What you get here is the entire history of the universe, an explanation for the Fermi paradox, and a debate about the purpose of life. Say what you like about my stories, they deal with the big questions.
You also get isolation of the most extreme kind.
This story comes from my Spring Tide collection (which I’d very much like more people to read). Most of the stories in the book are more-or-less realist stories with contemporary settings, and none is science fiction – but ‘The End of the Time’ is the one that comes closest.
The End of Time
Eli waited. Behind and above him was complete darkness. In front of him was an empty arena. His fellow archangels around its perimeter were shadowy forms in the dimness, waiting silently, just as he was doing himself, for the performance to begin.
A single tall figure stepped forward into the middle. From the pitch darkness beyond the arena, a great sigh arose from countless unseen watchers, spreading outwards and upwards like a tide. For this new presence was no mere archangel, this was the Clockmaker himself. He stood out there for a moment, while silence fell once more, and then he raised his hand. Pouf! –a tiny, brilliant point of light appeared, suspended above them all.
Again that great sigh came from the darkness on every side and, in the intense brightness of that tiny light, Eli glimpsed for a moment the cherubim and seraphim out there, the dominions and thrones. Tier after tier, this whole vast angelic host had been waiting for all eternity to admire the Clockmaker’s work.
The point of light expanded rapidly, diminishing in brightness as it did so, until almost the whole arena was filled by a huge dim sphere, leaving just sufficient space round the edge for the archangels to keep their vigil. It was time for Eli and his companions to get to work, and they set to it at once, each one leaning forward to peer intently into the depths of the sphere.
Straight away, Eli saw lights in there. In fact he saw great skeins of light, strewn through the void, each one made up of millions of tiny disc-shaped clumps of glowing matter that span around like wheels. And when Eli examined the wheels closely, he found that they too were made of smaller parts. In fact they turned out to be tenuous structures of the most extraordinary delicacy, consisting almost entirely of empty space. These wheel-shapes were not solid clumps as they had at first appeared, but were so full of emptiness as to be almost imaginary: wheels sketched out in the darkness by billions of separate specks of light, each one following its own allotted path. And Eli saw that, as these little specks travelled round and round the centre of each wheel, waves of pressure passed through them, so that the specks clumped closer together when the wave reached them, and moved apart again as it passed by, creating graceful spiral bands of brightness, that themselves moved round the wheel. Each tiny wheel was really two wheels revolving at different speeds: a wheel of specks, and a wheel of waves that moved through the specks!
Laughing with delight, Eli turned from the spectacle to point it out to the hidden watchers who were seated, row after row, on the dark tiers behind him: “Observe!” he cried. “The same matter forms two separate wheels simultaneously!”
A sigh of appreciation rose up among the cherubim and seraphim, the thrones and dominions. But, even before the sigh had faded, another archangel on the far side of the arena was calling out just as excitedly as Eli had done: “Look! Even the smallest of these lights has tiny spheres revolving round it!”
Again the sigh in the darkness.
“Notice how they also spin on their own axes!” called a third archangel.
“And see how the whole spreads outwards!” called a forth. “The arena you’re sitting in is itself expanding at great speed, just so as to be able to contain it.”
The Clockmaker had created Time, no less, and here in front of them, wheel within wheel, was the Great Clock that gave it form.
Sigh after sigh rolled outwards and upwards in the darkness.
* * *
Gradually the initial excitement subsided. The archangels called out only rarely now, and those great sighs, rising in one part or another of the vast and unseen auditorium, happened less and less frequently. So rare had they become, in fact, that many aeons had passed in complete silence when the archangel Gabriel suddenly spoke.
He had been giving his attention to the smallest elements of the Clock, and had focused his vision to such an extent that he could see not only the tiny motes of stone that revolved round each star, but the surfaces of those stones, and the objects that lay on those surfaces, and even the miniscule particles, wheels themselves, of which those tiny objects were made. And it was here, on the surface of one of these stones, that he had made an observation.
“Observe, Clockmaker!” he said with a bow. “A new clock has appeared within your own!”
The Clockmaker had been busy elsewhere, but, hearing this news, he looked across at once, his huge blazing eyes piercing through all the intervening nebulae and galactic clusters, to home in on the stone which Gabriel was pointing to. Eli looked too, of course, and saw a rocky shell, still molten on the inside, of a kind so common throughout the Clock, that they could be found spinning around almost every star. Minor irregularities pocked its surface. There were little bumps and hollows, and, as sometimes occurred on these half-cooled stones, liquid water had gathered in the hollows. But Gabriel was looking into that liquid, pointing at objects so minute that they were as small in relation to the half-cooled stone as the stone itself was small in relation to the galaxy that contained it. These new, tiny objects took the form of little spheres, moving this way and that through the water.
Now of course stars, stones, water and specks of dust were all parts of the Great Clock, and, a clock being an assemblage of moving parts, they were meant to move in relation to one another. But the Clockmaker could see at once that what Gabriel had found was a new kind of movement, and so could Eli, and the other archangels, and the hidden host. These microscopic spheres weren’t simply being pushed and pulled by the forces around them. They weren’t just being tugged downwards by gravity, or lifted by buoyancy, or tossed about by the convection currents that kept the water constantly turning over. No, the motion of these little spheres was something else entirely, for it was driven from within themselves. Chemical processes unfolding inside them provided energy to thousands of tiny fibres on their outer surfaces, and these fibres were beating together in rhythmic waves that sent the little spheres rolling and tumbling through the water in directions that couldn’t be explained by gravity, buoyancy or currents.
Along with all the other archangels, Eli could see at once that Gabriel had spoken the truth: each of these little spheres was indeed another clock in its own right. But what particularly fascinated Eli was the way that these tiny structures perpetuated themselves. They weren’t bodies of matter in the way that a star or a planet or a stone was a body of matter. Rather they were patterns that passed through matter, just as those spiral pressure waves he himself had spotted had passed through the drifts of stars, or ripples passed through water, or sounds passed through the air. In every single moment, each of those tiny spheres was simultaneously taking in new matter from its surroundings, and expelling matter from within itself. In a very short time, each one had completely replaced the building blocks of which it was made. And yet, like a spiral arm, it still retained the same essential form.
And what a form! There was silence in the arena and in the darkness beyond, as the archangels glanced uneasily at one another. They all knew that the Clockmaker hadn’t built these tiny structures, that they had arisen on their own, a purely accidental by-product of the forces that the Clockmaker had set in motion, much as the complicated eddies and cross-currents of a mountain stream are a by-product of its headlong rush downhill. And yet, accidental or not, there was an obvious fact in front of them which they all could see but none of them dared name out loud: every one of these little rolling spheres was at least as complex and as perfect as the Great Clock in its entirety. What would their master think about that?
The Clockmaker frowned. He was omniscient, of course, so he was far ahead of all the rest of them, and he’d seen at first glance what his angels and archangels had only gradually grasped. He’d seen, in fact, that each of those little rolling spheres wasn’t simply as intricate as his own Clock, but far far more so. Indeed, considered in terms of complexity, his Clock was as tiny in relation to these little spheres, as they were to it in terms of size. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Clockmaker had noticed something else that none of the archangels had yet spotted: these things were changing over time. At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of them were splitting themselves in two, and the smaller spheres resulting from the division wouldthen immediately begin to take in matter from the rich solution around them, growing quickly to full size again, and then themselves dividing. Of course small errors occurred at each new division. These were usually negligible in their effects, but occasionally they resulted in clocks that were too badly flawed to be able to maintain their separateness from the surrounding matter, so that they simply broke down and disappeared. What the Clockmaker had noticed, though, was that, in an absolutely tiny proportion of cases, the new clocks actually proved to be superior than their precursors, in the sense that they were more able to maintain their own integrity against the forces of entropy. And therefore, because the types of clock that were most successful at retaining their separateness were the ones that increased in numbers, the design of these little clocks in general (if the word “design” could be used in such a context) was constantly increasing in sophistication.
With his divine foresight, which was really a capacity to see not just in three dimensions but in four, five and even six, the Clockmaker looked ahead through time with his great fiery eyes. He observed the trajectory of development of these tiny intricate clocks, and saw them diversifying and spreading, like a kind of restless rust that would form itself again and again from the simple minerals of which a planet was made, until that planet’s entire surface was coved with a multiplicity of wriggling, bulging, blooming forms, climbing over one another, consuming one another, driving one another to yet higher levels of complexity. Ultimately, he saw, this would affect the workings of the Great Clock itself in small but subtle ways —it would change the albedo of planetary surfaces, for instance— and in so doing, minutely alter the workings of the entire design.
“Wipe it clean!” he commanded.
Gabriel, that great archangel, bowed his head in submission, and reached with his hand into the great sphere of the Clock until he was almost touching that little, spinning, half-cooled rock. He frowned with concentration for a moment as cleansing rays came pouring out from his fingertips, scorching the surface of the little stone, annihilating the tiny spheres and all their kin, and breaking down all but the most rudimentary of chemical bonds, so that the stone was returned in a matter of moments to its previous state as a simple mechanical component of the Clock.
A sigh rose and spread, outwards and upwards, through the multitude in the darkness beyond the arena. And Eli watched in silence from his own quiet corner.
“Listen! All of you!” the Clockmaker boomed out to his archangels. “Note carefully what Gabriel has just done and do exactly the same! That is a command, to be followed without exception. You must watch your sectors minutely for any unscheduled developments of that kind, and, as soon as you find them, they must be wiped away at once. Nothing must be allowed to tarnish my Clock’s perfection, or to disturb the smooth, clean flow of Time.”
So from then on, each archangel carefully audited every one of the billions of planet within his area of control for the first signs of that strange new restless rust. And from time to time, only occasionally at first, but gradually more frequently, one or other of them would suddenly reach into the Clock and blast clean the surface of some small stone that had showed signs of developing patterns on its surface that might possibly be able to replicate themselves.
Each time, the invisible host would sigh.
* * *
Like all the others, Eli watched his own little section of the Clock –his own galaxies, his own stars, his own planets– and for a long time, he did just as Gabriel had done and the other archangels were doing. Again and again, he reached in to wipe away imperfection with blasts of purifying energy.
He had done this many thousands of times, when he spotted yet another stone on which a film of organic matter was starting to grow. Following his now familiar routine, he extended his hand into the Clock in a business-like fashion and was about to let loose the cleansing rays when, for some reason, he hesitated. All the other archangels round him were still blasting away –there was Raphael for instance, over to his left, shooting out deadly rays right at that very moment– but Eli found, to his own surprise, that this time he simply couldn’t bring himself to do it. In fact, far from reaching in to destroy this new collection of little self-replicating clocks, he found himself shielding them so they couldn’t be seen by anyone other than himself. And, having done that, he amazed himself further by abandoning his vigil over the millions of other planets in his sector and instead settling down to watch the tiny clocks he’d saved as they very slowly grew and changed.
Time went by. That little stone wheeled around its star many hundreds of millions of times while Eli watched the little clocks on its surface. And he became so rapt, so enchanted, so focussed on this one single stone, that he didn’t even notice the huge fiery eyes of the Clockmaker turning in his direction, homing in on him through all the spinning wheels of the Clock, and recognising at once what he what he was doing.
“Eli my son,” the Clockmaker boomed. “You have disobeyed me.”
Eli started, rigid with terror, while gasps of shock echoed and re-echoed through the vast auditorium around them.
“I have disobeyed you, Father,” Eli acknowledged. He fell to his knees as the Clockmaker came striding through his own creation to stand towering above his disobedient servant. “And now, I know, it’s for you to decide what you wish to do with me.”
The Clockmaker shrugged. “Just wipe it clean, Eli,” he said, with the merest of glances at the tiny world Eli had been watching for all those millions of years. “Wipe it clean, and, just this once, we’ll say no more about it.”
It was not so much a sigh this time as a gasp that arose around them in the darkness. Eli had been extraordinarily lucky –archangels had been exiled or annihilated for much smaller acts of disobedience– but, instead of gratefully accepting the lifeline, he stubbornly stood his ground.
“I won’t, Father,” he said. “I want to leave it alone, and see how it develops.”
Once again, like the sound of some great unseen ocean moving restlessly in its bowl, a sigh rippled back and up through the auditorium, to be followed by a deep expectant silence, as if the entire host was holding its breath.
Surprised by his servant’s intransigence, the Clockmaker looked back with slightly more interest at the growth on the surface of the little planet. Why did this matter so much to Eli, he was asking himself? With his omniscience and foreknowledge, he could of course see not only how Eli’s little clocks were functioning in the present, but how they would develop between now and the end of time if allowed to continue on their present trajectory. In this particular case, the effect on the Clock would be negligible, for it so happened that this small planet, and its star, and even the galaxy of which they formed a part, were relatively peripheral parts of the grand design.
“Master,” Eli persisted, “those tiny beings there, those little clocks, have developed in a strange new way that goes far beyond anything we’ve seen before. They’ve become a different thing entirely from those spheres that Gabriel found. In fact, some of them have become almost as we are. For they see, Father, they know they exist, and they are aware of the Clock moving around them as something separate to themselves. They’ve even begun to wonder what the Great Clock is, and who made it, and what purpose it serves.”
He didn’t really speak in words of course, and nor did the Clockmaker when he answered, for words would have been utterly inadequate to the speed and power of their thought. Rather, in each instant, the two of them laid out whole philosophies, entire sequences of thought, complete with every possible ramification, permutation and implication. It was as if, in each exchange, an entire new science was invented, developed and brought to completion. So it always was between the Clockmaker and his archangels.
Again the Clockmaker shrugged as he half-watched the countless varieties of tiny clock on the surface of that little stone, his interest already fading.
“They are like us in some respects,” he conceded. “But look how they must suffer to be so.”
Suffering was of course outside Eli’s experience, and the Clockmaker’s too, but the Clockmaker spoke of it by way of practical demonstration. He showed Eli the nature of pain, fear, grief, and horror, first of all as these things appeared from outside, and then as they felt like from within, laying out millions of beautifully categorised examples, and demonstrating with irrefutable logic that these various unpleasantnesses were the inevitable lot of these tiny beings.
“These entities only exist at all because of suffering.” That, very roughly speaking, was the gist of the Clockmaker’s argument. “They only continue to exist because their mechanisms drive them to constantly struggle against annihilation. They are like teetering towers. If they are not just to crumble and melt back into the world, everything that threatens that precarious balance must be the cause of fear, pain and revulsion, while everything likely to maintain and perpetuate it must be source of craving, the cause of constant striving and desperate struggle. There can never be rest for them, for as soon they rest they will topple, and disintegrate, and cease to exist.”
Among many billions of other examples, the Clockmaker showed Eli a man trapped inside a sinking ship, trying to suck air from the tiny and dwindling pocket that still remained, and a woman surrounded by a forest fire, who was vainly trying to shield her children from the blaze with her own blistering flesh. All that was really going to happen to the woman and her children was that their bodies would oxidise, and then quickly return to the peaceful simplicity of the untarnished Clock. All that would happen to the drowning man was that his own personal clock would stop. Yet still they struggled desperately, even when all hope had gone of retaining their separateness.
“Don’t you pity them, Eli?” the Clockmaker asked. “Don’t you pity these strange accidental beings, which are neither one thing or another? They are like us in a way –you’re right– they are like angels, and that is indeed a strange thing. But can’t you see they’re angels made of mud, who must constantly worry about rain, and fret about heat, if they are to remain in existence at all? Surely it would better to take away from them this cruel desperate battle that they are compelled to fight, and which in the end they’ll always lose? Surely it would be kinder to let them crumble quietly back down into the simple, untroubled matter from which they come?”
“But these exist also!” protested Eli, proceeding to lay out millions of examples, just as the Clockmaker had done, but this time of happiness, pleasure, love, beauty and delight, all of which, like suffering, had hitherto been quite unknown to the Clockmaker and his angels.
If pain was real, then so were they: that was Eli’s argument. But the Clockmaker just laughed.
“Alright, Eli, my stubborn son, I will give you a choice. You can destroy these little beings and come back to obedience, or you can let them survive. But if you decide to let them carry on, you yourself will have to live out, one by one, every single life that has ever existed on this stone, and exists now, and will exist in the future. Do you understand me? You must sit behind every single pair of eyes from the moment those eyes open to the moment they finally close. And then straight onto the next pair, and the next, and the next, billions and billions of times over, from now until the moment that the last eyes close.”
As the Clockmaker spoke, his own fiery eyes were drilling deep into Eli’s mind. “So come on now, Eli. Make your choice. Let’s see if you really mean what you say about their lives being worth living.”
Eli looked up fearfully into the Clockmaker’s terrifying gaze and saw the pure and absolute justice of what he’d said. If it was indeed true, as Eli had claimed, that these beings’ existence was worth more than nothing, then how could he object to living behind their eyes?
As he tried to decide whether or not he’d really meant what he said, he turned his attention back to that little stone of his and considered once more the tiny beings who lived there. There was no doubt about it: the Clockmaker was right about suffering. These odd, accidental little beings did indeed experience terrible suffering, and it was indeed integral to their nature, essential to their continued existence. Could he really bring himself to live through it, again and again and again, until the last spark of life had finally flickered out?
Eli thought about it for a short while –the stone went round its star barely a hundred times–and then he made a decision.
“I submit to your judgement, Clockmaker. I’ll let them live and I’ll pay the price for it.”
The Clockmaker nodded, grudgingly impressed, and then, all at once, he dissolved Eli’s angelic body, plucked out the tiny widthless point that contained his spirit, and readied himself to fling it down to the surface of that tiny stone.
“Very well then, Eli,” he boomed. “You’ve made your choice. Come and look for me at the end of time.”
* * *
So Eli lived, one after the other, the lives of every sentient being born on the planet Earth. He was every human being and every animal. He was every tyrant and every slave. He was all the women who died in childbirth, and all who lived and gave birth. He was every torturer and everyone who was ever tortured. He was every beggar and every passer-by, every cat and every mouse, every hawk and every sparrow. He looked out at the world through the multiple eyes of each tiny spider. He experienced the abyssal depths though the senses of each blind creature that wriggled or crawled there. He was every single living thing, however humble, that had some sense of its own existence, however slight that might be. And everything that any one of them experienced, he experienced himself, from the sweetest pleasure to the most excruciating pain.
After each life came to an end, he woke to himself again for a moment, saw the life he’d just lived laid out behind him, and saw the ways in which he might have lived it better. But then the moment of clarity was over, and he was back at the beginning of another life, his entire existence confined once more to a tiny memory-less bundle of flesh which must learn everything from scratch all over again. Occasionally, in certain human bodies, some vague sense of his situation would come to him, and he’d try and communicate it to his fellow-beings. (And they, not remembering who they were, would almost always dismiss it, often angrily, and sometimes with murderous rage). Most of the time, though, he had no inkling at all.
And so he went on. Even when all the humans had died out, he wasn’t even half-way to the end of it. Millions of years passed by when he went through cockroaches, one after another, each in its dim and solitary world, with craving, pain and pleasure switching on and off in its brain like coloured lights, and no thoughts at all.
At last, though, at the end of time, when the Clock finally stopped moving, and all its components had become cold and dark and inert, Eli returned to the place where the Clock was made. He was himself again, he was Eli the archangel, but he was immensely old. In fact he was billions of times older than the Clock itself, for he’d had to live out every second over and over again, until he’d seen every single moment through the eyes of every being that had been present in it.
As he came to the place where the arena had stood, he remembered the life he’d led before his fall to Earth. He remembered what it was to be an archangel. He remembered the great fiery eyes of the Clockmaker. He remembered the sense of expectation in the darkness beyond the arena, the sighing that rose upward and outwards through that cavernous space that contained the unseen host.
* * *
But there was no sighing now, no expectation. No one spoke or moved. There wasn’t even a lonely wind such as might blow through a desolate place on Earth, making things rattle and clank.
“Clockmaker!” he called out. “It’s me, Eli. I did what you asked me to do, and I’ve returned!”
But there was no one there. There was nothing in existence but Eli himself.
Copyright 2018, Chris Beckett