This was story I wrote for my school's Power of the Pen program (you can read more about it here). Basically, every week we get a prompt and have 40 minutes to write a story based on that prompt. This story's prompt was "inevitable", hence the repetition of the word. I obviously went way over the time limit (it's over 3000 words), but oh well...
I ended up liking this premise a lot, and have started turning it into a book (it's called "Naked Singularity"; I might post an excerpt here soon). Anyways, any criticism would be appreciated, although I understand if you don't make it all the way through...
I watched as the Earth crumbled apart, destroyed by the heat of a dying sun.
I watched as the other planets, first Mars, then Jupiter, then Saturn, and eventually even the frigid outer planets, were consumed in the last fiery breath of the star at the center of our solar system.
I watched as a million other stars burst into shining supernovae, before shrinking into the tiniest specks of light and then, blinking out.
I watched as the universe became darker and darker, colder and colder, farther and farther apart. Galaxies zoomed away from each other like bits of dust scattered by a breath of air.
This all happened in a matter of seconds.
I looked down at the dashboard of the time machine, where numbers were flying by faster than I could count them. 50,000 AD, 100,000 AD, 200,000 AD, 500,000 AD. Trillions of civilizations, assuming any still existed in this cosmic ice age, must have sprung up and faded out of existence for every breath I took.
With the lever of the time machine broken and no hope of fixing it, there was nothing I could do but sit and look out the window and wait.
Wait for what? The way I saw it, there were only two things I could still wait for—one, the end of the universe. Two, the end of my life. Both were inevitable. It was only a matter of which happened first.
I thought as the counter reached 1,000,000 AD—It’s you vs. me, universe.
* * *
Perhaps by now you’re wondering how I ended up in this situation, stuck in a broken time machine and watching the universe end outside of my window.
I guess it really all started back when I was 6 years old. The year was 1967. My mother had just died.
I don’t remember how exactly, only that it was an accident of some sort, something easily preventable. Whenever I asked my father about it in later years, he would simply turn away and say, “Your mother was a great woman, Horace,” and then become silent until the subject was changed. He said those words so often that soon I too began to believe them, with the unrealistic idolatry with which one remembers the dead. I wanted to bring my mother back. I knew I could, if only I could return to that one miniscule speck, that one tiny dropped stitch in the infinite tapestry of space and time—August 12, 1967. That was the date my mom died, the only piece of information about her death that I managed to squeeze out of my dad’s memory.
But time kept careening forward as it inevitably does, never stopping, never reversing. I hated time. It was then, in those sad lonely years of grade school, that time first became my enemy. It was then that I first set out to conquer it.
* * *
There is a scientific law—the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s called—that states this: energy tends to flow from being concentrated in one place to becoming dispersed and spread out.
Think of a hot frying pan on a lighted stove. What happens when you remove it? Its heat flows out from the frying pan and into the air. It never happens the other way around.
Simple enough, you think. Why does it matter?
Well, consider this: there’s only so much energy in existence. So what happens when you keep spreading it out? Soon it will be too thinly-spread to use at all. This is what creates time. Think of a cup of coffee. What happens when you pour milk into it and stir? The milk spreads out and mixes completely with the coffee. Have you ever pulled the milk out of a cup of coffee? No. That’s how time works. With every second, the universe goes from unmixed to mixed, concentrated to dispersed, present to future, order to disorder.
That is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That is why the universe must end. That is why life must end. Because somewhere in that law—hidden beneath its simple wording and mathematical equations—somewhere in that law lies a death sentence.
* * *
March 18, 2012, 6:32 pm. My life’s work is finished.
I stared proudly at my invention, my oil-greased hands resting on my hips. There it was, concrete proof of thirty-two years’ worth of labor; with its huge steel exterior and its generator that filled the room with a pulsating light. Such an unassuming little machine. And yet one that could change humankind forever, one that could bend history or destroy the future with a pull of a lever, one that could mold the universe like a piece of wet clay in your hands.
I had invented a time machine.
I smiled a bit, an accomplished sort of smile that was thirty-two years in the making. Horace Maxwell, inventor of time travel.
The words sounded good in my head. But I wasn’t in it for the recognition, not really. That was secondary. More than anything else, I wanted to go back in time. I wanted—no, needed—to return to that one day, that single moment when my life was destroyed. When my world flipped upside down.
When my universe went from order to chaos.
I entered the time machine, closing the heavy metal door securely behind me. I would start with something simple—travelling one minute into the future.
I pulled the lever. Soon the machine began to convulse violently. The subatomic generator started shooting light off in all directions and my ears nearly popped with the raucous noise of clinking metal and overheated engines. When the counter read “March 18, 2012, 6:35 pm”, I let go of the lever and the machine came to a halting rest. The door popped open and I slowly stepped out into my steam-filled apartment.
I glanced at my watch. It read “6:35 pm”.
My invention was a success. I had disappeared off the face of reality for a full minute.
Without further ado, I climbed back into the time machine and once again closed the door behind me. I pulled the lever.
I was on my way.
* * *
I arrived in 1967 as if not a day had passed for the last 45 years. In a way, none had. The leaves of the trees lining the street still fluttered about in their slow, dreamy sort of way. Some indistinguishable smell—grass, or barbeque, perhaps?—drifted down the sidewalk and into my nose.
I began walking, or more accurately, sleep-walking, past the suburban fifties-era houses. I’m here
, I thought. I’m really here again, after so many years of waiting.
There is some quality about the past—specifically the period between 1930 and 1970--that makes you feel as if you are walking in a perpetually black-and-white world, regardless of how colorful or real everything actually is. Even though I had spent my childhood here, I was almost taken aback by how much color there was, how similar it looked to the present.
I didn’t have to walk much further. I was already in my neighborhood, and by now my house was probably only a block or two away. I paused to let a group of light-haired children come running by in t-shirts and smocks. They looked about my age, I realized. I could’ve known them—maybe they were even in my class at school.
I stopped in front of a plain-looking white house, almost identical to the others around it, with a picket fence surrounding it and toys strewn in the yard. Suddenly, my heart began beating so fast that it seemed as if it would shatter my ribcage.
It was my house.
I was probably in there right now; watching tv with my dad and little brother, if I remembered it properly. As much as I wanted to go in there—see my family before the tragedy of my mom’s death tore us apart, before the obsession with time travel drove a wedge between me and my brother, before my dad become even more calloused and hateful than I am today—I knew I could not. To do so would create paradoxes capable of tearing the universe apart.
It struck me that, by going through with my plan, I would end up becoming a very different person. Who knows what I might have done had it not been for this one day? I might become an artist, or a quarterback, or a convenience store employee—anything but time travel.
But I had made up my mind. I was ready to accept the consequences.
And so I continued onward, past my house with a strange kind of willpower that pulled me onward as invisible strings pull a marionette. I did not know where I was going. I did not know where my mother had died, or when, or how—I only knew that I must keep on walking. I would find her eventually, even if it took me a thousand years.
I racked my brain, trying with all my might to remember where my mother might have been today. She used to work as a volunteer nurse at a hospital, I recalled; perhaps she was walking there right now?
My feet kept moving as if by their own accord. I was slowly starting to leave the suburbs now, and enter the vast concrete jungle that was Washington D.C. I knew that any ideas I had about my mom’s location were mere conjectures—in reality, she could be anywhere. I almost considered turning around and going back to my house, asking my dad where she had gone today; but it wasn’t worth it.
And so I continued onward.
I was at a bus stop now, on the very outskirts of the city—close enough that you needed to crane your neck back to see the top floor of some of the skyscrapers, but still far enough from the center to look over your shoulder and see the AstroTurf-like grass of the suburbs. There was a small crowd of people standing on the other side of the street, clustered around a bus stop sign and a park bench that was painted bright blue. I stopped there for a moment, waiting for the light to change. When it did, the small crowd on the other side of the street split in two, one half still waiting for the bus and the other half walking towards me on the cracked white paint of the crosswalk.
One of the pedestrians caught my eye. She was about twenty-nine years old, with dark hair permed up into a short bob that bounced as she walked. She was wearing a nursing uniform.
The sound of horns blaring down the streets made me turn my head—a bus, careening down from the direction of the city, was heading right for the crosswalk.
The crowd of bystanders gasped as I rushed out into the road, grabbed the woman in the nursing uniform by the arm, and pushed her out of the bus’ way. Just then, the bus swerved to avoid the bystanders—but it was too late. I had already pushed the woman aside. She struggled to regain her balance in her high-heeled shoes, her arms stretched out like a tight-rope walker’s. In the last moment, she looked back at me with a strange expression. Was it confusion? Fear? Recognition, even? But before I could yell something out to her—like “look out!” or “get out of the way!” or even “I love you”, the bus hit her and flung her forward, landing her in the middle of the road, limp and stretched-out like a ragdoll. The driver got out and ran toward the body, as crowds of people on either side of the street surged forward and surrounded her. Someone called the police. Another tried to do CPR. But most of them, me included, simply stood and gaped. I felt that now-familiar emotion wash over me, that sensation of order turning to disorder, and disorder subsiding to chaos.
The driver kept apologizing and apologizing, his mouth seemingly unable to say anything more than “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again. I didn’t hear him. I knew whose fault it really was. I knew who pushed her in front of the bus.
After all these years, I
was the one who killed my mother.
* * *
It seemed that nothing existed but blackness now. Almost all the stars had burned out, and those that hadn’t were spread too far apart to amount to anything. I glanced at the clock. Numbers still flew by, faster and faster, so quickly that they seemed less like years and more like a white blur. I noticed, with a bored, exhausted sort of shock, that it was now in the billions.
I slid down and sat on the narrow square floor of the time machine, sighing. I felt old. Very old.
Of course you feel old, idiot,
I told myself. You’re pretty much as old as the universe itself right now.
I sat there for a while, thinking of all the ways the universe could end: there was the Big Rip, which, if you compared it to a human death, was the cosmic equivalent of a violent heart attack; then there was the Big Freeze, the likeliest scenario based on what I had observed this far, which could be compared to old age. In the Big Freeze, everything just keeps getting farther and farther apart, until neither warmth nor light exists. It’s the ultimate example of the Second Law of Thermodynamics—everything simply gets worse as time goes on, going from concentrated to dispersed.
Then there was the Big Crunch, the strangest theory by far, as it defied all the laws of time and entropy. If the Big Crunch could be likened to human life, it would be described like this: you are born, you become a child, then an adolescent, then an adult, and then finally enter senility. Nothing new there. But then, just before you die, you suddenly go into reverse; you become an adult again, then an adolescent, and then a child, until you are nothing but an embryo. And then what happens?
Inevitably, you grow up.
As I thought I absent-mindedly stared out of the window, even though I knew there was nothing to see out there except black. But suddenly, as I focused again on the expanse of darkness, I noticed something: a star had reappeared in the sky.
At first I thought perhaps the star had been there the whole time, and I had simply overlooked it; but no, even as I watched more stars popped up out of the emptiness. First, two, then three, then five, then ten, then they increased by the dozens. Furthermore, they seemed to be getting closer.
The universe was collapsing.
* * *
After the accident, I fled back to the time machine. I was hyperventilating, lying on the floor of the time machine and trying to sort through the thoughts that were going through my mind like asteroids, catching on fire and colliding into each other. All those years of sadness and planning and inventing and insanity—all those years, spent doing nothing but writing a death sentence for the very person I was trying to save.
said a small voice in my head, that’s what you get for trying to control the universe.
No! I stood up, realizing what I had to do. I hadn’t come this far, suffered through so much, to stand idly by while my mother died. I had a time machine! I could do anything I wanted!
All I had to do was pull the lever and go back to earlier today. Only, instead of trying to find my mom, I would simply stay inside the time machine until nightfall, when she would be safe and alive at home. Then, I would go back to 2012. It was a brilliant plan.
I pulled the lever.
Perhaps I grabbed it too hard in my excitement; or perhaps I had been too careless when constructing the time machine; or perhaps the universe had simply been through enough and decided to end it all before I could make it even worse. Whatever the reason, just at that moment, the lever came clean off its base as I pulled it. The time machine, feeling the motion of the lever pushing forwards, lurched into the future. I grabbed the lever and, panicking, tried to re-attach it to its base—but it was no use. The time machine was locked, endlessly spiraling into the future until the future no longer existed.
* * *
The clock read 100,000,000,000 AD. But if I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought it was 2012. The universe was practically the same density that it had been when humans walked on Earth, and—although most of the stars had burned out—some of the fainter ones still existed. I even saw bits of what once may have been the Milky Way. It was like seeing old friends.
Even as I spoke, the stars got closer and closer together. Soon, they were denser than they had ever been in my lifetime, denser than they had ever been during humanity’s lifetime, denser than they had ever been during Earth’s lifetime. At this point, all I saw outside was an impenetrable wall of light, with a just a few pinpricks of black poking through.
At this point I had to turn away from the window and shield my eyes from the brightness of a billion stars, forced together in a relatively small expanse of sky. If this was the end, it was considerably brighter and warmer than I thought it would be.
With my eyes averted from the window, I lost awareness of what was happening outside. It was well past 1,000,000,000,000 AD when I finally looked up and saw the most amazing sight I had ever seen—and indeed, I or any other form of intelligent being will ever see again.
The universe had collapsed so completely that it was now only the size of a golf ball.
* * *
The golf-ball size universe had reduced to such an infinitesimal size that I could not even see it anymore; it was probably even smaller than an atom. It remained in this embryonic state for what must have been a couple million, perhaps even a billion years.
I realized sadly that this was it; not only was the universe over, but it had gone out anticlimactically, without a bang. And here I was, stuck for infinity with nothing to do but stare out at the emptiness outside my window.
It had just reached 100,000,000,000,000 AD when everything exploded.
Suddenly, the infinitely small speck of matter that was the universe expanded unimaginably, energy erupting suddenly and chaotically.
It was another Big Bang.
If light had existed, I would have been blinded; if sound had existed, my ear drums surely would have broken. In the first second, the universe had gone from being contained in an atom to becoming larger than 200 Milky Way galaxies combined—even without the time machine, it would have been an amazing sight to behold. By 30 seconds, it was almost half the size of the observable universe during my lifetime.
I saw comets flying past my window, only a couple of feet away from my face; I saw stars being born violently, galaxies forming, and constellations springing up out of nothingness. I saw a giant nebula collapse and form a star. I watched as a disk-shaped cloud of dust collected into huge balls of rock and gas, planets orbiting a sun.
I watched as one of the planets, still molten and primordial, was bombarded with asteroids. I watched as it gained a moon, then a solid crust, then an atmosphere, then water.
The planet was third from the sun.
* * *
The realization that the universe was cyclical struck me with such force that I felt as if I had been physically punched in the stomach. This destroyed everything I knew about time, about entropy. It gave a new kind of meaning to “inevitable”—one that was stranger, not as consistent with the laws of nature, but at the same time oddly optimistic. Who knows how many times the universe had been created and destroyed, created and destroyed, created and destroyed only to have the whole process start all over again?
From the looks of it, this universe was identical to the one that had come before it—the one that I belonged to. My time machine was once again planted on earth. Looking out through the window, I could even see the beginnings of life. Little fish-like creatures swam through the water, where there had only been bacteria before. I saw the fish grow larger and larger, more complex. Some of them even became amphibious.
The year was 1,000,000,000,000,000 AD. And, even though I knew that this Earth would inevitably meet the same fate as the previous one—reduced to nothing more than a string of asteroids—I felt strangely hopeful. Here, right now, was a new beginning; perhaps I would even manage to fix the time machine and stop it when humans finally appeared, in a couple million years. Regardless of what happened, one thing was certain: I would continue to live out my life the way time dictated it, going from present to future, present to future. But for once in my life, I realized I didn’t mind.
It was inevitable.
And who knows?
I thought as the counter reached 1,000,000,500,000,000 AD.
Some things might even get better.