Author’s Notes: This is something a little different for me. I’ve wanted to try to write more short stories, so I’m giving myself a challenge to write one short story a week. This is a weird one, and came from a weird idea I had. I wanted to keep it under 2500 words, so I felt a bit rushed. I’ll get over that as I improve, and hopefully these will get better. Either way, I hope you enjoy my first Short Story in this very random series.
The only way to explain the experience of deep space hibernation was to imagine hitting the snooze button on one’s alarm over and over, except instead of buying oneself a few more minutes, one was buying a few more centuries to fade back into the virtual dream they had lived within for so long. Of course, that was the original technology. A person would be put in hibernation, with micro-adjustments allowing them to experience a virtual world in lieu of dreaming. Over the years, the mind was allowed a few scant thoughts. To the person in hibernation, it was a short dreaming sensation, a fun diversion to pass the time. It was impossible to realize that the service was designed to reboot the brain over and over, moments before it faded away entirely.
The body was placed in a sort of coma for as long as possible. The thoughts were given as brain activity drifted dangerously low, and for short moments one was woken up before the body faded – but never brought from the hibernation fully. To the passenger, it was a short nap, but great distances and times had passed. It was the only way to exist in the great vast distances between stars. Connected pods would allow one to have some socialization.
This had not been one of those trips. A lonely night on the edge of a hill watching the stars was the entirety of the virtual experience, interspersed with strange drifting off only to confuse the dream and real life for a moment as the body rebooted. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it also wasn’t designed to be pleasant. It was solemn. It was a view that wouldn’t be seen again.
One dream, a word appeared in the sky. It was a simple digital text that read nonsense. The program had lasted as long as it could. As the garbled words spread across the skyscape, the vision faded to darkness. There was an instinctive deep breath sometime later, and opening of eyes and the slow realization that the dream was over. The real world was all that remained. The voyage, as it was, had come to its end. Waking was always the hard part. Drowsy, heavy eyes begged to stay asleep. Limbs struggled to move. But after a time, after a few long moments, there was movement. There was breath.
The Dreamer woke to the world of their starship. It was a cold place, both figuratively and literally. The temperature was well below comfortable, only enough to keep the life that it held from freezing. The lights were dim, barely illuminating the plain metal bulkheads and accessories of the room. Wires and straps held the dreamer to a bed, where their body had lain for the duration of travel. As they woke, they slowly removed the straps and tubes one by one, and eventually sat up. It was strange to see their body again.
They were younger than they felt, aging slowed by the unnatural coma that guided them safely here. In the dream, the Dreamer had aged as they would have expected. Their body grew and grayed on that hill under the stars, but here, they had remained frozen at the moment they had gone to sleep – give or take a few years from the short restarts. After a few short, unbalanced breaths, they turned to twist. Their hips wobbled on the bed, their hands catching the edge and keeping them from falling but only just. Their legs swung weakly off the side, and with a small push, they tried to lift off.
In a low gravity situation, this was easy. It was lucky, though. The strength in their legs likely wouldn’t have held up their form. They had one goal for now. Every long sleep required a wake-up period. Though they didn’t know how long they had laid there struggling to wake from the dream, they knew what to do after.
On a counter near the bed where they had slept was a small box. It was not labeled and showed no signs of movement for a long time. There in the room, it had been kept in the same brutal stasis they had been. They opened the box and glanced across the items with a small sigh. It was a series of small tubes and a small syringe to use them. This was the cocktail that would eventually bring them back to the land of the living. The feeling of the vials in their hands, the needle against their skin, the slow sting of something entering their body, all were part of sensation that had been left behind so long ago. Now, suddenly it was back. Their body responded slowly. There was a bit of warmth, a bit of energy, an illusion of health returning. It would be a long time before that strength returned.
Then, they reached out to the counter. They pulled themselves along the counter, floating through the small room towards a sealed door. The console at its side lit up as they approached. The dim blue light was almost brighter than any of the others that had been illuminating the place before. It made a weak chime and with a resounding hiss, the door cracked open. The atmosphere spilled out of the small room and into the others within the ship beyond that door. A loud, droning hum vibrated along the bulkhead walls as the ship lumbered back to life. Faded lights flickered a bit brighter, and for a moment. They were waking up.
They reached out and grabbed one of the many small handholds near the now opened door. This was no massive ship; it seemed to be little more than these two rooms, at least that was accessible. The room they pulled themselves into was the control room, with powered down control panels lining each side, and most importantly the large transparent viewport that looked out into the space around them. In all their years, all their experiences, they had never experienced a view like this, though.
There was nothing. No stars lit the sky beyond. There was no glowing dust lit by dim stars in a distant sky. For the first time, they felt a strange sensation. It was a growing excitement. For a second, the realization that there had been a success with the plan was there. They had made it.
But the realization of success was followed by a growing dread. There was a small red light on the cockpit controls. Their fingers ran across the light, and the machine chimed at the touch. The sound was calm, uncaring. It made the light chime and blink, checking for signals beyond the small room they inhabited.
The waiting for a return signal and despite every technological advance they had, could take some time. For days, they hovered around the room, waiting for a response, hoping for a response. There was nothing to do but wait. There was no science to be done, no tests to be run. The outside, everything beyond the ship was gone. There was hope that they were not the only ones to reach the End.
Time had lost much of its meaning. The grim realization set in that they might have been alone. There was no response. No signal from the others driven to explore this far. There was no sign of life or much of energy out beyond this place. They had reached the end, and for a moment, recorded what had happened.
As time wore on, there were creaks and sounds within the ship. The ancient creation had been running out of time for many thousands of years. Now, beyond the edge of eternity, it felt that the final stage of existence. Even the forces of nature which held it together had begun to decay. They too weakened, the energy of life slowly fading from existence with them. One by one, the systems of the ship shut down. They always strove to keep that single red light on the console powered, a signal beaming out to the world around them that there was still life. There was always hope that someone out there faired better, that they would know others survived and be able to learn from them.
The truth, they had long ago realized, was that they were the last.
When that light in the ship faded away, and the console grew dim, they knew it was over. With a silent resolve, their eyes closed, and they waited to fade away with the rest of the universe.
Then for a time, there was only silence. They let themselves drift away.
Until there was a voice.
“Hello?” The voice was familiar but foreign. They could not place it. Perhaps it was a memory or an amalgam of them. Or so they thought – until it continued. “I let myself in, I hope you don’t mind. Oh,” The voice was paired with a tap on the bulkhead nearby, “Dozing off. Did I get here too late?”
Their eyes drifted open. They were heavy, barely able to move. Seeing the source of the voice would be impossible. There was no light. Though, when they opened their eyes, there it stood holding a flickering light.
The source was an old man. He wore a warm smile, with cheeks rosy from the cold of the ship as its power failed. He had a long, white beard and a head full of white hair. His face was plump, with the rest of his body large. There was nothing about him that looked as if he should have been there. He didn’t wear a spacesuit, instead wearing an old-fashioned fur-lined jacket over stereotypical winter clothes. He leaned against the bulkhead, with his free hand holding an old gas lantern that bathed him in dull light. They could see his breath.
“Not a talkative one, I see,” The man laughed and leaned down. “Mind if I sit with you?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, he sat down next to them, leaning against the bulkhead. They could hear the lantern as it was placed on the deck plating. They heard the man sigh and felt him turn towards them.
They hadn’t spoken in so long, and they struggled to do so. Their voice was weak, barely above a whisper. “You aren’t real…”
“That’s an odd thing to say,” He responded.
“It is impossible for you to be here…”
“I could say the same to you,” The man responded. “You sought and found the end of time, in a machine designed to reconstitute itself over and over, with little more than debris caught falling into the last black holes, and the hawking radiation from their deaths…” He laughed a bit, “It seems we’re both impossible.”
They didn’t say anything for a moment. That was impossible for him to have known, and with no entrance or exit to this craft, it was impossible for him to have entered. Yet, they indulged their delusions, “You’re a figment of my imagination.”
“I hope a comforting one, at least.” The man said as he rested a hand on their shoulder. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t respond. There was no reason to do so. After a few moments of silence, the man opted to continue. “Well, either way… I was surprised to see you made it this far. There shouldn’t have been anything left, but here you were. Your people were always explorers. That’s what I liked about them.”
“You liked that about them?”
“Yes. Think of it… from the moment they began, they sought to explore. First out of the ocean and onto land. Into the trees. Beyond their forests, and into the fields. Across their seas, beyond the livable places in the world. When they couldn’t explore their world, they explored themselves. Eventually, they explored their solar system, then beyond. Their galaxy. The next. They always sought the next exploration. And that drove them to keep exploring. Beyond everything. To the end of everything.”
They heard the voice and shook their head. “You say that like you knew them.”
“I did. Say you are right, and I am a figment of your imagination…” The man spoke. His hands rose and fell with his words, brushing and tapping against them as he looked out into the nothing. “Then, I – like you, I suppose – am of them. I have the memory of everything that came before for your people. I know them because I was born from them. From their explorations, their explorer.”
“Why are you here?” They asked, changing the subject away from the bigger picture.
“I saw there was still a spark where their shouldn’t have been, so I came to investigate.”
The man nodded, and a smile crept across his face. “Yes. I was shutting everything down. Turning off the last of the lights on this universe, and saw you.”
“You don’t believe me. That’s fine,” He said with a smirk, “I could be the last neurons in your mind firing as you fade away.”
“That, I believe,” They said quietly.
“What did you hope to accomplish out here?” The man asked quietly.
They turned to face him and paused. Their eyes were weak, and their head shook lightly. “We didn’t know… what happened next. Someone needed to see it.” They put a hand on the bulkhead and tried to push themselves up a bit, but there was no movement. “Someone needed to see what happened.”
“Just…” They paused. The question lingered unanswered in the air. There was no real answer to it, not that they could find at first. Then, it came to them. “Just in case we were wrong…”
The old man smiled. They had never seen such a wide smile. “That’s the perfect answer. And, it sums up why I do it too…” He patted them on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you be for now. You might want to wake up, just for a minute, though. Or you’ll miss the end.”
They no longer felt him there. After a single blink, there was only darkness and silence again. They were alone at the end of time. There was no light, no lantern, no old man. But their view was drawn to the outside world, or where that should have been. They watched for some time but felt themselves struggling to stay awake.
Then, they saw it. They saw the end. It was a single moment that made a warm smile cross their lips, and as that smile crested their eyes closed.
And the world ended.