Let me just get the obvious out of the way first; yes, I’ve actually been to the future. No, don’t ask me about the Pandemic, or the Climate Crisis, or the next election, or next week’s lotto jackpot. I’ve been to the far future, long after any of that has ceased to matter. It was billions of years, at least. It was the very End of the Universe, I think. But, it wasn’t the end of everything.
I should probably back up a little bit, and explain how I got to the End of the Universe. I’m an Air Force officer, and I was selected to be the test subject of what my superiors referred to as a chrononautical Kitty Hawk. Out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, relatively close to the Hawaiian Islands, there’s a top-secret experimental particle collider. It’s underwater both for secrecy and so that they can use the ocean as a heat sink for the massive nuclear reactor that powers the thing.
I wasn’t privy to all the details, so I don’t even know who’s funding it. There were definitely a lot of non-Americans there, so I’m pretty sure it’s an international collaboration.
From what I was able to understand, the experiments they’re doing there are meant to reveal the basic nature of time; whether it’s a fundamental aspect of the universe, an emergent property of more elementary components, or just an illusion of our own limited perception. The collider produced an unknown and, based on what some of the researchers told me, previously untheorized particle that caused bizarre temporal effects when they interacted with ordinary matter. For the time being, they were just calling them chronitons, since that’s what time travelling particles are called on Star Trek.
When they saturated an object with these chronitons, it would vanish for a period of time roughly proportional to its mass and then reappear in the exact same space. Sometimes the objects would be detectably hotter or colder, sometimes they’d be damaged, and on at least one occasion not even in one piece, but as far as the scientists could tell every atom they sent out came back, and never with any extraneous matter clinging along for the ride. The objects were clearly experiencing something during their missing time, but they couldn’t send a probe since the chronitons would scramble any electronics, no matter what they did to protect it.
It was decided they needed to send a human test subject to report back on what they encountered. I was chosen because I hit the exact sweet spot of having the necessary skills and temperament while also being sufficiently commonplace that should I never return, my commanders would write it off as acceptable losses.
I was assured that the chroniton radiation was non-ionizing and that the tests they had run on biological samples showed no immediate or short-term ill effects. As for long term effects, well, we’d just have to wait and see, wouldn’t we?
At this point, you may be asking yourself what I was getting paid to expose myself to unknown radiation and get blasted God knows how far into the future. The same Neil Armstrong got paid to go the Moon: bubkes. Absolutely nothing outside of my regular salary. I’m an Air Force officer, after all, and putting my life on the line for the good of my country is all part of the job. I should be honoured to have the privilege of being the first person sent into the future, they insisted. If the experiments were ever declassified, I’d be famous, immortalized even. And if I refused, I’d almost certainly be sent to a military prison for insubordination, so back to the future it was.
I stepped into the collider wearing a pressurized environmental hazard suit. This was necessary not only out of concern for travelling to an unknown environment, but also because the interior of the collider needed to be evacuated of air to function properly. The collider itself was a hundred-foot-wide tunnel that stretched on for miles, paneled with a shiny grey alloy that I had been told had to be invented just for the project. Every few hundred feet there was a glowing, humming ring of classified tech encircling the perimeter, all of them pulsing in perfect synchrony. There was no sound in the airless tunnel, of course, but I could feel their thrumming vibrations through my boots, and it was a sensation that I could only describe as humming.
The rings were all interconnected by four evenly spaced conduits that ran the entire length of the collider, each pulsing with an orbiting light which, in spite of the much greater distance, matched the RPM of the rings.
I took my place on the clearly marked platform and looked up the caged, flashing lights that counted down the initiation sequence, protected from the chronitons by a recess in the collider wall.
The near-total silence was unnerving. All I could hear was my own breathing. I didn't even have a radio in my suit since it would have just been scrapped by the chroniton wave. If there were any last-minute instructions, they would only be conveyed through the display in front of me.
As the countdown to full saturation ticked down, I started to see tiny golden lights forming in the space around me, whizzing around the collider at lightning speed. They were sparse at first, but after about a minute they became so thick I could barely see through the haze. They passed through me like I wasn’t even there, without producing any perceptible sensation as they did so.
I couldn’t see the countdown anymore, but when I felt my feet lift from the ground, I knew it was launch time. I slowly floated upwards for several seconds until I was in the dead middle of the collider, and hung there for several seconds more. I’m not going to lie, I was scared as hell, but I didn’t panic or try to fight it. What was happening was happening, and I was long past the point of being able to do a damn thing about it.
Without any sort of warning, I was catapulted forward at what felt like at least 5 Gs of force. The golden lights vanished, along with the collider, the facility, the ocean, and the Earth itself. I now passed through them as harmlessly as the chronitons had passed through me.
I shot upwards, the Earth beneath me seeming to spin at an impossible speed as I did so. The Sun also receded, at a pace too quickly for the theory of relativity to allow. I understood that I was not moving at superluminal speeds, but rather that my arrow of time had been accelerated, and what I took to be seconds were actually years, then centuries, then millennia, then aeons. Faster and faster I went, passing through star systems in a fraction of an instant, so quickly that I orbited the entire galaxy once every few seconds like I was caught on some kind of out-of-control galactic treadmill.
Jane, stop this crazy thing.
After God knows how long of that, time finally began to slow again, and I began to descend upon a black planet orbiting a white star. Somehow, intuitively, I understood that this was Earth. The Sun had expanded to a red giant, charring the Earth black as it did so, then shrunk to a white dwarf, left to slowly cool for the rest of its days. Modern science predicts that the expanding Sun will actually consume the Earth. Whether this prediction is false or if our space-faring descendants succeeded in widening the Earth's orbit, I don't know.
From the high vantage point of space, I had deemed this dark Earth long barren of any life, but upon ground fall I saw that I had erred in my judgement.
I landed upon the Earth on my feet as a cat would from a tree branch. My journey through time and space had done me no harm, and I was left to survey the ultimate fate of my homeworld.
What I saw were still dunes of blackened regolith. Long, long ago, the warming sun had evaporated the oceans and ruined the atmosphere for photosynthetic life. The forces of entropy and erosion had beaten down all mountains and manmade structures, grinding them to dust. I could not help but be reminded of the poem Ozymandias, seeing everything lost to the global desert.
The molten core had cooled, and the magnetosphere weakened, leaving a more powerful solar wind to irradiate the surface and gradually strip the atmosphere away. The red sun, though an infernal fury in its death throws, had long since diminished to the white dwarf that hung in the darkened sky now. Though what was left of the atmosphere would surely no longer be breathable to me were I to remove my helmet, the temperature was at least tolerable.
All reason told me that nothing could have survived such a cascade of apocalypses, and yet only a few hundred yards from where I stood there was a single tree. If I had to guess, I’d say it was nearly a thousand feet tall. Its bark was black, but not burnt. Its dark leaves were sparse, but present, and many moon-white blossoms bloomed upon its branches.
The tree cast a long shadow, like a sundial, and at its edge stood twelve evenly spaced humanoid statutes in a circle, alternatingly male and female. They were large, but not enormous, each being approximately twelve times my own height. Each had been hewn from a different colour of translucent crystal, exposing a luminescent network of veins and arteries lying within. Each statue held at least two orbs of light within themselves, one in their heads and one in their chests, while a lone statue made in the image of a pregnant woman held a third and much brighter orb in her massive belly.
I staggered towards the figures in awe, thinking that they were some sort of memorial left long ago by the last humans, something that could unironically bear the words ‘Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’. All of humanity’s final collective genius put into crafting everlasting monuments to our existence that would stand until the end of time, a single last act of defiance against the uncaring and undying void. That even when the Earth had laid fallow for many times the length it ever bore life and all was reduced to ash, this one single testament not only to our existence but our exceptionality remained standing at the end of all things.
I stopped when I was in reach of one of the statues, gazing up at it in wonder and reverence. I noted that what I thought had merely been an aura of light around it was in fact composed of some vaporous substance that actively recoiled from my presence. In an act that seemed blasphemously daring to me, I tentatively stretched out my gloved hand and placed it upon the crystal surface. At the moment of contact, I felt a strange sensation flow through my body. It was neither pleasant nor painful, neither subtle or overwhelming, simply strange, and unlike any sensation I had felt before or since with nothing I can compare it to.
It was then that the statue turned its head to look down at me.
Dumbfounded, I looked at the other eleven figures and saw that each was now staring directly at me, when before they had all been looking up at the great tree.
I was hit with a sudden revelation then. This was not a monument left by the last Men; these were the last Men, the last Men standing vigil around the last Tree.
They spoke to me then with some form of telepathy, not with words but with concepts, the language of thought that my mind processed in words and imagery and feelings. I perceived that they were the last of our post-human descendants, their bodies made of materials utterly alien to the natural universe, of which even our greatest intellects have yet to hypothesize about. Each of them alone possessed knowledge which dwarfed that of our entire civilization, cognitive capacities beyond our own not only in degree but in kind, and a god-like control over the forces of nature. In fairer days many thousands of such entities had once walked the Earth, alongside a diverse array of both traditionally human & radically posthuman races, and millions more dwelt amongst the stars. But over the vast stretches of cosmic time, even their race had dwindled. Some had perished in astronomically rare and powerful cataclysms, or in combat with other Titans. Most though had transcended to even great forms than the ones that stood before me, and left our reality behind as a hermit crab might discard a shell it had outgrown.
Now, just the twelve before me were all that remained of their kind.
They were not a random assembly of survivors, however, but each an archetypical embodiment of human character. Looking from one to another, I understood the nature of each: There was The Humble Commoner, The Innocent Maiden, The Mischievous Trickster, The Wise Sage, The Bold Adventurer, The Skilled Huntress, The Defiant Rebel, The Passionate Artist, The Brave Hero, The Carnal Lover, The Powerful King, and The Caring Mother.
Each held within themselves that which mattered most to them, what they deemed best of humanity, what they had sworn to safeguard until the Universe itself was no more.
And that time was now upon us.
I saw then in their minds the nature of the apocalypse before us; The Big Rip. The Dark Energy of the universe having grown ever greater, greater even then gravity, until millions of years ago The Milky Way and every other galaxy in Creation had come undone, the stars shooting off from their orbits and into the intergalactic void. Months ago, solar systems had suffered the same fate, planets breaking off from their parent stars, the Earth only remaining by the designs of the Titans before me.
Now, in the final moments, the Earth itself would fall apart, followed by exponentially smaller constituents of matter and then even spacetime itself in a Big Rip singularity. Even the Titans would succumb to this apocalypse, but even in the face of their demise, I sensed that they still held hope.
It was the Mother who was the source of this hope, for the glowing light gestating within her womb was not a Titan child, but a new Big Bang singularity. Its design was born from the minds of each of the Twelve Titans, its form forged from their own essences. If they were successful, this new singularity would survive the Big Rip and then explode into a new universe all its own, and they would be reborn as its gods.
It was then that the Earth beneath my feet began to shake, and I knew that it was time. The leaves and the flowers all fell from the tree, their wafting descent the final omen that life could not endure any longer, an omen the Mother defied as she went into labour. The Titans burst out into a hymn then, and in that moment their fate was the same as any other human, knowing they were to die with only faith that they would survive in some new form.
Just as I thought that I too might be destroyed in the Big Rip singularity, I started levitating again, and I knew that I was to return to my own time. Before I departed, however, the Trickster Titan plucked a single white blossom from the ground and placed it in my palm. Closing my fist around it, he winked, and I was off.
I flew upwards away from the Earth, and backwards from the Big Rip, repeating my trip around the galaxy in reverse until I returned to a blue and green Earth around a yellow Sun.
My return landing though was not nearly as smooth as my first. The instant my feet touched the platform, a shockwave cascaded through the collider, each ring violently exploding and showering the tunnel with shrapnel and strange plasma fires. The collider walls burst open and seawater came rushing in, sweeping me away and up towards the surface.
I let go of the flower during all of this, losing it to underwater eddies. I know the flower was the cause of the explosion. None of the other tests had ever brought anything back with them. The Trickster had used his power to give me an impossible gift, and the cost was the destruction of the entire facility.
I wasn’t the only survivor, fortunately, but the facility was destroyed beyond repair. When I was debriefed, I told them about the flower, about everything, but they didn't believe me. They took the absence of the flower as proof that the whole thing was a fever dream, that nothing I had experienced was real. I felt a bit like Cassandra then, having been gifted with a divine revelation that no one would believe. But on the bright side, it means they didn't fault me with the destruction of the facility.
I don’t know if they intend to rebuild the facility or not, but if they do, they’ll surely think long and hard before risking another human test subject. Billions of dollars for a weird drug trip is a bit pricey, after all.
After a battery of tests and a lengthy observation period, I was released and allowed to return to active duty, deemed to be none the worse for wear after my brief visit to the End of Time. I also, of course, had to sign a non-disclosure agreement swearing to never breathe a word about any of it to anyone. So, why am I telling you all of this now? Because the flower came back to me.
Last night, while I was on leave, I was taking a stroll by myself down the beach. My experience with the Titans still weighed heavily on my mind. I’m sure it always will. I was constantly reexamining everything I had witnessed, everything they had told me, forever uncertain if I was interpreting all of it correctly or if it had even really happened. I wondered if the Titans had been successful in creating a new universe, if they had been reborn to it, or if they had failed their greatest trial and were torn apart with everything else, leaving only true existential nothingness in their wake.
I was walking just close enough to the ocean for the waves to caress my feet when, right in front of me, an incoming wave deposited a flower glowing like moonlight.
In disbelief, I dropped to my knees and scooped it up in my hands, vigorously scrutinizing it lest I be deceived by wishful thinking and a mere coincidence. But there was no doubt in my mind that it was the same flower, the flower from the Last Tree the Trickster Titan had given me. A radiant, silvery-white lotus bloom, stamens of metallic hydrogen and speckles of starlight upon its flawless petals. It had returned to me. I know not why the Trickster gave it to me, but it appears it is not a gift that can be discarded so easily.
I had not given much thought to the Tree before then, to be honest. If anything, I had thought its survival a mere token act of conservationism by the Titans. But the gift of its flower and its impossible return indicated that it was more than this. Did the Tree serve some part of the Titans’ ultimate plans? Did taking the flower back to the present with me aid in their goals? Am I supposed to do something with it?
I can't know for certain, of course, but I think the answer to all of those is 'yes'. Beyond that, I have no idea. I wish that the Trickster had given me more than a wink in instructions. Maybe my mortal limitations are to be blamed for being so obtuse, but it seems if they were so smart, they could have found a way to make their intentions clear to me. As much as I would like to believe I am the chosen one, meant to enact the will of the gods to ensure the salvation of all reality, there is one doubt that lingers in my mind; why was it the Trickster Titan who gave me the flower? If it had been their collective will that I take the flower back to my own time, then nearly any one of them other than the Trickster would have been a more suitable gift bearer, save maybe for the Rebel. Was it simply that he was nearest to me at the moment, or is it not more likely that he was playing a trick on me or his fellows by giving me the flower? Or is it merely that my mission requires some uncertainty, some doubt, some lack of any clear directive to succeed?
Over and over again I've been asking myself why it was the Trickster who gave me the flower. The only answer the comes to me is a quote from the author Neil Gaiman.
“Of course it was Loki. It’s always Loki.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell