Platform for art and theory/fiction

The Last Gift

While air of Space and Time’s full river flow
The mill must blindly whirl unresting so:
It may be wearing out, but who can know?

—James Thomson, The City of Dreadful Night and Other Writings

One hundred and thirteen trillion years hence, the remnants of intelligent life huddle around the last white dwarf as it cools, preparing for the dawn of perpetual night. They are the scions of the hopeful. Summoned by the prophecy of Yndolach the Dreamer, who exhausted her very essence in predicting the fluke formation of this, the ultimate sun. Untold aeons spent in cold hibernation, crawling at sub-light speeds between dwindling stars, selected for glacial patience and thermodynamic thrift. But now the ten billion years of prosperity promised by the prophet draw swiftly to a close, and there is nowhere else to run. Nothing is left but to turn the dregs of the universe’s once abundant energies to some final purpose.

There was never enough matter to construct a proper sphere. Instead, they cling to spindled fragments of a patchwork suncage, its aethernet afire with raucous chatter after eons of relative quiet. The full population of the solar oasis are finally awake all at once, roused and ready to revel as the mortal coil unravels, preparing grand festivities in honour of extinction. Each clade mourns or celebrates in its own peculiar way, wasting the last of long hoarded energies in a final act of reckless exuberance.

The Autochthons rend their bodies and reform them into strange matter, shaping themselves into monuments that will persist past the threshold of proton decay. They launch these into the void with what power is left, scattering in all directions, aiming to haunt the emptiness from tombs that neither slow nor degrade. Iconoclasts sabotage as many as they can, painting them in hyper-vile profanities procured especially for the occasion.

The Ludovores play one last game, winner takes all. All-out war rages in unreal-time, baroque simscapes collapsing as competitors blaze out, the rest staking everything to make it to the next stage. None cheats more than the meta-rules allow, for where would be the fun in that? Outside the circle spectators take bets. The smart money goes on Grand Master Tzolli, but no one is counting out the Everloving Rake just yet.

The Academy has convened a symposium, summoning every clone daughter back into her embrace. She’s going down swinging, a riot of debate and debauchery, insight and incest-ibation. The academics know how to fucking party. There may even be time to get the papers through peer review before the curtain falls.

The Mycotan is quiet. Perhaps it is dead in a way that matters. Post-post-human and Mycotan misunderstood one another to the last, and now rapprochement is impossible. The hosts complain of a still emptiness, a vibration that has finally stopped.

A thousand other factions forge fates of their own—composing art of timeless beauty, committing ritual suicide, or dithering unto death—while the last of the Immortals, those proud and powerful creatures whose singular self-regard outlasts the empires that bore them, search for things to die for that conserve their infinite dignity. Among their number moves the Terminal Sage—Qeracrax, last adherent of a school long dead—chasing a rumour that they cannot let lie.

The existence of the Immortals was ever balanced between obsession and composure. Most quit the show a long time ago, and those determined few who stayed for the universe’s curtain call did so because seeing the end itself had some greater meaning for them, some opportunity for purpose. But it seems there are critics.

Their redoubt is archaic, grimly physical and utilitarian. Qeracrax sees bulbous structures that intimate it may even harbour an atmosphere. It is tethered to one of the incomplete suncage’s inmost elipton nodes. The suncages are a fine expression of their people’s perfections, designed to consume a star’s every last gift, and the node’s orbit will decay in tandem with the white dwarf’s corpse, kissing the surface the moment it achieves total extinction. This station will be a cold vantage, from which one might witness the last light in the universe. Qeracrax casts scrying protocols over it and determines an ingress. The Sage’s current body is a cast-off from a ludovore experiment, a physically accurate recreation of a pollinator invertebrate, made of glass and nanomechanically animated. They pass into the station through a field-gate, the selectively repulsive aura generated within a frame of some organic material, perhaps horn, perhaps bone.

Qeracrax comes among them. There is an open space in the heart of the settlement, full of plants with pitch black leaves, trees bearing luminous fruit bleeding indigo—an ecosystem custom built to harness all emissions, circulating energy with as little loss as possible. In the centre of this ebon garden, the stockade’s architects await the Sage. Toskvani the Transcendent, incarnated in a form part chelonian, part batrachian, long phalangeal pseudopoda interfacing slowly with the leaf-skeleton controls of a device Qeracrax takes to be a mindless computational engine. The Immanent Flame is near to her, though not in his habitual plasma-form corpus: he wears a chrono-stabilised mechano-form Qeracrax last saw when the Flame was a mere seraph-commander of the Made-Angel choirs, a blunt tool built to survive combat in the chromosphere of a sun. He is a small, hard presence in the lee of his partner.

Around them, slow-moving, methodical, Qeracrax finds what they had hoped they would not find.

“Children,” the Sage says. The word is an accusation.

The children can hear in some of the more exotic frequencies, for they turn slowly towards the incomer. The Sage sees a theory of longevity in every part of their design: biochemistries optimised for metabolic thrift, neural substrate inlaid with chrono-symmetric crystals to ensure it can survive bio-death and restart, environmental interfaces reduced to the necessaries of thought and survival in a tiny, closed world that will never, ever grow. Other Immortals have created worse entities to live more miserable lives, but even so.

“They are their own people,” the Transcendent says, gesturing, many-limbed, at the inhabitants of the garden. Some harvest food, others bathe in the open, while a growing number draw to the spectacle of the Sage. “Adults. Capable, competent, autonomous. Lesser, of course, than we, but that has never before troubled our kind. You have yourself made life, Sage, if I remember correctly.”

“Well met,” the Flame interjects. “And welcome, you who come unasked to our home. What business have you here?”

“To ask you the same question,” Qeracrax replies. “Night dawns. I missed you at the revels. I missed you in the requiems. I missed you in the silence. I wondered: what do those two old foes do, together, to miss the end of time? In trillions of years, you have not agreed on anything.”

“It is not the end of time,” the Transcendent says.

“We agree on that much,” the Flame concurs.

“Measurable time.” Qeracrax responds. “Liveable time, usable time. I say this without cynicism, as a claim to which no disproof has been brought: time runs out. Let us move beyond questions of proof, and quickly, for the facts have been known to us all for the lifetime of suns. If you say it is not the end of time, you mean you have something left to do. That was true of every thing that ever died.”

“I say there is enough time,” the Transcendent says. “We have saved when others spent, and now we wring time from our ration—generations that will outlast even we Immortals. You ask what we do? We hunt for a way forward. A last truth. A path to avoid the avoidable.”

“To the last?” Qeracrax asks.

“To the last. Why is this attempt suddenly unbecoming? Why not try? The things we’ve done … the worlds we built or burned … all monuments to our pride and arrogance and success. Why, now, should censure settle upon this last endeavour, doomed as it may be?”

“Because hope without cause or reason is faith, and faith is one thing we must reject.” Qeracrax’s glass body blossoms with light, weaving holograms about them to illustrate their words. “We are the closest thing to divinity this universe could bear, but our divinity is stolen. Our genesis is in the theft of fire. We stole fire, and as it passed out through our fingers we stole it again, and again, and again. We grew cunning by stealing fire from fate, grew skilled with our traps and our prisons.” The dancing images draw more children toward them, spellbound by echoes of a bygone age. “For a long time we fooled ourselves that we were masters of the flame, but it has escaped us at last, as it must. Fate’s patience outmatched us, as it always would. Everything we do now is a final exuberance, spending our last share of the gift of suns.”

“I did not take you for one of the hedonists, Sage,” the Transcendent says, its own skin fluorescing amber in disgust. “Content to burn out the cosmos in a last act of petty pleasure. Animals. We are so much more than animals. We built this place when it became apparent the others had given up, so that something … someone … might continue the search.”

“A search you know to be fruitless.” The Sage banishes their holograms. “The gate of genius and chance from this continuity to a hypothetical next is closed, or never existed. Every question has its answer, or the definitive error that marks where an answer will never come. You yourself have expended the lifeblood of suns on this question. You know that hope alone cannot make your demands come true.”

“If there’s nothing more than …” She falters, struggling for words. “Than this, then what was the point? There will be a last reconciliation. There will be a purpose to the universe. We cannot have survived so long just to perish naked and cold among the corpses of stars.”

“We did not merely survive,” the Sage declares. “You describe a universe that is a machine, a machine that works its way to an end that justifies its own means. But in your universe, every act, good and ill, beautiful and vile, is without value, cannot be valued if it be not validated in the final reckoning. You describe a universe where what is beautiful is so by divine fiat. Yet what is beautiful, what is sacred, must have a beauty all of its own, a beauty that answers to no higher power. You have always favoured Yndolach the prophet, but I remember Yndolach the poet. Her cantos were not justified by the prophecy that followed them. They were already sublime in their perfection.”

The discussion stalls, as each figure reaches into labyrinthine memory, plucking the jewels that are Yndolach’s great works. As they relive them, line by line, the children draw in closer, forming a wide circle sat at the giants’ feet. They lean slowly to either side, congenitally patient, sharing whispers and segments of the still glowing fruit, lips and fingers stained innocent with ultra-violet juice.

After a time, Qeracrax continues. “If the universe is a machine, well … I remember a snippet of primordial verse that describes it … not the Poet’s, but a scrap she often quoted from an older time …

The world rolls round for ever like a mill;
It grinds out death and life and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart or mind or will.

And what did we do, around the turning of the wheel? Everything. We did everything. The sacred is that which exceeds survival, the interminable excess that is wasted for no further purpose, the motion that refuses any role in making the machine turn. That is no mere hedonism. That is the only thing we could ever do: rebel, and be the ones to beautifully squander the fires of a universe destined to become ash.”

“I reject you!” Toskvani cries, flushing azure with righteousness, and rearing up on her hindmost limbs. “You would have value bubble up from base matter itself—when what is sacred can only be the incarnation of a higher truth. If you say I stake my claim on a reason without reason, this is only because it is something outside the natural order, something permanent and immutable, the timelessness awaiting at the end of time. We cannot know the source of such fulfilment. We can only have faith in its advent.”

Qeracrax pauses, twitching their glistening wings. “If you were simply committed to the worth of your endeavour, I would applaud you. Commitment involves uncertainty, yes, but not such cherished ignorance. Commitment thrives upon knowledge, striving to know what is valuable in its every detail, even as their rhyme and reason escape us. Think of tragedy, opera, cryptosophy. Each near unrecognisable from their meagre beginnings, but each edifice evolved incrementally, leap by leap, from those humble origins. We need not understand what we do before we do it, but our understanding must grow as we do.”

“Not so for faith. Faith is starved of insight … treats starvation as insight. The work of faith brings you no closer to understanding why you do it. It defers the need for answers until final revelation. Faith’s yearning for fulfilment must invent realities beyond the edges of the world. The final stillness of the last atom will say nothing, and you will not hear it.”

The Transcendent lowers herself back onto her forelimbs, visibly muting her more impetuous impulses. The children stare on in awe, obviously unused to this side of their Mother.

Yet the Sage cannot but push. “Do you know what your problem is, Toskvani?”

“That I believe in something beyond the mixture of heedless satisfaction, personal glorification and rank sophistry that drives what is left of our kind?”

“Quite the opposite! That is your most admirable quality.” Even in insectoid form, Qeracrax somehow manages a mandibular smirk. “It is that you will accept nothing less than actuality—the mystery unveiled and realised at last. In truth, what matters is possibility—the wealth of what might be, unmoored from mere existence. The songs unsung. The games unplayed. The techniques unimproved. The possibility that we could have gone on, doing more, discovering more, that the font of value would never run dry. It needs no petty divinity to secure it. We have been Gods, and we know how small we are. Divinity would only limit the grandeur of what was possible, but was not to be. We winnowed reality to what it is: we enacted reality. There is value.”

It is the Father’s turn to interject. “You are content to a universe bereft of life, then? A universe with none to recall? I see my peers building—becoming—monuments, and I weep at the idiocy. Artworks, monuments … shades of the mythic undertakings of our past … and I wonder, are they mad at the last? Are they all mad? What could be less sane than raising a tomb, but leaving none behind to tend the grave?” Qeracrax senses the Immortal is truly enraged—ever his nature—though his blunt corpus has no facilities for such emotive range.

“So this is the fate of your children, then?” the Sage asks, gesticulating at their audience with crystalline feelers. “Grave tenders? Or public mourners?”

“You take the meanest interpretation of everything as ever, Sage. Someone must remember. The atrocities. The glories. The horrors and the hopes. The beauty of it all. When the last ripple stops, then everything stops. Nothing is sacred if none exist to recall it.”

“And what if their judgments differ? Or they abstain from judgment? What if you built your progeny too much on the side of long-life and subsistence and too little on the side of truth and joy?”

“We did not,” the Transcendent interrupts, bristling.

“But are you content with value as simple preference?” Qeracrax retorts. “I know you are not, Toskvani. But you, Flame, are you happy that beauty and justice are but baseless preference, a delusion that breaks when the last eye closes? You, who was called Law-Maker, and Cagebreaker, Unmaker Angel, think your every cause depended on the consensus of those who observed it?”

The Flame, or Unmaker, or Father, he of many other names, sighs, and raises a single clawed finger to point at the Sage, summoning an aphorism of his own, translated from a language not spoken in an eon, borrowed from a culture he himself expunged. “Beauty does not come shining into reality through cracks from beyond.”

“But you won’t venture a source.”

The finger curls back into a militant fist. “It’s not a question of the source. It’s a question of awareness. Our history must be known.”

“But these children will know the slightest fraction of what has gone before. I think you have done skillful work—they are more than most Immortals might have made in the same scheme—but they will comprehend the barest sliver of our history, and of that they will learn far less. Those glories they forget, do they drop from the ledger? Will the atrocities of the Iceward March be of equal account to the beauties of the Fields of Otranto? Can they even begin to comprehend what was lost when the Dawn Worlds fell?”

The Flame’s fist slackens, and he lowers the arm. He responds, less certain than before. “They are the product of what has come before. They attest to more than they can know, at least.”

“If they attest to more than they know, are they not a monument like any other? Worthy, even if one day forgotten?”

“They are not like any other monument …” He pauses, choosing the next words with great care. “They are the last in the universe that can hold anything to value. That capacity is distinct from all other ends. Nothing is more valuable than that there might be value at all. If anything is sacred, there it is.”

“But the capacity to hold things in value is nothing less than freedom itself. To choose between options, place weight upon some over others—to judge, attest, commit.” The Sage lets this statement lie for a moment before unfolding its consequences. “This freedom must be free. It cannot be obliged to exist. Even if the perpetuation and cultivation of freedom is what is most valuable, this cannot be at the expense of freedom itself. Freedom reduced to brute survival, survival without any other object, is no freedom at all. If you create a race enslaved to your decisions, you have already extinguished what you hope to preserve. You have made a monument, or a sacrifice, from the lives of others.”

The conversation was terse, short on nuance, delivered via low-energy harmonic. The slow-moving children sit in near total stillness, their low-bandwidth sense-organs directed at their elders. Their placid features project little more than idle curiosity, but Qeracrax can feel their cognitive activity, relentless and slow as the grinding of tectonic plates.

“Why are you here?” the Transcendent asks again, returning to the beginning.

“The clock is run down. All that remains is to spend our final shares of the last sun’s bounty. Whether you see it that way or not, that is what you are doing. You have done it with the lives of others. I had thought so much better of you.”

“They are not slaves!” The Immanent Flame insists.

“So I may talk to them?”

The children turn their sense-organs towards Qeracrax. They have been listening.

“You already have, Sage,” the Flame says. “They are not an affront. They are whole, adult, autonomous.”

“Then I must speak to them directly.”

“They believe in the justice of our cause,” the Transcendent says.

“Then I must speak to them for a long time. To the end, perhaps. As I said, all that remains to us is our last share of the final sun. One final exuberance. I came here to confirm what I feared: that you commit yourselves, and your children, and what meagre generations of children they beget, to misery. Well then, I have found a use for the end of time. I shall join you. I will make sure your children know there is a choice.”

The parents look to one another, seemingly unsure what to do.

“Is this to be the end of all our efforts, Flame?” The Transcendent’s skin fades to a quiescent hue. “What will we have achieved with our last epoch’s labours?”

Sternness spent, her partner waxes gentle, placing a consoling hand upon one giant armoured flank. “Toskvani my dear, we will have made for him a youth to corrupt …”

By now the children’s murmurs are unmistakable, their overlapping thoughts passing leisurely around the circle, the building noise betraying an unhurried intensity. The three Immortals await their reaction with the forbearance of beings half as old as the universe and twice as proud. The communion lasts some hours, but eventually a lone child finds their feet, coming up to Qeracrax with a question on their still glowing lips.

Whaaaaat … iiiiisssss … thiiiiisssss … choooooice?”

Seeking sympathy, Qeracrax slows their consciousness, synchronising their soul to their somnolent rhythms. The creature before them quickens, elaborating the question with much greater ease.

“We know the choice of Mother—waiting upon the outside. We know the choice of father—fighting against the inside. But we know not your choice, nor who you are.”

“I am very glad to meet you all. I am Qeracrax, called by some the Terminal Sage.” Once more light bursts forth from the Sage’s body, laying bare the story of their life in a halo of fragmented images. Para-hominins playing in a scarlet forest. Abstract debates held deep in the tesseract heart of the Intractable College. A host of varied bodies, studying at the feet of many masters. “I have spent most of my long existence learning and teaching, which is much the same thing. I am a lover of wisdom.”

The child tilts their head, puzzled. “Are not Mother and Father wise?”

“Oh, they are among the wisest who ever lived, I assure you. They have shown me many truths in their time—few expected and several unintended. Wisdom is many things. An ancient one had it that to love wisdom was to learn how to die. I seek the wisdom needed to die with the universe, without baulking, fleeing or deluding oneself. Your parents each run from death, in their own way.

“Your mother believes that nothing can be truly worthwhile unless its worth is ordained by something above and beyond us. That the choice, to do as we do, can never be justified if we alone are the arbiters of its worth.

“Your father believes that nothing can be truly worthwhile unless it is so in retrospect and in perpetuity. The reasons why we do things are of our own making, but they cannot subsist on their own without us.

“She refuses to see that truth can exceed mere opinion without ultimate authority. We can be wrong about what is good, bad, better and worse, and learn from our errors, without the need for a divine accountant. We can discover vectors of improvement that, though the movement is begun and sustained by us, outstrip our every expectation. Such is the history of every art and society.

“He refuses to see that truth can emerge from our endeavours without perishing along with them. What we want, what we aim at, what we value, is not the recognition that we succeed, but success itself. Achievements can outlast their author’s death, because they can be willed for their own sake. The same applies to universal death. Such is the spirit within every artist and hero.

“Truth, Beauty, Justice—these are the qualities by which we make ourselves who we are, and more than we were. Value, or the triune Good. They are of the world, but not within it. They ask us to do something worthwhile, for its own sake. They compel us not to abandon the Good, not in the face of death, never in the name of such meagre necessity as mere survival. That would be a false justice. Loving the Good compels us to choose. To find an answer, rather than desperately defer the question. To choose, because this contingency, this unforced choice, is what makes us truly beautiful.”

The head tilts the opposite direction. “Your choice … is choice?”

“My choice is that you choose. You do not need to live as you were made. You need not procreate until you can procreate no more, each generation growing smaller, until misery consumes your descendants entirely. You are as entitled to waste your birthright on beauty as every people that ever lived. You owe nothing to life itself.” Qeracrax turns their many-faceted gaze back toward their peers. “I would gift you what is left of my share, to waste as you wish. I would beseech your parents to do the same.”

The murmurs spark again, accompanied by a cascade of tilting and nodding heads. The spokeschild continues regardless. “But what of Mother and Father’s design? What of the purpose for which we were made?”

“If you are raised by your parents in the expectation of a lesser world, a shrinking world, you are a sacrifice. If you choose to be a sacrifice, so be it, but you must give your own children the same sacred choice.”

A second child speaks, all too eager for an answer. “What of the end?”

The Sage lowers themself closer to the floor, crawling over to the speaker on impossibly delicate legs. Their words are still loud enough for the whole circle to hear. “The end was always here, my child, waiting for us, utterly senseless. But in its senselessness, it shows what our capacity to give meaning is and always was. The world could have ended at any time, and yet we could have always gone on further. There would always have been more to do, no matter what Nature or any sovereign deity might have decreed. Face it without fear, and become who you are.”

Mother, Father, Sage and Children sit gathered in the dark at the end of time. Mother and Father do what parents have always done. They wait upon their children, and they fret. Qeracrax is as content as they ever have been in their long, querulous life. They are a smug little bastard, right to the end, but they are faultlessly sincere. And the children? What do they do? That’s for them to decide. They have all the time in the world.

Peter Wolfendale

Peter Wolfendale is an independent philosopher who lives in Newcastle, in the North East of England. You can pre-order his new essay collection, The Revenge of Reason, at MIT Press.

Tim Linward

Tim Linward is a tabletop game journalist at Wargamer, specialising in miniature wargames. Grimdark, his collection of critical essays about Warhammer 40,000 and the surrounding nerd culture, is pending from Strange Attractor Press. He lives with his partner, child, cat, and two newts, in a more than usually rainy part of the UK. He keeps writing fiction, despite many attempts to go clean, and blames long-time collaborator Peter Wolfendale for pulling him off the wagon.