too powerful and
there wasn't enough matter to pull it all back in again.
Deeper and thinner and colder the universe became. When the last
star winked out, the Third Epoch began.
do you entertain yourself when you're a self-contained, immortal
entity floating in a dead universe? I'll admit it; I did terrible
things. For some period of time - was it years or centuries or eons?
- I simply destroyed every other person I met. We were spread all
over the still-expanding universe, so just meeting someone was an
event. What better way to mark the occasion than senseless murder?
When I went through a dry period with no contact, I made copies
of myself, and then killed them, too.
I deserve what he will do to me
a message - not traveling at the poky speed of light, of course
- rang out through the dark, endless night. One of my peers discovered
wish I was in the Layer now, but I'm not. I'm climbing this forsaken
hill on this rogue planet back in the decayed universe of my birth.
He makes certain of it. What will he do when the planet
itself has dissolved into a homogenous mist of disassociate quarks?
to describe what it was like to find the Layer to people who have
lived for such a long time in it? Where the universe was diffuse
and nearly empty, the Layer is stuffed with energy and matter and
life. Where the universe drove us to desperate extremes, the Layer
invests us with glorious calm. Philosophers - them, again! - ask
the question: Is the Layer heaven? It is for me.
I've gotten it all out of order again. That's not good. No, I skipped
the step where he enters the story. As time wore us down
and our sanity began to chip and shatter, those few of us within
communication distance determined a new mode of destruction to liven
our lackluster days. We each built for ourselves a companion - such
a soothing, docile word for the horror that has dogged me for unmeasured
eras of time.
idea was this: we certainly did not have it in us to commit suicide.
A million-million years of evidence showed that definitively. But
we couldn't imagine simply
enduring for all time either. Thus
was born the concept of the companion. It was really quite simple.
A robot, built to be as indestructible as ourselves, was tasked
with following us at all times, monitoring our minds and our will
power. If either should falter - either insanity or paralysis -
the companion would destroy us. Once activated, the robot would
not accept reprogramming, from its owner or anyone else. No longer
would we have to live in fear of unending, unmotivated existence.
We didn't know about the Layer, of course. We didn't know that soon
hope would return again, that life would once again be worth living.
young in the Layer look at us with sadness, but they do nothing
to save us from our self-imposed death sentence. I believe they
will be glad to see us go, glad to see the end of our dim remembrances
of the universe, and the end of the steely visages and the blocky
outlines of our companions.
of us designed the requirements of our own companion's programming.
Some required their companions to validate sanity through feats
of mental acuity. Other companions test the physical abilities of
their owners through tasks devised a thousand Gs ago.
companion does both. He monitors the run of my thoughts,
searching for signs of the inevitable breakdown of sentience. He
also puts me through a grueling gauntlet once every milli-G, forcing
me back to this dead world, making me climb this hill. Someday,
if my mind doesn't snap first, someday I will no longer have the
mental power to drive this rover over the rough ground, up the slope,
to the top of the hill. Someday he will determine that I no longer
last bit of the journey seems the hardest as my treads grind through
the silty gray dust to reach the crest of the hill. His mode
of operation changes subtly, too subtly for anyone without my experience
to notice. Gone is the intent watchfulness for signs of weakness.
Now, he simply attends. Or seems to. He continues
to scan my psyche, always, every moment.
did my job too well. I cannot - though I have tried a million ways
- defeat him. I cannot outrun him or deactivate him
or fool him with some clever ruse. He will follow
me with blind devotion until my dying day, a day of his choosing.
that be the saddest day of my life?