We were ten trillion strong, and the earth groaned audibly under the strain.
We had no hope. We inherited none. We subsisted on any and all scraps we could find, made palatable by sheer desperation. Our breaths were strictly rationed and regimented. We were kept unconscious as often as possible. Privacy, comfort and self-determination were unknown to us. Centuries of broken promises reduced our governments to finger-pointing bloviators.
The last vestige of wisdom was a small, unlucky troupe of theoreticians, scrambling to find a solution we didn't think existed. They mined every vein of promise beneath the mountains of Reason. Countless new fields of study were unearthed, analyzed and rejected. Massive pressure and guilt mounted on those unhappy souls.
That, in the end, proved to be the turning point.
Facing the prospect of utter failure and disappointment, the theorists paused to quantify it. They devised a novel metric, which led to a chain of discoveries arriving at a surprising conclusion: that humanity, as a narrative, was governed by its hope and despair, and so was its fate.
Before, when we merely numbered in the billions, the net impact of these forces on our universe were insignificant. However, in larger quantities they could be harnessed, their gravity made to distort our frame of reference.
Forgiveness was the key. We each bore a burning hatred, for each other and for ourselves; the blame for our predicament lay at our feet. We descended from generations of lazy parasites. But if we managed to accept one another, we were told, the hope we'd generate could reverse our trajectory and lead us someplace else. Our potential would increase, our probabilistic domain would expand, our suffering would cancel out, and with a little guidance, we'd be propelled away from certain doom.
We couldn't afford to sigh. It was worth a try.
It began with a simple reaching out; ten trillion humans can't all be unique, which meant for each of us, somewhere there were millions of completely like-minded people we belonged to. Alone we were virtually hopeless; unified into self-nations, the laws of chance guaranteed positive things really would manifest, and then empathy took care of the rest. In abstract, we probably began to thrive. Torment's abrasive sediment, deposited over ages, started eroding away, undoing our undoing, and our potential steadily rose. Slowly and methodically, through abstraction and absolution, old wounds were unwound, our world salvaged from our savagery, that heavy, heavy weight converted into an impossibly bright reservoir of hope.
Until one day we turned to look back and saw an Earth untouched, untroubled by the likes of us, because we were no longer ever there.
For sure, we definitely existed at some point, probably. But this new science, this road we followed to liberation, was now also an axis we could tread— a frontier, if you will. There, right before us, at the dawn of the Anthropocene, lay every possible outcome the world has ever had! A trillion trillion trillion futures, more than enough for each of us, and an eternity with which to explore them!
And so reformed, re-formed, we set out to find those things humans always look for, whenever our other, more basal needs are all squared away: purpose, essence, substance. The profound in all forms, even the profoundly stupid. Those rare, confounding instances where Truth shines unabashedly like a diamond in the rough, and we know we are lucky just to witness it.
“This doesn't look very promising,” thought Kedge, as they doomscrolled the timeline.
No one in the business could sink as well as Kedge— an expert diver, with a honed intuition for finding rare meaning in the murkiest eras, their consistent success rate won them some of the most audacious treasure hunting contracts to date. With this job, though, they began to wonder if they were finally out of their depth.
Out the portholes of the DFV Challenger swirled the bleak backdrop of the far future. All too familiar for Kedge— the Milky Way's slow motion collision with Andromeda had a globally depressing effect on humanity, recognizable to most deep time explorers. There'd be more mope than hope from here on down. But for the following three billion years, the story they traced of humans through the scrambled galaxy comprised tableaus of calm heroism and determination. These were interstellar adventurers, up for a challenge. Kedge could relate to them easily. But slowly they were settling back into some of the common routines, like prejudice and greed.
It didn't bode well, for them or for Kedge. A pathosphere like the Challenger operates by modulating the sympathy of its pilot. To follow a timeline down into the future, Kedge had to relate to its human residents, placing hope in them and reducing ballast. If they met their end, Kedge could “apathize“, or divest their hope, then plot a course for a different timeline and rise again into the past. It took ages of practice for Kedge to master, bequeathing hope and snatching it away, without compromising the fragile objectivity of their sensory equipment.
Time sped along, and the fire of humanity sputtered and dimmed. Roiling genocides scalded the surface of a hundred worlds; stricken with grief and afraid to dream, the survivors forgot the key to unlock the stars, and so planet-bound, industrial pollution choked them out one by one. One last glimmering droplet of people, riding a dinky crowdfunded generation ship, exhausted their fuel and careened into Sagittarius A*. According to Kedge's readings, the loads of radioactive hydrocarbon slag they all left behind fizzled into nondescript interstellar dust over the next quintillion years without accepting the mantle of sentience.
What, if anything, was the moral of this? Dick around and you die.
Unsympathetic, Kedge climbed the narrative up into the past. Colossal failure like this was an inescapable part of human existence. Fortunately, the mission didn't require all of humanity to persevere, just a single promising offshoot. Species-wide extinction was commonly driven by a programmed biological maladaptation or a cursed memetic undercurrent. Fortunately, both these phenomena were highly sensitive to their initial conditions.
Unwinding the doomed worlds into the weak galactic confederacy they once were, Kedge spotted the fundamental agent of their demise: a strain of xenophobia bolstered by a state religion. This stuff was slow-acting poison, unleashed on future civilizations like a pathogen thawed out of glacial ice.
Gripping the controls, Kedge delicately maneuvered the Challenger around the strain's point of inception. Once sure they were free of it, they resumed course into the future, for maybe the hundredth time on this job alone. Humanity chugged steadily along the awkward coalescing ribs of Milkdromeda, and Kedge refilled their coffee.
The meeting was scheduled for the Battle of Phoebe Regio— an evocative venue meant for serious conversations. From the top of a mesa, Kedge and Opus looked on with a handful of others as treaded war machines fought to control the pitted wasteland below, under a torrential downpour of noxious hail. Harsh sunshine, filtered through the thick Venusian atmosphere, cast a sickly yellow light on the proceedings.
“Read any good books lately?” Opus asked.
Kedge kicked at the rocky ground restlessly. “Nah. Really, who has the time?”
“Ha, you're more playful than usual.”
Whenever two ghosts meet, it's for the first time. Classical humans grow and change over the course of their lives, but a probabilistic human is an expression of possible variations on a theme, and you never encounter the same version twice.
This makes business partnerships interesting.
A barrage of wide obsidian blades tore across the sky from over the horizon, gouging the machines amid showers of sparks. “What have you got for me this time, Opus? Are we hunting down another romance? ...Oh! Uh.”
From beneath Kedge's shoe drifted a familiar piece of burnt litter, which met their lips and smoldered. They must be reverse-smoking a cigarette, they guessed. Whoever invented these was a sadist, or a saint... it was hard to work out which, actually.
Opus shook their head. “No, there's no demand right now. I'm hearing from distributors that folks are turning to metafiction for their fix of romantic wisdom. The real thing often ends too tragically for the delicate palettes of today's consumers.” A small, distant struggle caught their eye. “It's just a phase I think we're going through. Why, have you found anything juicy?”
“Not recently, no. Honestly, I have no idea how you keep track of it all.”
“Says the diver who recovered the Twin Epiphanies of Mud,” Opus countered. A cyclone neatly swept through a pile of debris, carrying it up into the sky. “I promise it's easier than it looks. The market for wisdom is governed by human nature like anything else. And we only behave like we evolve to behave.”
“That's profound, but if it was True, I wouldn't have a job, now would I?”
“Speaking of a job, we're hunting apocalypses again. Here's your homework.” They handed Kedge a folder, complete with field notes, star charts, dive plans, future coordinates, and a standard contract with some kind of addendum on the back. “You probably heard about speculators' new forecasts for uncharted events in deep time. I'm here because my client applied for a giant grant, and requested you specifically. As you'll see, this is not your typical expedition.”
Skimming through the folder, Kedge inhaled a plume of smoke and forced it through the filter as ash crept up the wrapper. The coordinates listed were nowhere near their usual apocalyptic dive spots— affectionately dubbed “RaptureCon”, “Nihilation” and “Oops! All Buried”. Astrophysics filled the margins more than psychohistory. They pointed halfway down a chart. “The waypoint written here is... post-stelliferous. The grant doesn't even come close to covering this. How are we paying for it?”
“With a new kind of sponsorship. It's called ‘self-fulfilling profit’. Our forecast will update with the data you send back as you dive, in a positive feedback loop. We'll secure additional hope funding from new investors as the appraised likelihood of our success comes to one hundred percent.”
Suddenly the cigarette made sense. “Sounds an awful lot like a pyramid scheme.”
Opus shrugged. “Humanity's a pyramid scheme. In a sick way, it fits.”
“I'm not sure it does. They expect me to trace human destiny past the era of star formation?”
“We discovered this new survival strategy. In theory, it extends support for intelligent life indefinitely. In practice, it's very sketchy. But if humans ever discover it, they could slow their metabolism millions of times. Their adjusted frame of reference would lead to new science and culture, and maybe other innovations we don't have the data to model yet.” They squinted at the ongoing war below. “That's assuming the humans don't find a way to eradicate themselves first.”
“‘We only behave like we evolve to behave’, Opus.”
“Profound, right? Comforting, at least. My therapist forwarded it to me from their therapist.”
Between backward drags, Kedge read through the addition to the contract, then pinned the folder under their arm, unlit the cigarette and pocketed it. Something very big in the valley exploded. “You're not kidding. Descending to the end of time, in search of humans.”
“It'll be one for the record books.”
“Which nobody reads. Ghosts don't want ghost stories.”
Opus looked at them suggestively. “If you like, we could make it a romantic metafiction.”
Surprised by the display of initiative, Kedge stifled a nervous laugh. “Thanks, but there's just no demand right now.”
The onlookers drifted away as the last machines rattled and stopped. Delayed news of a cease-fire finally reached the front line, and they obediently went into standby, which is how they would remain for a hundred thousand years.
By far the hardest challenge facing Kedge this deep into the future was human divergence— the tendency for advanced civilizations to refract the human condition one way or another through transformation, past the extent of relatability.
Most societies didn't make it that far, because technological progress and the human brain's plasticity made such drastic change unnecessary, but genetic modification and mind uploading were still common solutions to colonizing hostile planets and surviving long journeys through space, and had long term effects their stewards often didn't anticipate.
And while there was some interesting insight to be gained— and collected, and sold— from chance encounters between space-faring humans of remotely separate evolutionary lineages, more often than not, a mere five or six waves of mutation led to virtual telepathic lizards talking to other virtual telepathic lizards about being virtual telepathic lizards. By which point it's time to backtrack.
And so Kedge was fully engrossed in measuring the relatability of a planet of six-armed wasp people when a pataweapon detonated.
In the blink of an eye, the universe was rent in half, knocking their craft back and spinning it violently like a pulsar.
Kedge slowed their roll, shifted into full reverse and noped out. As time skidded backwards for them, the blast wave raked over the pathosphere hull, ringing it like a bell, pulling Kedge tight against their safety harness and smashing their things to pieces against the bulkhead. Ear-splitting alarms informed them that they were having a bad time.
After what felt like ages, the Challenger came to a halt, and Kedge could assess the situation. Filling the porthole was a bright, terrifying disc. Stars at its crisp edge were getting pulled like taffy into grotesque ribbons of gas. Its uniform shape implied nothing it met put up any noticeable resistance. This was without a doubt a bomb designed to obliterate everything.
It didn't matter whatsoever who the perpetrators were. Someone, somewhere, was so hell-bent on hurting someone else that they could rationalize taking everyone out as collateral damage. There was no need to perform a scan to identify the human frailty here.
Of more immediate concern, there was a hairline crack in the bulkhead on the starboard side. From the back wall Kedge unstrapped a repair kit and quickly got to work. After a few tense minutes it seemed the hull's sympathetic containment would hold.
What else? Red flashing lights indicated several ballast canisters imploded and the disbelief suspension was hemorrhaging emulsifier. Comms and propulsion were gone. Navigation systems, thankfully still running, reported the cataclysm had impacted every adjacent storyline in a five plot point radius. The rudder wasn't responding, so a Wick rotation was unlikely. The Challenger was dead in the water.
The thing about being a ghost is by definition, no matter how bad things get, you've seen worse. Kedge could still turn this situation around, but they'd have to rely on the old tricks.
Taking one last worried look at the instrument panel, Kedge sat down, closed their eyes, took a deep breath and self-centered.
That didn't work. One more time:
Eyes closed. Deep breath.
And I self-center.
I am nine billion years in the future. Far later than anyone ever thought humans would exist.
...There's clearly plenty of fight left in them. I look for doomsdays in deep time, and I just found one.
That is to say, I'm good at this, people rely on me. I go to great lengths to literally bring meaning to their lives.
...Why aren't any of them here with me? Why do I live alone, work alone, drifting in a cramped submersible with the comms off, watching worlds pass by from a distance?
It's because I follow narratives to their end. And one way or another, they all end. Every world, every journey, every love, every friend, maybe in minutes, maybe in eons, it's not a matter of if but of when.
We still choose our end. And this isn't mine. I kind of brought this on myself, I admit, though I meant well. I can forgive myself for choosing this.
I can forgive humanity, too. Again and again, there's another way forward, for me or for them. Frankly there's too much energy left in the universe to get wiped out this way. No matter how calamitous, this thing can be undone and prevented.
Its damage to time itself will obscure its cause, but I'll find that cause, and we'll steer clear of it. I have all the time in the world.
And I'm good at this.
All around them, the Challenger was abstracting, like a glowing, effervescent blueprint diagram. Pieces of shattered coffee mug wobbled and leapt into formation, collecting droplets off the walls and landing neatly on the navigation table. Parallel Kedges winked into coexistence, contributed their hope and converged. The klaxons suppressed their wails as lights flitted from red to green. Kedge opened their eyes and confirmed things were definitely looking up.
But it took all the energy they had. Shooting a brief update to mission control, they ran one last systems check and flipped the bird out the porthole before collapsing into the harness and taking a long, unscheduled nap.
Imagine you're looking down into a vast, dark pit, whose edges nearly meet the horizon.
In the midday sun it is black as soot. You call down and it returns no echo. If you squint, you can barely make out vague hints of an intricate network of caves within. It's like a towering cumulus cloud turned inside-out, a chamber that buds chambers that bud chambers that bud chambers.... Somewhere down there, and no one knows how far, is the most important thing in existence.
Figuratively speaking, that is the plight of our temporal refugees.
At first, the thrill of a timeless existence distracted them from practicing some very important self-care. Having just escaped certain doom, and wanting to keep escaping, they scattered throughout the realms of possibility: what would have happened if so-and-so never met whats-his-face? What kind of mesmerizing novel/sculpture/weapon/drug would arise from a chance encounter between P and Q? What if you-know-who never committed all those atrocities?
For a time, that kept them busy. It took an unexpected amount of effort to find timelines leading to the exact events you were looking for; the noise of the living world jumbles cause and effect tremendously. Assuming you managed to succeed and observed the outcome, you might've proudly dragged your quarry back to your peers, only to discover it came nowhere near their expectations. Meanwhile it grew evident that most of the time humans spend living has no clear point at all, regardless of the circumstances.
They found this infuriating. Where was the good stuff? Why did these humans waste so much time? These Paleolithic nomads, who only had to share their world with fifty thousand other people? These unworldly plebeians and serfs, with their simple outlook, who could take a breath whenever they wanted? These couch potatoes with their screens, who choose to live vicariously through the stories they consumed?...
This was the slow arc of the ghosts' collective realization that they were safe, but they were not okay. They sat on an enormous reserve of potential, earned by rewinding their demise, but it wasn't clear how to invest it. Wisdom saved them once, they thought, and it would again. That was the beginning of the wisdom market.
Here's how it works: somebody like Opus meets with their distributors- patient disseminators of information- to learn what aspects of the human condition their consumers want to explore. When relevant insight isn't readily sourced, somebody like Opus reaches out to suppliers, who scour the countless futures of humanity for meaning. Finding the best suppliers (out of hundreds of billions) is a whole lot easier than finding meaning in the future, and also comes quite naturally (and is a point of personal pride) to somebody like Opus.
These suppliers usually come in two varieties. The most common ones, the trawlers, have a straightforward plan of attack: they skim the shallower waters of time, casting a wide net, and sell whatever they catch in it. They develop a knack for knowing what areas to search in, like cultural revolutions, arms races, and trade empires. But trawling in deeper currents isn't cost effective, so they must settle for the surface-level profundity they find.
Then there are the divers. Rarely you'll find somebody like Kedge who's willing to brave the depths in search of harder-won Truth. The appraisal of its scarcity and value reflects the difficult journey of its manifestation and recovery. As evinced by the current expedition, these are the caches of shipwrecks, whose trenches pose a real enough danger to imaginary people. Somebody like Opus needs to secure a contract with a speculator and actuary before even approaching somebody like Kedge with an opportunity to leave the timid, wisdom-starved surface world for the alien futures and their ponderous fates. And while that diver operated their hope down below, someone above held out hope for them like you would hold in a deep breath, waiting for the sign to exhale.
From time to time, somebody like Kedge will then message somebody like Opus, inquiring about meeting somewhere afterward for reverse drinks.
Witnessed in person, in the logarithmic time frame of extant humanity, cosmological expansion actually made a twisted kind of sense.
Surrounded by emptiness and dusted with the cremains of dead stars, our unrecognizable galaxy gave no visible indication that it ever harbored life, let alone that it continued to. But Kedge learned to ignore the readings from the Challenger's biotic instrument array days ago; this was uncharted territory. Countless eons ago, humans abandoned baryonic matter for its elusive non-standard counterparts, and were reaping the rewards ever since. They had somehow survived two false vacuum decays, and built a megastructure that criss-crossed the galactic plane. At times resembling delicate lace, impossible glinting gossamer mandalas hung from the gravity wells of black holes, shepherding them along lazy orbits. Like load-bearing walls, these intricately linked columns were a primary support structure that kept the galaxy from drifting apart. Yet each strand teemed with bona fide human life and culture, and Kedge dangled from them, acclimating to their bizarre new physics that the dive team dubbed “superhomotopic quasi-locality“. Existence literally hung by a thread.
But that thread still frayed. This would be a subjectively short era; perceived time ticked faster and faster, and the universe refused to go on forever. One of its particle fields was close to destabilizing into two separate domains, and two dimensions of space were expanding faster than the other two to compensate. Kedge could observe this faintly with the naked eye, like a mirage during a sunset. The rules governing thermodynamics would soon shift into a formulation that wouldn't support causality at all. Time itself would soon be over.
On the plus side, people were more equipped than ever before to face their end. The substrate of reality was, in their age, as malleable as clay, and their art and technology leveraged its exotic properties to great effect. They were capable of observing, analyzing and reconciling their entire history— much like their visitor— and that fostered an informed, mature perspective unmatched by any other society Kedge had ever seen. They had the capability and perspective necessary to choose how to meet their fast-approaching cosmic fate.
For a long time they contemplated, and then they bifurcated.
In one timeline, they chose to embrace their identity as human beings, going out defiantly, stubbornly, resisting the forces of oblivion for as long as possible, until they were overpowered and annihilated. To them this futile endeavor was a meaningful statement about being their true selves till the very end.
In the other timeline, a campaign of careful disassembly and dissolution raced against the clock to reach completion. This version of humanity was adamant that they would not curse the world that nourished them for so long. One by one, they acknowledged their ancient and lasting endowments from their cosmic home, and lovingly relinquished them. These borrowed pieces, in turn, interwove their characteristics into the very fabric of space, before it was torn to pieces.
Now Kedge faced their own unexpected choice. The measured depth of both timelines was exactly the same. There was something profound in both reactions to extinction. Neither approach made a difference in the end— humanity was completely gone, as if it had never been there. So what wisdom would Kedge recover? Out of both profound conclusions, which one was True?
First they questioned their objectivity. What made these narratives real to Kedge was the hope the pathosphere infused them with— the same hope one timeline was thankful for. But their meaning was cemented in their occupants' relatability, and the other timeline clearly held their humanity in the highest regard at their demise. Kedge took a quick glance at the instrument panel for guidance, but as far as the Challenger was concerned, up was down and Tuesday was blue. This was one of those decisions that balanced on the professional judgment of the diver.
A diver, Kedge reminded themselves, who recovered the Twin Epiphanies of Mud. Who people grew to rely on. A diver who's very good at this.
There was no need to rush, but before long Kedge reached a verdict they were confident in:
There are times when it's appropriate to gnash your teeth and curse your circumstances. Extinction certainly qualifies. So does dying alone in a derelict, imaginary submersible.
Above, ten trillion probabilistic humans stood precariously at the threshold of life, paralyzed by the paradox of choice. Their future is in their own hands, along with boundless, hard-won potential. But the thought of wasting it on tedium and misery terrified them into inaction.
So the more vital and purposeful human response to helplessness, the one common to everyone in this weird tale, is acquiescence. To transcend their doom, Kedge's fellow ghosts gave up their hate; to make peace with it, their deep future contemporaries gave up their very nature. Across the timeline, bravery, forgiveness, pride and consideration are what led humanity to happiness and what secured it, but to experience it, we have to allow it to happen, to let it in, whether the story's all over or it hasn't begun.
Kedge marked their location on the chart, cleared their throat and switched open comms.
“Mission Control, this is the Challenger, reporting from an estimated depth of 5.48 × 1010118 years. The primary and secondary mission objectives have been met.”
Commence obligatory signal-delayed cheers and back-pats, whatever.
“Challenger, this is Mission Control. Let's get you home safely. What's the mood like down there?”
“It feels like a happy ending. Beginning surfacing maneuver.”
“Sounds good. We'll see you soon, Challenger.”
It would be a long ascent, back up through strange currents, but Kedge had plenty of hope in reserve.