The metallic air, along with the stench of runoff coolants, wafting up from the street through the rain smelled so acerbic that it made Leta imagine her nose hairs curling inward as she inhaled it, her stomach churning at the thought of it. She quickened her pace when she tasted bile at the tip of her tongue. She walked with her eyes downcast, trying to discourage any phantoms that might want to talk to her. How does anyone live here!
Of course, the scant few who lived on Metronome were either used to it or were crazy. Perhaps, they lived on it because they were all crazy. And she was in no rush to join them. “If only things hadn’t been this awful,” she muttered to herself, her boots clanking against the computer’s metallic body. “I’d still be home. Working on equational currents instead of worrying about the end of the Universe.” But it was her job to know, and that’s what she would do.
Through the pouring rain, she could see one of Metronome’s many Computational Units, the one she was supposed to meet Dex at, just a few feet away from her. Her heart fluttered at the thought of meeting him—she couldn’t help it. The acidic smell receded when she stepped under the eave of the Computational Unit. Huh, she thought, unbuckling her raincoat. Stench so thick, it needs water to rise up. Crazy, indeed.
Maybe she was being unfair to the hardworking scientists of Metronome. These were bleak days for everyone. Bleaker still for scientists like her, who were watching the Universe end, unable to stop it—unable to even comprehend what was happening. Maybe she was tired from the long flight to this planet-sized computer. Maybe it was the bloody history of Metronome, the genocide from over a thousand years ago, which had wiped the indigenous people of the planet off it to pave the way for humanity’s most audacious invention, that had set her nerves afire. She had seen phantoms roam the streets of Metronome, rising from the metal along with its damp fetor. Or maybe it was just this meeting with Dex. “Terrible news,” he had said, calling her a week ago. “Dark days ahead.”
She stood under the eave for a little while and watched green raindrops fall onto the metallic streets of Metronome. Everything about this planet—if it could even be called one—was utterly unnatural. Yet, even as she felt its poison seep into her lungs, she understood that she was standing on humanity’s greatest creation. Metronome. A computer built into a planet itself. A computer so large that its body made up the streets of the planet, its processors fused with the planet’s very core. A computer that could understand the beginning of the Universe, and could project higher dimensions into the ones humans could perceive. A computer that might be able to explain why the Universe was dying. And hopefully, also tell Leta how to save it.
She shook her head. I can’t keep avoiding this. She turned to the door to the Computational Unit. It was a seamless aluminum wall, indistinguishable from its other walls, save for the circular glass tube that ran through its center. She placed her hand on the lock beside the circle. Soon, she felt a small prick at the base of her palm when the Identifier drew her blood for DNA verification. She pulled her hand back, rubbing at the place where the needle had pricked her.
“Dr. Leta Karli,” the SecCom chimed. “Welcome. Dr. Dex has been expecting you.”
Blue light flooded into the tube, casting a soft glow on Leta’s white uniform. Then the circle shifted outward and then swung inward. Leta steeled herself and stepped into Dex’s Unit.
She had seen Computational Units before. Her job entailed visiting this phantom planet every now and then. The Units were like little outcrops, built as extensions of Metronome’s body, where scientists could go to cast in equations, observe the mathematical currents of astronomical events, and obtain predictions and solutions from Metronome’s processors. Are we not a part of it? Leta wondered like she did every time she walked into a Computational Unit. We—these scientists—feed it problems to solve, and relay the results to the rest of humanity, and they live in it. Where does Metronome end? Where does their humanity begin?
Dex’s Unit was much like others she had been to. Thousands of copper-coated solar cells studded all over its circular wall, all placed there with the sole objective of powering the computer that was built in the center of the room. Beside the computer, she saw a couple of mattresses with empty food cartons on them. And in a chair in front of the computer, watching Leta with intent eyes, sat Dex.
He had grown a beard since she had last seen him, but still looked younger than she did. His brown lab coat hung from his firm shoulders, sticking close to his arms, and fell loosely around his legs.
“Dex,” she asked. “How long since you last left the Unit?”
“Oh, I haven’t left in days,” Dex said, standing up to greet her. And while shaking her hand, he added, “Except, of course, to take a leak and then some.”
Leta smiled. “My dear Dex, the Universe is ending and you still cannot change.”
“Leta,” he said, turning to face the computer, his form illuminated in the light streaming out of it, “I think that the end of everything is the perfect time to do what one must.”
Chuckling, she stepped up beside him. She wanted to thank him for greeting her as if nothing had changed. Leta wasn’t sure if she’d have been this welcoming had Dex shown up back home. Even now, standing beside her friend who now looked so unfamiliar, she couldn’t believe that he had chosen to work on Metronome. Maybe she was still mad at him for abandoning her. Or maybe she knew that the phantoms would get to him.
And they had. Dex from seven years ago would have never let himself be indoctrinated into the false religion of the Lost Jatahu. This Dex, who looked so unfamiliar now, wore the seal of the Lost Jatahu around his neck. The pendant rested on his chest, where his lab coat showed skin.
Leta huffed internally. If one could blaspheme against science, this would be it.
Things had changed. She needed to remember that.
“Dex, I haven’t known peace since you called me,” she said. “That cryptic phone call of yours. Tell me, and tell it to me straight. What have you learned?”
Dex stood there with his eyes focused on the computer screen. Finally, he asked,
“Have you heard of Mizken?”
Leta shut her eyes, trying to keep her frustration from showing. “Dex, please—”
“Mizken was the SaarPanch—the tribe leader—of the largest northern tribe here on Jatahu,” he said. Then, he looked at her. “My apologies. Of course, here on Metronome.”
“Dex—” Leta said, but Dex interrupted her again.
“He lived on the planet until only two years before we blew it to hell,” he began. “He was the bravest this world had ever known. Strong. Smarter than us scientists, they say. They say that had he been around when we came, we never would have been able to build Metronome here.
“Alas, Kihn—curse that fool—a member of Mizken’s tribe rebelled against him. That rat went so far as to plot his own leader’s murder. They say Mizken was long dead by the time Kihn went to murder him. Died from a broken heart, they say. Betrayed by his kin. Well, they got what was coming for them.”
Despite herself, Leta asked, “What did they get?”
“Huh?” Dex asked as if he hadn’t just been preaching about it.
“Kihn, and the rest of the Jatahu people?” Leta asked.
“That’s a rather silly question,” he said, smiling. “They got us. Blowing their planet to hell.”
A chill perked up in the pit of her stomach and sent a jolt up her spine.
“They say Mizken brought us to this planet. Jatahu people believe that they were their god’s special creations, that they could access him like no one else. Mizken went to their god and with His help led humanity here. And we took care of the rest.”
His eyes were so stern that his penetrating gaze made her feel exposed. The last time she had seen him, childlike humor was all he was. But there was more to him now. How deep is he in this religion? What’s this got to do with the death of the Universe?
“Terrible leader,” he said. “Well, anyway. Yes.”
Leta started. “Yes what?”
“The Universe is ending,” he declared.
She had known that for over a year now, had studied possible causes for astronomical bodies ceasing all movement, for the light they emitted freezing in place. But this was a terrible confirmation, one she never really wished to hear. Not from Dex, not on Metronome.
“I… I need to sit…” she said, her throat drying up.
He brought her his chair. She plopped down in it. The universe is dying! “Why?” she croaked.
He placed a hand on her shoulder. “This is going to be hard, Leta. We can talk about it in some.”
She looked up at the man who had once been her friend. But all she could see was the symbol he wore. “And what do we do in the meantime?” she barked at him. “Another pathetic lesson in the history of the Lost Jatahu? Want to take another shot at me? Remind me that I am a horrible person for not moving here with you—to atone for the sins of our ancestors, was it?”
He cringed. “Leta—”
“Or better yet: convert me! Yes, teach me the sick ways of your religion of ghosts, and give me one of these pendants!”
“Leta!” he said, his voice stern. “Enough!” Then he crouched in front of her, his eyes locking onto hers. For a bizarre moment, she thought he might kiss her. But he simply grabbed her shoulders. “You need to calm down. I know it’s a lot to ask of a person who’s just been told that their universe is dying, but you need to stay calm if you want to understand what is happening to the Universe. Can you do that?”
She swallowed but nodded. She had known that he would only confirm their theories. And she was a scientist. She would understand why reality was breaking, even as it broke her. That’s what she did.
She got out of the chair and turned to face the computer. “Show me.”
He dragged that chair to the computer and sat in it. Then he pulled his work up on the screen. Leta noticed something odd. His database consisted of files from more than a year ago. Leta, and other scientists from multiple worlds, had been at that problem for over a year too. But Metronome was brought into the equation only after months of fruitless toil. In a way, it was ironic. Humanity’s greatest invention, built upon a planet-wide genocide, was seldom used for the very same reason. In the scientific community, there were certain superstitions about Metronome. And then there were the phantoms, the ghosts of the Jatahu people that the locals said roamed Metronome’s metallic streets. Leta shivered remembering the hazy air to her right as she had walked in the rain. Surely, it was my mind playing tricks on me. Surely, it was.
“How did you begin your work over a year ago when the Board approved your involvement only two months ago?” she asked.
He paused and looked at her. “The universe is ending, Leta. Not really a time for bureaucratic loyalty.” He turned back to the computer. “And besides, there are many things you don’t know about this place.”
Then, he said, “So, only a month ago did we learn this. Your theories about what was happening were mostly accurate. The planetary system that froze first was a thousand lightyears away. You can see on the screen when its planets stopped moving around it, when the luminosity dips stopped. And it’s not just that one of the planets stopped, right? All of them stopped.”
“Yes, and others started to follow. Distant systems and rogue astronomical bodies stopped moving, as if a video was paused, a frame frozen,” Leta said.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “But the thing that tipped us off was something Metronome observed five weeks ago. All the extra-solar objects that stopped, didn’t stop suddenly.”
“You mean they stopped flashing warning signs?” Leta asked.
“Yes, they did! But those were too minute for anything but Metronome to notice. The planets, the stars, the light they gave off—all of them—slowed before they stopped! Like a wind-up toy slowing down as its torsion spring unwinds. That’s what’s happening to the Universe, Leta! We’re—”
Leta finished his thought. “Running out of time.”
He sat back with his strong eyes fixated on her. “Yes, we are. We thought that spacetime was a unified entity, that Time was something woven into the very fabric of the Universe. But that’s not the true nature of time. It’s… extra-universal!”
“Dex,” she said carefully. “This is the wildest thing I’ve ever heard. You’re essentially saying that Time existed before the Universe was born, that Time exists beyond the Universe. So, what? The Universe just draws Time into itself, and that well is drying up? You’re implying that there were universes before ours, or at least that the beginning of the Universe was just another event on a timeline older than itself. Are you sure about this?”
He stood up, took her hands into his, and said, “Leta, this isn’t some theory of mine. This is what the evidence dictates. This is what Metronome has deduced. Whatever happened at the beginning of the Universe, it didn’t happen all over all at once. The Universe began in phases, different regions of it beginning at distinct points in time. It wasn’t really a Big Bang. It was more like a Big Wave. And the wave was Time. It came to the Universe and the Universe began. And now that wave is receding. The sea will be quiet again.”
There was a temporary solution to this, but the large-scale implication was soul-crushing. They both went quiet for a while until Leta said, “So, we calculate when Time will freeze here—when entropy will be neutralized in an arbitrary equilibrium—move our civilization to a different location before that happens, and wait till Time runs out there as well?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s what we have to do. With this new information, Metronome has calculated potentially habitable regions with the highest concentration of Time—the newest regions of the Universe. But…”
Leta perked up. “But what?”
He turned away from her. “You don’t want to know what I think.”
“Oh, Dex,” she said, stepping around to face him. “How I wish to hear everything you’ve been thinking. It’s been too long, my friend. We’ve been away too long. Please. Please, tell me what you think.”
He looked at her and smiled. Suddenly, he seemed so much older, the wrinkles around his eyes seemed so much deeper. “I think we deserve it.”
How dare he wish extinction upon his own people! His religion!
Her eyes drifted to his pendant as he brought it up to his eyes and uttered a silent prayer. Then he said, “The Jatahu believed that they were their god's special creations. It’s said that when we exterminated them, they went to Him and begged that justice be served. They speak of this. It’s that their god has hunted us down ever since the day we killed them. A thousand years ago.”
Leta almost gasped when she realized what he meant. It all made a morbid sort of sense. A thousand years ago, humans had destroyed the Jatahu people. That’s when the first planetary system stopped. And what of the phantoms she saw every time she visited Metronome? But no. Her rational mind understood that she only saw those phantoms because she had been told she would. “Coincidence,” she said.
“Maybe,” he whispered, his eyes latched onto hers, their faces dangerously close. “But soil still breathes beneath all this metal, Leta. What do you think grows there?”
Her eyes were focused on the tip of his nose as she felt his gravity almost pull her in. Almost. She moved away, for things were still terribly broken between them. But the Universe was dying around them and she still hoped to save humanity, albeit temporarily. Perhaps things that were broken could be fixed, albeit arduously.
“I’ll let the Board know about your discoveries,” Leta said.
He cleared his throat. “Yes, and I’ll be there to present my case in person, of course. Sorry for saying that we all deserve to die.”
She shook her head. “I don’t blame you. While I don’t think we deserve to die for the crimes our ancestors committed a thousand years ago, I do believe that there’s more truth to your words than I can understand right now.”
He looked genuinely surprised.
“Perhaps,” Leta said. “You can tell me more about what you think when you come to see the Board.”
“I… uh… of course… I mean, yes.”
Leta smiled, finally seeing a glimpse of her old friend. But she understood that she would also have to get used to the man he had become. She was a scientist—it was her job to know. And she would love to know him again.
“And anyway,” Leta said, turning to leave, “their god will catch up with us eventually. And then we’ll get what we deserve. Whatever it may be.”