. .

The Last Days of Eternity

by Michael K. Iwoleit

He was a god, he claimed. He was the creator of many worlds, even of our own, but he could not say this with certainty. Maybe, he whispered, we will discover this sooner than we would like to.

I found him in a harvest camp south of Cape Jones. For weeks I had been roaming through the frog-reserve in Northern Quebec, poorly equipped, focussed on myself, and unsure about my safety. I found the wreck – a capsule nearly ten meters in length – which had drilled a crater into the icy bank of the upper Roggan. The pilot had disappeared. He could not have gotten far, if he was still alive.

‘You’re Boyd!’ he said, when he opened the door to his tiny, musty room for the first time. ‘Boyd Sheridan. It’s coming back to me. You wouldn’t believe how much time has past.’

‘Christopher,’ I said. ‘I didn’t expect it any other way. So you made it, after all.’

‘And you, too.’

‘No, I still have it ahead of me.’

He was about ten years older than the Christopher who was, at the same time, shaping his career on an orbital platform over the Caspian Sea. I noticed immediately that the flight had robbed him of something elementary. His voice sounded like it came from the depths of a chasm, his gaze seemed to hit me from light years away. He was still not back on Earth.

Christopher is still in Quebec, and I have made sure he stays there. The workers in the camp believe he is mad, but he is tolerated and fed, as long as he takes part in the daily routine. Sure, with the ID-chip implanted underneath his skin, as with all ISA employees, he could easily prove that he is Christopher Lemant, born 1997 in Nancy, and ex-husband of Anthea Vior, daughter of the most powerful ISA patron. But the whole world knows that Christopher Lemant disappeared in November 2038 on a test mission. He can easily work out for himself that the Quebec officials, who suspiciously watch over their young sovereign nation, and suspect every layabout of being an illegal immigrant, will not believe a word he says. So he waits for me to get him out of there. He will wait in vain.

Christopher and I were friends and competitors from the day we met at a beginner’s seminar at the Genf ISA academy. We were still kids of sorts in those days, elite sprouts, full of enthusiasm and ideas, talented but undisciplined, one bidding higher than the other with keen plans for the future. He would, he bragged, be the first pilot of a faster-than-light space probe. I, on the other hand, would be the first man to construct the FTL drive that would propel it.

Christopher was a strong, driven type, chubby-faced, and equipped with a tough but torturous conviction. I was taller and wirier, talked less, and cultivated a perseverance that was more intellectual than physical in nature. At the first sporting contest I challenged him to a 5000m race, which I won by laps. At the performance tests the next day he pinned me to the judo matt. From then on we could not do without each other. Our lives together became one single race. With Anthea he scored the first important victory.

We arrived in the blossoming days of the academy, when the International Space Administration was rising up as the only global organisation that did not forfeit its power in the turbulent days of sovereign disintegration, but won more of it. Barely fifteen years ago, in the autumn of 2007, Lawrence Hassler, a researcher at the Biocorp Agency in Strathmore, Canada, had patented a biotechnological breakthrough that was to spell the end of a dozen industries. Since then, around two hundred zones have been created worldwide, euphemistically named Hassler-frog reserves, more appropriately called Hassler-frog pens and abattoirs. It was the only true revolution of the twenty-first century, whose primary aspect it was to allow nations and regions to become fully independent of external sources of energy and raw materials, which in turn favoured a global isolationism that few diplomatic institutions could defend against. In the end there was only one thing that no one could achieve alone in this altered political climate: humanity’s expansion into space. And so, out of a modest union of experts that initially only ran the international space station, the ISA was born, growing into one of the most powerful organisation on earth.

The ISA-elite ripened into a new diplomacy that overcame national borders as easily as the gravitational chasm between the earth’s surface and orbit. Christopher and I could not be better accommodated anywhere else. We felt like members of a new nation consisting only of young hopefuls for whom chauvinistic arrogance meant nothing. He was a Frenchman of Flemish descent, with a touch of Slovak in him, while I was an Englishman with Irish blood from my father’s side, and traces of German in my mother’s lineage. We wanted to – both literally and figuratively – leave Earth behind us, and hoist the conqueror’s flag where mankind had never been before. Circumstances back then still allowed for such romantic dreams.

Obstinate and eager, but directionless and impatient, we attacked all the obstacles that the ISA curriculum put in the way of our ambitions. Christopher bravely mastered his preliminaries, and was accepted for bodily and mentally arduous piloting trials from which perhaps one out of a hundred applicants eventually qualified to fly, first an orbital shuttle, then a prospecting ship, and ultimately maybe even an interplanetary cruiser. I took on everything in the fields of quantum and relativity physics, propulsion technology, and chronodynamics that would fit into my head. We celebrated every bit of praise and every good exam result as a glittering confirmation of our approach. We were happy together, and jealous of each other. No progress of the other ever went unnoticed.

Then came Anthea.

I will never forget the day that Anthea, flanked by bodyguards, stepped into the large multimedia auditorium at the academy for the first time. Anthea Vior, the daughter of the eminent Hector Vior, whose industrial concerns developed the first Baumann-drive, making flights within the solar system feasible; Anthea, the harsh, pale beauty, who never liked the rabble around her, and spent a lifetime suppressing the defiant, freedom-loving girl she actually was at heart.

Christopher and I were the only young men at the academy not afraid of trouble with her father, and also the only ones who did not immediately allow her to sense how much we desired her. It impressed Anthea that we made clowns of ourselves in front of her, and for her. She enjoyed us constantly conceiving of new tricks to lose her bodyguards. It was thanks to her connections that we were never summoned to the dean for our antics.

‘My father wants to get rid of me,’ she told us one evening, when we found ourselves drinking on a mezzanine terrace, watching the evening redden over the campus park. Anthea had spilled wine over her silken royal robes, and tears made her make-up run. ‘He doesn’t trust me to stand on my own two legs. I need a man in his opinion, someone whom I can look up to, and whom I can respect. But I won’t obey him. If ever I marry, then it will only be one of you.’

She was absolutely serious.

‘Did you hear?’ joked Christopher. ‘She meant me.’

‘Really? With all your back problems from your training I wouldn’t be so sure, if I was you.’ I replied.

Anthea snorted inelegantly. ‘I still haven’t decided,’ she said. ‘It will be the one of you who is the most successful, though. How else would I decide?’

Needless to say, our competitiveness took on a new turn from that day forward.

For the next two years we worked our way through as many seminars, courses and excursions as possible. We sweated every night at library terminals. We drove to the sea and up into the mountains together whenever we could. On a few occasions, and out of pure daredevilry, we even went right up to the verge of the next Hassler reserve. Anthea concentrated on her studies of ISA-administration regulations and procedures, which we found dry and boring. Christopher challenged his body to the extreme, and risked permanent damage to his back in order to make the near impossible career leap from being an ordinary cadet to that class of elite prototype pilots. I, on the other hand, got it into my head to solve the greatest technical problem of the day: the construction of a FTL drive.

Despite the bodyguards’ painstaking attempts to undermine our friendship with Anthea, it became increasingly intimate. More than once Anthea fell asleep in either my arms or in Christopher’s, exhausted from our study marathons. Back then it never came to sex.

The greatest time we ever spent together was the semester holiday of 2024 – a year before Christopher and Anthea’s wedding – on the new Nautilus orbital station. It was our first trip into orbit. We were as excited as children when we were guided through the five decks along with twenty other exam candidates. None of us could take our eyes off the lavish fittings in the docks, observatories and luxury accommodations. The high point of the day was our visit to the gloomy panorama deck, where we were allowed to watch the launch of a solar sail ship.

For the three of us the spectacle was a splendid illustration of all the hopes we placed in the future. We sat separated from the rest, holding hands, the earth’s curvature at our feet, when the solar sail ship’s silvery lancet glided out of the Nautilus’s main dock. It took an hour before its micro-thin iridescent sail opened up, and covered a quarter of the starry heavens.

Nothing more happened. It had become so natural to call the unfolding of a solar sail a ‘launch’. The actual start did not occur until two weeks later, when photon pressure from sunlight on the sail finally displaced the ship to a mentionable degree. The acceleration phase to the edge of the solar system took five years. Even then the ship would only reach a tiny fraction of light speed, so that the prospectors on board who had set off for one of the neighbouring solar systems, had no hope of ever seeing the earth again.

I did not expect the sight of those two massive butterfly wings to fascinate me so much, and at the same time anger me.

‘Isn’t it laughable?’ I said when we were at our quietest. ‘We spend billions on a single solar sail, and for that we don’t even know whether those prospectors will ever reach their goal. Does humanity really want to expand into space this way? If there is a God, then he’s laughing at us.’

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Anthea’s forehead crinkle and Christopher grinning.

‘Is the old lecture on its way?’ He taunted. ‘Reveal to us, great Mephisto, how you are going to crack the light-speed barrier. Aren’t a few axioms of relativity theory tripping you up?’

‘Not at all,’ I claimed. ‘They only state that an object cannot be accelerated over the speed of light. They allow for the existence of particles that can move faster than light, but which can, however, never be decelerated to under the speed of light.’

‘What did you call them?’ asked Christopher. ‘Trans-c-matter?’

‘That’s right. I propose that the trans-c and sub-c spheres overlap. Trans-c particles may possibly be the mysterious dark matter physicists have been searching for. It should be possible to transfer a material object, like a spaceship, to the trans-c sphere, where it would be able to move faster than light; and once it arrives at its destination, it could be retransferred to the sub-c sphere, that is to say, our sphere.’

Christopher winked at Anthea. ‘And how are you going to do that?’

‘I don’t know. I just know that a ship like this will have a lot of interesting qualities.’

‘For example?’ asked Christopher.

‘It would, for example, arrive back on earth at an earlier time than when it launched, should it fly to a foreign star and back.’ I looked out at the stars, ignoring his growing smile.

‘So the space flight would simultaneously be time travel?’

‘Into the past, yes.’

‘And that’s why you’re chasing ghosts,’ said Anthea. ‘Our universe doesn’t allow for time travel. Imagine the consequences.’ She traced the solar sail’s rainbow-coloured outline with her fingertips. ‘Look at it. We’ll never have anything better. Maybe others will be faster and bigger, but in principle we have reached the limits of what is possible.’

After my exams, I went into research to prove the opposite. I did not manage to solve the problem, and for the first time seriously began to fall behind Christopher.

He had the luck of the foolhardy when, after his exams, he was transferred to the training sector in orbital Mars. His first practice flights in the meagre cadet shuttles, which he regarded beneath his dignity, amazed and bettered those of his mentors. Even landing manoeuvres on the craggy rock Phobos were not challenging enough for him. When Christopher was finally allowed to leave Mars’s orbit in a prospectors ship, he burnt out three fusion chambers of its Baumann turbine and, at o.o2 c, reached the highest speed ever recorded in the solar system. After the disciplinary hearings he was sent home for further training. He was now on a fast track to becoming a prototype pilot.

Anthea, now pressured more than ever to marry by her father, decided on Christopher. In the autumn of 2025, Christopher was festively received at the family’s countryside mansion in Modena, and embraced by Hector Vior’s fatherly arms. The weekend thereafter he married Anthea, and later boasted with mocking disrespect that he must have been one of the last men in Europe to be dragged in front of a genuine altar by the bride’s parents. The exclusive wedding revelry lasted four days, and Hector Vior would have preferred to keep the couple under his wing much longer. But Anthea and Christopher managed to put two hundred and fifty kilometres between their place and Hector’s residence. I saw the little water-castle, which they had built for themselves in the Comer Lake, on holoTV.

I, of course, stayed away from the wedding.

In the week before she departed for Modena, Anthea visited me in Jülich, where I had been commissioned to research quantum cosmology at the ISA nuclear research centre. Like all top graduates, I enjoyed princely benefits that included accommodation in a two hundred square metre apartment, which was part of a brand new residential complex. A selection of willing laboratory assistants, who swarmed around young and highly regarded researchers like groupies did around popstars, were part of the package. Still unsatisfied, I indulged in twelve to fourteen hour workdays and occasional encounters with women who never drove out my longing for Anthea.

One night, Anthea stood at my door without prior notice. It was not difficult to guess that the invitation she had come to drop off was only a pretext. She cried endlessly, and apologised every time she elicited a hospitable gesture from me as her host. She did not answer me, however, when I asked what was wrong with her. In a fit of rage, I threw her out, telling her she could go to hell. After that, I did not see her for years.

I would have better endured my time in Jülich had I been less successful. I succeeded in elegant mathematical descriptions of the physical abnormalities that could occur in the trans-c sphere. I revealed my findings in all the accredited web-journals of my field, but only achieved international renown in isolated sectarian circles of theoretical physics. With the exception of a few appearances in the public media, I was nothing compared to Christopher who scratched together worldwide admiration for his spectacular test flights on the verges of asteroid belts. I came no closer to a practical use for trans-c physics. Night after night I sleepwalked aimlessly through the six rooms of my apartment, dreaming of strange places where I lived a more meaningful life as an ascetic recluse.

At the beginning of 2028, when my tenure came up for review, I went on indefinite leave from the ISA research section. I signed a contract with Reuters and let them pay for a two-year world tour, with me as their science correspondent. I arranged things in a way that allowed me to report on new Hassler-frog mutations in this or that reserve. It was rarely required of me to interview inconsequent people in biotech firms, or private institutions, that often disappeared from the market as quickly as they created a furore. The circumstances of this new career fulfilled my need for seclusion, as I had intended it to.

During this period an idea was ripening in my mind, which lent me new resolve in its compelling absurdity.

I still wanted to invent the FTL drive – nothing had changed about that – although I suspect Anthea now had a large part to play in my ambition. At first I thought it a self-destructive move when the thought occurred to me that the FTL-drive did not need an inventor. Let us suppose for a moment that at point n in the future, the first FTL space probe would be launched. Simply put, if the probe functioned according to the principal I deemed possible, then it would return back to earth at a point n minus x. All one had to do was discover the mission from the future, dissect and study it, and understand how the drive functioned. The question of how the engine was constructed would thus be settled.

As crazy as it seemed, it meant that I did not have to invent the drive at all; I just had to hope find it, if the mission arrived back in my lifetime. Since no one else but me was reckoning with such a result, I would be the first person there to deconstruct, analyse, and eventually build the engine. Still (and here I dared some tricky ontological circular argumentation) the mere decision to build the probe at the next best opportunity could make it unavoidable that it would reach earth in the foreseeable future.

I would readily declare insane the man I have become since then, but Christopher – the Christopher presently trapped in Quebec – has indeed made far more fantastic assertions than I have. And something else lets me doubt my seeming unreliability: the probe actually did land – was shipwrecked to be exact. Well-educated readers may still remember the mysterious Ceres anomaly in the summer of 2030.

At the time, I was visiting a harvest camp on the verge of the Yellowstone National Park, where the largest of the Hassler-frogs were bred. It was a spectacle of exceptional repugnance, when the contents of their abnormally swollen bulbs spilled over the terrain in hector litres. This specific Hassler breed supposedly synthesised very pure heating oil, but what came gushing out towards the harvesters when they slit open the latest herd’s stomachs, was more like an unidentifiable fibrous porridge. Reuters had promised me a nice premium for an exclusive report, and I intended to earn the money before moving on to greener pastures.

Anthea’s constant mails followed me around the planet. I ignored them, but I could not escape Christopher so easily. He was always in the news. Recently, he had taken over command of the ISA-prototype dockyard, a giant metallic crab-of-a-thing, a hundred kilometres above the Caspian Sea. The news gave me some grim satisfaction, because I imagined Anthea, all lonely and embittered in her water castle, thinking of new ways of imploring me for my forgiveness. These jealous ruminations were abruptly overshadowed by news reports on the phenomenon that, for a time, had the whole world running scared.

On the 28th of August, 2030, at 8.30 earth standard time, the automated ISA outpost beyond the Ceres asteroid announced the arrival of a mysterious object. No clear statements on its form, size and mass could be made. It only made itself noticeable through certain space-time distortions when it grazed the asteroid at a speed of 0.8 c, and then decelerated exponentially towards the earth. In its proximity, the measurement intervals of even the most precise hadron resonance clocks fluctuated. On a clear night, the naked eye could observe the constellations inflating and deflating around the moving object, as if a gravitational lens was being pulled across the sky.

Like weeds the world press proliferated with speculation on what the event was, when it brushed one of the most important docking stations for orbital shuttles, causing considerable damage and bringing about a pressure drop that claimed dozens of lives. The rumours only intensified when the thing – its gravitational field shrunken to a thousandth of its original strength – finally invaded the earth’s atmosphere two days later. Observers in northern Canada’s cold reported a kind of meteor with an icy blue trail.

Reconstructions indicated that the object must have gone down in a Quebec frog-reserve. Satellite tracking remained undecided, and a planned expedition never emerged, probably because no one wanted to risk the danger of getting devoured by a horde of hungry Hassler-frogs. The Ceres anomaly was forgotten as the world’s shocked attention turned to the dramatic orbital evacuations.

I on the other hand stayed electrified. I blew all my cash on a farewell party, which distracted the harvesters for a while from the foul air hanging over their camp. After that I summarily informed Reuters that they could kiss me where the sun never shined and left for Quebec. My ISA identification saved me a lot of trouble at the border. In a hotel in Fort George I studied press releases and journals for a few days, and made an educated guess where the thing may have gone down. Even with promises of exorbitant rewards I could not manage to buy help. When I explained to the locals that I was planning an expedition into the Hassler reserve, and needed one or two companions, they bluntly declared me insane.

For the backwoodsmen in a small nest on the lower course of the Roggan river it was an event of the first order when I departed for the reserve on foot, with nothing more than an equipment compact on my back.

Naturally, respect for the dangers of a Hassler breeding area is called for. The pre-occupation of a Hassler-frog is feeding, and it devours anything digestible that comes too close. Whoever ends up in the claws of these amphibian creatures does not stand a chance. These monsters are difficult to kill because they have ganglia rather than an actual brain, and powerful regenerative capabilities (in some harvest camps it has become accepted practice not to stitch up the disembowelled monsters before driving them back into the reserve). I should have been equipped with a X-ray gun in case of a confrontation, but because I could not lug around military grade artillery, I settled for a pump-gun and a handful of stun grenades, which would draw no more than a yawn from a fully-grown frog.

I am still amazed that I actually survived the fourteen-day excursion, at the price of losing ten kilograms and a back injury, resulting from my sleeping in trees. It was one of the most uplifting moments of my life when, after hours of marching through thick pine growths, I unexpectedly arrived in a clearing above the impact crater. The bean-shaped body of the space probe sparkled like a gem in the harsh morning light. I might have spent years discovering and copying the technical intricacies of its hull, but I quickly noticed it was of one piece, moulded from a half-metallic material, its wonderful design resembling a magnified microchip.

Securing the probe and taking it back to civilisation was out of the question. For three days I used every second of sunlight photographing and sketching the thing to the minutest detail. On my way back from the crash site I had a queasy feeling of still not having done enough. I felt like an amateur who understood nothing about space-travel technology. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, about this wreck that related to trusted technical principles. The cockpit consisted of a seat, poured into a single empty shell, forming the inner lining of twisted metal cords. Except for a kind of flat-screen monitor above the pilot seat, there were no distinguishable gauges and instruments. There was no question about it: I needed the pilot. Only he could explain the probe’s functioning to me.

If he managed to evade the Hassler-frogs, I reflected, then there was a possibility that he might have been seen in one of the harvest camps. After my return to civilisation, I had a wilted provincial whore massage the fatigue out of my limbs in a dodgy motel, after which I drove to two-dozen harvest camps forming a loose ring around the Hassler reserve in a rented jeep. I did not have to look too long. In secret I had reckoned with the possibility of Christopher being the pilot, and I was right.

‘Harvest camp’ is a euphemism for these outfits, which I would rather call mobile slaughterhouses. The camps are largely automated, equipped with barricaded capturing-and-loading machines, constantly supplying freight trains transporting synthesised Hasser-frog goods, be they metal granules, liquid gas, organic raw materials, etc. A camp can be comfortably run by ten men and, therefore, does not need more personnel quarters. The injured and confused man, who came stumbling out of the woods a few days after the apparent meteor crash, had to make do with a storage room in the barracks.

Camp workers are mostly raw, indifferent types, blunted by the daily butchery, and interested in little else than their premiums, dope and whoring. For this reason they did not ask the stranger in the weird matt-grey spacesuit any more questions about what had happened to him. The foreman who brought me to him told me, though the stranger was not quite right in his head, he was at least modest and unassuming. He could therefore stay until he recovered.

‘Boyd, you have to listen to me,’ said Christopher, after we finished a flask of brandy, celebrating our reunion. ‘The crash has to be prevented at all costs. We have to stretch out the retransfer as long as possible. You have no idea what depends on it.’

His room was lit by a dim lamp, and he had covered the floor with blankets. In one corner lay his sleeping bag. I saw a crumpled suit that resembled part of a folded parachute. Objects made of the same half-metallic material as the space probe glittered in the gloom.

‘Consciousness, Boyd,’ he declared in a tone I found highly irritating. ‘We didn’t think of that. What happens to the pilot’s consciousness at the crossover from the trans-c to the sub-c sphere? God, did I experience it! You won’t believe what happened to me, what I’d been.’

His proximity was repulsive in a way that went beyond mere aversion. It was not his restlessness, nor the indeterminable accent he had acquired and his obtrusive eagerness. Christopher had aged by ten years, and it was as if he now belonged to a completely different species.

‘What year is it?’ he asked.

‘2030.’

‘Good, then you have eight years. In November, 2038, the Prometheus will launch on its maiden test flight.’

‘The Prometheus?’

‘The first ever FTL space probe. Your ship. You will build it. But this time you’ll do it right.’

‘I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.’

‘I thought about it. Your original design contained a flaw in its construction. The Prometheus didn’t stand the stresses of retransfer. It must not happen again.’

‘What should I do? I don’t even know how the propulsion works.’

‘I’m not an engineer, but I know the probe well enough to help you.’

We mulled over the plans I had sketched and the photographs I had taken of the Prometheus for a few days, before I understood the foundations of its construction. In principle the drive functioned like I had thought it would, only it also served as a mediator to a third type of matter: the weightless and inextensible flat-c particles that moved at the exact speed of light, which could neither be accelerated nor decelerated. The flat-c sphere was used as a bridge to transfer a configuration – in this case a material object – into the faster than light reaches.

Building the probe would require several breakthroughs in both microelectronics and manufacturing technology. Eight years was a tight schedule to complete all that. But Christopher was here, from which I could at least assume that I would manage it. I left him behind with the promise that I would bring him home from Quebec as fast as I could. He was so confused that he did not even think about his present day double. From the beginning I had no intention of doing anything for him other than paying a few courtesy calls. I suddenly had the means to make up lost ground in Anthea’s eyes.

That same month I visited the ISA administration in Milan and unashamedly lobbied all the important decision makers. I could already present enough to negotiate a lucrative licence agreement, which would guarantee the ISA unlimited use of my FTL engine when I was ready to patent it. For that I gained, next to a record salary, unrestricted laboratory capacities, two hundred assistants, and the largest research budget ever approved by the executive research council since the Baumann tests. Christopher must have been seriously surprised when he heard that I assumed immediate responsibility for the research centre in Strasburg, which annexed the prototype dockyard he had been in charge of.

I saw him and Anthea again at an ISA congress that took place in 2031, in Budapest. Christopher’s star was on the decline. Despite his positions of responsibility, he did not want the most spectacular test missions to be taken from him. At the first check of a new Baumann variant with six fusion chambers, his old back problems cropped up, and he had to go about the entire affair with a servo-corset. Anthea was obviously accompanying him against her will. She was more beautiful than ever: arresting, arrogant, with deeply tanned skin and voluptuous curves. She did not bother concealing her attempt for Christopher.

I was the star of the congress. My first articles on the groundwork of trans-c propulsion technology had appeared, and countless receptions, interviews and symposiums gave me the feeling that the entire world invested in me its hope of a breakthrough in interstellar travel. Anthea informed me through an acquaintance that she was staying at the congress hotel in a single room. After a banquet filled with pathetic small talk, I wantonly and drunkenly knocked on her door.

‘Boyd,’ is all she said when she opened the door, wrapped in nothing but a transparent outfit.

‘Once upon a time, you said,’ I slurred, ‘that you would always favour the most successful one of us. Now it’s me.’

‘Yes. I did say that.’ She eyed me from head to toe.

Without another word she pulled me into her room, tore the clothes off of me, and ensured that the alcohol was driven from my groin. The next morning she mercilessly told Christopher that she was leaving him.

Without his consent, she sold the water castle in the Comer Lake and moved into my villa, which I had built in the aristocratic quarter of Strasburg. She was never especially passionate towards me, and to say that we were the happiest couple would have been a clear misinterpretation of the relationship’s reality. She adapted effortlessly to my only having time for her one evening a month, yet I appreciated her constant companionship. Central to everything was the probe’s replication.

Christopher disappeared for a few years after he fell from grace. I never found out what he was up to in this period, but rumours abounded that he, like me, had undertaken a directionless world trip. I did not worry about him. I certainly knew what his future looked like. And so it did not surprise me in the least when he suddenly appeared in 2036 as a candidate for prototype selections. I was told that he had, after numerous back operations, stepped forward with renewed self-confidence, to lay claim to the first FTL test flight.

At the time the Prometheus was just an advanced design concept. I had managed to transfer and retransfer tiny objects into the trans-c sphere during laboratory experiments. It did not bother me that I had to adopt a few technical details, which I still had not understood properly. I voiced my preference for Christopher as a possible test pilot early on. Under different circumstances I would have been concerned that he might win back Anthea with a successful mission. But of course I knew that he would never return from the flight.

Concerning the other Christopher who was awaiting his liberation from Quebec, I only had a bad conscience in the beginning. During occasional visits I realised that he had lost all sense of time. Even when I let months go by, he believed that I had come by only yesterday. He endured numerous work team changes and, much like a mascot, was handed from one workman’s troop to the next. I believe decades could have gone past without him losing patience.

I granted him one last visit the week before the big day, which we had intended for Christopher’s historical flight in the Prometheus. Anthea and I had invited a few dozen friends, relatives, and colleagues to our private island off the coast of Venezuela, from where we would watch the sky’s distortion caused by the Prometheus’ launch. Anthea did not even ask what the purpose of my trip to Quebec was. Instead, she covered herself with a mountain of trinkets at the shopping mall in Fort George, while I chased after the harvest camp, which had moved on by that time.

That day Christopher was alone in the camp. The harvesters were busy releasing a new batch of Hassler-larva into the woods. The men hardly had any variety in their daily routine, and this was one of them. The Hassler-frogs are such resistant and flexible biological hardware that they thrive in the right environments – moist woods, swamps, and coastal regions being especially suitable – and reliably produce every kind of substance in their bulbs for which their metabolism has been modified. The harvesters often fulfil their expected production quotas just by catching and removing those frogs that stray to the boundaries of their reserves.

We were sitting alone in the team cabin, and Christopher was not really listening to a word I was saying about the apparent difficulties of taking someone over the border unnoticed. He was more distracted and stranger than usual.

It became the most bizarre and bewildering conversation I ever had in my life.

‘Tell me, can I trust you?’ he asked.

‘Of course,’ I replied.

‘Can I tell you everything, straight up, no matter how alien and unbelievable it sounds?’ He stared out at the churned-up earth beneath the window. The whole evening he did not once look me in the eye.

‘It’s quite surprising to see you here,’ I replied. ‘So I’m ready to consider everything.’

‘And what if I told you I am a god? No, not a god, but a creator. That sounds more neutral.’

I did not answer him. He had exhibited inclinations in this direction before, which I considered to be the inventions of a sick soul.

‘Have you ever asked yourself, what drove God to create this world?’ He asked.

‘I’m not a religious person, you know that.’

‘I would never have claimed anything else myself. People have always spoken of God as this absolute divinity, a purposive supreme being. But perhaps God is something else entirely.’

‘Like what?’

‘I believe God may have been driven by extraordinary circumstances to create the world. He never planned it, and it never was intentional.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘You won’t believe me, but it happened that way with me.’ He swallowed hard. ‘At retransference something happened that unpredictably forced me into the role of a creator. I created an entire world. Maybe not just one, but many worlds, all of them enfolded in a hierarchical structure.’ He stretched out his arms. ‘Perhaps even this world is my creation. It terrifies me.’

I kept quiet, wishing I could make myself disappear.

‘You think I’m crazy, don’t you?’ He said without lifting his gaze from the window. ‘I can’t hold it against you. But to understand me, you have to consider two phenomena of time. The terms objective and subjective time certainly mean something to you.’

‘Naturally.’

‘Explain to me what they are.’

I shrugged. ‘Objective time is physical time, the time that affects all material objects; subjective time refers to our personal timeline. Everyone knows that humans can experience the length of an event dissimilarly.’

He nodded. ‘And exactly this relationship between objective and subjective time,’ he said, ‘is influenced when one moves between the sub-c and trans-c spheres. A peculiar effect which no one could’ve predicted. I felt it during the launch of the Prometheus. The jump to FTL speed takes up a few hours, relative to onboard time. For me it did not even take a second. I was lying in the Prometheus’s cabin and all of a sudden my subjective time sped up. My heart was racing so fast that I seemed to hear the muscle contractions as a high-pitched tone, and my breath came so quickly that the movement of my chest cavity became a vague vibration. Then the Prometheus reached its highest speed, and objective and subjective time synchronised again. Much more terrifying was that which happened during the retransfer.’

He stayed quiet for a while.

‘Tell me,’ I said finally.

It was a visible effort for him to go on.

‘During the retransfer,’ he began, ‘the opposite effect occurred. My subjective perception of time slowed down dramatically, which brought the world surrounding me to a near standstill. My chest rose and fell so never-endingly slow that the air in my throat caused a deep roar. I heard the contractions of my heart like the approaching thunder of an earthquake. The gauges on the touch-screen did not change for hours. It easily took an entire subjective day before I managed to turn my gaze on the clock. I counted how many subjective seconds made up an onboard objective second. Only then did I have a point of reference, and could I calculate how long the retransfer would take in subjective time.’

He paused meaningfully, as if he did not want to spare me the question that I had to ask.

‘How long were you in this condition?’ I asked.

He closed his eyes, and the smile that played over his lips at that moment was an expression of endless helplessness. ‘Six thousand years,’ he said.

***

Everything in me strived not to believe a word he had said. Yet all of a sudden, I had an explanation for the mysterious distance and depression that had been afflicting him ever since the shipwreck.

‘You don’t know the most important thing yet,’ he continued. ‘You can’t know it, because you haven’t experienced it. Maybe I can make it intelligible for you.’ He took a deep breath. ‘At retransference you realise that there is no light and no darkness, no loudness nor silence, no close nor far. Only changeability and inertia exist. If you see the same thing over and over again, you begin not to see it any more; if you always hear the same thing, then you’ll stop hearing it somewhere along the line. After a time I no longer perceived the outside world, nor my own body. For six thousand years my consciousness was turned completely in on itself. I couldn’t escape, couldn’t die, nor sleep, because the onboard bio-monitors wouldn’t allow the pilot to loose consciousness during the retransfer. For six thousand years I was my entire world, an entity unto myself, without access to external stimuli.’

A thought came to me, which I did not quite dare voice. ‘Like a …’

‘Yes, like a newborn god,’ he said. ‘I felt like a god must’ve felt before he divided chaos, before he made time into day and night. I was receptive to an inconceivable lack of something, a lack of reality, so I created this reality for myself. I began to re-imagine the world that I had lost, first in rough outlines, then increasingly more detailed. I imagined earth as the glowing fireball it was in its beginning. I allowed the ancient continent of Pangea to form, then I tore it apart, broke Gondwanaland out of it, and let the present day continents emerge. I sowed the seeds of life, created the first single-cell organism. In the Cambrian age I experienced a first blossom of my creative powers, which I nearly destroyed in a fit of rage. I conceived generation after generation of newer, more amazing creatures, invented vertebrae, added the warmth and carefulness of mammals in, and finally managed to create mankind. I populated the whole world with these reasonable, yet half-crazy beings who’s subjective timeline was a lot smaller than mine, and let them fight out their long bloody history. I was never proud of my work. I never saw anything admirable in myself, and considered my creations’ worship ridiculous. All of this happened under duress, because of that unimaginable absence I felt. I could have gone on creating for an eternity, but this eternity came to an end.’

‘This world that you created,’ I asked carefully. ‘Was it like ours?’

‘Of course,’ he said. ‘It resembled ours to the finest detail. I re-created something that I knew intimately. How else could I have filled the void I was feeling? With something strange that I couldn’t understand?’

‘And then came the crash. All of a sudden you were here again, objective and subjective time synchronised. An external world existed again.’

‘Yes, but that’s not all.’ He wiped a hand across his forehead. ‘It’s not even half the truth. Don’t forget, in the world I created there was also a Boyd Sheridan who had built the first FTL probe, a Christopher Lemant who flew it and was trapped in time during his retransfer and who also needed to create his own world. Do you understand what I’m getting at?’

I was dizzy and barely able to follow his argument to its logical conclusion.

‘It’s the many worlds enfolded in a hierarchical structure, which I was talking about,’ he explained. ‘And this world, here –’ he made an all-encompassing gesture of resignation – ‘this world could be one of them, and that makes you and me the two most important people in existence. It makes two Gods of us, suffering the same curse.’

‘What do you mean by that?’

‘You still don’t understand? This hierarchy of worlds is destined to perish. Even our world will stop existing at some point. Inevitably. But if I gave it my best, and made sure that you constructed the Prometheus to the best of your ability, then we will have postponed the end a bit. The Prometheus will not go down. Christopher Lemant will not suddenly be torn out of his subjective world. He’ll wake up gradually. The world he forged will cross over slowly into reality, and like an illusion, a dream, it will be blown away by his awakening. What more can we do for his world than grant it the mercy of a tender ruin?’

With this last remark he finally exhausted my willingness to humour him. He did not protest when I, unnerved and shocked, got up and left him behind in the barracks. Perhaps he guessed that he would never see me again, that he would spend the rest of his life in that camp. I do not want to think about it.

***

A week later, music, alcohol and people fetched me back into the real world, which had looked so precarious a few days before. Our beach party was a bit more turbulent than we had planned because hundreds of press people descended on us to secure an interview with the ‘Einstein of the 21st century’ (they actually called me that). My bodyguards got nervous and roughed up some of the photographers. It served me right that my apparent arrogance took up more time on the holoTVs and in the press reports the next day than the Prometheus’s launch. The uproar contributed to most watchers only becoming aware of the missions failure at a later stage.

In the early morning hours, when the party had calmed down, I was sitting on the beach with Anthea and a few particularly resilient drinking friends to watch the launch. I looked up at a fantastically clear sky, where sun batteries sparkled, artificial celestial bodies circling earth amongst the stars and planets. When a bluish light flashed and people applauded all around me, I already knew that something was not right. The drive aggregates of the Prometheus were calibrated in such a way that the retransfer would begin four seconds before the launch, so two distortions, one a bit earlier than the other, should have torn across the sky like oversized magnifying glasses held up to the constellations. There being only one meant that Christopher and the Prometheus would not return as planned.

At an official press conference the next morning, I read an explanation that I had already prepared a few days before, and spoke about the tragic accident, before stepping down from all my posts with immediate effect. A number of scientific journals speculated about the relationship between the accident and the Ceres-anomaly of 2030, but I managed to confuse them by instigating rumours of tardiness in my development team. The definitive lesson I learnt from the mission was that I had always stayed a beginner in trans-c physics. The design of the Prometheus harboured secrets that I was never able to solve. I did not managed to remove the probe’s construction flaw of which Christopher had so often spoken. It was quite the opposite: I was its cause.

How did Christopher put it? Two gods, suffering the same curse. Does a god exist who has heaped as much blame on himself as I have?

This year Anthea and I have returned to the Venezuelan island. We have called it ‘Christopher’s Island’. Today I am a famous nobody and enjoy it. Since Anthea knows that the race between Christopher and me has come to an end, we have grown much closer. Sometimes there is a spark of our old madness when we frolic on the beach and love in the dunes. I do not deny that perhaps one day we will have a normal marital relationship.

Yesterday I slept on the beach and dreamt that I was Christopher, suddenly torn out of his private world by the Prometheus’s crash. When I woke with a start and looked out over the waves, I was not sure for a moment whether I was Boyd, or just an evaporating image in Christopher’s consciousness.

Like young people cannot imagine that their existence is only temporary, humanity as a whole moves forward with the naïve, unstated assumption that the world will continue to exist forever. We never consider that something can wipe us out from one moment to the next. Yet it could happen any time.

Perhaps the last days of eternity have already arrived.

Translated by Richard Kunzmann
First published as „Die letzten Tage der Ewigkeit“
in:
Nova 6, Verlag Nr. 1, Wuppertal 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Michael K. Iwoleit

Michael K. Iwoleit was born in Düsseldorf in 1962 and now lives in Wuppertal. Since the mid Eighties he is active as writer, translator, critic, and editor mostly in the science fiction field. He is co-founder and co-editor of the German sf magazine Nova and founder and editor of InterNova. His fiction has appeared in translation in Croatia, Poland, Italy, England, and USA. He is especially known for his novellas for which he won the German Science Fiction Award three times and the Kurd Laßwitz Award once. The story above is a teaser of his first story collection of the same title, to be published by Wurdack in 2011.

© . .

More from this author: