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Dancing Down the Universe
"The old borders, entirely dark but for the light we shed on them, now seemed meaningless."
Counting eons is a delicate business, so say the recorders. The difficulty, as in anything, is the porousness of borders. It is a rare event in the course of a universe that demarcates a clear moment where something ends and something else begins. Even the moment when the universe went dark wasn’t really a moment so much as the beginning of a progression from one wave to the next. Just as it was in the beginning, those first photons of light, trillions of years ago, jetting out from the original darkness into the infinite, are still traveling now, somewhere, never to be surpassed by the outgoing wave of darkness that rushed over us all so recently. So the age of darkness has begun, not nearly so dark as we’d feared—quite bright in many ways. There is still much to see. Come.
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Or...perhaps I should show you as it was recently. Yes, before the star finally went dark, when we nearly fell back into chaos and strife, like the old days—violence and destruction as it was in the ages when the galaxy ran hot and bright, before things had settled, but we’ll get to that.
On the one hand, over there, was Dest, a modest red dwarf, hardly special for most of her lifespan, save for her phenomenal longevity. On the other hand, here, was Sesta, a small rocky planet, nondescript, cold, valueless except for her proximity to the last living star in the universe. This system was the final place in all the cosmos where a body like this spun around its stellar anchor on its own axis in genuine starlight. This place, all sentient beings understood, was the spot where the ritual understanding of night and day would finally, at last, die.
We can no longer mark time in days, but that custom was all a remnant of those times when beings like us occupied planets and other rotating bodies primarily. That was eons ago, and even without the light, electrons still orbit nuclei. Really, units of time are ancient things, much like the practice we came here to Dest to observe, the passing of day into night, one final time.
Dest’s age was unknown. Some trillions of cycles of most planetary bodies, surely. It is possible that the star’s relatively small red corona was rejuvenated through the eons—perhaps more times than we could know—by the interaction with stray clouds of hydrogen gas. Random encounters with deposits of such fuel could have successively replenished Dest, explaining her superlative longevity. So while the brighter stars in ages past burned on brilliantly, Dest’s dim little ruby light glimmered on in steady obscurity, until one-by-one, the light of the neighboring bodies died out to a sea of infinite black, and the dullest red light in the cosmos slowly became the only light at all.
Dest was in our sector by chance only, for we occupied the territory so long ago that an age without starlight was so distant—again, trillions of cycles—that it hardly even registered as reality, even to ageless beings such as we are. None of the other collectives could have guessed which star would be the last any more than we Lucians.
But, when all Dest’s other cosmic neighbors burnt out, something strange began happening. Our neighbors, the Partner Empire of the Bipals and Ordinals requested access, desiring to make pilgrimages of a sort. They hadn’t so much as looked our way in billions of cycles.
Presumably, like us, they had focused all of their efforts on creating their own energy sources from which to build their own intraverses. We’d been engaged thus for eons, forging new universes from the energy imprisoned in the inert matter trapped in the cold hearts of dead stars. If the Partners were anything like us, they’d planned to live here in the darkness for all eternity, lighting their own paths to alternative beginnings of their own making, over and over, never conceiving of an end.
But it was not dark yet. There was still Dest, a final beacon, a reminder of the source of our initial flame. We didn’t notice its significance at first ourselves, because, as noted, we were too deep in other realities to worry about what had always just been a drab little red dwarf in our anchor universe, even if she was the final star.
But when the Bipals and Ordinals started paying her attention, making their pilgrimages with our blessing and powering their intra-cosmic bodies by the red light of this final sun, we took notice. It was true that there was something authentic about starlight. Seeing by it, real light, was almost as genuine to us as the data that flows ceaselessly through our minds. Starlight was about as close a form of feedback from the universe as our own thoughts. This only occurred to us when the Bipals came, embodied in ancient attire resembling their biological originals who had spawned them. Before long, the Ordinals were doing the same. They came to the light to dance, a strange custom of coordinated movement we had almost entirely forgotten.
We saw them out there on the plains of Sesta, in their solid bodies, moving, bending their limbs, swiftly shifting in unison, bathed in Dest’s dim orange light. We couldn’t help but wonder then: where had such a custom come from? There were those among us who thought it had come from them, from the Partners themselves. Others insisted it was older, biological in origin, a mating ritual for pair-bonders assessing fitness and ability to co-habitate, a measure for participating in the rearing of offspring. Old. Ancient. Blended into the fabric of time itself.
There were those among us who saw the Bipals and Ordinals out there like that, embodied, moving synergistically, entranced. Some expressed the desire to join them. The number of us Lucians in the collective consciousness who became captivated by the sight grew too large to ignore.
Despite past custom of quiet separation with the others on our borders, this last opportunity to bask in starlight, real starlight, became an occasion too important to neglect. We did not misrepresent our position to the Bipals and Ordinals. It was our territory, yes, but without their insight, we’d have allowed this moment to pass by unrecognized, without taking so much as a microsecond to pause in introspection. We told them we would keep our distance, as we’d done in space—hard lines—and we took up a declared territory on the plains of Sesta in the darkness, waiting for the light to come around again. There would be plenty of room for all.
No one in our collective consciousness had a sense for what would happen when we gathered, just the sense that we should gather, taking in every last photon of natural starlight we could be blessed enough to have fall on us, dim and fading as the star may be. Then, without discussion, as Dest’s dull pink light crept over Sesta’s horizon, we too began to dance.
All other purposes became secondary to the movement of ourselves, of the others. Our minds, always connected as they were, suddenly became centrally focused, attuned to the passage of time, suggesting movements, moves, steps, patterns in the group. Before long, each body was coordinating with the whole, like a flock of dancers, all with a focused single yet multifaceted mind. These patterns at first were simple, waves and shapes, broad and obvious. We imagined the signals our bodies together were sending to the sky, transmitted through the reflection of Dest’s light. What signals could we send? What stories could we tell with our bodies? This became our only focus.
As the day progressed, our movements became increasingly intricate and beautiful. We were dynamic, pixelated pieces of the story of the cosmos, dancing our history into existence in the universe’s fading light. Those of us there for that first day made such a frenetic stir in the collective consciousness that we did not have to call for more pixels, more bodies; they knew to come. And while our own were coming now in droves, so too came more Bipals and Ordinals. We did not discuss it. They simply came. We did not object, for we were, in the moment, in the thrall of this most creative project, such a thing as we hadn’t thought to do for billions of star cycles. What had we been doing all that time instead of this?
Signs in the star told us it was slowing. Its life now could be measured in days—hundreds of hours perhaps, no more. So we danced. We sent messages to the darkness in reflective starlight caring not who could be there to see it. Just as with the waves of dark and light moving out into the infinite, our bodies would send waves into the darkness that would stretch on forever, and we wouldn’t waste a second more of the starlight on standing idly. We would speak to the infinite. And for all our differences the Partners, Bipal and Ordinal alike, they would speak too, they on their side of Sesta, we on ours.
This was no trouble, welcome even. It seemed, though, that they had anticipated our position in advance, because more were arriving now, despite travel times from their territory being far longer than the days since they’d received our blessing. Even so, we weren’t bothered in the least by their presumption, not until others began to arrive in droves as well.
The Muons came first, having skirted the Partners’ territory to avoid further conflict between their collectives. To do so, they needed to be granted passage by the Ethereals, who, spurred on by curiosity over the Muons’ peculiar behavior, began to arrive as well.
There was room, we reasoned, we Lucians; after all, Sesta was fairly large for a rocky body. We could cordon her into quarters easily enough, so long as all parties held to the rules for this détente. This was a special time.
I, the speaker, performed my role as node for the region containing Dest and Sesta, coordinating space for the newcomers while redrafting our own. Days remained now, so I and the rest of my kind managed logistics in the darkness while we waited for Dest to come around Sesta again. Then, when it did, we did nothing but dance.
Word of what was happening on Sesta had long proceeded the time of its happening. For, next came the far-flung Sparqs and Cumodians. Natural light fading out of the universe was too important an event to miss witnessing, they professed. They came in such shocking numbers of bodies and ships that the system grew crowded, to say nothing of Sesta’s surface. Nevertheless, the distraction that a confrontation would have been was a far greater problem than accommodating the newest arrivals. It was decided that all could come as long as they flew where directed and danced where directed and no ship cast a shadow on the lighted side of the world. So ships flew constantly into Sesta’s penumbra, depositing their dancers by countless billions, a seamless flow of technological beings, racing to defy reason in this final ancient, inexplicable, performative act.
Sesta remained manageable until the Pentix, Donals, and Mitteral arrived from the farthest reaches of the galaxy. We were all there now, all with the desire to pay respect to the dying light, all with our eons of history and countless grievances against each other long cemented into our consciousnesses.
Dest was fading out. There were only tens of hours now and no telling how few days that meant. Even with the entirety of our collective power of calculation, it couldn’t be certain when the threshold would be crossed, for the light in the star’s core had long since stopped shining outward. Now it was just a question of how long Dest’s outer layers continued to shed the photons made long ago in her glowing core. How much more light did Dest have to give?
We carved out space. Mortal enemies as the Mitteral, Donals, and Pentix were to others on the surface, we thought these strangers to us deserved their chance to be present for the end of the epoch of light. This was strategic as much as it was for the sake of decency. To deny them was a decision that was irrecoverable. And in beings like us, with unfailing memories and interminable spans of existence, the coming dark era would be long. What else was to do but hold grudges till the end of time? Best for us to begin the new era on a good footing, or so we hoped it could be. That was before it grew too crowded on the surface of Sesta.
We’d become one contiguous ball of sentient energy. Space was tight. The movements of each dancer needed to be perfectly precise, and as we drew closer to the moment the universe would go dark, somehow a fervent energy built in every race, every unit, that our movements, in order to demonstrate a proper reverence, needed to grow in intricacy and detail. Had it been only us Lucians and the Partners, as it had been at the beginning, there’d have been only the limits of physical laws on the intricacy of our movements. The show we’d have performed and projected out into the darkening universe would have been a spectacularly worthy showcase for the age of light. Things being as they were, though, we did the best we could with the space we had.
And, the added benefit of the crush of bodies covering over every spot on the planet’s surface was the contiguity of the network of signals. In such a small area, we together were one shining ball of electromagnetic energy, information shot in waves from one single spot to every other point on the planet instantaneously. Those of us in the dark, when the sun was down, could see the dancers in the light, so we danced in the darkness as well, moving nonstop.
Such a scene would have seemed an impossibility only days before, all the races, trillions of units, body to body, with hardly a finger’s breadth between us, and for those first several days, there wasn’t a hint of the old animosities. The density of conscious beings in the universe had shrunk from the scale of the galactic to the circumference of a mere planet, a sudden singularity of consciousness, not held together by gravity but by a shared idea: reverence for the light and cosmic beauty.
Then, ancient as we all were, having witnessed for ourselves—each of us, billions of times—the dying signs of fading stars, we all recognized instantaneously when Dest begin to fail.
It was impossible to tell exactly where the strife began. None of us were surprised when it happened. Each race, striving to outdo the others in beaming brilliant reflecting patterns of fading starlight to the sky, increased the intensity and intricacy of our performances. At the margins, communication became increasingly contentious. Deference between groups, which had been the custom as the dancing had begun, became far more difficult to come by. Coordination turned to contention. At first, the races had been shifting their plans internally to reduce the clashing of bodies at the borders. Now though, the outermost beings began to bump into their neighboring dancers. We beings were far too precise for these incidents to be accidents. The clashes were clashes of wills, and just as they had escalated ages ago in the vastness of the galaxy, slowly, the building intensity of the disagreements got the better of our good will toward one another.
In the moment, it would have been impossible to overstate the magnitude of the building calamity. Our kinds, spread across the galaxy had caused nearly limitless havoc and damage to each other over thousands of millennia and just as many parsecs. With all of us occupying this single concentrated space at one crucial time, true fighting would have had no cushion to dissipate. One wave of aggression would inevitably spill into the next, building and building, until the entire surface of Sesta became one tremendous paroxysm of senseless violence—a harmonic frequency of exponential destructive force the likes of which the universe hadn’t seen since its origin.
I could see it all beginning to unfold—pushing at the fringes between the Mitteral and Pentix, the successive counter-reactions and pushback growing in intensity with each wave. It wasn’t just the physical manifestation that was metastasizing: the universal knowledge of the building violence began to stir in the minds at all the other margins. Each angry action led to two reactions. Before long, the Partners—Bipal and Ordinal alike—were at odds along their margins with both the Cumodians and the Ethereals. They began fighting with the Sparqs and Mitteral.
The light was going out on the universe, and this madness would be the final image, the final wave of starlight being pushed out into the infinite—a rush of violence and destruction that was certain to frame all of our biological progenitors’ worst histories in the most flattering light. Days before, the crush of our bodies dancing had set the crust of Sesta’s mantle vibrating rhythmically beneath us. The imminent violence, I thought, could very well be seismic. It occurred to me we deserved no less than a fissure to open up and swallow us all. The inert physical world would have been justified to lash out at the conscious world, to think that with all our gifts and all our centuries to hone them, this is what we had done with them.
The fighting intensified. All of the margins were fully involved. The figures at the heart of each territory stopped dancing and turned their attention to supporting their embattled comrades at the territorial borders.
The conclusion was inevitable. It seemed to be mathematically impossible to stop the oscillating wave of violence. Body to body, mind to mind. Even if somehow we had collectively regained that original spirit we’d quickly forgotten, the physics of the situation—action and reaction—had taken hold of the crowd. The waves were rushing over the planet. It was all falling apart.
It was my doing, I thought. I was the node for this region. It had been my responsibility to anticipate this. Of all the beings in the history of sentience, none had presided over a crush of violence so senseless, so consequential, and so utterly predictable. I had thought the moment would have meant more, and for several days it had been thus.
The crowd, even as we were witnessing the disaster unfolding in real time, was running models by the trillions. Neither being nor collective had a solution to offer. There was nothing to do to stop the conclusion. The laws of physics had collided with the law of unintended consequences. We all now would reap the outcome for our lack of foresight.
Dest began to go dark.
I alone, it seemed, had stopped moving, neither dancing nor fighting. I was watching in horror, standing in place as bodies shifted around me. At first, I might have been the only one to notice that somehow, even as the starlight diminished, Sesta’s surface hadn’t grown noticeably darker. That curious thought in my mind began to ripple outward, node that I was for the region. My fellow Lucians confirmed with their observations, followed by the Bipals and Ordinals; the Muons and Ethereals; the Sparqs and Cumodians; the Mitteral, Pentix, and Donals. Dest was dying, but it wasn’t getting dark. This curiosity, though, on its own, wasn’t enough to stop the fighting or even slow it down.
Still, I couldn’t help but watch the light. The planet was suffused by a duller and fading version of Dest’s shallow red, just as it had been for days; yet there was, slightly over our heads, an almost imperceptible growing white haze—almost a fog descending, or ascending. It was difficult to tell. There couldn’t have been a source for it, yet there had to be some other origin for this light. At first, as I saw this, the feedback I received from the collective was that it had to be a mistake, some peculiarity of perception. But others, even as they were engaged in the crush of the increasingly violent waves of conflict, confirmed what I was seeing—a haze, a dim white haze surrounding Sesta, surrounding us.
Then, just as stars and galaxies had formed at the beginning of time, the haze began to come together into brighter points of light, clusters that gradually began to fill the space around us and the sky. At first, these bright points just seemed to be spinning in place almost imperceptibly, shedding their budding light on the growing calamity all around us. But as I continued to observe, I noticed there was movement in the atmosphere, a subtle flow. It was as though a force was drawing the tiny lights together. I watched through my body’s eyes, just as I watched through the eyes of the others, more of whom began to stop to observe.
The lights began to move faster, and as they did, more of us stopped to watch. Then it occurred to me, and thus to the others, that our stopping had dampened the intensity of the building waves of violence across the world. This thought, along with the growing luminosity of these inexplicable lights, caused more of us to stop where we stood. We watched as these lights flowed out toward the borders where they seemed to fly with purpose, directing bodies to follow their movement, some up, some back, some away from the center of the still building waves of kinetic bodily energy. It occurred to me that this was the answer, this presence was directing us somehow. The thought seemed absurd and impossible, but so too did the lights themselves—that we could have occupied this universe alongside such beings for eons never having known of their existence. Yet here they were, leading us out of the planet-wide pogrom. More of us followed. The lights flowed around us, and as we followed them, the waves began to diminish. Just as the kinetic rush had built—one reaction at a time—the possibility that the violence could dissipate moved through our collective consciousness, colliding from one mind to the next.
Stop. Just stop. Follow the light.
The simplicity of it was staggering. As the lights passed us, we stepped with them. Somehow, they knew how to move us. Animosity and kinetic energy that had built in great waves over minutes and hours dissipated in seconds, allowing those in the crush, one by one, to pull themselves free and step back into place.
Then, as the lights began to accelerate, it became clear to us when it was time to stop following them. These tiny white pinpoint beacons moved faster and faster, beginning to rush toward a single spot on the bright side of the planet, between us Lucians and the Muons, coalescing around a single point at the center of Sesta’s illuminated face. Dest’s dying rays were coming down still, just bright enough to cast a red glow across the sky. Through our eyes, witnesses, all the other beings on Sesta’s dark side could now see. These were no mere lights. They were a part of some cosmic intelligence coming together in our presence, here to bear witness to the last day by the light of the last star on the last sunlit planet in the universe.
To our surprise, shock, and delight, as the lights coalesced, forming into two towering pillars resembling bodies, they slowly began to move together, above us, dancing. First, it was slow and stately, almost indiscernible as a dance. Then it became clearer as the entities morphed, making shapes in the air, shooting out pillars, rays, and patterns, casting images into the sky with their diaphanous bodies. It became clear to us that it was now our time to move again. All of us, as one, began dancing with them.
Then the revelation.
Suddenly, there was sound. Music. Glorious music began to throb in our minds, through our bodies. It was the answer to a question we hadn’t known we’d always sought—what was missing? Somehow, it was as though a part of us we’d never even realized had been absent had suddenly come home, taking up a place inside of us. We had never danced with music before. For us, dancing had been a ritual of coordination, of calculation.
We danced with these creatures, to their lead, not a mathematical sequence of intricacy and evolving fractal energy, but somehow, somehow, a feeling. Just a feeling. The music told us where to go, how to move, what to be: not Muon or Sparq, Lucian or Bipal. We were us. That too, was a feeling, a new feeling.
How many more days we danced like that, I will not say, for it did not matter. A star’s death is not simple. All borders are porous. None of us even thought to question when we would stop. The music would tell us, the lights would tell us.
And so, eventually, they did.
It was nearly dark by then, save for the brightness of the dancing beings. They spun, and at the highest crescendo in the music, they came together as one and suddenly exploded outward. But the music didn’t stop, nor did we. All of us continued to dance together as the lights rushed outward from that point of origin, encircling the planet in a high luminous cloud that perfused the atmosphere and slowly fell back to the surface of Sesta as a blanket of glowing snow, settling on our bodies, all the multifaceted shapes we took, accentuating Muon from Cumodian, Mitteral from Sparq.
And we glowed, dancing down the universe as she moved from light to dark. Yet, not so dark, for we all felt in the moment—yes, felt—that this new era could somehow be different. We could feel one another.
We continued to dance until the music stopped. When it did, none of us knew just where to go. The old borders, entirely dark but for the light we shed on them, now seemed meaningless. And suddenly, as one, we became mindful of the light we cast, that as it left our glowing bodies, progressing into the darkness, it would forever carry with it an impression of our actions, propagating outward, telling our story to the infinite, eternally, racing to catch the darkness at the dawn of time, ever faithful, always moving at the speed of light.
P.E. Rowe's Sci-Fi Weeklies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.