A Fistful of Forever

Igor Teper


The fabric of space hiccoughed, gasped, choked, twisted, tore, and spat out a cloud, which split apart into two clouds, of not so much matter or energy, though they contained those too, but anti-entropy. Consciousness.

Plasma-clothed superfluid flesh flowing over a monopole skeleton surrounding a microscopic black hole, the two beings so constituted rewrote the local laws of physics just to exist.

Spacetime zipped itself back up around them, snug and tight as quarks in a proton, and the two islands of habitable reality they had fashioned for themselves floated in a sea of instability, a roiling primordial mass, a mess of contradiction formed, or malformed, when one set of physical laws superseded another, a cosmic catastrophe they’d been created—duplicates split off, amoeba-like, from their creators—and sent to undo.

Effee pulsed dissatisfaction, spewing gamma rays and shedding ions. “Colder ‘n zero-point in here.”

Oshee whistled in the ultraviolet. “Least of our problems—scanning triple mismatch.”

“Entropy’s ghost! Speed of light?”

“No luck. Thousand times normal.”

“In all my eons!”

“Me neither, but it’s true.”

“Time-reverse?”

A blinding burst of energy nearby spawned two more Oshees, one time-reversed, making her an anti-Oshee in normal time. That one drifted toward the Oshee who’d preceded the pair, and, in an implosive flash, annihilated with her.

“Weak time-reversal violation, too weak to use,” the remaining Oshee cast, properly time-synched.

“Shame. Check out the source?”

So they merged and ‘ported again, ripping holes in spacetime down to the Planck length and violating half a dozen conservation laws—and paying a hundred suns’ worth of energy for it. Slipped through reality’s cracks, dove down, and burrowed until they traced the mismatch domain’s expansion all the way back to its inception, nearly invisible amidst the havoc.

A neutron star had been corralled and tamed by some unknown, unfortunate race, to prospect physics at its most extreme. And there, where the unlikely became commonplace, and the impossible became only rare, there also the inconceivable had entered the realm of possibility.

The experiments had probed the universe’s genetic code, those eleven fundamental constants that determined its physical laws even as, subject to those laws, they fluctuated on a quantum scale. The neutron star’s influence had taken those flutterings and flitterings, normally infinitesimal, and magnified them until the only constant thing about the constants was their state of flux. The fluctuations would have averaged out, but some contrived, far-fetched experiment had delved down to the very foundations of the cosmos and forced three of the constants to collapse to new fixed values. Those changes had mutated the local laws of physics and given birth to a new mini-universe, an aberration incompatible with what had been before. A mismatch domain, a cancer of the very fabric of spacetime, excrescing at a thousand times the speed of light.

Of the neutron star, and the surrounding apparatus, little remained, and that unrecognizable. Wisps of bizarre pseudo-particles, barely allowed even by the domain’s funhouse physics, wound their way about the origin point, the spirals of their radiation trails telling the tale of their trajectories through space and time all the way back to the big bang of the domain’s creation.

A search revealed no trace of the domain’s inadvertent creators, advanced enough to master neutron stars and yet so quiet as to go unnoticed until it was too late. By the time Oshee and Effee had ‘ported into the domain, it had already swallowed up a hundred star systems, including, it appeared, all manifestations of the race whose members brought about its birth. A terrible and tragic loss, but one that paled beside the damage the domain would do if left unchecked.

Oshee and Effee combed through the pulverized and mangled residue, but nothing substantial lingered from the domain’s genesis, nothing that might provide a handle to grab on to in order to restore normal physics.

“Try a transient?” Effee cast.

“Impossible! No transient could approach a thousand times light speed.”

“Happened once at least.”

“Where?”

“Here.”

“Oh.”

“Right. Once by misfortune, perhaps again, by design?”

“Can’t hurt to try.”

Effee sent forth ten thousand thin tendrils, their tips spinning faster and faster as they spread throughout surrounding space, until they turned into vortices of fearsome strength, gravitational tornados that drew into them all that they touched. Once they had swept the nearby volume clean, Effee guided them toward her companion. Oshee, meanwhile, had created a vast container made of force fields, which she now filled with whatever Effee had collected. This done, they moved on to a place the vortices hadn’t reached the first time, and then on from there, gathering all the matter that there was to gather.

When Oshee’s force-field sack was filled to overflowing, she closed it off, and crushed it with such pressure that everything inside became a gamma-ray-hot soup of energy and matter that blurred away any distinction between the two.

Ever so carefully, Oshee opened in the container an aperture so minuscule that particles could only dribble out one at a time. Onto this trickle, Effee directed a barrage of radiations impossibly grotesque, painstakingly precise, designed to stimulate, under meticulous control, the same kind of fluctuations as had given rise to the mismatch domain. The transient, thus created, needed a speed of light, also its speed of growth, much greater than the mismatch domain’s, so that it would expand past the mismatch’s boundaries, obliterating it, and then would stabilize itself at some not-too-large size, a region of anomaly, but not a threat to the surrounding universe.

One by one, particles leaked out and were subjected to Effee’s manipulations, producing minute grains of altered physical laws, embedded in the mismatch domain. Oshee examined these tiniest of universes, and, one by one, allowed them to exhaust their limited supplies of energy and evaporate out of existence.

Until—“Got it!”—and Oshee siphoned everything she held into the latest grain.

Provided with such ample fuel, the bubble universe ballooned, billowing outward at far faster than a thousand times the normal speed of light, leaving behind a series of shockwaves that rippled and ripped space in furious cacophony. Oshee and Effee strained to maintain the pockets of existence keeping them alive as they watched with pride and awe the transient’s frenzied growth.

As swiftly as it had begun, the transient’s expansion froze, far, far too early, while it was just a fraction of the mismatch.

“Just dephase me right now!” Effee cast, blowing off waves of mesons light and heavy.

“I’m sorry.” Oshee cast. “Tried our best.”

“Our best no good at all. Can’t even try again—too little left.”

“What else remains?”

“Tack on a few dimensions and rotate the expansion into them?” Effee cast, her tentativeness leaking through in high harmonics.

“Domain’s too big already—no way to make dimensions large enough.”

Specks of a second superfluid phase swirled over Oshee, signaling deep thought. And then, sparks up and down the spectrum. “Inject gravity, induce collapse!”

“And where do you suggest—”

“Me. Myself. My body,” Oshee cast.

“No way.”

“No other way. Should be straightforward—just couple in, and watch the curvature increase.”

Before Effee had time to raise objections, Oshee opened up a slit from her sealed-off spacetime compartment into the mismatch domain. A force-field filter, femtometer-fine, covered the opening, allowing only gravity waves through. Thus made aware of Oshee’s mass-energy bulk, the mismatched space began to curve inward, slowing its expansion. The strings of gravity stretched out, invisible, and everything they touched fell prey to their inexorable pull.

Far sooner than seemed possible, Oshee had tethered the domain’s breakneck explosion, and had conversely become deeply bound within its space. Nothing remained but waiting, so they waited, until the first faint reflections from the domain walls foretold of its collapse. These precursors were followed by implosive shockwave fronts, each dwarfing the concussive force of those that came before.

Now even Effee, isolated as she was from the domain’s tempestuous convulsions, could feel their shearing and compressing blows, yet Oshee made no effort to withdraw and shield herself.

“Watch out for the shocks!”

Oshee offered no reply.

“All right?” Effee cast, blindingly loud.

Oshee did not react in any way. The domain was closing in about her with terrible swiftness, all forces joined now in shock tsunamis that heralded the nearing of the domain walls, and still she firmly held the gravitational reins.

Effee cast wildly, desperately at her, uncertain if the collapse’s feverish pitch drowned out her pleas. The membrane separating Oshee from the domain was jerked this way and that, stretched taut, still held, but couldn’t hold much longer.

Effee reached through the boiling foam now permeating the domain, but the appendages she had projected dephased and disappeared completely as soon as they were exposed to the domain’s influence. She recoiled from the pain, bewildered; the energies that coursed about should not have been enough to even dent her limbs’ coherence, much less destroy it.

A flash of radiation, a blast of particles, a shattering, rending blow—the domain walls were nearly upon them, looming all around, a fiery fist closing, closing, closing.

And then, in Effee’s mind, a flash a million times more dazzling, and she knew what froze her partner in the gravitational web, and saw in her mind’s eye Oshee’s inevasible fate a long, excruciating instant before it came to be. Before Oshee dephased away to nothing.

By reflex more than conscious action, Effee ‘ported away. The domain walls came crashing down and crushing in.

When Effee reappeared, not very far away, the mismatch domain was gone, collapsed into a flickering point, leaving behind a featureless void, and leaving her with nothing but her thoughts. Her pain.

Time, she now knew, had flipped its course in the domain, and what had looked like a collapse was an explosion time-reversed—for Effee, observing from the outside, there’d been no way to tell the difference. But for Oshee, trapped within, the power to act only went one way, and time-reversal stripped away all her volition and trapped her in the amber of her past. And, in that part of her still separate from the domain, she must have realized what was happening to her, and what would happen, long before, and yet too late—too late!—to save herself. What anguish must have gripped her then, what overpowering powerlessness!

A flood of photons drew Effee’s attention to the place where the domain had been, and, she now saw, where it grew again. A manifold explosion, the outward rush of domain walls, so fast upon her that she barely had time to shield herself. All of it just the same as it must have been when the domain was first created. And, at the very center of it all, a faint but distinct echo Effee could not fail to recognize. Filled with something not much less than hope, she ‘ported closer in.

Plasma, superfluid, monopoles—in every detail of its every aspect, it looked like Oshee born anew. Effee could not restrain herself from calling to her, and realized only after she had cast that she would not, could not, could never, answer.

Effee was watching another time reversal, and Oshee, inserted into the domain’s spacetime trajectory during its collapse, was there again, rephased upon its recreation. But it was just an empty shell, that part of Oshee that was part of the domain, a mindless husk forced through the motions of Oshee’s final moments, a reflection of her that had no will, no being of its own. And still, it tortured Effee to behold this not-quite-Oshee and to know what had been lost.

She knew that half a universe away, ur-Oshee, of whom the Oshee who had died had been a copy, still watched the universe evolve, alongside ur-Effee, to whom Effee herself would soon return. To these progenitors, Oshee and Effee had been merely tools, granted godlike power for the single purpose of destroying the mismatch domain. And Effee knew that no one but herself would grieve for Oshee as deeply as she deserved.

She waited for the domain to grow as large as it had grown the first time, then to contract, destroying Oshee’s shadow, only to spawn another when again it grew. Between collapse and reexplosion, when the domain was no more than a speck, Effee was, for an instant, overcome with an intense awareness of the ease with which she could eradicate it.

When she was certain that the cycle would never cease, that the domain would be a monument to Oshee long after she herself was reabsorbed into ur-Effee, she ‘ported home.

And what remained was the domain, swelling, collapsing, swelling, collapsing, an ever-beating heart beating out the rhythm of the universe, of each beginning and of every end, the pulse of pain, of joy, of life, ever-beating, forever.