“The Alternity of Dead Universes” by Monte Lin

The Alternity, a council of sentient dead universes, has come to watch another universe die, but receives a puzzling message broadcasted on all frequencies, gamma, x-ray, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, radio:

“Our star fires are burning out. Singularities threaten to crush us in wells of hellish entropy. We fight against the inevitable proton decay, physics breaking us down to subatomic particles. We see the end, our fate to be cold, forever in a starless night, starved of the energy of even atomic bonds. We have huddled to islands of hope, the last beacons of light, not to hunger but to find a way to survive. We want the potential energy of a future. Please help us.”

“What is this?” One-2, a sentient dead universe, says, their voice so sharp, they cut atoms. “Which one of you has transmitted this message?”

“None of us have. This dying universe has intelligences already within it,” StrangeCharm, another sentient dead universe, says with a low hum and the occasional sharp pop of particles failing to form. “Intelligences like us.”

They all came to observe the death of this universe, not to mourn but to celebrate. When some universes die, they reach a stable state, an endless glitter of electron-positron annihilation-creations, for example, and sometimes enough random movements of matter and energy resemble thought, sentience, sapience, intelligence, flashing with self-awareness. A dead universe can reemerge and be reborn.

“A pattern that resembles intelligence, perhaps,” One-2 says, “but not true intelligence.”

One-2, a twelve-dimensional crystalline superstructure, unchanging, rigid, and fragile, leads the Alternity. These sentient universes measure time in eras, and with this arbitrary meter, One-2 has the distinction of being the first, the oldest, intelligent manifestation of a dead universe.

“What defines true intelligence?” StrangeCharm says. “We have unstated rules and definitions that have not changed or have not been challenged since my acceptance into the Alternity. Now is the time to reevaluate our purpose. We must answer this cry for help.”

With a poor strong force, StrangeCharm has less energy compared to One-2 or even I*&@^!, a dead universe that never had a distinct arrow of time, such that cause and effect is unplottable and unpredictable. (I*&@^! remains similarly unpredictable and thus their conversations always get interrupted by the past, start contextless in the present, and end remembered in the future.) With this lower energy, StrangeCharm takes much more time to come to a decision or realization, and had given up decision making to the more active (One-2) and aggressive (Aggregate) dead universes. But not this time.

“This nonsense is not our concern,” One-2 says.

A crystalline twelve-dimensional structure remains stable if a bit fragile in exotic physics, so the other universes wrap themselves with the material, a form of skin, a rigid membrane to protect each member of the Alternity from the physics of the dying universe. One-2 lent them this technology, allowing them to communicate with each other, and many owe a debt to them. This generosity and their age make them their de facto leader.

Wrapped in these crystalline skins, the Alternity floats in a vast empty space in the dying universe, in a huge void, a cold spot of nothingness, to prevent any accidental interaction with matter or energy that might perturb an emerging intelligence. Several dozen crystalline skins, translucent and shifting, huddle close together to talk.

“The so-called intelligences of this universe are small, multitudinous, scattered, minute, ephemeral,” One-2 says. “We are infinite, expansive, of endless complexity.”

“By definition, you are finite and limited,” NoNoNo says, whose voice resembles the frequency of a starving supermassive black hole bleeding electromagnetic radiation, a low whine, a growl of anger at its inevitable death. “As a crystalline superstructure, you have definite borders and have not changed or expanded for many eras.”

NoNoNo, bitter as always, came from a dead universe where the strong force had too much influence, causing matter to flare from atomic reactions within its first era and die soon after. Huge, stable atoms floated in an endless darkness for eons, taking much longer for NoNoNo to gain self-awareness. The Alternity has always treated NoNoNo as a late bloomer.

“Nor shall I or will I,” One-2 says. “We have no need for change. This is the order of things.”

“We welcome intelligence,” StrangeCharm says, interrupting their inevitable bickering. “That is what the Alternity does. When I came to being, you welcomed me. We must extend that generosity to these ephemeral intelligences. They have a right to exist as we do.”

“By the end of this debate,” Aggregate says, speaking in a frequency that crushes, presses, constricts, “these small, minute, ephemeral entities will have been extinguished many times over. They have an existence shorter than the life cycle of a star.”

“You have never had a star,” NoNoNo says. Aggregate’s universe had a gravitational constant much higher than any of the others, and is essentially a single singularity with no event horizon, as unchanging as One-2 yet even more dense. “Night is all you know.”

“And this universe will end in endless night also.”

Though StrangeCharm and NoNoNo are opposites in origin, the first’s strong force too feeble and the second’s too intense, their composition resembles the other. StrangeCharm’s soupy quark haze engages in sapient thought-motion in much the same way as NoNoNo’s heavy atomic clusters. They often chat separate from the Alternity, by touching their crystalline skins and vibrating the membranes. They watch the dying universe reach an era of ever-fading dimness as white dwarves and black holes dominate the skies.

“Why do we need to witness the deaths of universes?” NoNoNo says, for the infinite time. “Why must we wait for it to obtain intelligence anyway, if it does at all?”

“It is called a ‘hobby.’ An indulgence to pass the time and amuse.”

“boring ? How will infinity can be” I*&@^! says, their voice the clash of particles and anti-particles forming loops and spirals as the resultant energy swirls around electromagnetic lines.

Neither StrangeCharm nor NoNoNo invite I*&@^! to these chats, but they also don’t kick them out.

NoNoNo remains silent for eons before replying. “You have been speaking to the ephemerals. ‘Hobby’ sounds like an ephemeral word.”

StrangeCharm pauses for eons too. “I have. I’ve extended my crystalline skin and vibrated on a frequency that the ephemerals can interpret. They have replied often.”

“It must be uninteresting to have the same conversation each time.”

“have conversation ! the ephemerals! times many I this same”

“They somehow have memory despite generations of deaths and births. The conversations evolve, loop, tangent, change. I believe they do not want to die.”

“They do nothing but die. That is all they are good at. Why should we deny them their destiny?”

Unbeknownst to the Alternity, StrangeCharm had taken up the practice of observing universes while they live, and noticed the ephemerals only half an era ago. This dying universe had many instances of minute intelligences, dotted across the galaxies like a fistful of photons thrown into the void, skipping across the quantum foam before sinking back into emptiness. Like the spontaneous quantum generation of particles and anti-particles, these instances of intelligence flare up and burn out constantly, but to StrangeCharm, they flare brilliantly.

By burning pieces of their crystalline skin, StrangeCharm excites a section of their quark haze into higher activity in order to communicate with the ephemerals more quickly. With a reaction akin to surprise (a cluster of their top quarks aligning in a certain way), StrangeCharm realizes that the ephemerals do indeed understand the fate of their universe and have built their own skins around dying stars. Each skin-wrapped star, StrangeCharm observes, acts as mini-universes that communicate with each other using membrane vibrations and energy. Even though whole generations die before they receive replies, they have formed their own kind of Alternity.

StrangeCharm gifts them a piece of their own crystalline skin and transmits instructions on its use to communicate with the Alternity of Dead Universes. The ephemerals deserve the right to exist, StrangeCharm thinks. Within not even an eon—these ephemerals have not only understood but replicated the technology—they place a beacon to transmit the message, “Please help us…”

The communication between StrangeCharm and the ephemerals comes in massive, yottabyte chunks, confessionals and questions crowded into beams of power siphoned from quark stars. StrangeCharm has to burn more potential energy from bits of their twelve-dimensional skin in order to answer.

“How do you live such short ephemeral lives? How can you remember what happens after you die? Do you understand thought? What is life? How did the universe make you? What is beauty?”

The answers and questions that the ephemerals return delight StrangeCharm:

“We see death as a new beginning. We look to the future, to generations after us to carry on the work, by telling stories without end. We believe the universe made us to contemplate itself. Life is the struggle to understand life. Beauty is the hope of a future.

“What is the fate of all matter and energy? If you are endless, what purpose do you have? What does eternity mean? If your body exists in a stable state, how can you generate the energy to communicate? Can you birth new universes? Are you a god?”

These rapid conversations from so many sources make StrangeCharm’s quarks spin, but they answer best they can:

“Endless silence would be our fates if it were not for the Alternity. Each new emergent sentience should redefine our purpose. Eternity means the end of possibilities. We utilize our fragile crystalline skins to provide the energy to communicate. We do not understand this ‘birth’ or ‘rebirth’, please explain. Gods have omnipotence and we are merely eternal. If I were to lose my crystalline skin, my quarks would interact with your universe and coalesce, igniting proton, electron, and neutron creation. I would no longer be. Even a dead universe can die.”

“In the end,” the ephemerals individually and collectively say, “you are as fragile as we are.”

StrangeCharm excites several more quark clusters to retain memories, and soon, a pulsing heart in the center of their being increases in density, powering all thought toward the ephemerals and how to help them.

StrangeCharm calls a meeting, and the Alternity congregates, their crystalline skins touching each other, allowing the transmission of energy frequencies to travel throughout such twelve-dimensions. One-2 makes no indication they have considered the ephemerals’ message, so StrangeCharm wastes eons explaining their earlier communications and the ephemerals’ plight.

Even I*&@^! acknowledges the transmissions. “Ephemerals answer I we must the.”

“Mimicking intelligence does not indicate intelligence,” One-2 says.

“Yet they communicate, respond, innovate,” StrangeCharm says.

“Your interference may have changed the natural order, the progression of heat death,” Aggregate says. “This dying universe may not be able to join the Alternity due to your tampering.”

“That form of intelligence may never come,” StrangeCharm says. “This briefer form already exists. Communicate with them. Test their sapience yourself.” An odd harmonic reverberates within StrangeCharm’s crystalline skin. It feels like a low-grade frequency the size of a proton, a hum throughout its existence, a warning agitating their quark haze.

“They die before communication can complete,” One-2 says. “The fading black holes sing in a more pleasing manner and carry just as much meaning.”

“The others have not presented an opinion,” StrangeCharm replies. “NoNoNo agrees with me that the ephemerals need to be heard. I*&@^! believes this also.”

“NoNoNo agrees to disagree, I*&@^! cannot tell backwards from forwards, and I have already made the decision. The Alternity refuses.”

The hum increases, and the agitation of their quarks resembles fear and their haze condenses in defense of an attack. This makes thought difficult with so many connections focused on the hum.

“Your opinion and interference are clear. You cannot be trusted to observe this dying universe, nor can you be trusted with communication.”

Aggregate, One-2’s enforcer, channels its massive energy and shatters StrangeCharm’s gifted twelve-dimensional crystalline skin, absorbing the pieces. Before the thunderous crack reverberates through its quark haze, stunning them, they feel themselves fall into a familiar empty coldness, cut off from contact with the Alternity and the ephemerals.

StrangeCharm came to self-awareness several hundred eras ago, from a universe where the strong force was not such and could not hold atomic structures. Their particles degenerated into a cold, grey quark haze and hovered in a suspended state. After an infinity, several quarks interacted in repeatable patterns, and after several more infinities, that network became self-aware, consisting of top, bottom, up, down, strange, and charm quarks organically repurposed into a brain.

StrangeCharm had been born in solitude. They had no concept of others. In the timelessness of their own existence, they contemplated themselves. What had formed themselves, the quark haze? Had they had an existence before their own self-awareness? Could another intelligence exist? And while they thought this thought, they sensed a vibration, a hum, a twelve-dimensional structure that vibrated select quarks in a way that StrangeCharm knew to be intelligent communication.

A subtle, glittering, confident presence said, “Welcome to the Alternity. You are not alone.” An another. A friend. One-2.

They joined the Alternity and explored dead universes that had not yet obtained intelligences and universes that would not. The Alternity discovered a set of lonely membranes that rippled once an era, echoes of a past, unknowable existence, like a stone dropped into a deep, opaque, still pool. They found a universe filled with angry iron stars, bitter at their short lives, barely self-aware, violently exploding into supernova, tearing each other apart despite the Alternity’s protestations. Another universe, equally divided between matter and anti-matter, slowly ground itself into violent energy waves.

StrangeCharm found themselves watching this matter-anti-matter violence for eons, attuning their skin to sense gamma radiation, splitting pieces off to observe from different perspectives. An infinite horizon, glittering and boiling, tendrils of light across the spectrum, irradiating everything, painted an image without life, but with a beauty that needed an intelligence to witness it.

This moment that lasted the lifespan of universes taught StrangeCharm to appreciate these realities for the gift of their existence. A thing can be appreciated for its own sake, not only for its potential.

At the boundary of its own quark haze, StrangeCharm feels a mild gravitational disturbance and a familiar electromagnetic frequency from a twelve-dimensional crystalline transmitter, but not built of One-2’s material or technology.

“StrangeCharm,” NoNoNo says from the transmitter, “the ephemerals have innovated. They gifted us this device.”

“Does One-2 or Aggregate suspect?”

“No, but I had to self-exile in protest.”

A quark haze cluster radiates warmth toward NoNoNo; the bitter, dead universe truly has a heart of considerable atomic mass.

“. message us have save a They for” I*&@^! interrupts.

Embedded in the transmitter lies a message from the ephemerals. It doesn’t take StrangeCharm much time to decode the message since the math explains itself, even if the true meaning of the words eludes them.

“Thank you for your help. Don’t return to our universe for any reason for your own safety. We intend to die in atomic fires rather than in frozen absolute zero. Goodbye. Please usher in the next existence with your kindness and empathy.”

StrangeCharm’s curiosity and concern overwhelm their caution, and they restructure the ephemerals’ transmitter to observe the dying universe, despite their warning, and discover that part of it is anchored near (cosmologically) another twelve-dimensional structure wrapped around a singularity, a translucent sphere revealing an ever-shifting image of nothingness. They also discover a database of transmissions, messages from the ephemerals, to the Alternity with pleas to save them, to each other with wild plans to save themselves, and collections of art, music, literature, and mathematics.

StrangeCharm distills all this to one simple intent: “Please remember us.”

The dying universe has already entered the phase where all matter exists only in black holes, bleeding off energy since nothing else exists to fuel their cores. All matter here sings an electromagnetic hum in the gamma wave frequency, a choir of what once was, a drone of a single word ushering the end.

StrangeCharm observes, with a cluster of quarks quivering in a warm, soft rhythm, that the ephemerals have constructed more twelve-dimensional structures, all wrapped around black hole singularities, somehow utilizing the twelve dimensions to harness their energies. Each one of these skin-wrapped singularities, a perfect translucent crystal, has congregated around the space of near zero mass, the cold spot, the scar in the fabric of space-time. The original birthplace of this universe, and the Alternity’s observation locale.

StrangeCharm can sense the Alternity of Dead Universes nearby. One-2, their glittering edges sharp against the membrane of this universe’s space-time grid, forces it to part way as they sail closer to the offending ephemerals. I*&@^! exists by One-2’s side, oddly passive. NoNoNo can’t be seen anywhere. Did Aggregate destroy their crystalline skin also or are they simply hiding somewhere? Or have they heeded the ephemerals’ warning?

StrangeCharm knows One-2 wants to personally observe this universe’s final gasp, the moment when the hum dies and becomes nothing but a silent medley of electrons, photons, positrons, and neutrinos. A ready-made medley for an emerging sentience. By wrapping singularities, the ephemerals have managed to delay the entropic end, a blink to an eternity, but a defiant blink. Is this enough to move One-2’s unchanging crystalline body?

Aggregate, massive and imposing, leaves One-2’s side. StrangeCharm recalls the sensation when they lost their crystalline skin, the baleful hum and the shockwave that scattered their thoughts. What if Aggregate uses their potential energy to destroy the ephemerals’ singularity-skins? Would they go that far? The thought of this violence agitates their quark haze, and StrangeCharm angles the transmitter toward Aggregate to propel it to light speed. Ramming Aggregate terrifies them for betraying a peer, but saving a friend, many friends, gives them no reason to hesitate.

The singularity-skin near StrangeCharm emits a burst of gamma ray energy, a shout, a cut through the perfect darkness of the dying universe. The shout screams toward One-2 at the speed of light, so much power that the singularity must be depleted, and the singularity-skin goes dark, its crystal merging with the night.

Moments later (in the measurement of near-immortal sentient universes), StrangeCharm detects another shout, distant and distinct, from another singularity-skin, and then another and another, from points throughout, all pointed toward One-2. These shouts, the ephemerals’ last attempt to get One-2’s attention, race toward them, and StrangeCharm braces for the inevitable destruction.

Every single singularity-skin screams their gamma radiation message at One-2, with enough power to extinguish their sole power source. If this plan fails, they will die frozen and starving, their corpses decaying into an electron-positron soup.

Matter and energy are the same. A black hole singularity can form from matter, but also by energy if enough power reaches a single point. The last shouts of the singularity-skins have enough energy to create a powerful singularity, pulling One-2’s crystalline skin past its event horizon.

One-2 disengages that piece of themselves, protecting the whole, but sacrificing enough that they lose the ability to process what had happened to them. Energy arcs throughout their crystalline body, and they broadcast a warning, “Danger danger danger.”

I*&@^!, still linked with One-2, should disengage but instead remains fast against One-2, so they also get caught in the singularity’s gravity well, a piece of their own crystalline skin shattering, exposing them to the dying universe, pulling apart the time aspect of the space-time fabric.

StrangeCharm realizes that I*&@^!, the universe with multiple arrows of time, simultaneously living in their own past, present, and future, must have known of their eventual fate. Did they accept their end? Did they know that the ephemerals’ plan would fail without their interference? Did they say goodbye?

I*&@^!’s multiple arrows of time force toward one direction, and the resultant explosive energy engulfs One-2, finally shattering its superstructure and scattering its potential energy within the quantum fabric. Under all that pressure and power, the dying universe ignites.

With the twelve-dimensional transmitter destroyed in the conflagration, StrangeCharm finds themself isolated once more. They use this time to experiment with their quark haze. Could they reignite their body and give birth to a new universe without destroying themself? How much time would it take for them to build a new twelve-dimensional interface to find the rest of the Alternity? How much time would it take to find a dead universe to reignite and rebuild the Alternity’s numbers?

These questions, StrangeCharm realizes, mean that they no longer wishes to remain in isolation.

So when they receive a message, a section of their quark haze returns to a rest state, relief. A new crystalline device arrives and unfolds into a new skin for StrangeCharm, with a simple message: “Join us.”

Ephemeral, the new intelligent universe, is not dead, but alive, the material of the two other universes pouring into each other, multiple arrows of time sliding along several crystalline paths. Resting on “top” of this ever-shifting gemstone, the ephemerals live in singularity-skins and contemplate, communicate, and argue, a multitude of voices acting as one. They may take eons to come to consensus, but that is a blink of an eye to a sapient dead universe.

Over a dozen crystalline devices, glittering diamonds haloing the translucent spheres, transmit messages to each other, representing the Alternity. StrangeCharm listens to the ephemerals, communications radiation lighting up the singularity-skins in all the colors of the rainbow, gamma, x-ray, ultraviolet, infrared, microwave, radio. The chatter, a rain of voices, blankets StrangeCharm, placing their quark haze in a higher energy state, warmth.

NoNoNo’s crystalline device turns and broadcasts to StrangeCharm: “Welcome home.”


While being rained on near Portland, Oregon, Monte Lin writes, edits, and plays tabletop roleplaying games. Clarion West got him to write about dying universes, dreaming mountains, and singularities made of anxieties. He can be found tweeting Doctor Who news, Asian American diaspora discourse, and his board game losses at @Monte_Lin.