From the author: What will the ending moment of the universe be like, when the suns have cooled and the only observers are the machines whose duties long outlived their masters?
::::: blink :::::
Marvell checked his clock and power supply. Fourteen thousand years had passed, and the beach-ball sized maintenance machine had six minutes stored before he would have to enter sleep mode again. Other figures flicked through his engineered consciousness: two percent less of the twenty-seven hundred square miles of his photoelectric grid was active than had been there the last wake time, but most of the bad sectors were much farther than six minutes away. They showed as tiny black dots on the power grid’s smooth green representation in his display, almost all of them to his west. The sun’s energy output had reduced too, by .04 percent. His sensors displayed it as a dull red plain on the other side of the grid, filling half the sky, only a dozen miles above, its wrinkled, gassy surface sliding by at orbital velocity. If nothing else changed, he’d be out for seventeen thousand years, clinging to the sun-encircling grid, gradually storing energy, before waking again. Could he get to the nearest bad sector and at least repair it before shut down?
And where was ThreeAndrea?
At the cost of ten seconds of wakefulness, he powered up the locator. She was on the west edge of her grid, fifteen minutes away, inactive. Somewhat closer than she had been fourteen thousand years ago. What were the odds they would ever be awake at the same time? Sacrificing a few more seconds, he ran a diagnostic on her grid. Nearly the same rate of degradation.
He set course for the nearest bad sector to his east, uncoupled from the system, the copper crimps snapping open in unison, then released the pulse that would send him toward the repair. To conserve time, everything on him powered down, except his awareness, but that drew the most energy. He recited poetry during the drift, from billions of years earlier, his favorite works in a long dead language from a long dead species, whose connection to the Makers was lost in history. Had they once traded? Had there been interstellar commerce? Were the Makers their descendants who’d moved from sun to sun, carrying the poetry with them until it ended up here? There was no way to know. The authors were gone, their star not even a distant memory. Only the literature lasted, not the lengthy path it had taken to end up within him.
Marvell’s memory banks were extensive, and in the super cold on the grid’s shadow side, he only needed to expend a nanowatt to plumb his memory’s depths. “Had we but world enough, and time,” he thought, and he let the words cycle over and over. Then he threaded another line through it, “the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace.” Marvell had taken to mixing and matching his poetry, choosing favorite lines only, since there was hardly the luxury of entire poem. Funny, to long for embracing, he thought.
He tried to remember if he’d dreamed. It seemed unreasonable that in fourteen thousand years of sleep he hadn’t dreamed, but he couldn’t come up with a single image in the silent time while he’d been shut down. He wouldn’t know the time had passed at all except his clock reminded him, and that in the blink the power grid had gained a few more black spots, but he felt it, hanging on him, like a heavy ebony blanket, the psychic time of the years passing while he clung beneath the grid, millions of years old, much closer to the end of his life than the beginning.
The timer told him he had arrived. Visuals brightened. Above him, the power grid glided past, a great, opaque sheet between him and the sun, capturing every stray radiation, converting it to electricity and storing it in his batteries, but now there was almost nothing to capture. The sun was only mildly warmer than the space around it. He slowed himself, unlimbered his arms. As always, links were broken in the fabric above. Time was cruel. The Makers had built the grid to last forever, and it had certainly outlasted them, but forever is an unreachable goal. His sensor-laden fingers found the ruptures, wove them together in automatic competence, measured their capacity.
If he could have shrugged, he would have. All the grid’s connections were thinning, breaking down, the essence of their mass sublimating slowly. He paused while his subtle intelligence did the calculations. Idly, as he waited, he scanned the system. On each corner of his orbiting fiefdom rose the old power transmitters that used to beam the gathered energy to the Makers’ planet beyond, but he’d long since lost contact with them. No heat from it. No light. There was no way to sense it, and there hadn’t been for millions of years. The towers remained, their mechanisms useless. He recited a bit of verse: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
The calculations finished. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” he thought. “Old time is still a-flying.” If he was lucky, he might wake up another three or four times. The race was between the sun reducing to so little output that the grid couldn’t convert it into electricity, or the grid itself failing utterly.
His arms folded back into his shell. The crimps reanchored. He wondered if ThreeAndrea would see that he’d moved closer to their shared border. Would she do the same calculations and come to the same conclusion. When was the last time he’d talked to her? There wasn’t time to access his records. Screens faded to black. Sensors powered down.
Just before his six minutes ended, he said to himself, “That age is best which is the first, when youth and blood are warmer; but being spent, the worse, and worst times still succeed the former.”
::::: blink :::::
Seventeen thousand years, almost exactly, and he only had five minutes. More of the grid was down. As it had been for several of the last cycles, it was falling apart faster than he could repair it. His duty was clear. The bulk of bad sectors was to the west. The most efficient plan would be to head for the heaviest concentration and begin repairing there. Already he’d mapped out the best course. He could extend the grid’s life by thousands on thousands of years. The sun would go out eventually, but it was dying at a slower rate than the grid, and it was possible that it could flicker into renewed life, that deep inside, where the gravity-tortured physics became unlikely, the chain reactions could push themselves into momentary brightness. Not long-lived, for sure, but the sun could pulse. It had before, and if it did the power would flow. He’d be able to stay alert indefinitely to completely repair the system.
His job was to outlast the dormant periods.
He scanned for ThreeAndrea. She was on the west edge of her grid, only four minutes away. She must have headed straight toward him during her last active period.
Oh, for the heady days when the sun glowed brightly and energy flowed in abundance! He never slept then, cruising along the grid’s protected side, making sure the towers beamed their power to the Maker’s planet safely below them. Then, a chain of grids encircled the star like a huge ribbon, and there were thousands of mechanisms like him, sentient, self-aware, independent machines devoted to repairing the inevitable breakdowns. He’d seen pictures of the sun as viewed from the Maker’s planet, a beautiful, bright light in the sky with a narrow stripe cut through its middle, the grid’s shadow. Now, as far as he could tell, ThreeAndrea and he were the only ones left, two small robots, mending their sections. Then they had power to spare, in constant communication, swapping poems, conversing about their jobs, about their lives. No one lives a limited life, he thought. Our lives are as important as any. He felt a longing to hold onto his, lonely as it was.
But as the sun waned, they went increasingly into sleep mode. He hadn’t spoken to her for millions of years (although he’d only been aware of a handful of them), and he realized he might never speak to her again.
Seconds ticked relentlessly, and he didn’t move. There were dead patches between ThreeAndrea and him. He could go closer to her, but it wouldn’t be efficient. A thought crossed his mind, there are no more Makers. I have no responsibility to them, but the grid called. His programming and habit pulled at him to go west, away from ThreeAndrea and into the heart of the damaged system.
And what would be the use of going her way? She could well move farther from their shared border. He couldn’t lock onto her grid any more then she could lock onto his. The connections would be incompatible. To leave his area would be suicide.
A snippet of John Donne surfaced in his memory, “For the first twenty years since yesterday I scarce believed thou couldst be gone away.” It was the poem that ended with, “Yet call not this long life; but think that I am, by being dead, immortal. Can ghosts die?” ThreeAndrea liked John Milton, although she dwelt more on the last works of the Makers. The sad dirges to themselves, made as they dug deeper and deeper into their planet, pursing the heat at the core, breathing air transmuted from minerals and rock, their own atmosphere having long ago frozen and fallen to the surface.
He decided, set a course, unclamped and released a pulse.
Duty ruled out. He must repair as much damage as possible.
Then he remembered a bit of Shakespeare, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments . . . Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Seconds ticked away, much more important to him than distance. The clock ruled what was left of his life. Above him, the blank-slate grid scooted by. Every passing instant was a crisis, a turning point, a crux, a moment lost and a trial of resolution.
Fully formed, the thought leapt before him, I don’t need to be duty’s fool.
Before he calculated fuel, before he could even determine if what he wanted to do was possible, he unshipped an arm, reached up and grabbed the grid. His metal shell snapped into the black surface. Ripples stretched along the metallic fabric. Connections broke. In a second, more damage was done to the grid than had occurred in the past hundred-thousand years. But his momentum slowed until he stopped, and the grid rebounded, pulling him back. Marvell let go at the end to the bounce, sending himself in the other direction, toward ThreeAndrea asleep on the border.
Only three minutes left. The math was unforgiving. He’d have to stop considerably short of her. By the time he’d recharged himself, she would be long gone. His errand was futile. Still, he plotted the best angle, made a small correction, set his timer and waited. Another poet drifted through his mind, “Now let us sport us while we may, and now, like amorous birds of prey, rather at once our time devour than languish in his slow-chapped power,” and if Marvell could have smiled, he would have.
He slowed, clamped. Dug up some Shakespeare to meditate on while he was shut down, if there was a chance for dreams: “In me thou see’st the twilight of such day as after sunset fadeth in the west, which by and by black night doth take away, death’s second self that seals up all in rest.”
::::: blink :::::
ThreeAndrea hadn’t moved. Marvell noted that first. Then, the time, sixty-four thousand years. He’d reduced the grid’s capability that much? No. His damage wasn’t that big, and the decline in functioning sectors was as predicted. It was the sun, even dimmer now, throwing out less usable radiation, cooling in the universal heat sink. There would be no chance for a saving pulse. The last burst of radiation truly had been its ending gasp, and the decline was comparatively swift and inevitable. Too small to nova, not even enough mass to become a neutron star, it would just continue to fade, like a filament in a light bulb caught in slow motion. Neutrons would break into protons and electrons, and, eventually, those too would go their separate ways, joining the background heat that was all that remained of the universe, but this was unimaginably far into the future, even for an intelligence as old as Marvell’s
Was she dead? Marvell activated his sensors, spending precious seconds of consciousness. She’d done no repairs to her grid as far as he could tell since she’d activated last. More chilling, though, she hadn’t budged from where she’d anchored on the closest edge of her grid. He had three minutes to act. Quickly, he unanchored, recalled the course, released a pulse, then turned his sensors off. The numbers said he would reach her with seconds to spare.
Nothing to do in the seconds left but to recite poetry, a little Yeats. At first he considered “Sailing to Byzantium,” and then “The Second Coming,” but he couldn’t imagine a birth in his future, not even the grim one with a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. He chose instead some Gerald Manley Hopkins. It called to him pictures of a life he’d only imagined on planetary surfaces he’d never walked on. There were so many terms in it he hadn’t experienced, but there was something in the tone:
Nothing is so beautiful as spring,
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.
He kicked the sensors back on, slowed himself to a stop, reanchored. Her shell looked whole. The nearly invisible seams where her arms folded into her body appeared clean. No outward damage, but that didn’t reflect what might have gone on inside. A critical relay could have broken, or, he thought, she could have ended it herself. They both had the capability. He could shut himself down forever easily enough. Is that what she had done? Why hadn’t she moved? How could he communicate with her?
Only seconds remained before he shut down. What could he do? If he could have, he would have wept in frustration. Instead, he extended his arm, his mechanical manipulators, loaded with sensors and so like fingers stretching out to touch her. She was a shade too far. No time to bring it back. One arm out, inches too short, Marvell retreated into sleep mode.
::::: blink :::::
Marvell woke to poetry, and for a moment it puzzled him. It didn’t come from within him. He hadn’t called it up, but there it was, running through his brain, “When I consider how my light is spent ere half my days in this dark world and wide, and that one talent which is death to hide lodged in me useless, though my soul more bent to serve therewith my maker . . .” He recognized the poet, John Milton.
“ThreeAndrea?” he said. Slowly, far more slowly then he ever remembered, his systems came to life.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“How . . . ?” His instruments showed power flowing through his outstretched arm. Finally a visual glowed. ThreeAndrea’s hand joined to his, sending electricity into him. His power storage units were empty. “How long has it been? My clock isn’t functioning.” Several submechanisms weren’t responding either. The thruster seemed to be cut off, and although he could sense the arm still stored into his side, it wouldn’t respond to a diagnostic.
ThreeAndrea said, “Almost thirty-thousand years for me. Somewhat less for you.” Her voice was as he remembered it, different from his own, lighter. She spaced her words irregularly. He’d always wondered if it was an error in her programming, or if she did it on purpose to be unique. She continued, “You anchored into an inactive sector, or it broke soon after you arrived. There was no way for you to recharge.”
“I thought you were dead. You didn’t move.”
For seconds she didn’t reply. He continued scanning himself. No power. No propulsion. No way to move his arms. He couldn’t access his grid to see what new damage there might be.
Then she said, “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
He had no answer for that. “How much time do we have?”
“I haven’t been repairing, just storing. Four minutes between the two of us. I can’t move you, though. The only way for you to stay active is hooked to me.”
“Well, then don’t let go.” He could feel the power coming from her, and it tingled oddly. His system had to reroute it, and it wasn’t exactly the same as he was used to, as if the electricity was flavored by passing through her. It wasn’t unpleasant.
“I won’t. Have you looked down?”
If he could have shook his head, he would have. He realized that since the Maker’s planet had stopped responding, he’d spent every waking period looking up, examining the grid, peering at the diminished sun beyond.
“I don’t have the power to,” he said.
“Look through mine,” she said, and she clicked open relays that allowed him access to her scanner.
The field that was the universe was absolutely blank. An empty distance, devoid of radiation and light, nothing was out there. “Where are the stars?” Marvell said.
“All of them?”
“All of them.”
“Then this is the last?”
“As far as I can tell.”
“Walt Whitman would be sad,” Marvell said. “He wrote, ‘I wandered off by myself, in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, looked up in perfect silence at the stars.’”
“He got the silence right,” said ThreeAndrea.
Marvell tried to access his clock. It still wasn’t working. “How much more time?”
“What’s the condition of your grid. Will we wake again?”
Marvell sensed her withdrawing as she consulted her system.
“We might, but it’s all grown so old.”
He knew she meant the grid, the sun and them. Everything.
“Are you afraid?” Marvell asked. He studied the blankness below them. It was totally featureless, without depth or meaning. All the stars that once shone gone at once, finally. The long play ended.
“Not now. It’s just sleep mode,” ThreeAndrea said.
“I can feel your hand, you know,” Marvell said. His sensors recorded the pressure of her manipulators against his own. Sensitive to the last, his fingers caressed the metal texture, brittle in the deep, deep cold.
“Yes, I hoped you could.”
::::: blink :::::
This story originally appeared in The Bones of the World.