The Last Exodus

Summary: Aaron Ming leads an escape from a dying universe. As the remnants of civilization huddle around dimming dwarf stars, an ancient artifact offers the only possibility of salvation.

The remnants of posthumanity huddled around dying dwarf stars, like the light of an ever-dwindling flame. Entropy darkened the skies above them, as the universe plunged into the eternal night of deep time. Around one such red dwarf star in the former Milky Way were the closest beings to their human forebears, an enclave of uploaded minds existing simulated, slowed time.

They called themselves the Custodians, conserving historical archives of dead worlds and charts of long-dead stars. They were librarians and misers of knowledge, slowing the simulated worlds to conserve energy and bandwidth for their redundant archives. Even the von Neumann probe that sculpted their central habitat from cosmic detritus bore backups for its backups, owing to the eon-long distances between oases of heat and energy.

In their primary simulated world, a crowd gathered on bucolic facsimile of long-dead Earth. A golden-skinned man bestrode a raised platform, holding a bronze khopesh towards the sky. He appeared in the khaki uniform of an ancient explorer, with an anachronistic laser sidearm in lieu of a chronically accurate revolver. Such differences were largely lost upon the crowd, owing to the imperfect memory of their origins. Even in virtuality, a grim fatalism overhung the future and past, causing most to only think of the present.

Doctor Aaron Ming spoke with a charisma and eloquence exceeding any in human history, assisted by super-intelligent artificial intelligence. The crowd, itself consisting of avatars exceeding forms conceivable to baseline humanity, erupted into applause at his plea. As the chief science officer of the Custodian habitat, he proposed an audacious, daring expedition that stirred long-subdued passions in their minds.

With the candor of a professional scientist, Aaron detailed the cause for his excitement. Using a specialized telescope array, they observed their neighboring civilizations like unrepentant voyeurs. Their closest neighbors, a posthuman clade they dubbed the Ignati on account of their abnormally high energy usage, had recovered an item from deep space.

Aaron compared the observed properties with the archives he so obsessively maintained, and he sent an excited message to his colleagues. The Ignati had recovered a tool used in the generation of artificial black holes, wormholes, and space folding, which he nicknamed the Revelation Ring. He hypothesized it to be a salvaged component of the long-dead megastructures that drifted between interstellar space. The Custodians lacked the equipment to build substantial artificial black holes, but the Ignati had recovered a far more powerful tool than any they possessed.

What perplexed Aaron was the relative silence that followed. Over the next few years, the Ignati power output dropped to a fraction of its prior peak, save for a few automated outposts and defensive systems. Upon analysis of gravitational, optical, and electromagnetic waves, he considered a far more fascinating hypothesis. The Ignati left the dying universe through the Ring, presumably to one of their own creation. Given the technological possibilities of the younger universe, such a deed would be possible. To cover their withdraw, they'd left behind only token automated defenses.

Had he been a corporeal human, Aaron would have leapt into the air with a smile and cheer. Even in virtuality, he moved with an exuberance his fellows lacked. Forming a plan, he hoped to infect the others with his excitement. No longer would the Custodians be condemned to spend their existence as austere cosmic scavengers. Preserving the sum total of human, transhuman, and posthuman history depended upon their existence, and he would not see it vanish into the final universal darkness. He quoted an ancient poem he'd later use in his speech: "Do not go gently into the long night."

As a Custodian, Aaron feared the work of all his predecessors in science, culture, and sapience being lost. While the sky was dark for most practical purposes, he feared the starless era that would follow in the wake of the red dwarves burning out. Only black hole farming, and incrementally worse fates, awaited them. Even if they could not escape to a new universe, the Ring would allow them to build artificial black holes of scales unseen for eons. Instead of caretaking the lore of bygone eras, they'd be able to add volumes of their own to it.

Aaron tailored his message to appeal to the most jaded of fellow Custodians. Launching the expedition required a substantial portion of their zealously hoarded resources. The Ignati were an industrial powerhouse relative to their humble library, but he had method for bypassing their formidable defenses. Recent observatory readings lent credence to his scheme.

The interstellar spaces were haunted by the Cold Ones, feral self-replicating machines of various strains. The Custodians compiled multiple phyla of such things, including rogue self-repair systems of riven megastructures, replicating weapons from forgotten wars, and malfunctioning von Neumann probes from the earliest periods of spaceflight. Capable of dormancy for long periods of time, they drifted in silent darkness until coming close to heat sources. The Ignati were a thermal spike relative to the background radiation, and were occasionally besieged by swarms of the insatiable predators. Such events were as cosmic storms, which could last decades before dissipating entirely. The Custodians dealt with such things before, which they suspected were lured by their busy neighbors.

Given the activity of their point defenses, Aaron assumed the Ignati's point defenses were currently battling of such an incursion. While it could end at any time, it would exhaust and distract them from their own incursion. Drawing out other archival information, he estimated there would be plenty of gaps in the Ignati defense they could exploit. His own plan called for a fleet of microscale spacecraft to be accelerated to relativistic speed, which would probe the defenses and hopefully prepare the way for slightly-larger warships that would follow.

Aaron doubted the Ignati would lend them use of the device, even if there were any left. The Ignati cared little for history, as analysis of their broadcasts indicated they'd deleted archives to conserve power for their industrial endeavors. To him, it was no different than an ancient librarian throwing irreplaceable tomes on a bonfire to keep warm. He feared the Ignati were iterating towards becoming post-intelligent themselves, little more than Cold Ones with infernal industry behind them. Such Faustian deals for survival only increased his contempt. It was altogether suitable they be outwitted with the knowledge they spurned.

Aaron copied himself to each nanotech-assembled ship. Behind the scouts were a vanguard of antimatter-equipped warships, and behind them were data repository ships hosting entire copies of the Custodians' archives and population. Such vessels were far below the size and energy thresholds of Cold Ones, so they hoped to escape immediate notice during their initial approach. Once the larger craft started actively moving, then they'd have no choice. It would take two centuries of real time to travel to the Ignati system, but such things were trivial with subjective timescales.

Aaron arrived at the simulated helm of that interstellar fleet, smaller but more capable than most in posthumanity's history. The situation was worse than he'd thought. Radio activity ceased from their own system about a decade prior, and he worried if they'd finally been overrun by Cold Ones. He wondered if they'd been consumed by another swarm lured by their neighbor's activities. With nothing behind them, going forward was their only choice. A candle in the universe had been snuffed out, as a literal and permanent dark age descended across a hostile cosmos. While he'd copied himself many times across his eon-old existence, the loss of his original self and community caused him to order a moment of silence.

Aaron was grimly content to see the only half the Ignati defenses he anticipated. Debris scans showed signs of distant space battles, as he identified more than a dozen Cold One taxonomies. He wondered if they'd smelled blood and swarmed in one after the other, some retaining a semblance of tactical planning, or if they'd arrived within a short span of each other from the micrometer-pelted corpse of a Jupiter brain that floated precariously close. Such cosmic cadavers were the plague ships of the dying universe, wisely left undisturbed.

Aaron surveyed the scans of the Ring, which glowed more distinctively than the system's own diminishing dwarf. It was white hot, with a halo of blue and ultraviolent plasma wreathed around it. It floated like the crown of a fallen god, with its core devouring all light around it. The interior was a maelstrom of cosmic debris and darkness, an artificial black hole with an unkempt accretion disk. When contrasted against the orange sun, it appeared as the pupil of a demonic eye. Even in his simulated world, he shivered.

By copying the emissions and geometries of derelict Ignati craft, Aaron was able to send a scout ship in close. The remaining defenses allowed the ship in, but he was still cautious. He surveyed the Ring and closed in a nearby station he thought was the control system. The elements and geometry used in the cylindrical satellite were Ignati, so he suspected the device was a system they jury-rigged to attempt to interface with, and control, it. The security protocols used on it were rudimentary, but it was nothing he could not crack. He recovered the minds of the greatest electronic warfare and cybersecurity specialists in history, and tasked them with it.

While they discerned the functions of the control station and the Ring, Aaron noticed an alert from his warships. He detected the remaining Ignati security systems activate and engage an inbound wave of Cold Ones. It was from the station the Custodians gained control of the remaining defenses, and they supplemented them with their own fleet. However, the volume of attackers was higher than he previously estimated. He knew he'd have to accelerate his own work.

Aaron first suspected the Ignati had more control over the artifact than they truly did. The Ignati had begun their process of jettisoning knowledge far before the Custodians theorized. As such, they lost both the fundamental theory and common programming interface used by that magnificent Ring they'd salvaged. While still capable of formulating an exodus plan of their own, they miscalculated very sensitive constants. As such, the Ignati did not escape into a new universe, but instead suicidally retreated into a black hole of their own creation. All that remained of them were their thinned defenses, dead spacecraft, and debris around the Ring's accretion disk.

Aaron finished the calculation that the Ignati started with trivial alacrity. The debris within the Ring vanished, as a three-dimensional sphere of abject darkness replaced them. The exotic matter stream poured into the mouth of the newborn wormhole, which led to their promised land. Not one to risk the sum total of knowledge at once, he sent another scout in and back. As the final defenses fell, he prepared to evacuate.

Aaron saw the Cold Ones close in as the data ships made it through to safety. As he prepared to shepherd the final wave of evacuees, he sent a final series of orders to the control station. As he passed through, he felt a wave of respect for the Ignati. While they'd died, they'd at least given the Custodians the chance to evacuate the dying universe. Behind them, he imagined what was occurring.

Aaron ordered the wormhole to close once the Custodians passed through, but he utilized features of the Ring the Ignati were unaware of. A flash of energy, a pulse akin to a gamma ray burst, ignited from the Ring like a torrent of stellar fire. The pursuing Cold Ones in its path were immediately vaporized, but those close enough would be destroyed by the heat and radiation. Across the dying universe, the Ignati system was illuminated like a cosmic signal flare. Any civilizations or intelligent beings watching would know where it was. While it could draw more Cold Ones, he believed it would send a message the Custodians almost forgot: hope.