"Welcome," the old man said, "to the end of the universe."
The words made no sense to Jason Chandler. But asking for clarification from the one who had just spoken them—whoever he was—ranked low on the young man's priority list right now. Infinitely more important was the condition of his wife, Maggie: she lay beside him on the cold slate gray floor of the vast, dark, and unfamiliar chamber in which they now found themselves. She was flat on her back, eyes stunned, jaw slack— but as soon as Jason put his hand on her arm she drew a deep breath; as if his touch alone were enough to bring back her sense of herself.
"Jason," she gasped when he touched her. "Jason, what happened?"
"I don't know."
He sat up, and for the first time caught sight of the old man who had issued the ominous greeting. That man was tall, white haired, and bundled in ankle-length robes woven from brilliant fabrics of red and blue. His presence might have been imperious but for his kind eyes. From a high dais at the center of the chamber he smiled down at the young couple: Jason, blond, fair and slight; Maggie, slender as well, with her long brown hair tied in a ponytail; both in their mid-twenties, looking very much the diligent graduate students in Physics that they were. Behind the dais were tall windows, but windows on what? Outside the glass Jason saw nothing but darkness, and yet the darkness had character of a sort: akin to some great black whirlpool, it was swirling, drifting, and continuously folding in on itself.
"Where are we?" Jason demanded of their host. "And who are you?"
"Ah, but I've already told you where you are," the old man replied, though he did so kindly, in the tone one might use to set right a wayward but generally well-behaved child. "You have arrived just in time to see the destruction of all that ever was. As for me, I am the one who will have the pleasure of serving as your host for at least the opening act of this extraordinary event. I hope that answers your second question."
"Destruction…?" Maggie whispered.
"I'm afraid so," the old man said as the two young people picked themselves up off the floor. Gesturing to the eerie tableau behind him, he continued, "What you see beyond these windows is a cosmos in its death throes: the final state of all matter. Stars and planets; nebulae and galaxies; living creatures—the endpoint of them all is the murky chemical soup that surrounds us, as you can plainly see. I invite you both to take a look outside. It doesn't matter what vantage point you choose. You'll find the view is the same regardless of where you stand."
Hand in hand, Jason and Maggie approached the row of windows.
"Heat death," Maggie whispered.
Jason had drawn the same conclusion. He understood now—or thought he understood—what had happened. Their experiment had gone dramatically wrong. The couple's goal had been to travel forward in time, and so they had—but far, far deeper into the future than the coordinates they had set prior to their departure. Those coordinates would have taken them just a single day ahead. Instead they had leapt over trillions of years, and arrived at just the destination the old man had announced: the end of the universe, when all the stars had burned out and all matter had devolved into a great formless mass of rolling black clouds; a time when there was no more thermodynamic energy to make cells move, when the universe had been transformed into a great stopped clock.
"Well," the old man said, "what do you think?"
It was a grand palace hanging alone in space or what had once been space; a vast floating citadel of silver towers, crystal domes, and sweeping metal terraces that would have gleamed magnificently, no doubt, in the presence of a star. But here amid the blackening flesh of a doomed universe, it could do no more than glow a faint orange. Sad, sickly light wafted from a spider's web of thin lines that graced the architecture of the citadel. Jason supposed the lines were conduits for whatever hardy power source kept the place alive—a power source he felt sure was fading fast.
That was about the limit of his imagination right now: musing on the way the complex was able to provide light and warmth here amid the darkness. He might have been impressed with the technological achievements of a long-dead alien race, were he not one of only three living organisms left in all of Creation to appreciate it.
"We stand now at the final outpost of life itself," the old man said as he led them on a tour of his great home, which he claimed to have inhabited for a span that outstripped the lives of most planets. He went on to say that he was the last of his kind: sole survivor of a race of masterful engineers. Yet their technological prowess—vast though it was—ultimately had not been enough to forestall their extinction.
Maggie pressed him to elaborate on this topic as they walked the great halls of the castle. "I probably wouldn't be able to understand the specifics," she admitted, "but can you tell us how you and your people were able to survive so long? I would have thought the cosmic environment became too hostile for any form of life a long time ago."
"Our advantage lay in our ability—and our willingness—to adapt," the old man replied. "In the early stages of our development we were creatures of flesh, like you. But flesh is weak, vulnerable to disease and injury, so we transformed ourselves into machines. Yet machines must be carefully maintained, lest they break down. So next we transcended our machine bodies and became energy. We thought ourselves so clever in those days: surely, as energy, we had escaped our own mortality. But over time energy weakens as well. And so a new transition began, this one perfectly natural, without any prodding from us: our transition from energy forms to shadows. With the passage of time we, as a species, became less distinct from the darkness that increasingly surrounded us. In our foolishness we once believed we could cheat death, but in the end we recognized that death is the way of all things: the small and the mighty, the foolish and the wise, the kind and the cruel. So do you, I gather."
"We had our theories about the way the universe would end," Jason said. "This isn't unexpected. It's just the act of seeing it for ourselves—of seeing…" His voice trailed off.
"Seeing that it was all for nothing," the old man concluded for him. "Yes, I understand how you feel. It is impossible to look back on the futility of all that has come before this final moment and not be affected: to learn that the wars, the revolutions, the reformations, the romances, the rescues, the plotting, the scientific discoveries, the innumerable acts of courage and self-sacrifice, the declarations of love, and all the promises made and kept were really quite useless in the end; that there was no point to any of it. I think that's what you see when you look outside this place, Jason, as opposed to the proving of any particular theory about the ultimate fate of the cosmos."
"You seem awfully casual about it."
"It would be illogical of me to rail against that which I cannot control. You expect that because I look as you do I should have similar feelings. But I would remind you that I am not a human being. I appear this way because I have no true form anymore, and I thought it might alarm you if I took on an unfamiliar appearance. By the time my race was born human beings had been extinct for hundreds of millions of years."
"What happened to us?"
"I'm ashamed to tell you that I cannot answer your question. You were gone so long that until the time we discovered the remnants of your civilization, it was actually a matter of dispute as to whether you had existed at all. Humans were considered the stuff of legend, a mythical creature that tended to fit well with our fables. I suspect you died out the way my own kind did: so slowly that hardly anyone noticed—at least, not until the day came when a single human being looked around his world and found there was nobody left for him to talk to. Who knows what he did then? Perhaps, in despair, he withdrew to some dark citadel to await his own death."
"Is that what happened to you?"
"With a crucial difference," the old man said. "That poor human never noticed two travelers adrift in the time stream, and, even if he had, I suspect he would have lacked the technology to pluck them out of that chaos for their own good. Your time machine is too primitive to navigate the years effectively. That is not your fault. Given the limited technology of your era, I find it amazing you were able to build such a remarkable vehicle in the first place. Nevertheless, in the future I suggest your channel your energies in a new direction, something a bit more practical, not to mention safer."
He's right, Jason thought. I didn't know what I was doing when I built that stupid thing. The question now is how do we get back?
One thing was for sure. Whatever means the young couple used to return to their own year of 2047—if at all—it would not be via the means by which they had arrived here. Their vessel had completely disintegrated in transit, according to the old man, and neither Jason nor Maggie had any reason to doubt him. Maggie joked that the time machine was ugly anyway, but she was just whistling past the graveyard. Both were relieved when the old man assured them that he had the capacity to send them back to their own time. But for Jason it was difficult to consider that, in spite of all his calculations, all his failsafe systems, all his years spent researching time travel under the guidance of the greatest scientists of his era, he had nearly brought about not only his own death, but that of his spouse as well. She had been his research partner, his inspiration, his comforter, and his best friend—all of these things for quite a while longer, in fact, than she had been his wife. When the grand university that had long funded their project announced it could no longer do so at the necessary level, she had gone out and solicited funding from other public and private institutions. When he was frustrated and angry at himself for not being able to solve some intricate set of calculations, she was there to offer suggestions, bolster his confidence, and remind him that there was more to life than just this time machine that seemed to obsess him so. And finally, when the machine was complete and it was time for a test run, she would not permit him to make it alone. Neither animals nor robots could be used to pilot the little aluminum capsule: only a human being, and an exceptionally intelligent and fast-thinking one, was capable of such a feat. And despite his concerns for her safety—even as he insisted there was no threaten to his own—he had finally allowed her to join him. So there they were, with the coordinates set for January 19, 2047, just one day into the future, and Jason had felt quite sure everything would go all right. He had been wrong, of course. The time machine had not even taken them through time. All it had succeeded in doing was casting them into the void: a monstrous and chaotic place from which they had been rescued by this strange being who sat all alone in a citadel at the end of eternity.
After the tour the old man had asked them if they might like to have a few minutes to themselves, to ponder and assimilate all that they had seen. He left them in a room that was, in nearly every way, a smaller version of the chamber in which they had first met him. When the old man was gone Jason went to the window and placed a hand on the cold glass, looked out into the endless night.
Maggie came up beside him. "Are you okay?"
"Not really," he said. "It's finally starting to sink in. Everything we do is in vain, from start to finish. No matter what, it all ends in darkness. Why bother, you know? What's the point? Why have children, like we've been talking about? Why try to leave anything behind? Why live your life any particular way, when you know that in the end it doesn't make any difference? It's like a big cosmic joke. Night falls but there's no dawn on the other side: just this, just more night—but without any stars or anything else that gives light or life. It's enough to make you go crazy, when you see how ridiculous it is to strive for anything. I guess I always knew it had to end somehow—but I wasn't ready for this. I just wasn't ready." She did not answer, and so he faced her, his tone almost angry. "All right, so say something, Maggie. Tell me that what's important is how we spend whatever time we have. That's the stock answer, isn't it? That's what's supposed to make me feel better right now. Enjoy however long you've got, because you never know when the party will be over. Well, it's not enough for me. I don't operate like that. I can't bear the thought that there's no meaning to anything we do. I mean, look at what's behind me, past those windows. That's death, Maggie. We are literally looking at death: just like the old man said, some of those particles out there were part of living organisms, and now they've been reduced to cosmic muck. It's the end of the universe, the end of time, the end of everything. I can't stand it."
Behind him, outside, a flash rippled through the darkness. The citadel lurched slightly, as if buffeted by a gust of wind, and while Jason and Maggie retained their balance it was not easy.
"What do you think that was?" she asked him.
"I have no idea. It was probably nothing. Anyway, our pal here said he could send us back. Let's tell him we're ready. I don't want to stay here any longer. Do you?"
"No. I'm ready to leave too." They exited the room and headed into the hallway, at the end of which was the main chamber and, presumably, their host.
"I have the ability to erase your memories of what you saw here," the old man announced as they re-entered his sanctum, and Jason surmised that someone with so much knowledge and technology at his disposal almost surely had the ability to listen to thoughts; quite likely their whole conversation had been monitored. But what was the use of complaining about violated privacy at a time like this, in a place like this? Besides, it was an interesting proposition. He was tormented by this place, and believed Maggie was too.
"With your permission, I will take that step now," the old man continued. "Our research on your species indicated that the human mind was not fully evolved, and that various images and experiences had the potential to inflict permanent emotional damage. I did not consider this trait of yours before and I apologize for overlooking such an important aspect of your psyches. Shall I cleanse your minds of all you have seen?"
"I don't know," Jason said. He looked to Maggie, not wanting to make the decision for both of them. "Maybe so…"
"Can we talk about it by ourselves?" Maggie asked the old man.
"Certainly," he said. "I'll wait."
Maggie touched Jason's arm. In a hushed tone: "Well, what are you thinking?"
"I have no idea. Why don't you decide?"
"I thought maybe you would."
"We could flip a coin."
"Do you have a coin on you?"
"I don't know what to do. Part of me wants to forget but part of me wants to remember. I'm stuck."
"Yeah, me too; it's almost as if—"
There was another flash, and once again the palace at the end of time was shaken, only with more violence than before.
"What was that?" Jason asked, turning to face the old man again. "If all matter has broken down—except for this place—how can there be cosmic storms?"
"I don't know," their host replied. "I've been trying to figure that one out for some time now."
"It looks like lightning," Maggie said. "But that's impossible. If there's no energy to create motion, then…"
"But there is motion," the old man asserted, "isn't there? As I said, it's a mystery to me—and a comfort as well, to realize there are still things I don't know."
More lightning now, beyond the windows. "Look, there it is again," Jason said, observing the momentary brightness. He turned back to the old man. "Can't you find out what's going on? I mean, with all this technology you have, shouldn't you be able to discern what it is?"
"There are limits even to my technology. I have no idea what is occurring outside this space station."
"You have to have a theory."
"I would prefer not to speculate, young man. Some force is agitating the chemical soup of particles: an energy with which I am not familiar. I have no idea what is causing it, nor do I know what is about to happen. Regardless, it may be for the best if the two of you return home now, as things are beginning to look a bit unstable."
"Tell me what you think it is. Please just tell me what you think."
"I think the same thing you do—or perhaps I should say that I hope for the same thing. It is well that you came now, I think. But it is also time for you to leave." He lifted a hand in their direction, and the bodies of the two young people were enveloped in a soft blue light. Jason knew what was about to happen. Maggie seemed to know it too, for she took his hand, squeezed it, and smiled at him.
They were going home.
But then Jason looked to the old man and said, "What about you? If you can send us home, why don't you leave as well?"
"Because I have lived long enough," their host answered, even as he faded from their sight—or, more correctly, as they faded from his. "My age is ending now, but it may well be that something else will arrive in its place. I could have no greater honor than to give myself fully to that something else. The two of you, on the other hand, still have more work to do in your own epoch. So now we must go our separate ways. Farewell, my children."
And they were gone. The instruments of his citadel told him that Jason and Maggie Chandler were now safely in the laboratory of their small home. He had ensured that they would remember none of their experiences here, but left them both with the impression that time travel was a dangerous business and that they would do well to keep out of it.
Thus the chamber was empty but for the old man.
Once again, he thought, I am alone.
The great lightning storms that began on the day Jason and Maggie visited the old man continued for millions more years, as human beings measure time. The old man fortified his citadel but knew he was fighting a losing battle. The engineering feats of his people were no match for the punishment being inflicted upon the citadel. The old man understood that eventually his palace would be swept away—but swept away by what?
That was the question.
And then came an hour when the old man got a glimpse, maybe, of the answer. It was also, coincidentally, the last hour of his long, long lifetime. On a whim he had gone to his grand windows and looked outside, sensing that a final storm was coming and wishing to see its approach. Around the citadel the darkness was crackling, pregnant with a light that could no longer be denied. The darkness was giving way, falling apart, disintegrating. The old man felt his grand palace coming apart as well, such was the fury of the maelstrom—but he did not despair. He had despaired enough in his vast existence. Here at the conclusion of that existence he wanted to feel something different, and he did.
Strange, even bracing, this new reality: so often it was a painful thing to have one's assumptions challenged. Not now, though, for the master of the citadel. At this moment he was pleased to consider the possibility he had been wrong: the possibility that the way of all things might not be what he had long believed.
Regardless, he chose his final word carefully, not only because he knew it would be the final word of a dying cosmos, but because he dared to imagine it was the first of another being born. And had he the whole of eternity to ponder the issue, he did not think he could have chosen any better.
That word, echoing in the light: