The End of the Line

Jenny has been thrown through space and time at the behest of a mysterious, charismatic man who claims to be an alien time-traveller of some kind. But she’s had enough – it’s time to go the the end of the line and find out what’s really going on.

As Jenny walked through the doorway, the cavernous control room shuddered and she was forced to brace herself against one of the strange, curved metal walls. She raised her eyebrows at the man who stood at the control panel in the centre of the room and he gave her his usual impish smile. “What’s going on?” she demanded, not bothering to hide the exasperation in her voice.

“Nothing to be concerned about,” he said nonchalantly, his long fingers playing across the alien controls, “she gets a little unruly from time to time.”

She rolled her eyes, less at his ridiculous excuse for whatever this latest disaster to befall them was than at his continuous habit of referring to his machine using female pronouns. There was something distinctly creepy about the whole thing. As the rumbling calmed slightly, she took a tentative step into the room and then joined him at the controls. The shifting symbols on the display were still gibberish to her, but standing here made her feel more in control of her destiny. “Where are we going?” she asked as her gaze roved around the vast room.

“Um…well, hard to tell.”

“That’s what you always say, and yet we always seem to crash land somewhere people need help.”

“Well, you know, time travel is a mysterious business.” He waggled his fingers and grinned again.

“Sure. Yeah.” She sighed. Jenny still didn’t exactly believe what this mysterious man – this Traveller, as he called himself – told her about what was going on. She’d been in Cardiff, just going about her business, when things had taken a turn for the very weird indeed. Robots or cyborgs or something climbing out of the sewers, claiming they were trying to take over the world in their tinny, hollow voices. She’d assumed it was some sort of elaborate viral marketing campaign for some terrible new BBC drama or something, but then this character had shown up, apparently intent on stopping the would-be invasion and then, somehow, she’d ended up here, in his supposed time machine. Since then she’d been thrown through time and space, following this strange, gawky man around like a bloody lapdog, getting involved in historical events, travelling to the future, seeing things she’d never thought possible. If this was for a TV show, they’d blown all their budget on advertising.

“Now,” the Traveller said, “I think if I press this…”

“You don’t even know how to operate this thing!” she said, throwing up her hands.

He paused and eyed her over the console. “Well, I admit, it is more art than science…”

“Who are you anyway? I don’t know anything about you, even after all we’ve been through!”

“I’ve told you plenty!”

“Bits and pieces. Tell me the whole story. You abducted me and…”

Rescued you! I saved your life, Jen!”

“Where are you from?”

He was distracted by a flashing light on the panel in front of him, and seconds later the room shook again. He danced around to the other side, pressing more buttons, his tongue sticking out of one side of his mouth. “It’s complicated,” he said over the sudden sound of blaring alarms. With a mash of his fist on the closest panel, they shut off abruptly and he gave a satisfied nod.

“How can it be complicated? Are you from the future?”

“Sort of.”

“Are you human?”

He seemed to give that some thought. “It’s…”

“Complicated?” She shook her head. “You’re impossible!”

“No, just improbable.” He moved to another control. The shaking subsided momentarily.

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

“Did it make you laugh?”

She pointed at her face. “You tell me.”

“Okay…okay.” He grinned disarmingly. “I’m not human.”

“You look human. Well…sort of…your face is a bit weird and your hands are massive.”

He looked offended and held his hands up in front of him, turning them over and peering closely. “Massive? Really?”

“What are you?!” she screamed.

“Whoa, okay…I’m not human. But I’m not really an alien either. Not as you’d understand it. That term doesn’t really cover it.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means…well…I’m descended from something a lot like you, okay?”

“This isn’t helping…”

“I’m very, very far removed from the universe you understand. Unimaginably so. Your world, to me, is like the primordial ooze to you. But several million of orders of magnitude further and…”

She screamed again and put her hands to her head. “Enough! I’m done with this! Take me home!”

“Look, I told you, it’s not that simple!”

“Make it simple!” Her eyes blazed fury as she levelled a finger at him. “You find a way to make it happen!”

He drew himself up. “Or what?”

“Or…or you tell me the truth, all right? You tell me everything!”

“I don’t know if I can do that…”

“You take me home or you tell me the truth! That’s the deal!”

“But…”

“Am I your prisoner? Is that it?”

His eyes went wide. “Prisoner? No, no of course not! You’re…you’re my companion…”

“So tell me.”

“It’s…”

“TELL ME!”

Silence fell across the room. All was still, mercifully, then another dull shudder. The Traveller raised his hands. “Okay. Okay.” Moving slowly, like she was holding a gun, he pressed a button on the panel in front of him. “I can’t tell you,” he said softly, “I really can’t. But I think I can show you. That might be better.”

The lights in the control room dimmed momentarily, and she had the odd impression they were moving. There was a sensation, something very fundamental, deeper even than a feeling of physical movement, that suggested progress. “I thought you only had limited control over her,” she whispered.

“This is a basic command.”

“What?”

“Home,” he said.

*

At the machine’s exit, they paused. The Traveller looked her up and down. “We haven’t known each other long,” he said, “but you’re the first of my companions to have seen this.”

“Really?” her voice was flat. She was tired, and homesick, and annoyed that calling this bizarre man’s bluff hadn’t worked.

“You still don’t believe any of this do you?”

“Nope.”

He cocked his head. “Why is it so unbelievable?”

“Uh…what?” She began to count off on her fingers. “First, this ‘machine’ is ridiculous. I can’t even figure out how big it is. Second, it’s impossible to travel through time…”

“Is it?”

“Of course it is! I’m not an idiot, Mr Traveller, or whatever your stupid name is. First, it would violate causality. Everyone knows that. If you travel back in time, you change things, and the future you came from is altered. Step on a butterfly in the Cretaceous period, usher in a neo-fascist government.”

“It’s never quite that neat…”

“Sure, but here’s the other problem: as soon as you invent time travel, it automatically exists throughout history forever, doesn’t it? Because there are millions of years of future for people to use that technology in. So if time travel was possible, all of time would be choked with future tourists gawking at everything around them. History would be a complete mess.”

“That’s true,” the Traveller said, stroking his chin thoughtfully.

“So you see,” she went on, “it’s all just bollocks.”

“Hm. Hard to argue with that. But, you got one thing wrong…” He pressed the button to open the door. It began to roll back with a hiss.

“What?”

“There aren’t millions of years of future – there are billions. Thousands of billions. More than you can imagine. More than there are numbers for in your language. Time stretches on and on and on, into a future you can’t envisage. And that’s where we are now.”

The door opened and she stared at the scene before her. “Where is this?” she asked.

“The end of the line.” He took her hand and led her out.

As the smoke cleared, Jenny found herself standing in the archetypal Fifties diner. She didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this. She blinked as she looked around. The lighting was harsh and fluorescent, but also somehow insipid and washed out. The plate glass windows that covered almost the entirety of two walls were reflective and black. Nothing was visible outside. The counter, all tarnished chrome and stained Formica, was surrounded by spinning stools and the rest of the room was taken up by narrow booths. The upholstery was faded red leather, fraying at the edges, threadbare in places so that the yellowish stuffing inside showed. In the corner, a dishevelled figure, unshaven, dirty, looking like nothing less than a street bum, snored softly, hands in fingerless gloves folded over his gut. The clientele at the counter weren’t much better. A middle-aged man in a cheap, stained suit sat with a cup of cold coffee next to him, slowly turning a battered fedora around in his hands. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. At his feet was a suitcase with the leather worn at the corners. She figured he was a travelling salesman, down on his luck. Just across from him was a woman with bright red hair, showing grey at the roots, in a dress far too short and tight for her. She was chaining cigarettes, and a grey miasma filled the air around her. Behind the counter, in front of a grill that looked completely unused, stood a bored-looking waitress with a beehive hairdo and a grubby apron. A cigarette dropped from her mouth. Her cheap lipstick had stained her teeth. Despite there be no visible means of ventilation, Jenny felt cold and put her arms around herself. “Nice place,” she murmured.

“I know, right?” The Traveller took a seat at the counter and held up two fingers to the waitress. Listlessly, she moved to the coffee machine and began to pour two cups.

“What is this place?” Jenny asked, taking a seat beside the Traveller.

“Well…hm…you ever read any Douglas Adams?”

“Sure.”

“Remember the Restaurant at the End of the Universe?” He held up his hands. “Ta-da…”

She looked around at the depressing surroundings. “Really?”

“What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know. A party?” The coffee arrived. It looked grey and unappetising. Jenny grimaced and pushed hers away slightly.

“What is there to celebrate?”

“I don’t know…isn’t it exciting?”

“Nope. Just the opposite. The exciting stuff all happened a long, long time ago.”

“I can see that.” She looked around at the bored, lifeless inhabitants of the ghoulish diner. No one looked at anyone else, no one said a word, there was no music, just endless yawning silence. “Who built this place?”

The Traveller took several packs of sugar from the condiment bowl on the counter and began to empty them into his coffee. “It’s not real, Jenny. It’s a metaphor.”

“A metaphor?”

“Right. For your benefit. I wanted to show you something you could understand.”

“Oh. So what’s it like really?”

“Dark and cold.”

“It’s already dark and cold…”

“Compared to the reality, this is nothing. Trust me.” At the seventh packet he obviously decided his drink was sweet enough. He stirred it with a dirty spoon and then took a sip. He cringed and reached for more sugar. “So, what do you think?”

“Um…you still haven’t told me anything.”

More sugar into his coffee. “Oh right, yeah. Um. Okay. How to explain? This is the end of the universe. The end of time.”

“You told me that.”

“This is where I’m from.”

“Okay…starting to understand why you’re so weird now…”

“Metaphor, remember. But an accurate one. This is what our existence is like.”

“These people,” she said, swivelling on her stool and pointing with her thumb at the others in the diner, “they’re like you?”

“Yes.”

“You aren’t going to say hi or anything? Introduce us?”

“There’s really no need. They already know everything about you. And about me. They know where I’ve been, where I’m going, they know everything. And there’s really nothing to talk about, because we’re all the same. We all have absolute knowledge.”

“Are you gods?”

“No. We’re just people…kind of.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let me explain.” He pushed his coffee away and took her unresisting hands in his own. His fingers still seemed huge to her, weird, knuckly things that encompassed her folded hands totally. “The place you call home is the hot afterglow of the Big Bang. Even though the universe was fourteen billion years old in your time, to us that is unimaginably young. Your species evolved in a cosmos replete with free energy. You bathed in the light of a burning sun that sustained your lightning-fast evolution.”

“Right…”

“As the long aeons passed, the universe expanded and expanded. The stars began to flicker and die. One by one, they grew bloated and collapsed into stellar remnants. Brown dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes. But still their energy sustained creatures very much like you. Gradually the black holes began to swallow one another up as gravity frayed at the edges. Each galaxy collapsed into one great yawning abyss, surrounded by huge roiling gas nebulae. The universe began to grow dark. And still we were trillions of years before the epoch in which we now sit.”

Jenny swallowed. “What happened then?”

“My ancestors – your descendants – clung to what they could. They mined the gravity of the last great, ghostly black holes. They became masters of cosmological engineering. They spread great webs of energy across the vast empty gulfs of space. For billions and billions of years, they survived. But then, slowly but surely, heat death claimed the universe. Entropy, at last, won out. Atoms were spaced light years apart, and then they too began to break down. Energy was transferred between the last remaining subatomic particles at a rate of millions of years per joule. Time slowed to a crawl. Thoughts took aeons. And yet we survived. The last great intellects, in cosmos-spanning quantum substrates, like a gossamer web of information. That is what we are. What I am.”

Her eyes were wide. “So…what’s happening now? Why am I here?”

“You have to understand, Jenny,” he said softly, “there is no energy left in the universe. And yet we survive. We have lived for billions – trillions – of years. We have thought all there is left to think. Everything is now recycled. We can only lose ourselves in the memories of what came before. In the spectral filament that is us and all our existence is held all thought possible by a sentient being. Entire universes play out in our minds, over and over.”

“You haven’t answered my question,” she said with a trace of irritation, “why did you go back in time? Why did you save me?”

“I didn’t. You are one of us.” He held up a hand to stop her protests. “In a manner of speaking. You are part of the substrate. You are a memory of a person who, perhaps, once existed.”

“What?!” The other people in the diner actually looked up, but there gazes were dull, disinterested.

“I told you that entire universes existed in our minds. How could it be otherwise? As the universe slowly dies, our thoughts grow slower and greater. In the end, the last moment will be stretched to an infinity, and the mathematics of that are indisputable: where there is infinity, all things are possible. I am a Traveller, as I told you. I move my consciousness through the substrate, experiencing things long-forgotten, encountering other beings that have not existed for a trillion centuries. Beings like you.”

“But…” She tugged at her sweater. “I’m real.”

“Of course you are,” he smiled, “why wouldn’t you be?” He took another sip of his coffee.

“You said I was just a memory of myself!”

“But indistinguishable from the original, down to the quantum level.”

“But I’m not me! I’m just a simulation in a giant, cosmic computer!”

“Every atom of you is identical to every atom of the real human being that once lived on Earth, all those aeons ago. I assure you, you are you in the only way that could possibly matter.”

Bewildered, Jenny at last took a sip of her coffee, then stuck her tongue out in disgust at the taste. “And what about you?” she asked, fixing him with another flat look. “Are you a memory of someone?”

“I’m a gestalt. All of us here are. Individuality does not exist in the same way, since we know everything about one another. It’s…non-intuitive…to a consciousness like yours.”

“You’re telling me.” She placed her hands on the counter, thinking of the wispy threads of energy and matter, stretched across the darkness of space. She felt suddenly fragile and insubstantial, as ridiculous as it was. “So,” she said, “you’re not really moving through time. You’re just exploring the…what was it? The quantum substrate?”

He nodded. “Exactly.”

“And your taking threads from that – memories of consciousness – with you as companions in your travels?”

“That’s right, Jenny.”

“But they can’t all be human?”

“No. Humans were one species on one planet in the bright, blazing past. But I have a soft spot for you. You’re not my first homo sapien companion.”

“So, presumably, this isn’t what you really look like?” She gestured at him.

“No,” he smiled, “I appear different for everyone. Some forms I use often, others not so much. But when I’m with humans, I look human. It’s easier that way.”

“Sure.” She looked at the black, reflective windows, at herself, small and scared in an environment both totally alien and hauntingly familiar, and the tall, angular man who sat beside her, telling her all these strange things. “One thing I don’t understand…”

“Yes?”

“You can look however you like, right? Adopt any form in your travels, depending on the circumstances?”

“Yes…”

“So, what I don’t get…”

“Yes…”

“Is what’s with the fucking bowtie?”

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