The Cosmic Afterlife (short story)

Photo by Peter Herrmann on Unsplash

The man and woman walked into the final room. This one was darker, with walls painted a green so dark that it was barely discernible from brown or grey. The floor was made from dark, worn-out wood, with a faded rug covering most of the surface. A chandelier hung from the centre of the room, with the light being reflected and diffracted through distorted and broken mirrors covering the ceiling and upper third of the walls.

In front of the pair stood two doorways. The first was filled with darkness. There was no sense of depth or space, just emptiness. As though the room was filled with the absence of matter, rather than the presence of any dark thing.

By contrast, the second room was filled with light. However, it was not merely the opposite of its counterpart. There were vague figures moving around. The man managed to make out two tall people and a smaller third, crawling. Or perhaps, a small dog? The brightness of the room made it difficult to look for too long, and the light obscured the objects in and out of focus.

“This is it, I suppose?” said the man.

“Indeed.” said the woman, adjusting her posture as though to present what at this stage was undoubtedly an ultimatum.

“Two rooms? One filled with light and the other filled with darkness? I thought my mind would have come up with something less cliche than that!” said the man, mustering a small choked laugh and a poor attempt at disguising his understanding of what this moment meant.

This room was much quieter than the other places. The distant echoes of laughter and conversation that filled the previous rooms had faded. Early on, the man had surmised that these were people he knew long ago. The echoes were simply reverberations, like ripples on a canal from a passing boat. Each wave to hit the bank may feel real and indeed represents a real, tangible moment, but it is one that has inevitably moved on, with the turning of the boat's engine or the passing of time.

Again, the man tried to break the silence and delay the inevitable, “I suppose these are heaven and hell? This is the bit where you decide if I’ve been good enough to be saved? That’s why you’ve been asking me if you think I’ve had a good life. I believe I have, truly, but I fell short sometimes. It wasn’t all perfect. I don’t know if I’ve done enough to — “

“Have you not been listening to me?” the woman interjected, as she produced a sympathetic smile to compensate for her sharpness. “This is all in your mind, remember? We’ve been over this already. I am a manifestation of a collection of cognitive processes that occur within your mind. As some of these processes occur below your level of conscious awareness, I’m able to present myself as an independent agent, like a character in a dream. I am aware of more than you might care to realise, but we won’t worry about that now. The important thing is I am still merely a subset of your thoughts. I‘m not here to judge the morality of your actions.”

The man recalled their discussions as they had moved through the house. The memories that played out from through the windows, the familiar voices, and the fact that he was dying.

As they had moved to the top of what was a surprisingly familiar building for somewhere he had never visited, he reminded himself of the discussions he had had with the woman. Had he been happy? Did he do everything he wanted?

His thoughts were abruptly cut short by the woman, “Now, I clearly need to explain this part to you.” She gestured to the door on the left. “Have you heard of the Poincarè recurrence theorem? Or multiverses? Stupid question, I know, since you must have done for me to be able to discuss them now. But do you remember?”

The man shook his head.

“Well, stepping through this door ends your consciousness in this particular body. You can choose this option and that’s pretty much it. Your life, memories and experiences cease to be and you — as you — cease to be.” The woman gave a few seconds for the man to process, though she knew he had understood this as soon as they had entered.

She continued, “However, our universe comprises a lot more than you or I know, and this cessation, strictly speaking, is only temporary. Given a finite amount of time, we might expect that the arrangement of particles necessary for your particular consciousness to emerge will reoccur. If such an event occurs in our universe, we call this Poincarè recurrence. However, our universe is one of many, so it’s also plausible that another might produce the conditions necessary for your consciousness to exist once again.”

The man seemed to understand, so the woman continued, “There’s another possibility called Conformal Cyclic Cosmology — you might just remember reading about that in a newspaper in the summer of 2010…? Nevermind. In this scenario, the heat death of our universe is directly correlated with the big bang of another, thus allowing our universe to restart anew. Our cyclical universe is one of an infinite lineage of universes spanning back and forward for a time so great that it becomes essentially meaningless. Perhaps your consciousness will emerge in one of these future universes.

“The point is, the failure of your current body to maintain your consciousness is not the end of your experience. The universe abhors the absence of experience. Some way, somehow, your consciousness will remerge. Maybe as a sentient crab in a parallel world, or as a king three epochs from now in the great-grandchild of this universe. Maybe the exact arrangement of particles will occur for you to enjoy that coffee you had on the beach in France back in 2017, or for you to experience your first day at university one more time.

“It might take trillions of years but the wait isn’t so bad when you don’t experience it. It’ll be like waking up after a dreamless sleep, but faster. Instantaneous.”

“So — “ the man began to speak, “It’s nature’s way of doing reincarnation? I suppose that’s not too bad, though it boils down to statistics rather than karma. I’m not sure which I’d prefer, to be honest.” As he considered the possibility of this universal lottery, his eyes drifted to the second doorway.

The woman caught the movement of his eyes and began to speak, “When you begin to die, time dilates. Your brain stretches and shrinks time throughout your whole life. It’s the reason holidays go quickly but five minutes in that job you had in your twenties seemingly took an hour. Imagine that, but enhanced by everything the brain has to throw at it. How long do you think we’ve been in the house? An hour? Two? Out there, you’re still in your bed. Only a few seconds, at most, have passed.”

At this moment, the shapes through the doorway became clearer. The features of the figures became more defined, the colours of their clothes broke through the light and a small brown and black cat’s meow began to echo as the voices had done earlier in the house.

“I know what this is,” said the man. “Everything gets enhanced too, doesn’t it? Ideas, memories, imagination…” he paused on the face of the woman that stood in front of him, then up to the ceiling of mirrors, the chandelier, and the intricacies of the carpet beneath his feet. Then back in the doorway, to the figures of his parents. Their hair as it was before it turned grey, the string they were dangling before the cat in his home. A home he hadn’t seen since he was a child. It was a memory he always had, in the back of his mind, just out of reach. But it was so clear now. Every hair, the colours, and the smell of bread and coffee.

“I can start again, can’t I?” he whispered, allowing tears to roll down his face. “But… but it wouldn’t be the same. It’d just be the memories? I could live again, but only experience life the way I created it? I wouldn’t be able to change anything?”

“You never could change anything.” said the woman, raising a hand to comfort the man. “We all have to follow the rules of nature. Nobody gets to decide the next step.”

“So, it was all going to happen anyway?” he asked.

“Not quite. Our universe is random. The universe came into existence piece by piece based on the outcomes of probabilities. It wasn’t predetermined per se, but it was always out of your hands.”

“So what was the point of living it?”

“Because you enjoyed it. You said you did. It was wonderful out there. And your existence fundamentally altered the universe and the experience of everyone else. Your friends, family, and strangers all had their lives altered and made better by your existence. You were playing a role, like a character in a show. The lines may have been scripted by forces outside your control but you were still important, and the show was still pretty damn good. The fact you felt like you controlled it was just a nice bonus.”

“So, I suppose, if I relive my memories it won’t feel any different?”

“Exactly. It’ll still feel as though you’re experiencing it for the first time, creating your life as you go. However, everything will already be set out. The only difference is things will be set in stone based on your memories as opposed to natural laws.” Again, the woman paused to give the man a moment to comprehend what, deep down, he already knew. “So, this is the choice you must now make.”

“But it’s not, is it? It’s up to the particles firing in my brain as you said.”

“Indeed, but that doesn’t stop you from needing to make a choice.”

Despite the contradiction, the man understood. Leave it up to chance to live a new life, or relive the one he had. Something had to happen, regardless of whether he caused the choice or whether the atomic billiard balls moving around his brain did. If there was even a difference.

“Will I have enough time to do it all again?” he said, stepping away from the doors.

“Of course, many times over if you want. As your brain begins to shut down, time dilates more. Your experience is no longer bound by the time out there.”

“So, how much time do I have?”

“I don’t know exactly. But -” The woman hesitated for a second. “But this isn’t the first time you’ve been here.”

Instantly the man knew. His memories of the house, and the conversations, were not those of a single dream seemingly over a few hours, but of many, layered on top of each other. The memories calling out from the windows were from a life lived not once, but countless times. With each retelling of his story, the characters moved in the same ways, the plots ran just as they had before. Each failure and heartbreak played out with the same intensity and realness as it had the first time, and so did each moment of joy, happiness, love and pride. Yet, somehow, with each retelling, whilst the memories stayed the same the experience shifted. Just as the light from the chandelier above was always reflected by the mirrors in the same way yet with each glance the red felt a little warmer and the yellow a little brighter.

With each retelling, he was becoming a little more fulfilled. The memories were being lived with slightly more life, viewed with slightly brighter colours and felt with just a tiny bit more intensity.

With each story ending, and a return to the house he found himself in, the man had greeted the woman with slightly more contentment in his eyes. Maybe even slightly more happiness.

“So, what do you think?”

On his left stood infinite possibilities. A multiverse of lives and aeons of time between his life now and the one that fate held in the darkness. Nobody, in any of those universes, could tell where he would go, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be where he was now.

On the right, wasn’t his current life, exactly. Indeed, his real life — if such a distinction was even meaningful— was soon to be over. It wasn’t even the concatenation of memories that formed him. It wasn’t the coffee on the beach, or university, or his utterly boring job when he was 24. Nor was it his partner, his home, or his heart slowing down as he lay in bed at the end of his life.

Instead, it was his parents, with their colourful clothes and freshly baked bread, a piece of string, and his cat as he sat on his living room floor giggling away, having one of his life’s many wonderful moments.

“Maybe…” he started. “Maybe I’ll give it one more go, just for old time’s sake,” he whispered, pushing away the final tears from his eyes and stepping towards the light.

He caught the woman’s smile as she faded into the darkness of the old room and the twinkling of the chandelier. His body was fading, but only just. His mind, on the other hand, was free. Free to live his life thousands of times over if he chose. Free to savour each moment slightly more than the last time. To linger on each breath, each beam of sunlight, each smile, colour, and face of each person he could remember.

Soon he would start his next life, somewhere out there in a multitude of cosmic possibilities. But for now, he was going to sit on the floor with his family, laugh to his beating heart’s content and see the colours of his life a little bit brighter, one more time.

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