Teeth in the Tail of the Snake
Mostly, Actor thought philosophy was bullshit. But today he was in a mood.
Time is more like those rocks in orbit around the gas giants than we’d like to admit, he thought, surprising himself. How? Each of the rocks has designs on having a separate trajectory and direction, wanting to escape and move independently of the damning causal flow, trying to exist alone and manifestly self-reliant, and yet each rock is bound by aggregation and the cruel norm to move in the same direction as all the other little nuggets of space debris, battered and thwarted until proper circular motion is achieved. The temporal chain is unbreakable, solid, and singular, the sum of all the parts - all the individual moments and momentousness - and the balancing half of the equation is the conscious sentient life strapped into the chair of Universe, forced to watch for reality’s creative amusement. Every rock that passes is destined to come around again - maybe a bit more ragged and fractured, but nonetheless maintaining its internal integrity, an entity attaining grace through its superficial uniqueness only. There is no escape, merely the tentative solace that someday something huge will end it all, and allow life the freedom of annihilation.
Huh, thought Actor, I wonder if I should grow my beard out to capture the true sense of that desparation. The freedom not-to-be.
Actor sat in the lotus position underneath one of his etchings, the latest script flowing into his mind through inductive coils hidden in the grey steel walls. He sensed the damage and frailties of the character he would be playing in the next production, a blind gardener only capable of loving his plants and microbes, once a jealous and unbending lover of all creation, now only believing in what the tips of his fingers told him was true. The blind gardener insisted on being blind as self-mortification for a life of steady disillusionment, and his place in The Morgue was that of a seer of prophesy, an apostolic visionary. Actor was eager for the due recognition the role would bring, and the wrinkles around his mouth twisted in expectation at the delivered lines and expressions that would bring him the glory he had been promised by the Choosers.
And deep within the bowels of the space-station known to the last surviving remnants of humanity as The Morgue, its leaders, the Choosers, made their final decision.
The script cut off abruptly. A voice, booming and bloody, vibrated the walls of Actor’s steel cave. A painting - lines, colors, and yellow tundra - fell askew.
“You are needed, Actor. You have been chosen. Make your peace and present yourself.”
Actor calmly cleared his mind of the gardener and the gardener’s passions, straightening the neck of his skinsuit, and moving his mind into a space of receptivity and submissiveness. A call was an honor indeed - his last one had been to tell him he had been chosen to be an actor, and to report in for training. The Choosers only ever bothered themselves with life-changing events.
He stepped into the neuro-bubble adjacent to his kitchen, noticing that its controls had been overridden. The moment he closed the hatch, the room began to shift and peel: a dizzying pyrotechnic display of lights and faces, fantasy and movement. He felt motion behind his ear, and felt the hum of travel, without actually hearing it. From the distance, audibility began to surface, rising to a grinding maniac steel-wool pitch, and then stopping suddenly with a Doppler whine, jouncing his mind forward and then backward as the room stopped spinning, and he reached his destination.
The room had the calm and cozy light of a Sunday afternoon. All light was artificial in The Morgue - that is to say, created by humans to serve human ends. Not even in the deepest depths of collective species memory was there natural light to be found. Billions of years is too long even for the yearnings of the soul. To be sure, on occasion a dreamer deep into the thick of possibility would find themselves feeling starlight on their skin, and, dazzled and haunted by the warmth that seemed to come from within and all around, would wake up suddenly, nauseated with its purity, tears in their eyes - but these episodes were dismissed as fantasy and delusion - the light at the end of the womb, so to speak. Light was now considered a human invention, as was life itself.
The room was bare. Spartan. Empty. Void. Surface and space. An antiseptic sound furnace. Perfect for the dropping of either a bombshell or brassiere. Just as he was getting over the disorientation that a movement through the mindpsace of a neuro-bubble brought, a woman in cream robes entered and bowed low, her robes Teflon silent.
“Actor.” The bloody booming voice was no longer necessary, and before him was a lamb. Not that he’d ever seen a real lamb before, of course. But this Chooser he knew. They had shared a learning creche. They were both awkwardly surprised, but quickly regained their composure.
“I am here, and I humbly await your orders,” said Actor, aligning his spine with his feet, and growing stern and grey.
“No need for theatrics, Actor. The sacred breaths have almost run out. The candle of the Universe has melted to the bottom, and we are living in the ghostly heat that persists even after the flame vanishes. The end is now near, my friend.”
“Common knowledge,” said Actor with a salute and a flourish.
They grinned at one another. Humanity in these end times may be forced to generate all of its light and heat energy from the rotation of black holes, living in a darkness without opposite, but the true source of human energy is human contact, and always has been.
“Pay attention, Actor. Time for a philosophy lesson.” The woman stroked an imaginary beard and began to pace
“That's strangely coincidental: I've been feeling contemplative and ruminatory all day. But you were always much better at philosophy than me. I remember I used to try to see down your dress during mandatory philosophy lessons, and you used to...”
The Chooser reddened and cut him off. “THE UNIVERSE began and ended. In the process of doing so, it made a point to create us and our infinite consciousnesses. Without our perception of the universe, our imposition of “time,” it would have taken no “time” at all, and therefore would never have existed. That which exists for no amount of time does not exist. To slow itself down to the point where it could exist, the Universe needed humanity. Humanity, subsequently, created relationships, causing humanity to exist, perceptually. Relationships create meaning, and so on and so forth.”
“Makes sense,” said Actor, “But I must warn you: I have an inherent distrust of philosophy. Its lucubrations smack of manipulations and nonsense. The only person who spends more time perfecting seamless artifice is Magician. You can never look Magician right in the eyes.”
“Regardless, the point is this: the Universe needs us to live. It has not been an accident or a coincidence that we have made it this far, to the end of the show. We are symbiotic, and we have an imperative to stay alive so that we can observe what happens. What is Actor without an audience?”
“Sad? Hungry? Asleep?”
She of the cream robes met this with the coldest of serious silences.
“Those who answer rhetorical questions are neither popular nor well liked, Actor.”
“So the question is, where do we go from here? Our time is up, the bank is closing, and yet, I must confess, I, for one, am still curious. There is still so much we don’t understand, so many plays we haven’t seen, so many books we haven’t read, so much love we haven’t made, so many pies we haven’t eaten... and we are watching the door slam right in our face. The universe is letting us down. There must be another way. What kind of sick joke would it be to make our minds infinite, and then to put a ceiling on the amount of time we could use them? Irony is only a device for playwrights and laundry - not for realities. Time, Actor. We need fresh time.”
The Chooser stared at Actor until he began to feel like he must be hiding this extra time in his pockets or something. He began to feel incredibly sly and guilty, and suddenly wanted to run screaming from the room, but to run from a Chooser was to deny oneself the Choice. He tried to imagine the Chooser back when she was Vivian Redapple, gawky girl who couldn't for the life of her do math. Externally, this all manifested as a slight pricking in his thumbs. He was, above all, classically trained. The woman began once more to pace.
“So the question is now this. Where...does one...go about getting...fresh time? And we were only able to come up with one answer. Back to the beginning. Back to when time was new. Back home. Back to the planet of our ontological youth.”
“Big round thing that Stuff grows on. Like a moldy orange. Read a book, once and awhile, why don’t you?”
“Books only exist in dreams, Viv...er, Chooser. They aren’t real. Like gods.”
“Someday, my sir, someday they will be! We will write them! And we will live amongst trees, and feel the light of natural electromagnetic radiation on our backs, and do naked things with our naked parts without harnesses and population control capsules! Oh, Actor, imagine humanity young again!”
“Pretty far out, I must confess,” confessed Actor.
“Well, you won’t have to imagine, fellow Mortician...because you have been Chosen. We all have, actually.” She grinned. “We are going back to the beginning. It’s the only option left open to us. The law is that time travel is only legitimate and feasible if it can be proven to have already happened, and the techs tell us that chances are pretty much certain that we are the origin of Life As We Know It – that is to say, The Morgue and its seeds and science and people. Even the Universe itself is giving us something of a thumbs up: the quantum climate is perfect for a folding of space and a jaunt through the gates of impossibility, and the statistics say the odds are good we will survive, because we already did, and exist right now. The paternity test results are in, and humanity is its own child -- how’s that for news?”
“My mind is officially boggled.”
“Excellent. I just wanted you to know that you are...hmmm...loved and cared for?...and that we are all going to make it there together, or not at all. You can go back to your script if you like - you shouldn’t notice the trip when it happens, because if it fails, you simply cease to exist. Painlessly. I’ve got others to talk to now, but have a good day, and be thinking about what you will bring to our new life. Thanks for your time, and, by all means, good luck with the new production.” She stared at him for interminable seconds, and then walked quickly over to him and gave him a peck on the cheek, reaching up and putting a hand on his shoulder.
And then, instead of complicity, Actor turned away, frowning, ignoring the concern his suddenness provoked, because suddenly, he got the feeling, deep down, behind his back, that he had done this all before. The rocks all move in the same direction, thought Actor, and bored and sleepy, oh-so-bored-and-sleepy, is the hand that writes the world.