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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 3

Her name is Name. She arrives in the Context, and her first thought is that she is alive. Her second thought is that she has thoughts. The Universe had ended, but apparently Name has not.

She is cheered by the news.

She is also bewildered: the first thing she is able to recognize about the Context is that it is characterized by a dizzying field of interwoven times. She had imagined that thinking sixty-four dimensionally prepared one for any eventuality, but Name is the first to admit that the Context utterly baffles her. She cannot perceive anything remotely coherent for what feels like a long period, at least as considered with her native notion of the temporal force.

The visceral realization that she truly is not within the Universe anymore hits her hard. She feels ill. She is afraid. Name quails.

Time times. Name is propelled by curiosity. Her fringes in closest contact with the stuff and spaces of the Context begin sending signals to her neurology that make some sense. Her cells react against the turbulence of intersecting disparate kinds of time by reinforcing their connection to local time. Name's flesh buzzes as the specks of gravity wells within her are spun in precise concert, locking every somatic system to a common march of events.

The world around her clarifies.

The Universe hangs before her like a dried up berry. It appears frozen in time. It is crowded on all sides by other berries in various stages of ripeness. Beyond them lie more clusters of berries, growing from the hyper-bifurcated limbs of a one hundred and ninety-six dimensional tree.

Name feels like she might barf. She closes her perceptions, then burns a singularity for comfort. She sings herself a quiet, nervous song.

She has taken heavy damage to her somatic components when crossing over, but her physiology is adapting and healing, patch by patch. Her neurology has automatically transcribed itself into a new medium in order to operate within the Context, and she therefore allows hundreds of millions of years of debugging before even trying to think too hard.

She keeps her perceptions thickly filtered. She communes with the hum of life within herself.

When Name is ready, she opens herself to the Context again. It becomes less terrifying as she acclimatizes. She discovers that by an act of translation through one of the smaller dimensions she can push the global time she sees around her backward or forward.

She moves to and fro experimentally: the cluster of universe berries blossom and shrivel, blossom and shrivel in response, swinging through their respective histories.

Name is delighted and intrigued.

She translates further and watches the birth of the berry bunch: from the tiniest bud, a sudden explosion of a staggering quantity of berries, the majority of which pop or shrivel almost immediately. Among those that go on to ripen and age, the Universe. Her Universe. How she loves it!

She wonders if she dare take a peek inside. The question is an answer, and she surges forward.

There is suddenly a lot of pain. Name shrieks and writhes, then retreats.

After licking her wounds she extends her most homeostatic tendril outward into Context space and studies the way it bends and splits through the bizarre array of inflated spatial dimensions available. Once satisfied with a method for safe passage Name moves cautiously forward.

She comes to rest against the outside of the Universe. The surface is black and largely smooth, and it reacts like a viscous fluid when Name touches it. She sticks a tendril through it and feels the familiar thrum of the Universe's history flowing. It fills her with nostalgia.

She sticks her head through the black skin, and is delighted to see the spongy texture of tight strings of her beloved baryonic matter, shining carelessly with good old fashioned electromagnetism as if tomorrow will never come. Like snowflakes the galaxies tumble, drift and collide.

She is even more delighted to discover that, by translating through the global temporal dimension of the Context, she can scrub back and forth through the Universe's history. She contracts it to the very beginning and watches it bloom and dwindle over and over again. The experience is very emotional for her. For a spell she becomes obsessive -- witnessing everything from the first quasars to the rise of true life to her own spectacular self-explosion across probability space at the very end.

She thinks she looks a bit fat, from the outside.

She communicates with one of her multiplied iterations, and tells herself how to travel to the Context. This intervention causes the portfolio of possibilities to actualize into a version of herself with an inspired escape plan, which she then watches herself execute.

The timelines merge. Her escaped self hops across Context space and then comes to a wounded halt, drifting outside of the convoluted, shrinking skin of the dying Universe.

Name blinks. Her escaped self catches up with her across the weave of times, and they come together.

She finds it all very disorienting. Time is weird.

Name pushes back into the Universe to catch her breath, to take another break from the phantasmagoric storm of dimensions in the Context. She slides across the global temporal frame until the Universe is young and bright again, and once more she falls to watching events unfold.

By far her favourite moments come when the tiny life arises from the weather of planets. They each find their own way up. It's seldom a predictable course. She delights in the way a parasite rises to eclipse and surpass its host to become the Pegasi; she thrills when the dinosaurs fall and the wee mammals shake their world with a flurry of rich dancing that will lead to Humanity; she savours the slow and steady ascent of the Reachers from fungus colonies to intelligent cities...

The Milky Way Galaxy has always had a special place in Name's heart. She cries like a baby every time she rewinds time to watch it deform, spray out and merge with Andromeda. The end of an era.

And the beginning of a new one: from the ashes of that mighty galactic collision rise the clusters of intelligent civilizations who will dance the rich dance -- multiplication with variance, exploring every crag of possibility. They will develop into the co-operative organelles that patch-replicate to become the first cells of true life.

True life! She is the only one. Name misses her mothers and fathers. She misses Know, her final mate. She misses her children, swallowed by the cold at the end of time.

She witnesses the history of her kind, from start to finish, a million million times.

She interferes, but just a little.

She's careful. She just wants to make sure the racial genome contains everything she will need to survive in the Context, when her day comes...

She witnesses her own birth. She's cute as a button, and just ten million miles wide.

In time she comes to terms with the fact that she has become sickened by nostalgia, and that she must now put the Universe behind her. If there's one thing thermodynamics impresses upon one, it's a persistent delusion of time's arrow.

The arrow presses. It compels her to look forward.

Again Name exits the Universe. Not having been mindful of her position in the global temporal dimension, she steps out among a clique of herselves: she sees herself just having left the Universe the first time, and observes versions of herself sticking her head through its black skin. Another version drifts over her, sleeping and healing the wounds of her emergence.

It's getting crowded.

She lets the current move her. She drifts away. The cluster of universe berries contracts in her view until it is indistinguishable from a quadrillion others just like it -- universes upon universes, from horizon to horizon. Hers is just one, like any other...a process of some inscrutable ecosystem larger and more magnificent and more deeply terrifying than anything she has ever conceived.

This is what it's like to be a baby in the world, she reasons: even the humblest aspects of nature are awesome and unfathomable. Shadows can be marvels or monsters when you understanding nothing; raindrops can be bombs.

She has food. Energy isn't rare. A dozen different kinds of potential flow through the dizzying array of inflated spatial dimensions. She could, in theory, drift forever among the berries.

This prospect does not satisfy her, however. With life comes forward momentum. She aches to have a purpose. She is not content to embody the Universe's contribution to existence as a piece of mere flotsam in a mad garden.

No!

...And why should she? For even as she watches she sees that the Context is not a static place. As she veers through a narrow spatial dimension she observes that there are things that crawl and fly through the miasma of times -- there is motion, and there is work.

Beyond one looming hyper-bifurcated limb of the great tree is a spindly, radial being with cilia that spread across six dimensions. It turns in place, arms rippling and smearing through streams of contrasting temporal force. The being fattens and seems fit to explode. In the next moment, it does so -- scattering a cloud of tiny radial specks along every avenue of Context space.

Name knows what she is seeing: reproduction -- multiplication with variation. It is the unmistakable melange of the rich dance.

Life!

Name is not alone. She is not the only thing to have ever escaped a dying universe. Each of them based in their own physics, each of them never the less adaptable enough to survive outside the womb of their native reality. Survive, and perhaps prosper.

Things like ants march in sinewy lines across the hyperbolic contours of the great tree, some of them with the remnants of shriveled universes on their backs. They have found a way of life. Somewhere, perhaps, they have fashioned a hive.

Other things plod or blip across the fields between branches, propelled by temporal flagella or bursts of exotic radiation. Some consume others in the unmistakable rhythm of prey and predator, reclaiming energy from the lowliest harvesters to fuel the pursuit of their next mate.

They are fruitful. They are beautiful. In them the dauntless spirit of the rich dance burns on.

With no science Name cannot guess what kind of living the Context can provide, but she knows the rich dance can discover it. It will explore every niche of this strange existence, and thereby rise to take a place here. One day her descendants might even learn to comprehend the nature of the Context, and to wonder what lies beyond...

Name fissions herself. And then there are two. Their first coupling is unromantic and feels faintly incestuous, but its product is a swarm of younglings as precious and unique as any Name has ever seen. They take their first breaths in Context space. They are native to it. They are the first to be born who will never know the Universe, a place and a time that rapidly comes to seem far away and small to Name.

The Universe was but an egg.

Life goes on. Bouquets of fresh universes burst into existence and wilt, marking global time like the tides. Name loses track of when her Universe actually took place, and no longer has any clue how far she would have to translate to glimpse its history again. There are so many like it she doubts she could distinguish one from the next any longer. She is a creature of the Context, in body and soul.

The children laugh at their parents, and their provincial concepts of time and space. They dash through the Context effortlessly, their sense of its bewildering co-ordinates instinctive. They swim and jump, they para-past and they hypo-future, they sidle carelessly from one spatial perspective to the next. They play.

Name thinks as she watches them cavort: so this is what the Universe was for.

She feels whole.

Her name is Name. She was the last, but has become the first. The first of many.


Fin.

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