“Make a wish!” an excited girl said, as the boy who was cradling her in his arms beheld his candles one last time, closed his eyes, and summoned his desires, blowing the flames out of his delectable treat, the embers continuing on in the beachside winds. Everyone opened their eyes and beheld the spherical warps in space drifting before them, portals to some of the brightest star clusters in the cosmos, sparkling in the light of the sun setting over the ocean, a whole group of partygoers, the girl included, running out to grab a sparkling warp before they winked out of existence, their little feet caressed with each step by the sands of East Africa.
The boy, for his part, just smiled as he watched his wishes drift up like the sky lanterns men had enjoyed for millions of years. A partygoer walked up to him, and, a slight teasing smirk on his face, asked the boy “So, how many birthdays has it been for you?” Giving him a glare, the birthday boy replied “Old enough.”
The girl, having skipped back over the sand dunes to the party, pouted and asked him “Aww…come on, tell us: how many?” The boy answered for his girl “I stopped counting after my first few thousand.” “Your people are all so forgetful”, blurted out one of the partygoers, only for the girl to reply “Keeps us from getting stuck in our ways, which is more than I can say for some branches of humanity”, as she glared at the partygoer.
Glancing to the last sparkling ember of his birthday candles, a note of sadness descending upon him as the pretty sight winked out of existence, the boy mused “I really should make a new universe sometime”, before adding “But not on my birthday. I don’t like working hard on my birthday.” Hands on her hips, the girl said with a sigh “Boys…they’ll pay more attention to their universes than the ones they love.” Smiling, the boy replied “Not today”, as he took her hand and ran out with her to the swells of an ocean that didn’t even exist yet when man first let Earth become a verdant wilderness again for all to enjoy, in the half-forgotten mists of geological time. Caressed by the mighty swells, he took his beloved in his arms, her hair tumbling down her back like spun gold in the light of the setting sun, and, kissing her passionately, gave her a night to remember.
Even the lives of spacefarers as wizened as they were but bubbles on the beach next to the vast depths of time. There came a day when man fared no more to the mother planet.
Wild Earth lay in wait for man’s return as a new intelligence arose, the distant descendants of the crows, fashioned by tens of millions of years of evolution. The world now belonged to the birds, joined by a small colony of alien visitors who were much like man at the dawn of spacefaring: excited for all the strange new worlds that lay within their grasp now that they had unlocked the secrets of time and space.
Humanity had not disappeared without a trace; in the vast mountain range of Himalayan proportions that once was the Mediterranean Sea, the alien visitors, in a rare expedition far afield from their natural marine habitat, uncovered a chamber entombed when it was still a sea, a time capsule left behind by humanity. Discovering that neither they nor the native corvids were the first intelligence to call this world home, they deciphered the treasure trove of mankind, telling the visitors who they were, where they came from, but only, as precursor civilizations are wont to do, leaving behind the most tantalizing of hints about where they went.
Eventually man’s successors too succumbed to the winds of time. Over the next quarter billion years, whole vast and winding branches of the tree of life came and went, but one trend on Earth abided above all else: the cooling climate. As each million years, each geological epoch, ticked by, the hothouses became more and more tepid, the icehouses more and more frigid.
As the relentless progression of continental drift made itself felt, the Atlantic Ocean continued to widen, the Americas at last slamming into Asia, forming a new supercontinent, what a branch of man, when speculating what was to him a far-off future, had once called Amasia. 400 million years of global cooling beginning in the long-lost age of the dinosaurs reached its culmination; as Amasia formed, the ice caps grew so large Earth was tipped into a runaway global cooling event, the genesis of a new snowball Earth, the ultimate ice age.
Ice sheets covered the planet, the only surviving forms of life having taken refuge in the oceans, kissed by sunlight through the thin ice of the tropical seas, the edges of the new supercontinent akin to a giant Antarctica, thriving with animal life even after one of the most severe mass extinctions in Earth’s history; life had found a way.
350 million years after the age of man, this world was visited by aliens, a group of explorers native to an ice planet, their form resembling what man knew as penguins, who had just unlocked the secrets of the warp, opening up a wormhole to the planet that so closely resembled their homeworld, only warmer and more clement, a large moon gracing the surface with total solar eclipses.
Setting up camp at the equator, caressed by the icy shards of a ground blizzard, they beheld their surroundings become dimmer and dimmer with every bite the moon took from the sun, the white snowdrifts less and less brilliant, until the sun was reduced to beads blinking on the edge of the dark moon, a shadow rapidly approaching, enveloping the intrepid spacefarers as they beheld a diamond ring flash before them.
Now they were surrounded by the warm colors of sunset on all sides lighting the billowing clouds of snow hugging the horizon, their feathers chilled by the sudden darkness. Knowing not the verdant jungles and rainforests that a native intelligence long forgotten had called home when it first emerged, on that same spot the two races shared a kinship over the vast gulf of time: like man, their eyes too drank in the sun’s corona, their minds filled with the most sublime sense of wonder.
The drift of the continents might have been imperceptible to the senses of the explorers who visited Earth that day, but it was relentless; after millions upon millions of years, an upsurge in volcanism sundered the great continent of Amasia, melting the ice that had encircled the world. Long confined to tropical refuges free of ice sheets, where they were forced to adapt to growing in tundral air and soil frozen over even in the summer, the last surviving trees, descendants of the confiders that were once the taiga, spread poleward along with the few forms of complex plant life that made it through the ultimate ice age.
The temperate world as man had known it, half a billion years after he had first left the cradle of mother earth, was born again, the remaining forms of animal life dominated by distant descendants of the birds who during the long deep freeze adapted to an Antarctic way of life. In the fullness of time the age of mammals had proven to be but a brief intermission in the age of the archosaur.
The sun, however, was ever-brightening as it continued its inexorable march off the main sequence; Amasia’s snowball Earth was to be the last. Glaciers waxed and waned, but the ever-brightening sun could not be denied: the older sun ensured that every icehouse was that much more balmy, every hothouse that much more scorching, as the geological epochs came and went. One day, the last of the polar ice caps melted, never to return again.
Even the seemingly eternal cycle of the moon moving over the face of the sun was not long for this world; already in the age of man the annular eclipse previewed the future, becoming steadily more and more common, total solar eclipses less and less common, as the Moon slowly but surely receded from the Earth, the ocean tides becoming weaker, the days on Earth becoming longer. After half a billion years had passed the sublime beauty of totality was no longer a regular feature of terrestrial life; thenceforth, only perturbations in the terrestrial and lunar orbit could make eclipses happen, with even those becoming less and less frequent, totality shorter and shorter, over the next several hundred million years.
The air became more rarefied as the nitrogen cycle worked its relentless will as it had for billions of years, taking the edge off the sun’s increasing luminosity even as the climate continued to warm. Ineluctable, however, was a more direct effect of brightening sun: an increase in surface weathering, trapping ever-more carbon dioxide into the ground as carbonate, depleting the air of the gases plants needed to photosynthesize.
By the time of the last regular total solar eclipses, carbon dioxide levels had drawn down to where plants in the age of man could no longer survive. But these were not plants as man knew them; life found a way, as evolution guided the transformation of the great forests of earth into hardier varieties, thriving in rarefied air that would have starved their distant ancestors.
Earth’s lands became hotter and hotter, the deserts larger and larger as the slow but sure evaporation of the seas replaced an ocean of water with an ocean of dunes. Animals took more and more to the air, roaming the skies in search of ever-rarer cool temperatures, as flowering plants, their faculties more and more limited by ever-lower carbon dioxide levels, were inexorably replaced by carnivorous varieties, their leaves reaching ever-higher toward the searing sun, awaiting not a ray of light but rather one of the flying forms who strayed too low for its own good.
The Earth settled into a hothouse of a desert, ever-shrinking vestiges of the once-mighty ocean surrounded by a globe-spanning dunescape, the denizens of the ground echoing the Venus fly traps of the age of man, the denizens of the air echoing the pterodactyls of the age of dinosaurs. Man’s cradle was in its twilight years, but it was not to fade away.
For deeper in the inner solar system, Jupiter’s gravity was working its will, perturbing the orbit of Mercury, over many millions of years making it so elliptical it drew closer and closer to Venus’s orbit, throwing the inner solar system into dynamical chaos. One day, over a billion years after the age of man, Mercury slammed into Venus, destroying both worlds, merging them into a liquefied roiling sphere of magma, the collision kicking the newly-minted planet onto a path of destruction.
Orbiting closer and closer to the Earth, pterodactyl-like forms roaming the skies beheld a new wandering star growing brighter and brighter with the ages, their minds now having made the same breakthrough as man’s and so many others’ had in the distant past – thought. Though their technology was primitive, their souls could look up in the sky and wonder who they were, why they were meant to be.
Witness to the approach of doom, they saw the bright star transform into a red-hot disk of magma, growing inexorably larger as it approached the Moon, slamming into it, crafting a brilliant fireball as all the seas, all the craters, all the mountains of what all of Gaia’s children knew as their sister planet were melted and vaporized into oblivion.
From that moment onward, their companion in the sky was no more, as the rhythms of life, dependent on the moon for all those billions of years, were no more. Tides became strange as the earth began to shake, the glowing white-hot planet in the sky drawing nearer and nearer, looming larger and larger in the sky. The end of the world was at hand.
As ejecta from the impact between the Moon and what was once Mercury and Venus rained down upon the planet, the Earth was roiled with quakes and tides. The white-hot planet approached so close it filled more and more of the sky, the Earth’s gravity weakening where it appeared overhead. It passed so close it filled half the sky, lifting up whole swaths of the planet into space, pterodactyl-like denizens and all, before receding into the distance, giving the battered Earth a reprieve from death that proved all too temporary.
Swinging out in a dance of death, the white-hot planet, what was once the Moon, Mercury, and Venus, came back in for the coup de grâce. The point of impact: a part of the planet relatively unaffected by the first passage. As sun set for the last time, the remaining denizens beheld the looming sphere of doom draw ever nearer, until their atmospheres contacted in a great white flash.
Seconds later, the ground was hit, blasted out in ever-expanding pillars of molten and vaporized rock miles high, the shockwave destroying everything and everybody on the face of the planet – there were no survivors.
The collision released so much energy the Earth was not only melted, but vaporized, combining with what were once Mercury, Venus, and the Moon into one rapidly-spinning mass of vaporized rock, a synestia. But it was all still there – all the raw material from the four planets that were. As were native forms of life such as bacteria, thrown clear into orbit, ensconced in ejecta that shielded them from the harshness of outer space.
Within a century, the gas condensed into new worlds: seven moons whose sizes echoed Mercury’s, all orbiting about a central pair of planets each about half the mass of the former Earth, orbiting each other so closely their shapes were distorted into eggs, their surfaces drawn toward each other, filling their Roche lobes, their atmospheres touching each other through the center of mass.
As the new worlds’ magma seas cooled, their orbits settled into resonances, tides thousands of times stronger than Earth and Moon rippling across the planets. Before long a close passage by another star nearly flung the newly-minted planets out the solar system altogether, but the nine worlds soon settled into a far more distant, eccentric, and inclined orbit, more resembling a comet than that of the other planets.
In the blink of an eye in geologic time, and helped along by all the time they were now spending in the cold reaches of the outer solar system, the nine worlds cooled enough for water to rain out onto their parched surfaces, filling new ocean basins across all of the nine worlds, oceans which soon poured between the central pair of planets with every high tide, scouring the low latitudes of the planets every hour, twice in the new day of two hours long.
So rapid was this new day that human beings could have just barely perceived the movement of the sun and the stars in the sky with the naked eye, a star moving as far as the distance the former Moon’s disc covered in the sky in a mere 10 seconds. The new moons were massive compared to the old, the largest spanning thirteen degrees in the sky, and even the smallest still sporting triple the diameter of the old.
Not long after the nine worlds settled into space, the epic rains having crafted a primordial soup anew, a soup the old Earth’s natives that rained back down from orbit began to thrive in, seeding anew life as Earthlings had once known it. As millions of years passed the new biosphere waxed in size and complexity, respwaning complex life in a few billion years’ time.
Plants, animals, and everything in between and beyond thrived on nine verdant worlds, in the fullness of time spawning a new intelligence on the central pair of worlds: a race of creatures resembling old Earth’s seabirds, who from their cliffside homes on the polar coasts and the waters they hunted in from high above, open waters in the short summers and ice-covered waters only accessible through the odd polynya in the long winter, looked up in the sky in wonder, just as man and all mother earth’s elder daughters had once done.
These seabirds of what the old Earth’s inhabitants would have dubbed the far future honed their crafts, their natural endowment of powered flight enabling them to coordinate vastly greater numbers of people over a vastly greater area than man was able to achieve: straight from nomadic hunters, with no need for nor knowledge of agriculture or pastoralism, they blossomed into an incipient industrial civilization, unaware that in the geological blink of an eye their existence was to change forever.
For a new stellar encounter was coming, one they soon realized would mean the end of their orbit around the sun, and the beginning of the nine worlds’ existence as rogue planets, untethered to any sun, their worlds as they knew them doomed to a dark eternity under a neverending ice sheet.
Summoning all their powers of technology and technique, they gathered at the gravitational midpoint between their native worlds, constructing interplanetary arks, space habitats collectively harboring the complete biosphere of all nine worlds and their sapient populations. One by one, Gaia’s youngest children fled their homeworld, passing into their new life as spacefarers, lit by the sun, the stars, and the two great bands of light: the Milky Way and her sister galaxy Andromeda, by this time having drawn near enough to tidally distort each other’s disks, Andromeda now spanning a quarter the way across the sky.
Some left even before the star’s close passage put their home on a new course. The greatest number, however, stuck around on the binary planets long enough to witness one last flyby: their soon-to-be-lost homeworld made a close passage of Neptune, regaling them with the spectacular sight of its newly-minted ring system, the destruction of Triton as it spiraled inward having gifted the marble-blue planet a crown equal to Saturn’s.
From the airy bridge between two worlds, the waters that once flowed furiously between the binary planets frozen into a thicket of ice shards floating in near-weightlessness, never to melt again, the bird-like race sailed away en masse to their space habitats, committing the nine worlds, and those few intrepid souls who chose to stay on them, to the inky black of the interstellar deep.
The sun continued its relentless brightening for billions of years after the nine worlds exited the stage, leaving Mars as the innermost planet, the only remaining large object inward of the asteroid belt. A billion years after the destruction of Triton, Mars started to awaken from its many billions of years in the deep freeze, the sun shining as warmly there as it did on the Earth when it first formed nine billion years earlier, the heat unlocking more and more gas trapped under the surface, thickening the atmosphere, warming the surface, transforming the long-dead world into a cold rarefied echo of Earth in its glory years.
Martian life, confined for ages to simple forms that subsisted underground or huddled under sunlit ice, bloomed across the planet, as the long-dried ocean basins refilled with liquid water oozing forth from the melting ground. The renaissance of the Red Planet had begun; over the next two billion years countless lineages of ever-more-complex life forms bloomed on the surface, the long wait of the native life rewarded with a golden age unprecedented in Martian history, the surface greener and more verdant than ever before as a thriving biosphere not too different from its long-lost sister planet took shape, the animals, plants, and forms defying man’s categorization witness to Andromeda merging with the Milky Way over the geological eons, the band of light that had been life’s companion for billions of years disrupted, twisted beyond recognition as stellar nurseries ignited all over the galaxy, birthing new stars and planets in massive numbers. A new band of light soon took the place of the old, a much wider disk belying a new profusion of spiral arms, the central bulge of stars in the galactic core having waxed in size, dominating the vista from any world in the new galaxy’s outlying regions.
By this time the Sun had left the main sequence, beginning its final red giant stage. Bar the geologically brief helium flash, it kept expanding, becoming ever larger and redder, heating the surface of Mars too much for life to make it. The golden age of what had billions of years earlier been known as the Red Planet had ended; much like their distant cousins on the long-forgotten world called Venus, the microbes left behind found a new home in the cloudtops, as all complex life was cooked to its final end of extinction.
Seven and a half billion years after the age of man, the same sun that cooked Mars to death began to nurture the outer solar system in its warming rays, waking up life on Titan to come to the surface as the planet melted. One world’s loss was another world’s gain. Almost eight billion years after man’s time, the Sun they had once worshiped in the long-forgotten mists of deep time reached its maximum luminosity, its girth expanding to 256 times what they had known it.
As the solar wind started to expel the Sun’s matter in massive quantities, into a beautiful specimen of what humans dubbed a planetary nebula, the seeming infinitude of water-rich worlds in the Kuiper Belt were awakened by the Sun’s rays, unlocking a blooming of life on sunlit surfaces unprecedented in the history of the solar system, their biospheres primitive during their geologically brief day in the sun, but long-lived enough to see the rise and fall of a dozen races as they played host to innumerable visitors in their own age of discovery, their curiosity insatiable just as man’s had once been.
The Sun faded into the canvas of the gods that was the planetary nebula, its warming light forsaking the Kuiper Belt, plunging its incipient primitive biospheres into the sleep of eternal night. One by one, first the outermost, then the innermost, the planets of the solar system froze as the light of their lives could warm them no more, until, eight billion years after the age of man, only a white dwarf star remained, but an ember of the glory that once was.
By the time a trillion years had passed, the expansion of space stretched what in the time of man was called the cosmic microwave background radiation so far into the radio spectrum – so red, so faint – that it slipped beyond the cosmic light horizon, the image of when the universe first became transparent to light passing beyond the vision of any telescope, the ghosts of the young universe faded away for the rest of eternity.
Countless races rose and fell for the next hundred trillion years, nurtured by the light of countless suns in countless galaxies just as man was in the bottomless mists of deep time. But all suns took more than they gave back; with every white dwarf, every neutron star, every black hole they left behind, less and less free hydrogen remained for the next generation, until, ever so gradually, the interstellar clouds could bear no more children. One by one, over the following ten trillion years – a time long enough for a million races to rise to the full bloom of spacefaring glory and wink out of existence as so many did before them – the children of gas and dust, the lights of the universe, went dark, never to return again.
Even the legions of white dwarfs and neutron stars inexorably radiated their energy away, becoming as cold and dark as the void itself was in the age of man by the time a quadrillion years had passed, a hundred times the length of even the longest-lived stars. In the swirling dark mass of what had once been a giant elliptical galaxy, merger after merger having twisted the Milky Way beyond recognition by the races who called it home all those eons ago, a hundred lights remained, defying the slumber of the stars.
These were the children not of the clouds but of the brown dwarfs – what many a race called “failed stars” in the unfathomable depths of the past were now the last remnants of the universe as they knew it. Shining in a sky devoid of any stars a human could see, inky black bar the occasional white-dwarf supernova, these last bastions of starlight nurtured countless races for a quadrillion times a quadrillion years.
In the eternal night gravity made itself felt with time’s relentless passage, every close passage of every object exchanging energy until the bulk of what had once been the Milky Way was flung out into the void, the cold dark swirling mass left behind becoming denser and denser, on a timescale man in the full bloom of his youth would have found unimaginable. Closer and closer these ice-cold spheres spiraled, closer and closer to the central black hole: dormant for countless eons, but no less massive, no less hungry than in those long-ago days when a seeming infinitude of stars lit up the dust lanes.
In the outer reaches of the galaxy, far lighter than it was in its glory days but also far denser, orbited the Earth, or rather what the Earth had become after countless collisions, the nine worlds lost to time for longer than the universe’s age back then multiplied by itself and then multiplied by itself again. Still, the planet remained, tethered to the central black hole in a loyalty that could only end one way.
A nonillion years after the age of man on Earth, a nonillion years after the last children of the clouds burned out, the black embers of long-forgotten nuclear fires met their doom at the hands of the central black hole. In death they gave one last gift to the cosmos, one final victory over the darkness of the eternal night: their massive numbers formed an accretion disk about the sublime sphere of darkness, flinging polar jets at the inky black in a remembrance of the long-lost reign of the quasar, lighting and warming the universe anew.
Earth shined under the light of a new sun, a new atmosphere called forth as the heat liberated gases trapped for eons in the icy deep, torrents of water springing up from within the planet, torrents that soon became oceans, as the planet was warmed to just the right temperature for life as man knew it to begin again, the old world’s last stand against the sweet embrace of death.
Accretion disk and jets spanning half the sky lit the air ablue by day, the night black and starless, punctuated only by flashes of white dwarfs going supernova, as life reached for the god-like light in the sky, at once the most beautiful and most sublime sight in the cosmos, the goal of all existence as the youngest daughters of mother earth knew it.
Ever-more complex life was reborn as it had been a nigh-infinitude of times before on the ancient planet, the world blossoming with forms both mobile and sessile as the quasar bathed them in the last light of the universe for billions of years. The final quasar was a harsh mistress, its rays as dangerous and unpredictable as they were abundant, the challenge breeding ever-brighter wits with every passing generation of life on the surface, culminating when the giant flowers that covered the surface, their wits linked to each other through the body of the planet itself as a single colony, achieved thought, their newly-minted telepathic minds turning all their senses toward unlocking the secrets of sky and soul. The world could again look back on itself and wonder.
They needed not eyes to see, for they had the whole planet as a gravitational-wave observatory, the long-dead wmbers swirling about in the dark dense soup that was the galaxy calling like elder gods to the new race: let us be reborn. And it was made so. The race of flowers from time immemorial held a deep affinity for the light, directing their cherished companions, the flying beasts of the resurrected biosphere, to nourish their spirits by transforming the ancient planet: flaming candles, sky lanterns, strings of lights everywhere in a bright airy paradise of vivid colorful beauty, a world standing alone against the end.
Answering the call they felt from existence, they reached out and woke up the cosmos, the entire planet acting as one to shoot out seeds and spores to strange new worlds, in the fullness of time assembling their planets about the last light in the universe in geometric splendor, as if to be one with its sublime power.
Honing their craft, they unlocked the secrets of space and time, becoming a true spacefaring civilization as countless others had done before. Harmonious they were with their one true god as they peered into realms of existence beyond what their ancestors could have imagined, drawing nearer and nearer to its maw until, at long last, they too, the youngest daughters of Earth, had ascended, taking their biosphere with them, leaving the mother planet to its fate: spiraling into the black hole in one final blaze of glory.
The ancient homeworld was torn to shreds as its vaporized remnants spiraled into the accretion disk, faster and faster, closer and closer to the event horizon, until one day what was left of the Earth touched the face of the event horizon, joining her countless sisters in the underworld, never to return again. At last, the mother of life was at rest in the sublime embrace of death.
Slowly, yet inexorably, the whole galaxy became one with the black hole. The last light of the universe went out. For the rest of time, there would only be the maw of the great black hole, drinking in the energy of the ever-receding cosmic event horizon. Eternal darkness had begun.
In the black, a voice cried out, a call from the beyond, but a murmur to any mortals who may be listening; yet there was one, who heard. “Son”, he heard – “son” – as his little mind started to lose interest in the universe he was in. Feeling himself losing his focus, becoming more and more estranged from that lower realm of existence, he perceived a space of higher dimensions than any mere spacefarer from the age of man could comprehend, as his mother materialized as a three-dimensional image before him, the ghostly spirit of an ancestrally beautiful woman, a being suffused with wholesome love and kindness.
Pouting as he stepped out of the higher-dimensional sphere that represented his universe, a gateway to the inky black of an infinite deep, he expressed “It’s now all so cold, so dark; everything winked out. I was having so much fun with it…the quintessence fluid, the gravity, all the forces in a beautiful balance…it was so much fun while it lasted…”
Her spectre raising his chin for him to meet her gaze, a mere four-dimensional slice of consolations only a goddess could give, she evinced to him “Becoming gravity in our universe of origin is a very wholesome endeavor for a boy. You should be proud of yourself for taking on that challenge. For now you can learn how to become electromagnetism instead.”
Dejected, as if he stood as a godling defeated, his mother reassured him “You’re human, son – you’re timeless!” As his sadness was replaced by sublime remembrance, he let his world go as if it were a bubble on the beach.
Taking his hand, guiding him away to their reality, the voice of the mother soothed “Worry not; a new Big Bang will come around in that realm of existence before you know it”, as the universe floated about with all the others, in a sea of dimensions beyond what mortals could imagine, the world, without form and void, awaiting a time so vast it mattered not if it was measured in the lives of the quantum foams or the lives of the last lights – the time of recurrence, when all that was would be no more, and existence as mortals knew it would begin again.