“There you are! Enrico! Hey – Enrico!”
His face furrowed in even more intense concentration than usual, Enrico whirled around, startled. “Huh? Oh, yes. Jim. Hello.”
“We’ve been wondering where you were for the past hour!” cried Jim, clearly exasperated. “You’ve got to take a look at the deuteron rotational mode equation. We think we’re almost there – if we can crack this tonight, the experimentalists could be on it by next week.”
Though only in his early forties, the dark-haired physicist was well on his way to going bald, leaving him with an unusually exposed forehead. “Ah yes, of course… yes, if we are able to confirm the required bombardment energy…” He seemed distracted.
“Come on, let’s get back inside, shall we? It’s chilly out here.”
Jim continued chatting pleasantly on their way back to the laboratory. “I get why you go off on these late night walks, though. It really is amazing how many stars we can see over Los Alamos. I wish my kids in the real Manhattan could see this. Goddamn Manhattan Project…” his voice trailed off as he remembered his daughter’s confusion when daddy had to leave all of a sudden.
“Listen, Jim, put the deuteron business aside for a minute. I’ve been trying to estimate a different calculation. How many stars do you think are out there?”
That made Jim chuckle. Everyone at Los Alamos was amused by Enrico’s back-of-the-envelope estimates, from the number of water droplets on Earth to the heat generated in the brain by a single thought. “Um… sure, stars? A helluva lot of nuclear furnaces out there, you bet. If only we could bring one of them down here and get our pain-in-the-ass reactor working.”
“I’m serious. There’s about one galaxy out there for every star in our own, so that’s somewhere on the order of 1023 stars. How many grains of sand do you think there are on the surface of the Earth?”
“Are you testing interview questions for when you hire new researchers after the war?” Jim smiled amiably.
Enrico took no notice. “It’s something like 1019. So that’s ten thousand stars out there for every grain of sand on earth. Of course, many of them might be white dwarves or red dwarves or neutron stars or what have you. But think about how many sun-like stars are hiding somewhere deep in the darkness…”
“Hundreds of billions.”
“Billions of billions. There are billions of billions of suns out there, Jim. And planets around many of those suns. Surely there must be, there have to be, countless other–”
“Forms of life.” Jim’s smile was replaced by a look of pure contemplation.
“And not just any old life. Intelligent life. There must be millions of billions of intelligent civilizations out there.”
“You’re probably right, Enrico.” Jim let out a low whistle. “One of those things that makes you want to fall to your knees with amazement, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe. But there’s a problem and it’s bothering me, and I don’t think we know enough to solve it.”
“What’s the problem?”
“Where are they?”
“Huh? The intelligent civilizations? Around all those other stars, aren’t they?”
“You’d think. But if there are so many billions of them out there, surely many of them evolved intelligence long before we did here on Earth. They must be leagues ahead of us technologically. Our brains probably can’t even imagine the sorts of science they have access to, the ways they might have harnessed their suns, their ability to travel through interstellar space, or – at the very least – to make contact.
“So why haven’t we seen or heard from them? What are we really looking at when we gaze at these stars? Just how many of the photons hidden in the starlight come from intelligent planets?”
They had reached the laboratory door. Enrico took one last look at the pinpricks of light reaching his eyes after millions of years in flight.
“Where the hell are they?” he whispered.
Suddenly, a possible answer hit him like a bolt from the blue.
“Jim, I don’t feel like working on the fission equation tonight.”
* * *
Jven’s thoughts flowed effortlessly into Xyna’s mind through the synaptaline.
“Should we wait to see the explosion and witness creation itself, or trigger gradual synaptic shutdown and die entwined in each others’ arms?”
“We can do both. Witness creation together in our final embrace. Oh, how romantic, darling.” Xyna’s words dripped with the desperate sarcasm that had gripped the entire planet for two days.
“How sad– how sad, how sad, that it all has to end. But the Lynferals don’t know about our cryo chambers, and I buried the last one myself yesterday. Solid graphene cylinders if I’ve ever seen any. I’m sure they won’t be destroyed even when the planetary surface is incinerated to ungodly depths. And someday, who knows, if the cryo preservation technology works as it should…” Jven didn’t sound terribly sure.
Xyna sighed. “There’s nothing more we can do, Jven. It’ll happen any time now. Just think of it as physics putting on a final, infernal performance for you. For all of us, straggling balls of atoms trying to master the power in the equations.”
“How stupid that we master that power just to rip ourselves apart.”
No answer. There was nothing to be said.
“How far do you think the light will go?”
“To the ends of the universe.”
“Do you think the Lynferals will actually do it? Surely they know they’ll destroy themselves in the process.”
“Of course they will. They’ve lost everything already.”
The Lynferals released their antimatter. A hundred million years later, a few stray photons from the final explosion found their way to Los Alamos.
* * *
“I don’t know how I got forced into archaeology in the Academy. I wanted to be a mathematical biologist. And now here I am digging while my family is eating dinner and probably grumbling about how I’m never home. Damn this useless shovel.” Ke’qrennu tossed his shovel aside and flopped down to gaze up at the stars.
“Quit whining, Ke’qrennu. You’re literally in the most magnificently deep archaeological site in the world.” Rstrund was nothing if not dramatic. “Do you realize how many people would die to be here right now? We’ve dug beneath the most primitive layer of the evolutionary record! We’re digging into the ground that came before the origin of life!”
“Exactly, and that’s where my interest ends! I don’t care about what came before life! What really blows my mind is how these little squiggling, self-replicating strands of dirt eventually led to us.”
For a long time, just stars and a single silent shovel at work.
Then, for a long time, just stars.
“Rstrund? You stopped digging? Rstrund?”
“What? Don’t whisper, the wind is too loud–”
“What the hell is this?”
“Huh… is that – it looks like – wait, is it – how in the world… a graphene cylinder?”
“A solid graphene cylinder if I ever saw one.”
“We’re digging beneath the oldest part of the evolutionary record, you said?”
No answer. Then a soft whisper, barely audible – “Way beneath.”
“Looks like… no, it can’t be, I can hardly believe…”
“Looks like maybe ours wasn’t the first evolutionary record on this planet?”
No words were exchanged for the rest of the night. Just silence, and stars, and a few stray photons from the final explosion of a dying Earth a hundred million lightyears away.
Cover artwork created by Raymond Jow