The Final Now
The Final Now
illustration by rick berry

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

We are blooming flowers on the plain—which He picks.
—Old hymn

He suddenly thought that they had not seen anyone for quite a while. Amid the vast voyages, adventures, striking vistas—and yes, while basking in symphonies of sensation—they had not needed company.

Even as twilight closed in. But now—

“Do you recall—?” He asked, turning to Her, and could not recall an ancient name. Names were unimportant, mere symbols, yes . . . but He did remember that names had existed to distinguish between multitudes. When? First task: to name the beasts. When had He and She said that?

“I do,” She said mildly, for She was always mild. “Any: one. A logical category.”

“They were Other, yes. I recall. Lesser but Other.”

“Just so.”

Thoughts rippled light-quick among them. The concept of Other as separate and different commingled in a burst of flavors–musky, crisp, sweet, sad, noisy—and tempted him. Somehow, in the long run of time they shared, the portions of himself and herself had moved away from overt Others, leaving the two of them to interweave as their binary Self. The details of why had quite washed away.

Yet the Others were part of him and her, and He and She could bring them forward when needed or desired. And desire played a role in all of this. Memories strummed, mellow notes rang redly, old victories sang and trilled.

The Others were good company, He thought.

Desire radiated from them both. They were, of course, the two who gave tension to this finite, bounded existence. This universe. Duality was fundamental, as was helicity itself, which necessarily had to be included in this exponentially expanding space-time.

How long now, since the Beginning? He wondered. The question did not actually have deep meaning, He saw, because in the early stages space and time were so entwined, feeding each other. Duration did not endure, after all.

Still, the end of all this was sharp, clear. The accelerating expansion had calmed, died, and the great coolness descended. Time coiled now, in the final, languid waltz between space and time.

She nodded at the firmament around them, saying, “Let us have Others again.” —and brilliant acrid displays frothed, with ruby scents, soft gliding pleasures and deep bass rolls, all blending with the views. They swam in coasting galactic clusters, amid simmering amber stars, and worlds and variety beyond measure—or at least, measures that He and She now cared about. In the long past times, near the very start of all this, they had needed to be more careful. Not now.

The firmament shuddered, rumbled, brimmed. A fresh persona came gliding toward them, swimming in liquid light.

“You called me forth?” the self said, and He saw it had no sex. It did not need any. She and He did need that, had from the Beginning. Sultry love and sex were the essence of the great dance. But sex was not necessary in their subselves, the Others.

“You are One,” He said.

“Yes! Such joy,” One said with liberated intelligence. “You wanted me to become overt, not buried in your inner self? Why?”

Fondly, He recalled that this ancient way—allowing a subself to manifest, bringing a different, fresh perspective—meant questions. Always questions. “For company. If needed, many of you, for . . . interest.”

To have someone independent to talk to, He thought but did not say. To summon up insights that lie within the two of us, but that we cannot express overtly. To be vast meant having parts of yourself that you could not readily find. The uncoiling of space-time had taken long eras of detail that rolled on without inspection—that was the function of natural law.

One said, “I was in my mortal time a human. We had many visions of you.”

“Human?” asked She.

“One of the ancient variants,” He explained, for to Him went the tedious detail work of categories. “They appeared quite early. A type that our worlds quite commonly brought forth.”

He looked long at One and took pity upon this pale mote before them. “You are from a common kind, those of four appendages. A local optimum, from natural selection, acting where beings sprung from the most likely place where life began—that is, in the realm of gravitation. You and others such must fight and profit from the press of gravity.”

She remembered. “Ah. The dwellers among worlds, yes—they are among our best work.”

Still, He recalled, the total amount of information that One could absorb in its mortal lifetime was about 1016 bits, which severely limited what it could distinguish. Since its death, it had dwelled within He and She, and so had taken in vastly more. But knowledge was not wisdom, as made clear by One’s inner confusions, which He could see easily.

One hesitated. “May I ask . . . why? Why did you call me forth?”

She said, “Because this is the end time. We want to bask in your light once more.”

The One seemed to fathom this compliment, though of course it could not be true. “We had a poet, Milton, who thought you would suffer from loneliness.”

Together they laughed—and the One was startled that they did. This made them laugh again. “A hominid narrow idea,” She said, mirth rippling through her.

He reached into her and felt the surges of emotion, saw echoes them in his own, larger self, and loved her all the more. Alone? Never.

Around them time hammered on, as it must—that was one of the basic constraints designed in from the Creation, of course. He realized that the One was worrying through an ancient problem, one expressed in musty eras and epochs long past. But persistent.

“Is there a fresh challenge, then?” One said.

She said, “In a way. The laws grind.”

One said, “Of course. That is the way You set.”

“Just so,” She said. “But now it leaches meaning from all.”

“That was inevitable?” One wondered.

“Disorder gathers unavoidably,” He said.

One registered sharp colors of surprise. “Can you not—?”

“A finite system may be capable of an infinite amount of computation, in due time,” He said. “But it can only store a finite number of memories.”

“And you are finite?” One was perplexed.

“Necessarily,” She said. “We dwell in a bounded space-time.”

He said, “The initially finite must remain so.”

She added, “Any additional mass with which to build new ’memory’ has redshifted beyond the event horizon, no matter where we are—and is therefore unavailable.”

The One said slowly, “Inescapably?”

“Life itself is doomed to mortality,” He said with finality. This was going slower than it should. He had forgotten that about Others.

One said strongly, “I do not accept this.”

At last, the point. She said with love and deep feeling, “Then strive to alter.”

* * *

A vast age passed. The last suns dimmed into red sleep. Through it all, One and those he represented—the faithful—labored long and hard. Crafty and deft, they could manifest in the universe through mechanisms He and She opened for them. It was at least amusing to watch, and always interesting. This was how the universe taught itself.

The faithful built great arches of slumbering mass, cobbled together from whole clusters of dead galaxies. The basic energy of the expansion then stretched these fresh structures. Vast motors worked like elastic bands, extending and releasing, harnessing the swelling of space-time itself. These extracted useful energy, avoiding the dead end of collapsed matter. Energies burst forth and new life forms of plasma flourished. The faithful watched these beings, far larger than the dark galaxies, frolic in what was, for them, a fresh new universe.

* * *

Vastly later, One approached He and She again. “We dedicate these young plasma civilizations to you.”

She said, “Excellent! Your works are wondrous. We are happy to witness them.”

One rippled with a bright frisson of pleased color. “We estimate that the young ones can persist for as long as the older life—born of silicon and even raw dust—can endure.”

She said, “True, at least until the protons decay.”

One beamed. “After that, there is no fundamental reason that information cannot be lodged in electron-positron plasmas, or even atoms made from them. So the plasma forms will go on eternally. Your laws demand that we change our physical basis. We the faithful shall now transform into those diffuse structures. For your eternity, as promised.”

She said, “No, not eternity. That is the Law.”

One rippled with puzzlement and gray despair. “But if even You cannot—”

“We wrote all this into the Beginning,” He said to One.

This had been clear even in the long, bright era when light flared everywhere. The accelerating expansion of space-time, which was essential in the planning of all this, none the less yielded a more constricted long-term future. For long ages now, galaxies had faded from view, ebbed, and shifted more and more into the deep red. They seemed to run slower and slower as well, due to the expansion. But now all that even He and She could witness had frozen. All about them lay galaxies still, dark and ever-colder, seizing up.

The One said with fizzing, fast energies, “But what of we!?”

Both She and He realized that One spoke now for all mortals, including the giddy plasma forms that fizzed and jostled in the darkening skies. One and his kind arose from the intricate wealth of biology, and had sensed the existence of He and She behind the lattice that was this universe. They had once lived their small lives in small worlds.

“You,” She said, “our faithful.”

“Yes! One said. “We believed that the universe had to have come from a Someone. You.”

He said, “We two made our Creation so it led to this encroaching night, also.”

“Ah . . .” Carefully, One went on, “So how can we persist? The energy stores of your universe are thinning out as the expansion accelerates.”

She said sympathetically, “Any conceivable form of life would have to keep ever-cooler, think slowly, and hibernate for ever-longer periods. So with you, as well.”

One did not seem to think this was an answer. “New, fresh life—yes. But what of we?”

She noticed One’s troubled flex of color and desire. “Those mortals who believed that this universe had purpose, and so gained a place within He or Me?”

One said eagerly, “Yes!”

The two regarded each other for a microsecond. So this question came at last. “All winds down,” He said in a long, slow way. “Energies mingle and collide. Those drive life in evolving systems. Such vexation is necessary—it builds structure, a fountain of bright wonder.”

One said slowly, “I . . . suppose.”

He went on explaining, for this was a large lesson—one He and She had been forced by logic to learn, back before the Beginning. To have such a vibrant universe, they had to dwell within it, not stand separate. “But you must see, there is a price. Creation ebbs. We cannot question the Law. We made it, because a finite yet unbounded system—this, our Creation—must have such Law to exist at all.”

She said, “Otherwise, Creation does not generate interesting structures.”

“And that was our aim,” He added. “The reason we did all this.”

One said quickly, as if fearing the fading amber tides in the vexed sky would cut it off, “You made this all for eternity—that we believed! You said so.”

She corrected, “We did not. Yourselves, all you mortals, you said so. Not us.”

One insisted, “The assembled Host, we who worshipped you—we thought that time would spool on for eternity.”

“Eternity depends upon the system of measuring it,” She said abruptly.

One paused. “This place with You—vast spaces beyond measure, time within grace—is the wonder we all hoped for . . .”

She said, “We designed for that, yes.”

One said softly, “. . . as our eternal resting place.”

He saw One’s problem. “You are finite beings. You do not know of the many ranks of infinity. Within those vast legions, the band of infinities, some entries are larger than other. It is the only way that Measure—which you would call mathematics—can be ruled by logic.”

This idea came buttressed with transfinite realms of suggestion. He let these spill out into the One, so that the finite being could perhaps understand. That small blessing might help in what was to come.

“Thank you—” the One said, then fell silent as it digested the realms of infinities. These cascaded around it in analytic rainbows. She and He watched them have their impact. Ramparts of theorems, clusters of corollaries. Axioms stacked in stretching libraries of rigid reason. In this rumbling cascade One struggled, juggling concepts beyond any finite being.

One fought up from this and finally said, “We all, the Host—we have dwelled here in your firmament. In wonder. Surely that is the promise all our faiths held forth.”

He and She said together, “We are constrained. For this universe we made to give forth such vast wonders, all had to run down.”

One said rapidly (for the clocks of eternity were racing now), “But you saved us!”

She said, “From your little deaths, yes. Not from the necessity of Law.”

One paused, as shadows drew longer around them, and hissing colors lashed up on wrecked horizons. Then One said in vexed tones, “We have lived on, far past our wretched small beginnings. Lived in ecstasy. Lived in our private deliriums of desire, sensation, comfort beyond measure—”

“We know. We designed it for you,” She said flatly.

He recalled. Long ago, One—and the multitude of mortals who had lived their self-aware lives since the Creation—had learned the durable crafts that logic taught. The secret of their survival amid cooling space-time lay in cooling down. Those spirits who had faith did dwell in their small ecstasies, yes. They learned as Creation itself ebbed, using up the Beginning’s store of energies. Being frugal meant that those who by faith dwelled with He and She could dole out ever-smaller drops of the precious, finite energy necessary to live, to think. The mortals called it Heaven.

The mortals thought in digital systems. They were like rachets that, once kicked forward, cannot go back. As the universe cools, they eventually could not kick the rachet far enough forward.

“But this betrays us!” One said as loudly as a finite thing can.

“No,” He said, “not betrayal. The final truths stretch beyond your understanding. That is all.”

Silence. One rested for a tick of time. Streamers arced through it, but brought little pleasure.

Shuddering with pale joy, One said, “I . . . I know that. We all do.”

The three of them enjoyed the play of space and time, a froth of events.

Then One said, uncertainly, “We . . . we were promised—admittedly, by texts we wrote ourselves, though they seemed inspired by You—eternal life.”

She understood, but said firmly, “To bring you forth at all demanded a universe that cannot last.”

“But—eternity—in heaven—that is what we thought—”

“Your thoughts are finite, as you are.” He knew that this last era was the moment to be completely clear, as fading redness grew around them. Stars now burst in their final finery, and galaxies shuddered in long, acoustic waves. Dark motes ate at the hearts of the last star swarms, frying in the sky.

One stopped, regarding Them. “But must it be that You, who made and dwell in this cosmos, share the Law?”

She said solemnly, “It must.”

One said it softly. “You must obey the Law you made?”

“Of course.” He saw that this transfinite logic had escaped all those who invested this realm with their faith. Was it always so? This little One, for example, had the mind of a narrative-addicted human. Such beings, swimming in time, thought that the end of a story tells its meaning.

“We will die!”

“Yes.”

Slowly, reluctantly, the One said, “Did you have no choice in the Beginning?”

“Limited ones,” She said.

“To create variety, and spontaneous order of creative kinds,” He added, “we were much constrained.”

Those times before this space-time began had been dark and simple. Their interval in the slumbering nothingness had convinced them to begin a grand experiment. To animate the emerging marvels demanded that they be immersed in the space-time, not merely witness it. He did not regret this ancient decision, though now they all had to face its implications.

One persisted, “Then this ending—”

“Was ordained at the Beginning.” She sent a sympathetic, silky note sounding through to One. It mingled with the popping of the sevagram as the quantum levels stretched and yielded. All was accelerating now with drumroll energies. Faint flavors of ancient masses hissed along the flattening curvatures.

The choices had been hard, with implications that unfurled along all the axis of universal time, toward the Final Sigh. This cosmos animated itself, the true source of unfolding variety. That had been their fundamental First Choice. In turn, the fruitful unfolding had filled Him and Her, making them part of itself—fuming, ceaseless. They all lived in time, He and She and the Ones alike—a time which collapsed, finally, into the now.

One flared with agitated energies. “If you had designed the universe to re-collapse, there could have been infinite simulated afterlife. The askew compression could fuel the energy for such computation—all squeezed within that final era!”

“That was a less interesting choice,” She said. “We chose this universe for its grand variety. Vaster by far since it has lasted so long.”

“Variety was our goal—to make the most stimulating space-time we could,” He said, “You, small One, seem to harbor twin desires—purpose and novelty—and so progress.”

One said, “Of course!” Then, shyly, “. . . and lasting for eternity.”

She said, “Those contradict.”

One stopped, seeing the problem.

She added, “Did you also suppose that eternity was not infinite duration but rather not time at all?”

One asked, “An existence out of time itself?”

“Yes,” She said.

“I cannot conceive of that,” One said.

“Lack of imagination is not an argument,” She said.

“How would I know I was in a place, a state of being, if it had no time?” One asked.

He and She regarded each other. There was no duration long enough for One to learn enough—not now, in the approaching cold and dark. This Creation had now tipped past the era in which life such as One could exist at all. The expansion now hastened. Soon it would rip apart galaxies, then stars and worlds, and finally the two who had made it.

“We are part of the Law,” He said.

One saw it now. “Then even God must—”

“Be the maker of law, and to make it truly so, abide by it.”

A final red flush arced through space-time. It brought also a last, great pleasure of completion. The ripping of all came like a hard roaring.

He said softly, “This is be the last time. The Final Now.”

He thought of the many manifestations He and She had enjoyed in this ever-new space-time, in all its sweet beetleness and fragrant daffodility. So wondrous.

Yet this rushing end in a shimmering dark was also the point, just as was the Beginning. Clearly, One saw this at last. The universe knitted together.

“Let there be light,” He said, recalling, as the acceleration gained again.

The protons died, popping crimson in the sky. Matter in its intricate forkings ended. Only the electrons and positrons remained.

The plasma beings survived still, their cool voices calling. Among them swam One, still challenging He and She.

Then came the swelling great rip as all matter evaporated, the colossal boom as space-time tore apart, a last long note sounding for them all.

“And darkness,” She concluded.

29 comments
Kerwin Miller
1. tamyrlink
wow....idk what to say...this was pure excellence!
Marcus W
2. toryx
These are pretty powerful, thought inspiring, words.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
3. glasserc
Um, what? I think I'm too much of a lowbrow to figure this one out.

Ethan
Bruce Cohen
6. SpeakerToManagers
This story is marvelous and awful, in the original meanings: full of marvels, and inspiring awe. It is also full of profound messages: the creator is constrained by the creation and life, meaning, and purpose exist in time, and must end with it. And all in less than 3,500 words; most impressive.
Ross Presser
7. rpresser
In a strange way, this brings to mind your own "Matters End" from so many years ago.
Jerry Bennett
8. Isvarden
I understand it now. Without an end, there can be no beginning. Without darkness, there can be no light. Without nothingness, there can be no existance.

I am happy I read this. May we all find pleasure until the darkness.
Bruce Spike R. MacPhee
9. SpikeMacPhee
Marvellous! This too shall pass...

Is this a typo? He said softly, “This is be the last time.

And to think that this was written by a finite being! A credit to his race. :)
entnow
10. entnow
yes this was great,I rarely think when I read

particularly at any real depth these days,..But this

very well done gregory.I got tingles.It made me smile.
entnow
11. thethirdchimpanzee
"They were, of course, the two who gave tension to this finite, bounded existence. This universe. Duality was fundamental..."

The Yin & Yang...cool.
entnow
12. thethirdchimpanzee
^The duality of opposites...I meant to say...
entnow
13. Gregory the Benford
Spike:

Yes, that's a typo. Should be:
"This is be the last time."

Thanks for all your kind comments, folks. This is the only story I ever wrote that came straight from a dream.

Gregory
entnow
14. Gregory the Benford
Gah! I retyped the typo. Should be

"This is to be the last time."
entnow
15. BMK
Amazing! Not that I would expect any less from the BENFORD!!!
entnow
17. prufrocker
I really enjoyed the artwork, too, and not just because it reminded me of the star-bellied sneetches. :)
entnow
18. Azarule
Wow, phenomenal. One of the things I've always enjoyed most about Greg's fiction is the way that he grounds the fantastic in practicality, and how that makes everything feel more possible. I love that combination even *more* in this completely-other story setting. Bravo!

Encore! ;-)
entnow
19. bmcallister
Amazing story, Greg. I'm blown away.
entnow
21. Greg Tripi
One of my favorite stories ever. Thank you.
entnow
22. Robert Kirbo
Sublime harmony of art and science...

This be some fine and gentle contemplation.

Thank you Gregory for your many years of joyful

moments for all of us to share!
entnow
23. diver99
I loved that you made a correction in the comments and had to correct that....That you are here talking to us ....the ones.. is absloutely marvelous. Reminds me of " the last question" by Asimov. Bloody brilliant....thx
entnow
24. *HEoneSHE*
Hey all,

I read my first Benford at age 13. (Macroscope, of course.) I didn't know anyone could think that big. I didn't know I was allowed to. Thank you for that Dr. B. It's been 30 yrs. and I haven't stopped since. A face to face with the big HeShe is inevitable for big thinkers who dare. I had mine recently. It didn't turn out as One had hoped. Not as much wiggle room these days as when we were young. But what is, is... I was despondent, thinking I was crazy and alone in these logical thoughts that reached out to forever, so I went online to ibooks to see if my favorite author had anything new out to take my mind off things. LOL! Greg, sir, thank you for telling the truth, especially when your making it all up...  Some of the class IS still paying attention, though most of the world may seem to be out to lunch at times...    

The BIGGEST little story ever... 99 cents.  
 " ...you said so. Not us.”  Priceless...          



This story begs a few discussion questions... Just for fun...


Is there a wave/particle "duality"?   No, reality doesn't care if you get it. The question/questioner itself causes the perception of duality?


Would information still be conserved through the big crunch?... Does that sound familiar to you? 


Eternity... First half is great, second half, well not much left to do.


Am I really just a monkey on a rock who thinks there is more to it then that?
 

Is it wrong that I want to open each day like a Christmas present now?


Sincerest Thanks Greg.

N.Smith

Think big or go home.

See everyone at the Fizzle...
Ross Presser
25. rpresser
@24: Sorry, but Macroscope was by Piers Anthony. Perhaps you were thinking of Timescape.
entnow
26. JBeez
Phenomenal. The blending of metaphysics, theology and science is just... I want everyone I know to read this. And the concise sentences, speaking volumes with three words—I envy! This is my favorite sentence of all time:
“Disorder gathers unavoidably,” He said.
entnow
27. Ed 123
Let there be light, and darkness.

It would be nice to have some of whatever sparked the dream from which this story emerged. Or do dreams simply arise out of nothing?

Incredible story on the grandest scale.
entnow
28. Ed 123
"...the total amount of information that One could absorb in its mortal lifetime was about 1016 bits..."

That must be 10^16 bits.
entnow
29. Ed 123
The omniscience from which the universe arose has a male and a female aspect. This dual entity existed before space-time, and s/he decided to create a universe that would allow variety to flourish. The most variety is possible in an ever expanding universe, and thus it was made to be. The only way the creators could make a universe was if they also were constrained by the laws of that universe. For vast amounts of time the creators enjoyed the marvels that emerged from their work, including the sentient beings that evolved from the diverse conditions of the universe. These beings were mortal, but even after death they continued to be aspects of the omniscient creators. Creation of distinct entities enabled the creators to explore realms of possibility beyond their usual mode of being. But such entities lacked the broad perspective of their creators, and thus considered immortality to be achievable. It took a long time for mortal entities to realize that with the entropic heat death of the universe, all existence, even the divine, must cease.

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