Some short stories are born from random bits of ideas you have when you're just trying to do your thing. This one, for example. I wasn't really trying to come up with a topic or a plot or even a character. I just wanted to ask the question, "What happens if we really are alone in the universe?"
Kind of a scary thought, actually. I, for one, want to believe that we're not the only shot the universe has at getting all of this right. I want to think that there's someone else out there, scanning the skies and hoping to find a "howdy" from a friendly alien species. But what if there isn't?
I'm not really a doom and gloom kind of guy, but I admit that a lot of my fiction tends to favor the "we will inevitably destroy ourselves" kind of thinking. I don't know if I believe that it's really inevitable. But sometimes it seems really likely. So maybe fiction is just how I explore that.
Anyway, that's where this starts—with a question, and with some wry observations. And it also has my personal exit strategy. If we go out, I want us to go out with a laugh. Because I don't think humanity has created anything finer than laughter, which can encapsulate everything that's really human about us.
I hope you enjoy this short story. And if you do, you might also enjoy my longer fiction. Check out my Books page to see the entire library of my work. And feel free to let me know what you think about this story or anything else in the comments or with the Contact button above.
by Kevin Tumlinson
So what if we really are alone?
Plenty of scientists and philosophers—both the official kind and the armchair variety—have batted that idea around, talked it out, and pretty much decided it was bogus. We couldn't be alone. The whole universe? Just one big, vast, empty waste of space? Carl Sagan would be spinning in his grave.
What about the Drake Equation? It was this famous string of numbers and letters that predicted there should be at least fifty thousand intelligence and thriving societies in the universe.
And that was a hugely conservative estimate by the standards of most of the scientific community. A lot of the men and women I knew—the ones who could do that Drake equation in their heads, and who could give you a quantum state analysis using not much more than a Bic and a legal pad—they all silently thought you could double or even triple that number. And even then, they figured, you probably weren't all that close.
There had to be life out there.
But there wasn't.
"Marco 1 this is Europa Command."
"Go ahead, Europa," I replied.
Quantum entanglement. That was something we licked a few hundred years ago, and no one even knew it outside of a few private labs that took over when the government got out of the space business. Unlike NASA, these private and corporate space programs liked to take what I call a whole Ramen approach. They knew you didn't just add noodles to hot water—you also needed the blend of spices that give the soup some flavor. And you don't try to add that after it's all cooked, that just leads to tasteless noodles in an MSG broth. No, you add that little packet of spices before you ever pour the water in the first place, and you let the whole thing seep into the pores of the noodles.
I was kind of hungry. It had been about ten thousand years since breakfast.
"Tony, we clock you at Edge."
"Roger, Europa. I'm right at the cutting edge of everything. Looking back on you now."
"How's my hair, Marco 1?"
I could hear the smile. I could have chuckled along with them, and I did eventually. It was all so funny right?
"Looking a little thin up top, Europa. Might want to cut down on the jelly donuts, too. I can see you paunch from out here."
"Roger that, Marco 1. My wife concurs with your assessment."
I flipped the shuttle around on a Y axis—just turning, just looking. I was on the brim of the universe, after all. I should sight-see.
And it was beautiful. An unfathomably large disc of creation that was floating serenely in the black. It was the only source of light here.
I laughed. Because it's the universe, you see. It's the only source of light anywhere.
A thought occurred to me.
"Europa, Marcos 1. If I'm currently sitting on the outer edge of the universe, does that mean I just expanded the universe?"
"Keep to the mission, Marcos 1," another voice replied. The friendly banter was over. The General was on the line. "What do your readings show?"
"Nothing, Europa 1."
"I need better, Commander."
"You're getting all of it, General," I said. "Nothing. Not a single one. No signals. No signs. There's no one. No one is coming to help us."
"Can that, Marcos 1. It's a big universe. Keep scanning"
"Sir, I don't think you understand what you're talking about. And I mean that with no respect whatsoever." Oh, I was brash, wasn't I? It's a little easier to be bold and to be a sass mouth when you literally have a universe between you and your commanding officer. Doesn't hurt that you're never coming back, either. "This equipment works on the quantum level. With enough distance, I can detect anything. And out here, I can detect everything. And the only blip on my scans is you, Europa. You're the only intelligent species left in the universe, and you died out ten thousand years ago. If there was ever any other intelligent, it died out well before I got here."
There was silence, which meant the General was yelling. The protocol was for the computers to filter out yelling. And here comes the funny part ...
In a flat, toned-down voice, the computer retooled and auto-tuned everything the General said to make it sound pleasant and upbeat. "Commander, I don't care how far away you are, or how far in the future," the General's voice said in happy, sing-song tones. "I will not tolerate insubordination. I may not have the ability to court marshal you from here, but I can make your life very uncomfortable right up to the end."
I giggled. He sounded like a drunk trying to impersonate someone who had any real authority. It was cute.
"Bite me, General. You've literally been dead to me for ten thousand years. But if you want the full report I'm sending all the data now. There's nothing out here, folks. We're alone in the universe."
Another pause, but this time I didn't think the General was yelling. I sort of knew what was coming next. It was the same thing I was thinking and feeling.
"Then that's it," the General said, and his voice was quiet and normal—no auto-tuning. "The human race is finished. We're all that's left."
"Technically I'm all that's left," I said. "Current scans show humanity's bulb dropped out somewhere along my flight path."
"You're awfully cavalier about the end of all life in the universe, Commander," the General said.
"General, I ..." I started to quip. I was determined that humanity would go out with a laugh, if not a bang. And it still could. But in this moment I felt the weight of it all. "I don't actually know how else to react to what I've just discovered. It's just insane. No life ... not a single civilization anywhere in the universe. We were the best the universe could do? And now, even we won't be around to make noise and muck things up anymore."
I let that hang there. I turned the shuttle again, this time coming around on a new X axis, rolling so that the entire universe was a giant bullseye right at the nose of my craft.
The engines we used on this shuttle were flawed. They could move over a ridiculous amount of distance in what felt like a relatively short time for the crew, but they did it at the cost of moving in the future relative to anyone back home.
That's why I ended up ten thousand years in the future talking to the ghosts of humanity from a position so far away that our brains can't even process it. If not for the quantum entanglement, I wouldn't even be able to talk to any of these people. They really would be dead to me then.
The engines were powered by a quantum reaction, too. Zero point energy. A battery at the heart of this ship that could run for eternity. I had all the power I needed to sit here and die in air conditioned comfort.
Or—and hey, this was a radical idea—I could just go.
The side effect of the engines was that I was propelled forward in time at a pretty unbelievable rate. And the quantum entanglement that was part of our communications system kept me and the ship's computers linked to the tiny remnant of humanity that had escaped the destruction of Earth and set up shop on Europa.
Let me make this clear—I was going to die out here. I was always going to die out here. But if that was the case, then I was going to do it on my terms.
I was born to be an explorer. I was born to jump into the darkest hole I could find with nothing but a flashlight and a grin, and keep moving until I found something worth staring at. Practically from birth I was trained to be on the mission I was on—officially and unofficially. My grandpa would be proud of the reckless idiot in a spacesuit I had become.
"Europa, Marcos 1. I'm going further."
There was a brief pause, during which I started the checklist, aligned everything for a jump, and did a few calculations to make sure I wasn't about to blow myself into atoms.
"Marcos 1, Europa," the General said. "Son, what in the hell do you mean by that?"
"General, I've found everything there is to find here. And it's nothing. And if you search all of space and find nothing, then that leaves only one more dimension to explore."
"Commander ... Tony ... what are you doing?"
"I'm spinning up, General. The jump out here was ten thousand years. Let's see where we end up when I lock the throttle."
"Tony, you're just needlessly committing suicide!" the General's voice said, and it was sing-song and happy thanks to the auto-tuning.
"Yeah," I said. "Ain't it cool?"
With that I punched it.
In the movies, when the hero throws the engines of his spaceship into full hyper-warp-ludicrous mode, there's always a light show. Streaks of stars, the spiraling of a tunnel through space, cloudy and murky nebulas of energy swirling all around. And maybe if I were actually in the universe, that would be the case for me, too. But instead, despite my heart thumping and the "yee-haw!" that was building in my chest, I was mostly sailing through utter blackness with no real indication that I was moving at all.
Kind of anti-climatic.
I let the engines push me at absolute top speed for the better part of three days.
Now, you should know that getting to the absolute edge of the universe, and ten thousand years in the future, had taken me a whopping two hours. Yeah. I'm that good. Also, the engines are that fast. The fact that it was a one-way trip helped, actually. The really smart humans back home had stopped trying to solve the problem of getting back, so we could concentrate fully on solving the problem of moving forward. It's amazing what objectives you can accomplish when you're not concerned about surviving the process.
I had plenty of food and water onboard to keep me alive for months. That was the initial plan. Keep me alive for as long as possible, hovering on the very edge of creation, and hope like hell that someone in the universe had developed technology advanced enough to not only come haul my butt back to Europa but to help humanity get back on its feet. We were out here asking for a handout—it just turned out there was no one to ask.
So I was never supposed to go beyond the edge of the universe. As far as any of us knew, it wasn't even possible to go beyond the edge of the universe. It's kind of difficult to wrap your head around the idea of going off the map when the map is literally the only thing you've ever known.
In the most practical terms, by every definition we've ever had, at that very moment I didn't even exist. I wasn't part of any system that humanity had ever been a part of.
Kind of trippy.
When you're moving in utter blackness, with literally nothing that can be detected through any means of sensing or scanning, and you've been doing that for three days, eventually you just stop moving. Or, if I'm being totally accurate, you stop thinking that you're moving.
No one in the history of humanity had ever moved faster than I was moving now, and it was the most boring experience of my life. Because for all intents and purposes, I was just standing still in a dark room.
The shuttle I was controlling was big enough for a team of ten people to live comfortably for several weeks without necessarily getting in each other's hair. It wasn't an immense space by any stretch of the imagination, but neither was it the tiny tin cans that used to be part of the American space program—back when there was such a thing as America. Or Earth.
What I was flying was a fine piece of Italian craftsmanship. Or, actually, it was a fine piece of "the remnants of human civilization, which consisted of a narrowing group of cultural representatives, from which an engineering crew was assembled that happened to be 2/3 of Italian descent" crafted technology. Doesn't quite roll off the tongue, though.
Regardless of its lineage, however, this shuttle had been built for sustaining a group of humans, not just one. And it had plenty of space for me to roam around while I was flying on autopilot. There's not much need for steering when you're flying through an utter void.
I spent those three days exercising, reading from the shuttle's digital library, watching old television shows and movies, and generally just trying not to lose my mind. I stopped freaking out about being alone and on an inevitable trip to the afterlife before I even put this ludicrous plan in motion. So for now I was just chillin' with my shuttle in the void. Astronaut style.
I was about to press play to continue my binge watching of "The Walking Dead" when the shuttle suddenly did something weird.
There's no sense of motion when you're onboard this thing, and so the only way to tell when you're running or not running is when the sounds change. The engine doesn't make much noise—most sound would happen outside, and hello—space. But the systems that keep the engine in check, that adjust the course and vent toxic materials and keep the atmosphere running, those make all sorts of hums and whirrs and beeps that can be heard inside. They become background noise after a while, and kind of comforting. There's something almost organic about them, when they're so random and so disparate and so ever-present. And when they stop, it's like a lion just crept out of the jungle and into the underbrush. You notice it because of the lack of sound.
I was in the large crew quarters, where several people would normally bunk out. I had it to myself, so I took the liberty of decorating. Everything I owned was on this shuttle—and it largely amounted to things I could make from food packaging and spare parts. The place looked pretty good for a literal scrap heap.
I rushed out of the room and down the corridor that led to the flight deck and pilot's seat.
For the past three days I had come to this seat and looked out at a huge lot of nothing, just to check in. Black stretched across the entire horizon. Nothing to see here. Move along.
This time, though, it was different.
I saw the light even before I got to the flight deck—a white brilliance that was near blinding, even through the controlled glass of the shuttle's cockpit. I actually had to shield my eyes with my hand.
It's possible that after three days of darkness, with only the shuttle's lighting system illuminating my days and nights, I was just overly sensitive to actual light. But even as my eyes adjusted and I was able to lower my hand, it felt unnaturally bright. In fact, it felt almost like my skin wanted to blink.
Yeah—that's the kind of crazy you get to when you're literally the last living thing in existence.
I stumbled into the pilot's seat and started checking sensors. Even at the quantum level, according to the ship's systems there just wasn't anything out there. It still read as if I was right in the middle of nothing, just as I had been for the past three days.
And then, it blipped.
There was a tiny fraction of a signal, and it flitted through the ship's sensors so fast I wasn't quite sure I'd actually heard it.
And then it blipped again.
"Holy crap on a cracker!" I shouted, and I fumbled to open a channel on the communication system even as I brought the shuttle to a full stop. Which, strictly speaking, wasn't necessary, because even with the throttle pinned full open the ship was moving. But with the engines engaged I wouldn't be able to open a channel, so I came to a full stop.
And as it turned out, I had actually been moving all along. The ship's systems reacted as if I were locking my position in space, and every readout and display that mattered wanted to let me know that we were at a full stop. Thanks guys.
The space outside hadn't changed with my shift in 'motion.' The light was still everywhere, pure and white and as endless as the black had been. I blinked, feeling tears stream from my eyes. I sneezed. Because even when you're outside of the universe, bright lights still make you sneeze.
While the shuttle is in motion, communications don't work. It's some weird issue with locality at the quantum level. A Heisenberg thing, I think. You can't know both the direction and the speed of a quantum particle, I'm told. And somehow that translates to not being able to talk and fly at the same time.
But now that I was stopped, the quantum entanglement that made the communications system work kicked in with no trouble. And somewhere back in the massive expanse of time I had just crossed, the particle in Europa's communication system started reacting exactly like the particle in my communication system, and it relayed my voice as I spoke.
"Europa, this is Marcos 1. I'm still alive."
There was a long pause, but when the channel opened I heard the tag end of some cheering and I think maybe a swear word. It was all auto-tuned, so it sounded hilarious.
"Marcos 1, Europa. Good to have you back, buddy!"
"You're still looking a little thin up top, Europa," I said.
There was a bark of laughter that the auto-tune made into something that sounded like air squeezing out of a ballon. "You've been off check for three days, Marcos 1! The General gave up on you."
"Feeling's mutual, Europa. But give him the good news later. Right now I'm sending data and telemetry from ... well, honestly I don't know where the hell I am. Nowhere, I think. Literally. Got a track on the when though." I checked the shuttle's computer to make sure I had it in the ballpark. "Looks like I just made a leap of about 360,000 years into the future. Keen."
"Marcos 1, that's ... are you still at Edge?"
"Negative, Europa. I left the edge of the universe behind a long while back. You're not even a spec now. As far as I know I don't even exist anymore. Nothing exists. Which if you think about it is kind of ironic." I laughed, low and not quite as mirthful as it probably should have been. "But I'm looking at something new now. Light. I just came into it. Bright, white, and everywhere."
There was no response, and for a heartbeat I thought maybe my luck had finally run out. Maybe I'd managed to finally go too far, and even that thin little tendril that connected me to the last remnant of humanity had snapped.
And then his voice came over the comms.
"Marcos 1, this is the General. I've been brought up to speed. What do you see?"
"Big fat zero, General. Just light. But I did get something on sensors. A couple of blips."
"Signals?" the General asked. "Is anyone trying to communicate with you? Did you find signs of intelligence?"
I started to make a joke. I was going for something that would imply that not even the General was sending a signal that indicated signs of intelligence. But then the blips increased, and I was getting bombarded with radio signals.
The communications equipment I was using to talk to Europa wasn't radio. Radio waves didn't stand a chance of reaching the boys and girls back home, even if I gave them a billion years to do the job. The quantum entanglement connected two particles that reacted to stimuli regardless of how far apart they were—both in time and space. The signals that were flooding my panels at the moment, though, were different. They were limited. They could radiate outward, but not backward. They were linear while I was the ultimate in digital.
"I'm getting all sorts of noise right now," I said over my comms. "It's a mishmash of signals. Crazy. Like tuning in to every radio and television frequency all at once."
"Cosmic noise?" the General asked.
I shook my head, realized he couldn't see me, and said, "No. I don't think so. There are recognizable patterns in this soup. The computers are sorting it now. I'm sending packets back to you."
This went on for a while, and occasionally some of the engineers and egg heads from Europa would send back packets of their own—mostly little notes about what X could mean and what Y might translate to.
And then, as I fiddled with a receiver and applied a massive filter, trying to isolate a single signal, a screen on my dash lit up. And I saw Hitler.
Right there, on the most advanced digital video display ever created, was a fuzzy, grainy, black and white image of Adolf Hitler, speaking in German. The shot was tight, showing mostly his head. And eventually he gave a sort of wave. It looked kind of weak and soft to me—c'mon Fuehrer! You can do better, ya evil bastard!
I'd seen this video before, actually. It was Hitler speaking at the opening of the 1936 Olympic games.
I'm not really a history buff. But I do know communications. And the reason I recognized this clip was because it was the first full-powered television broadcast that was at a high enough frequency that it had made it through the Earth's ionosphere. It was effectively our first words to the universe. Hi everybody.
The idea of Earth's first contact with aliens possibly being a broadcast of the most evil representative of our race to have ever lived had been titillating enough to give it some sticking power in the annals of communication history. It was the whole-human equivalent of baby's first words being the F-bomb, and forever captured on video that was live streaming for Great Granny to watch.
So yeah, I'd heard of it.
What was it doing here?
360,000 years in the future, outside the known universe, it really wasn't possible for it to be here. It couldn't have traveled this far in that time. It couldn't have reached ... well, wherever this place was. It just couldn't.
But there it was.
And it wasn't alone. Once I let the Europa folks know what I'd found we started digging through these signals in earnest, and now we could separate and identify them as individual broadcasts. And wow, did we have some whoppers.
There were television shows, radio broadcasts, cellular phone conversations, bits of chatter from laptop microphones—if it was ever a signal and ever broadcast, it was in this soup.
But what did it mean? And how had it gotten here?
"Marcos 1, Europa."
"Go ahead Europa."
"Tony," the General's voice said. "We have something."
"I'm listening, General. I'm not going anywhere, so give me the full scoop."
"I was just briefed by the team leaders. After analyzing the packets you sent back, we think you've somehow managed to find a bubble of ... well, they dumbed this down for me. They said it's like you're on the outside edge of a soap bubble made entirely of man-made frequencies. And they're speculating that the reason it's out there is that somehow we've been building it through the whole of human history. Apparently it's tied to the same sort of quantum entanglement that runs our communications."
"But it's radio frequencies," I said. "No quantum entanglement involved."
"Except there is," the General said. "Speculation, mostly. But it seems we've been connected to this bubble from the start. All those signals represent a mirror of every broadcast we ever made."
I thought about this, and almost couldn't believe it. Almost. I mean, I was sitting in a spaceship outside the known universe, surrounded by signals broadcast over the history of mankind and talking to people who had been dead for more than a quarter of a million years. So, you know ... allowances.
But it's what came next that really blew my mind.
"We think you can use that mass of signals to go back," the General said.
I blinked. "Say what now?"
"The signals have a quantum entanglement with every broadcast from our past. The engines in your shuttle can sync with any given quantum entanglement, and align to it."
"The egg heads said I couldn't come back," I said. "They said that the trip was one way."
"It is, if all you have is the entanglement you took with you. You're in sync with where and when you are, and that can't change. Your connection to us allows you to communicate, but you can't travel back along that path because your end is in the future. Don't ask, I don't actually know anything. I'm just reporting what the teams told me. But they assure me that the quantum entanglement of those broadcasts are all locked in sync with their origins. You can latch on to one using the shuttle's engines, and follow it back to a time and a point in space."
"I ... ok I'm going to be honest here, General. I'm feeling very close to you right now. Especially in light of all the insubordinate stuff I said before I knew I could come back home."
The General laughed. "All is forgiven, Commander. But there's a catch to all this anyway."
"Of course," I said. "Lay it on me."
"This works a bit like triangulation. In order for your engines to latch on to one of those other entanglements, you'll have to release the one you're carrying. That means we'll lose contact with you. And that's permanent."
I breathed heavy. I had come to grips with being out here on my own, and with the fact that I was going to die here. But I had clung to the tiny shred of comfort I got from knowing that at any time I could open a channel and chat with other humans. I wasn't that isolated, if I could do that, right?
And now we were talking about cutting those ties for good. Which mean that if this didn't work, and I couldn't go back using another quantum entanglement, I was done. I was alone. I was over.
"This is an opportunity to save us all, Tony," the General said.
And I instantly knew what he meant. "You want me to go back to before," I said. "You want me to go back far enough to give a warning."
"Or to change things," he said.
And that pretty much summed up my mission brief.
The egg heads back on Europa, 360,000 years in my past, walked me through the procedure I'd have to implement. They helped me disengage the computer's safety protocols—the very thing that not only kept me tied to the quantum entanglement but also kept me from accidentally exploding or venting all my atmosphere into space. Cool.
It took about an hour to get everything set, and in that time I was also scanning for a frequency that linked to a time and place where I might like to explode and die.
I had to do this very carefully. If things went wrong, I could rewrite all of human history, and then I'd never end up here. I'd create a paradox that could destroy the entire universe and ...
Heh. Nah. I'm just kidding. Who cares if you rewrite time or even destroy the universe if you've verified that you're the only life in it, and you're all destined to die anyway? Roll the dice, amigo.
I found a frequency I liked. It was a conversation between a man and his daughter, transmitted maybe around 1950 or so. It was a solider talking to his daughter back home over a Ham radio set that he wasn't even supposed to have. That just seemed damned perfect to me.
The plan from here was simple: Go back. And, as much as possible, change stuff. I was bringing the ultimate in human engineering with me, and so humanity could reverse engineer that and maybe get out among the stars a little faster. We could avoid our fate. No asteroid wiping out humanity—we'd be too far spread.
And the rest of human history? The stuff that would have happened before?
Let's call it rehearsal.
"Marcos 1, this is Europa. This is your final update. Are you set?"
"I'm ready, Europa." I said. "General?"
"You were always kind of a jerk."
His auto-tuned response made me giggle as I disengaged the quantum entanglement, used it as a navigation point to find my target, and reengaged with the new entanglement and its new timeline.
And then I punched it.