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The Rich Dance
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
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The Rich Dance, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 2

When Name was young the motes of the world still shone on each other. Space was tight. You could see forever.

No matter which wavelength you perceived with, the view was incredible: in every direction a spaghetti dinner of baryonic matter webs with gravity-well superclusters glowing at the intersections, scattered from whenever you were all the way in the distance to the start of time.

And the galaxies! Every strand and creek housed trillions. Anywhere you looked galaxies wheeled, their nuclei bright and their plasm sparkling with the flashes of stars as they ripened and burst.

Name loved galaxies. As a child she would draw them in the vacuum's spume. She put little faces on them. She almost always made them happy galaxies. They used to pale next to the real thing, but now her drawings were all she had. The real galaxies were finished. They had taken their bows, and spun down their own drains. There had been no one left to applaud except Name and Know, and now Know was gone, too.

Know forgot why to be alive, and froze.

A wave of intense grief had rippled through Name at close to the speed of light. Great swaths of her physiology had never fully recovered from that destructive pulse of despair. There were cell failures in many tissues, and a new cancer evolved which took her neurology three hundred million years to eradicate. Several of her organs were permanently disorganized.

In order to avoid following Know's fate, she assigned herself the mission of witnessing the last hiccough of the Universe, to see and be conscious of the dissolving of the last black holes and the fading of the final glow of chance. Then she would let herself go, and allow the cold to take her.

So she waits for the ultimate event in the Universe -- or, the penultimate event, really, if she counts her own dissolution.

And one day it happens.

The ultimate event in the Universe is the decay of the last natural photon. Without fanfare, it winks out the range of the likely. Snap.

Name shivers.

She looks around, but it's as if she's blind. There's nothing to see. Sixty-four dimensions and there's nothing going on except herself. Trillions upon trillions of years of history, any hint of which known to nobody but Name.

She mourns.

Time begins to melt away. She feels it in her extremities, and it is repulsive.

This repulsion awakens something inside of Name. Her every instinct recoils against the touch of the cold. She rails against the emotion, damning it as nonsensical, cursing the somatic ignorance that cannot appreciate the larger view. At its core, being alive is little more than being stubborn. Her tissues baulk as they necrotize, parsec by parsec.

But a rebellion has ignited. She feels it not in her neurology, nor in any organ of higher function, nor even at the level of her cells. Instead, the mad strike against the inevitable sizzles in the tiniest of the organelles that drive her existence: the civilizations themselves. So tiny, so tenacious, so dynamic: so persistent in the rich dance of variations over time, the blind quest to optimize the loops of life against the thermodynamic destiny everything shares.

The cold! Living is its antithesis.

Name remembers so much, but not nearly enough to do justice to the exquisite interplay of events that had been the Universe's heyday. Back when there were still natural protons around everywhere; back when the stars shined and probability found every champion it could, and some of them rose to become larger than their origins -- the little lifelets, molecular machines so small they were dwarfed by even humble specks of asteroid, so amazing they brought life to space. There had been so many tiny kind whose heritage still beat inside Name's physiology, so many wonderful solutions resisting a smooth destiny: the If, and the Blossoms, and the Round Ones, and the Humans...

All at once, it is so: Name decides that she cannot turn her back on them all. She cannot simply give up on all that has ever been. She will not fade away.

She wills it, and it is so. The cold is repelled.

She recognizes in slow, careful stages that though the canopy of creation is empty she is the inheritor of all chance. There is nothing likely in the Universe except herself, and the entire field of probability bristles at her merest thought.

She is the Universe. She feels it proprioceptically, though her every fibre. As she breathes she is sensitive to the decay: the very fabric of reality is coming uncoiled, and it burns her nerves.

The Universe is shriveling. Its borders are contracting, and the sky is falling in.

Desperation fills her. Name turns to tradition -- only the rich dance can discover a solution. The quandary is too big for a lone entity! And though she has no mate she divines a method to reproduce herself: with the whole of the Universe's probability space at her beck and call she can iterate multiple copies of herself inside a slice of time. Her only hope is that the Universe exists within a greater context, and that a version of herself might fathom a way to it.

She takes a deep breath, and summons all that she has. It is like a cry across the night: blazing and keen, wrought with animal passion.

Fiat! She replicates instances of herself throughout the Universe's entire bandwidth of likelihood. For a fleeting sub-moment, there are an uncountable number of Names.

Time times. Reality coalesces and there is only one Name again, alone.

Alone, but inspired.

The skin of the Universe sags against her, dragging her down into the last horizon. Carefully, thoughtfully, she extends herself to explore the most convoluted creases of the tangling dimensions, and uses a flurry of forced chance to discover a fissure. She warms with hope.

Time stops. Everything is done.

Name pries herself through the collapsing bounds of reality, and escapes.


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