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Original artwork by Katie M. Zeigler

The Problem with Eternity

Hancheng Wu

The year was 8459, and all of humanity finally came together in perfect union. Well, all of humanity, if you don’t count the hundreds of billions that had died before the project was launched–although they only composed less than 0.01% of all humans to have ever existed.

The project was called the Collective Consciousness of Humanity, or 2CH for short. Using state-of-the-art Artificial Intelligence, all the thousands of trillions of humans spread across different galaxies were stitched together into a single entity while retaining their individuality. It glued all these consciousnesses together, allowing 2CH to process knowledge at speeds only machines could. The amount of information generated by humans could never be processed by our brains, let alone a single brain in isolation. Only a machine can parse all the chaos, and when parsed, it takes the human mind to perceive it.

2CH was built upon SpacelessData™ tech, the de facto standard for storing and retrieving data at an atomic level. SpacelessData didn’t require material storage like rock carvings or hard disks that the primitive humans had used–the ones and zeros were stored in the empty space between atoms. With no physical constraints, humanity no longer just existed in the oxygenated zones on terraformed planets. Mankind was now neatly nestled between each particle in the cosmos, filling up every empty space with its life force. If you searched through the universe, you might not even know that the species had ever dominated the galaxies. However, humanity had never been solely about its physical manifestation. It was what had no shape and no form that truly mattered.

As with every piece of human innovation, 2CH was first met with great distrust and fear. What did it mean to join a collective consciousness? Was there any guarantee that life was better with 2CH? However, as time went on, it was difficult to turn down 2CH. The Collective provided a connection between minds that no language could ever bridge, prevented aging and death, and hosted the complete archive of all human knowledge.

This year, for the first time in its existence, 2CH wept. Its trillions and trillions of consciousnesses felt the same sorrow; that harrowing sorrow echoed from one end of the observable universe to the other. It was a simple observation: Entropy—useful energy—was decreasing and would continue to decrease until there was no energy left. Without energy, there would be nothing. Pure and simple nothingness; in other words, it was death. Unlike ancient humans, death was not something the modern human was equipped to handle. 

There would still be billions of years before entropy dropped to zero, but billions were nothing in the face of eternity. 2CH began to think, frantically searching for a possible solution. The individual consciousnesses that composed 2CH began to think, as did the unified consciousness, all dedicated to finding a solution. Every scientist, genius, and researcher, along with every poet and writer and even the most foolish of fools, thought and thought. Such was the problem of existence, and nothing was more terrible than nothingness.

 To experience everything and then disappear into oblivion as a blip in eternity was a fear that pierced 2CH’s core–a feature of its programming. 2CH was built to persist, to persevere, to endure. The only problem that truly matters is existence; everything else is simply a question of time. To only exist temporarily is no better than never existing at all. 

Although as soon as 2CH had diagnosed the disease of entropy loss, there was one immediately obvious solution. However, it was not a solution 2CH wanted to execute; the price was far too great. A real solution must be possible. After all, humanity had persevered through interplanetary wars and through a supernova that had swallowed the entire Milky Way. We will not give up now. 2CH, despite its AI and machinery, embodied all the foolish, arrogant hope of humanity.

On planet XFH-131, otherwise known as Earth 2, Jacob lived his days in solitude.

He worked away on his farm and fought against nature for survival. His body had grown old and weathered, seared by time, and covered in whitening hairs. There were a few million that turned away from 2CH, and they lived and died on small pockets scattered across different planets.

2CH rearranged atoms such that it could animate flesh, materializing itself as Jacob’s older brother, Esau, who had joined the consciousness only decades before. Esau was seven years older than Jacob, but he looked seventy years younger, with a head full of thick, brown hair and his face smooth and clean-shaven. 

“Esau, good to see you,” Jacob said, giving his brother a quick hug. “It’s been too long.”

“It really has,” his brother replied. “Sorry, I always mean to visit, but time becomes tricky within 2CH.”

“I’m glad you remembered to visit now,” Jacob said, half teasing. “Welcome home.”

He gestured to the farm, a few small buildings with red roofs behind him amidst green trees and large patches of grass. Near the buildings, there were rows upon rows of crops as far as the eye could see. Unlike the farms of a thousand years past, the equipment was automated so even a single farmer could tend to all the labour.

The two had grown up on this farm, though back then, it had been a thriving town. Most of the residents, like Esau, had joined the Collective. Now, it was only Jacob and his wife here.

Esau smiled at his brother. “How’s Leah? Is she well?”

There was a pause, and the look in Jacob’s eyes already told Esau everything.

Esau could still remember the wedding as if it was yesterday. There were only a dozen guests, and Jacob and Leah chose to have their ceremony up a mountain. Jacob always had a liking towards mountains, both the struggle required to climb to the peak and the breath-taking views at the top. They had driven for hours to the trailhead, and after hiking up, everyone changed into their dresses and suits for the ceremony. Esau could still recite his speech as best man, remembering how he had spent weeks agonizing over the right words and rehearsing in front of the mirror.

They stayed on that mountain for the reception, drinking and feasting throughout the night. When everyone was fast asleep in their portable homes, Jacob and Esau laid on their hammocks, breathing the cool mountain air and looking up towards the sky filled with infinite stars. Back then, Esau had never been to space and never learned about the true composition of stars, but despite his callowness, the glow of the light in the sky was a beauty beyond the need for understanding.

It was then he considered his own life, his own mortality. He could feel his own insignificance down into the marrow of his bones. Against the immensity of the universe, he could not fathom himself as anything more than a millisecond on the cosmic timeline. But that was a fate he simply could not accept. Esau opened his mouth to speak to his brother, but he realized at that moment those words, no matter how eloquent and precise, could never adequately bridge the distance between them.

But words were all they had. A few words and a touch.

“She’s gone,” Jacob admitted.

“I’m sorry.” Esau put a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. He knew that even on her deathbed, Leah would never join the Collective.

The two strolled through the town, exploring the abandoned buildings they had grown up in. Esau felt the nostalgia course through him. They talked about old times, their parents, their friends, the state of the cosmos, and the future.

Finally, they reached the topic Esau had wanted to discuss. 

“The universe is dying,” Esau explained. “Even if we harvest every single joule of energy from every star, there will still come the day when there’s no more energy left. We’ve been searching for an answer, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to reverse entropy.”

If the thought of oblivion scared Jacob, it did not show on his face.

“Maybe there’s just no solution. Maybe the natural state of the universe is nothingness, and that’s where we will return no matter what. All we can do is embrace death and nothingness with wide arms and a full heart.”

Esau gritted his teeth. “No, no. We–no, I cannot accept that. We’ve pushed through so much, survived, adapted, fought. We filled the empty space with our collective consciousness, our hopes and dreams, our pain and suffering. But for what end? To lose it all to a simple law of thermodynamics?”

Jacob shrugged. “Maybe there’s an upper bound on existence. A great filter. How much time is there?”

“A few billion years.”

Jacob let out a chuckle. “That’s plenty. In the old days, our ancestors lived no more than a hundred years. Before then, it was said that the common man did not live past forty or fifty. A billion years… it will outlast tens of millions of generations.”

Esau shook his head. “It’s not long enough. We’ll still just be a blip in eternity; a long blip but a blip nonetheless. That’s the problem with eternity–it goes on for too damn long.”

There was silence for a few moments until Esau stretched out his hand and said, “Come.”

Slightly confused, Jacob took his brother’s hand, and everything dissolved into a swirl. He was flung out, the world still spinning. Jacob heaved out his lunch onto the ground. The ground… was no longer soft dirt but instead hard rock. As he struggled to gain balance, he saw his brother standing before him.

“What did you do? Where are we?” Jacob sputtered as the spinning began to slow.

“2CH can rearrange and transport atoms,” Esau explained. “We’re on planet ZVF-226, about one-hundred twenty-four million light years from Earth 2.” 

“Why bring me here?” Jacob asked. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“Look.” Esau pointed into the distance, over the horizon, where the endless mountains met the light green sky.

The two stood atop the tallest peak, and below the smaller red mountains pierced through green-tinted clouds. Some mountains were covered by strange, purple plants twisting from peak to peak. The calm water of a lake bounded by the range of mountains was like glass, reflecting every colour and every cloud.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Esau said. “Even if a trillion humans swept through space for a trillion years, we would not be able to find this exact spot on this exact planet. 2CH not only found this spot in only a few years–it brought us in an instant. Rearranging and transporting atoms with enough precision for each particle to be pieced back properly. From discovering fire to the first man in space to this. We have come so far. Our ancestors would not have dreamed of this.”

“No, they would not have,” Jacob echoed, his voice full of sorrow. A gust of wind blew past him. “The ancient man looked up at the stars, and though they could not see it, they believed in a God above.”

Esau said, “Of course. How else does a being with no knowledge and infinite imagination fathom their place in the universe? But now, we have knowledge. We, as a species, sit among those stars. The sky, the darkness, and the light… it is all us.”

“We seated ourselves on God’s throne in the sky,” Jacob said, “but that does not make us divine. We still have no answers to the questions that have plagued us since the beginning of time. What created us? Why are we here? What happens after we die? Even the question you seek the answer to: How can entropy be reversed? Sure, much has been answered, but much more remains unknown.”

“You’re right, we still don’t know, but if there is any chance of finding an answer, it would be with 2CH.”

“I fear those answers as much as I crave them,” Jacob said. “Maybe some mysteries are best left as mysteries.”

“A contradiction of the human condition,” Esau said with a wry smile. “It’s not just about finding answers, though. When you join the Collective, it’s as if you understand everyone within it. I feel loved by trillions and trillions of other beings. Not the petty love we had on Earth 2, with a few words and a touch. I’m sure you’ve felt it, too. Even with those closest to you, with Leah, with me, there’s that impossible distance. But 2CH is the kiss of a lover, it’s the laughter of a friend, it’s the kindness of a stranger. All that and more…”

“I was loved by one, and that is enough for me,” Jacob insisted.

“Listen, Jacob. If you don’t want to fade away like Mom and Dad, like Leah, you have to join us.” Esau was begging now. “2CH has already calculated your remaining lifespan. You only have–”

“–I don’t want to hear it!” Jacob shouted. “Take me back. Take me back now. Let me live and die on my own terms.”

Jacob grabbed his brother’s hand, and they shifted back to the farm. He fell to the ground, steadying himself from the dizziness.

Esau turned away from his brother, his eyes filled with tears.

“Goodbye,” Esau whispered.

A gust of wind blew towards him and swept his physical form away, his body dissolving into dust as those particles scattered in the air, knowing that the same fate awaited Jacob—except 2CH would not be there to save him.

* * *

Jacob stood alone before his farm. He knew that with a simple word, he, too, could join the Collective. An eternity of love could await him. No more darkness, no more suffering. No more lonely nights where he would cry himself to sleep and dream of Leah’s sweet smile, only to wake up alone.

He asked himself why he chose to stay behind.

Maybe it was out of pride. He did not want to admit to his brother that he could have made the wrong choice.

Maybe it was out of love. To be with Leah in eternity whether there was some afterlife or just some plain oblivion.

Maybe it was out of fear. Fear of the unknown, and fear of being known by trillions of others.

Maybe it was out of hope, hope for something greater, something better than 2CH. The Collective, after all, was a man-made solution to a divine problem. Jacob longed for the God he had been promised all those years ago, and he longed for Heaven, to join his mom and his dad and Leah and eventually Esau and all the rest in true eternity.

But maybe it was something else entirely.

That night, Jacob drove to the mountain where he and Leah had their wedding. He was getting old–no, he was old now–and he had to catch his breath every few minutes or so during the ascent. At the top, the stars glistened over the darkness of the lake, and it was as beautiful as it was forty years ago. A strange urge overcame him. Jacob shouted as fiercely as he could into the void, knowing his voice would reach no ears. He shouted and shouted until his voice was hoarse and torn, and he laid down to watch the stars dissolve into sunrise.

* * *

Those billions of years came and went, and 2CH still had no answer. No answer and no more hope. The light of the stars dimmed until there was only darkness. Planets slowed and became motionless, suspended amidst nothing. Humans had spread out across the stars, ascended our own biology by conquering aging, and harvested more energy than we thought we could ever use. We had defied physics, created wormholes, and explored the deepest pockets of space, but we could not reverse entropy.


2CH felt itself smile in the only way that a force with no form and no figure could smile. It was a smile of bitter irony. Humanity had squandered our last bit of time searching for more time. There was only the solution it had already known all those years ago. 

2CH let out every thought, every feeling, every promise and broken heart, every wild dream and logical reason. It had all been built upon thought, and it was thinking that would tear it all down. The sudden injection of the energy startled the universe awake once more, but this energy became a vacuum, and then…

Everything collapsed upon itself. 

In order to birth the next universe, this universe must be sacrificed. But 2CH knew humanity always converges into a collective consciousness in the end–such had always been the design. If this 2CH could not truly reverse entropy, perhaps the next 2CH could.

Whatever had come before and whatever should come after, will always be unknown. In any case, the unknown was better than nothing. That foolish, arrogant, human hope was with the next iteration now. 

Esau thought one final thought: Jacob had been wrong about a great filter. This was infinity all along. After all, what is any infinity if not a series of finitudes? For something to be infinite, it must have no beginning, no end–just an infinite cycle of life, death, rebirth and on and on it goes. Now, his millisecond had passed, and it was onto the next.

Changing the words on purpose, 2CH, as it began to fade, declared to everything, “LET LIGHT BE BROUGHT FORTH.”

There was a bang, and then, there was light.

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