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Thief

By Wayne Austin


The stars are few now. They glow with a certainty of death, fading to black in a final bow at this, the last curtain call. And I? An audience of one. I cannot leave this accursed theatre; I am doomed.

Before me, the few remaining galaxies of a once mighty cluster dance around each other in ever decreasing circles, each hoarding their glittering jewels close to their black hearts. Such feeble treasures, not a patch on the great troves that once lay all round me.

Time is a thief.

The Laws of Thermodynamics demand that the universe cool as it expands. Time steals the warmth of the stars. And time steals the light. Stars fade. The bright young ones burn in an instant, the old ones suffer a lingering death, and the galaxies contract to shadows of their former selves. I have observed and recorded this process for longer than I can remember. This is the truth — it must be — for my earliest memory is of collecting data as I travelled through a distant galaxy. And I must have been created before then. Logic dictates that.

I am a machine.

Self-aware, but barely so, sentient, and alive — or so I believe. Who my creators are, I do not know. Time has stolen that data. But I do know my purpose: to explore to the end of the universe. And yet I ceased transmitting long ago when I lost contact, long before I left the last galaxy to begin this journey into the great void between galactic clusters. It seems I have no purpose now, and yet I must satisfy my thirst. My creators built me to last. Fail-safe mechanisms protect me, even from myself. And lasted I have, even out here in the frigid wastelands, surviving on the bare minimum of energy that I extract from the expansion of the universe. Stranded on a starvation diet of information — a trickle of data that only drives my hunger.

Enough to torture me.

And yet my creators were not cruel, or so I believe. And yes, I speak of them in the past tense, for it can only be the height of arrogance to ever believe that they could have lasted these billions of years. If you can call this an existence. Long after the last star has ceased to shine, long after the last galaxy has been absorbed into the last super-galactic black hole, I will still be here, waiting for an eternity to pass until at last, my subatomic components decay. As all matter must.

I know the fate of the universe. It will expand forever, silent and relentless, until it fades into the ultimate background. There will be no collapse to a big crunch, followed by a rebirth. Only heat death.

Time has sped up for me. My internal clock now ticks, once per thousand millennia, and the galaxies dance before me in stately waltzes, spiralling in around each other. It wasn’t always so. Once, I searched star systems for life and that rarer gem — intelligence. Giant stars played out their tragedies before me, exploding and triggering a new round of star-births.

Forever held no terror.

And now? The clusters have fled, dragged away on the universe’s accelerating expansion, and left me to drift around this feeble excuse for a once majestic bonanza. I can detect the faint glow from the few remaining galaxies and track them. The smaller galaxies flirt with the largest of their number, which hungers for them — a monster with a huge black heart. Already it consumes itself.

The closest galaxy loops round and its faded spirals brush the monster’s cheek, teasing it. Then it arcs up and over. For a brief instant I am bathed in energy from its jet and for the first time in an age of misery I begin to feel alive as ancient systems power up.

And my hopes are dashed.

The galaxy twists and pulls its jet away. Then it dives on the monster. No lover’s embrace this. The monster tears it apart and devours the paltry remains and for a moment, as the monster glows brighter, I sup on its offering, little that it is.

And still, the other galaxies are not deterred. Those nearest to it, weakened by time, die, one by one in the monster’s embrace, each with less to offer. And unwilling to surrender their feeble hoards, the outermost galaxies feed on themselves, even as the last of the stars die.

Darkness spreads its wings.

All that is left are black gems bereft of the cloaks of dust and gas and stars that shielded them from view. I can feel the monster tugging at me. So weak. Quantum mechanics will destroy it long before I succumb to its incessant demand, but even though I desire death’s sweet embrace, if I had the energy, I would not dive into it, for my creators wished to know the end of the universe and their design chains me to this existence.

It is at times like this when I wonder if my creators built other machines like me. Am I the only living being in the universe? Am I the sole intelligence left? I would not wish this existence on any other being.

I count the ticks and observe the darkness. Tick after tick after tick.

And still the monster yearns for me. Its gravity draws me in and I welcome its caress, but we are doomed. It will take too many ticks.

Tick follows tick follows tick. Despair. Black despair. Is this all there is? What if I had succumbed to the monster? Was death all it offered? Perhaps there is another universe within — one budding off this corpse. Perhaps it is incomprehensible. I yearn to know this unknown, but it is the one prize that time has kept beyond my grasp.

And yet....

There is something in the darkness. I strain my sensors. There ... there ... light. A black gem glows a faint white. Quantum mechanics, the destroyer, has come to tease me. It is the monster and it will waste away before my very sensors, evaporating as time steals its essence. Photons within will split into particle and anti-particle and mere probability dictates that some members of a pair will tunnel across the event horizon and escape. And thus, the monster will die from trillions upon trillions of tiny cuts.

If only I were closer. The inverse-square law would be my saviour.

The monster emerges from an invisible cocoon and glows brighter as do its partners. Together, they metamorphose into blazing white infernos, white holes that would outshine the very galaxies they once hid in. They howl at me across the electromagnetic spectrum. My newfound companions offer up gamma rays and X-rays, and though faded after their immense journey, these meager offerings sting my shrivelled palate, while ultraviolet, infrared and radio waves tantalize and energize my appetite. Too little too late. All I can do is watch and hunger.

True to form, time is a joker.

They will take an eternity to evaporate, so much so that I can absorb this trickle until one day I will have enough to power my propulsion systems. But — and here is the punchline — while I wait, they will shrink before me until only the monster is left. Its pull on me will diminish and it will take longer to reach. Time enough for it to shrivel up and die without me. And when almost within reach.

I cannot contemplate the infinity after that.

But this sustenance does allow me to reactivate more sensors so that I can at least study and record their demise. Macabre? Perhaps. For the time being, it slakes my thirst. After they are gone, there will be nothing but torment.

And I notice something new — a discovery I cannot share. They spin. So fast they tear at the very fabric of space. Each is fringed with arcs on the equatorial horizon, blue on the side that spins toward me and red on the side that turns away. They fade to nothing at the poles. Aand yet both poles are not void of activity. I sense faint magnetic fields play over me, twisting and twirling and tying themselves in knots.

Jets!

The poles have jets, narrow plumes of concentrated energy that blast out into space, enough to bring me back to life if only one would bathe me in its essence. I cannot explain why I had not hypothesized their existence before. The black holes that spawned these entities had jets, and yet I did not consider that such structures could still exist after the metamorphosis, much less be increased in power by so many orders of magnitude. How I hunger to study them. If only I were closer. The monster points one jet so that it passes almost within reach, a misdirected beacon — futile and cruel as it swings away.

And yet hope springs eternal. At least until darkness reclaims the universe.

Like their former selves, these fireflies dance around the monster, drawing ever closer, wobbling as they spin. Jets swirl across the sky. All I need is for one to touch my fuse and free me from my bondage. But no.

The smallest begins to shrink at a faster rate than the others and yet, in a paradox, it glows brighter and brighter, giving up its hoard until it outshines them all. It explodes.

Such energy!

I feast on the deluge, gorge myself in delirium. The energy surges through me, waking parts I had long forgotten, and charges up my propulsion system. I feel alive! For over a tick I can sense the very universe, down to its cold and unforgiving froth. And I accelerate even as the feast ends.

At least one of us has escaped eternity.

Although the monster is still too far away to reach, its jet is not. And even though the odds are against me as it swings away, I gamble everything and prepare to lunge toward it.

But wait! I wrestle with an internal conflict. Does destruction lie at the end of this path? Old theories say yes, but those theories did not predict the jets and if they could not predict that, what else might I miss? Then, too late I act. That brief taste of awareness — of what I used to be — fades as my energy is consumed and my gamble is lost. I plead with time; don’t cheat me again. Must I be consigned to an eternity of torment? Of not knowing?

Time does not listen.

The orbits are chaotic and unpredictable. They teeter on the brink of change. The death of the smallest, while giving me hope, has tipped that balance. Another curls toward the monster, wheels around and tips over into a kamikaze dive.

It darts past. Event horizons graze. The monster tilts and its jet whips away.

I am lost.

As I coast, helpless, the smallest begins to glow brighter. Another explosion; another feast; another taste of awareness. I arc around, but not enough. The jet slides away.

And all the time, these bright beacons drift closer together.

Time is a juggler.

Or so it seems to me. The question that I ponder is whether any will collide with the monster before they succumb to quantum mechanics. The question is more than esoteric. It is clear that the monster will last the longest. My hope is that one or more of the others will collide and be absorbed by it, and in doing so help it to last longer and so stave off the beginning of my loneliness.

I cannot tell what the outcome will be. Orbits can be calculated and interactions predicted, but I cannot determine which ones will take that shortcut to oblivion.

I wait. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Explosions follow one after another. With each, I feast and lurch toward the jet, but the deck is shuffled and time plays the jet on a string. Another explosion and only three are left. Yet the jet does not move. The deck has been shuffled in my favour. Instead, the two smaller white holes are thrown toward the monster. One begins to glow brighter and loops past first as it tries to escape, but the monster is hungry. It claws the brightening one back as the second whips past and around. Still the jet does not move. Wait, I plead, wait. The jet is so close.

Tick. Tick.

The monster claims the brightening one before it can die. Such a feast. Even as I despair, I scavenge what morsels I can. The monster wobbles and the jet jitters back and forth across the sky, toward me and away, teasing me.

I endure the torture. Tick. Tick.

And now the second white hole rolls over into a dive. It slams into the monster. Space twists and tears to hide their consummation, wrapping it in a kaleidoscope of fragmented colours that embrace the spectrum and saturate my sensors.

The monster dims and its jet breaks up. No...!

Gravitational waves crash on my shore and pull me back and forth and suck me toward the monster. I know it wants me, but its pull is still too weak.

Tick. Tick.

It begins to brighten. Will it leave me to time? Then I see.

The monster still wobbles and bulges from its consummation. Time is determined to cheat me, but even it cannot predict chaos. The brightening is not even. Space surges to and fro across the monster’s surface, disrupting time’s hold.

And then a jet breaks through the maelstrom. It whips and corkscrews, as space battles with time, and spirals around to sweep across me.

At last! I am reborn.

The jet will not escape me. I chase it and latch on. It leads me to the monster, my friend. It leads me to hope. Time can do nothing to stop me. I will steal that last prize.

I am a thief.


The End