I remember the day we activated the Apotheosis Engines, and watched the Great Lattice spread across the skies of our worlds. A web of catoms forming a shell, lit like great sentinels against the decay of the universe.
We had long labored in the shadow of a dying age, when the dust of stars faded with our hopes. But that day, as a child looking up from the star sails that beheld the majesty of the light-year tall structures, I came to understand defiance. The Last Children, we called ourselves. And as a child of the Last Generation, when the creche worlds had gone dark and our women ceased to be able to bear children, I had been raised with a stark cynicism. But beneath the lights of the nascent Engines, I understood that the universe – what remained – would bend to us.
I always had a mind for numbers, which grew into science and theories of physics and the universe. Buoyed by our renaissance, I exceled in the academies. Before long, I was selected for the Athenaeum worlds, basking in the light of renewed suns, connected by our new Warp Gates. There, we were inculcated in the ways of the Engines.
It was here I learned its terrible cost.
Nasha was a fellow Academian, specializing in technology systems. While we tinkered and prodded reality to suit our ends, her caste managed the fine-tuning of the computers managing the Engines. A mutual friend introduced us, and somehow, she saw past my flaws – my obsession with details and numbers and order. She saw something of worth.
I don’t know if I agreed with her, but I found her company pleasing, and as time passed, essential. We wed within two years.
By this time, the Engines allowed us to master gene therapy. We eradicated disease, then enhanced our natural abilities. Where previously a lifespan meant perhaps a hundred years, it could now span millennia. Prolonging our lives was merely a stopgap for our infertility crisis. There was more to do.
The Engines would see to it.
It was inevitable that the truth behind the Engines would be revealed to the public. Lies of omissions were often the best methods of maintaining secrecy, but there was little point otherwise. We were alone in the remnants of the cosmos; through our long observations and probes we had never found another race. And our people, faced with extinction, had no need for divisions. We were united under a single government. There was bureaucracy to be sure, but we were unified. As such, secrets were a commodity.
First, a digital network news story, then digital discussions grew exponentially. We looked to our leadership to confirm the truth, and they did.
The Engines was not some miraculous energy generation system. The Four Spires, as we had originally called them, were revealed to be siphons.
“But siphoning from where?” they asked. An understandable question, considering the universe had been in the throes of decay and had relatively little energy left.
Our leadership responded. The response was… mixed.
The announcement of a breakthrough in the infertility crisis bolstered our people. Nasha and I were exhilarated upon hearing that new creche worlds were being commissioned. Thanks to our positions, we were among the earliest offered a chance to have progeny. We were joyful and terrified.
We provided genetic samples and the preferred template for our child. We had agreed upon a daughter, and six weeks later were ecstatic to learn she had been among the first of the new generation to be successfully sequenced. We began the seven-month wait eagerly planning a new layout for our home and adjusting our schedules to accommodate our daughter.
Our people no longer simply had hope. Our people now had a future.
One of my side projects had been decoding strange signals coming from the nodes along the Lattice. It had been years before they were noticed, and interest languished. The signals appeared to be little more than noise, radiation emanating from the complex interactions of the Lattice energies. But there was form to be extracted from the chaos. Over the years I continued undaunted to navigate the cosmic substrata for answers.
It was fitting that in the days following the revelation of about the Engines that I made a significant breakthrough in my research.
Inspired by a suggestion from Nasha, I took the signals and processed them through our vast computer networks. I waited as the system AI collated data streams and found a purpose to the signals.
I did not expect a video, much less of an alien creature.
It took weeks to deploy an array of data capture relays across the Lattice, and many more of maintenance and debugging on the hastily developed transcoding software. But our goal was successful: recording and sorting through the massive amounts of video and audio data being transmitted through the Lattice.
And there they were. Different species, creatures who bore no resemblance to us. Our scientists struggled to make sense of the recordings. Whole new fields of research sprang to life overnight, not only trying to make sense of their language and behaviors but of the very nature of the transmissions. In some, they appeared to be calmly speaking to the viewer. But in others, elaborate events occurred, some with an array of interactions, artificially inserted effects and combat. These did not appear to be informational, and their purpose eluded us.
But a crisis emerged from the discovery.
I was brought to the capital as part of a conference of researchers and leaders on how to best interpret these new signals. Before the truth regarding the Engines, it would have been easy to deflect, even bury, the discovery. But in the wake of recent disclosures, our race had, for the first time in its existence, been faced with a difficult question.
Were we truly fit to survive?
I had asked myself this question, but when Nasha asked it, my logic and reasoning wavered. I was left wondering, for the first time, if we had been wrong.
The Invaders confirmed my doubts to devastating effect.
They appeared without preamble, slicing into our reality through rifts unlike anything we had seen.
They offered no communication. No terms. There was only one thing they had wanted.
The Four Spires.
The obsidian ships unleashed devastating firepower onto the structures. The Engines offered no retaliation, as they had never been built with defenses. The invading warships struck true, bombarding the Engines until three of the structures were nothing but shattered hulks, and the fourth ruptured, bleeding energy into deathly spirals across the void.
And then the great rifts opened again, and the Invaders were gone.
Nasha and I did not leave our home. There was very little point in doing so.
Though three of the Apotheosis Engines were destroyed, the fourth one was badly damaged, but repairs were being made. The news outlets, however, confirmed our worst suspicions.
The attacks had left our civilization on the brink of ruin. It was only a matter of time.
First, the reports of the creche worlds being lost in the attack. We thought of lost daughter and wept. At least she would be spared of what lay ahead.
The Warp Gates were offline. Without the full power of the Four Spires, it was unlikely they could be repaired. Our civilization was scattered across light-years, with only a failing information relay to hold us together. And soon, even that would be gone.
But it did not matter. The Great Lattice was failing. And once it did, the darkness held at bay of a dying universe would rush in.
In our hubris, we sought to ward off the inevitable. We built great Engines to power our dying universe – even if it meant taking that power from other ones. Alternate realities divided by what we once thought was an impassible gulf, used as little more than batteries by our Apotheosis Engines. Younger universes bled dry, subjected to early deaths so that we could stave off our own. Once one universe had been consumed, the Engines would recalibrate, find a new alternate universe, and begin the cycle again.
And in the energy we drained came their signals: records, deeds, hopes. We watched, enthralled by glimpses at the children of other stars.
But there had been a price. By our estimates, the Engines had subjected seven universes to an early death. But this eighth one had been different. They came to understand that we were killing their universe. They had the technology to challenge our audacity.
And they taught us the truth about defiance.
The information network went offline. Overhead, I saw the light Great Lattice begin to die out. I held Nasha close. I spoke to her of the words deep in my heart that fear no longer restrained.
We waited for the dark to rush in, a predator whose hunger could never satiated.