• Anne Hecker

The Coils of Time


Ada spent her entire mortal life seeking eternity, but when she found it she learned, as is often the case when one attains their deepest desires, eternity was not all it was cracked up to be.


No one was left to tell her “I told you so.” That was the thing about living forever — anyone else dies, their lives and warnings faded into the blur of history, until their memories were vague and names have slipped away and all she remembered was they smelled of oranges — but oranges all died out and Ada couldn’t remember what they smell like either — or that they overused the word “excusable,” but she can’t remember what was excusable.


No, it wasn’t because everyone she’d known in life were gone; she’d had eons to come to terms with that. And Ada’s ever-lasting love of geology and astronomy kept her from losing interest in the universe. With her now typically intangible form, lacking the ability to touch and feel physical sensations, well, she hardly yearned or pined for companionship.


No, Ada didn’t regret eternity but for one aspect: the dreams.


For the first fifty years of eternity she dreamed as she normally did, the same inanities and oddnesses as usual, as every mortal had. Flying, fishing, a conversation with her mother in a restaurant long turned to dust. But the thirty millennia following that Ada didn’t dream at all.


Throughout those thirty-thousand years Ada had traveled the solar system, then the galaxy on a whim. She explored, she watched, she witnessed civilizations rise and fall. She’d seen the ends of earths and glimpsed the beginnings.


She felt she was a goddess, and as she swept through yet another solar system, past gas giants and moons like hey were nothing more than tourist-traps along a freeway, that thought didn’t even feel like hubris.


But then, one night as she relaxed in the orbital flow of a planet with a couple oblong satellites, Ada dreamed again.


Nothing in the universe made her feel less like a goddess than dreaming.


***


Ada stood in darkness.


She did not fear the darkness. She was used to it, found comfort in it. She loved the nothingness of space, a black that stretched forever. A black that felt impossibly far away and nearby at the same time, even when she was bathed in the impossible brightness of a sun.


This darkness was different. It felt oppressive, like being swathed in a stifling blanket at night, which she had not done since she was mortal.


She realized she was dreaming right away; The dullness of her perception after eons of awareness and wakefulness gave it away.


Then came the Voice.


“Can you hear me?”


The sound of it startled her. She had no heart to seize, but she felt an electric rush like lightning. She had not heard a voice in so long she had forgotten what it was like to hear them. She had forgotten what it was like to understand words.


“Are you here to help me?”


That first dream, a voice calling to her from the dark, ended before she could reply. The surprise of it snapped her awake, floating along a high orbit of a vacant, rust-red planet. The planet looked familiar, but she didn’t stick around long.


Thoughts of her dream followed her to the next star on her voyage, a blue giant burning, kept company by a small black hole circled it, draining it of life, and the pitch black of it beyond the event horizon reminded her of the dark of her dream as she continued on. The voice echoed in her head.


“Are you here to help me?”


She hears him say, again and again, “Help me.”


Help yourself, dream boy, she thinks.


And on she went.


***


The Voice dredged up memories of the distant past. Ada remembered her first life, her mortal life.


She remembers her mother telling her, “This quest of yours will be the death of me.”


And she thinks, But not of me.


She remembers her father’s silence, a silence filled with the disappointed look in his eyes and the shake of his head.


And she thinks, And yet, I succeeded.


She remembers thousands of people, all gone, and she thinks, I am still here, I am the one who will last forever.


She tells herself that now she is a goddess, and in the company of the stars and their planets it feels like the truth.


***


Mars. It was Mars, the red planet she knew seemed familiar.


But there wasn’t anything left for her in that solar system. No one she knew was alive, no species she knew were left.


***


She dreamed again the next time she slept, only a week later, and for the first time in many thousands of years she felt time at a mortal pace.


It itched. She missed the comfort of the passage of time.


So she arrived in the dream, standing in darkness, already angry.


“Will you help me?” Asked the Voice.


“No,” she replied. Her voice shook, and was hoarse from disuse, even in her dream.


For a moment there was silence.


“Please,” said the Voice. “I just need—”


“It doesn’t matter what you need,” said Ada.


A moan of pain echoed through the dark, like the Voice came from everywhere at once. Far into the distance was a light. Not the steady glow of a faraway star, but the weak flicker of a candle. Ada’s mother had loved candles. In the winter when she was a child, instead of electric lamps, they would light all their candles and sit on the sofa. Mom told her stories about girls falling in love, starting families, living short but fulfilled lives. Ada didn’t like the stories, but she loved her mother’s voice. She listened to the sound of it, like she spoke as instrumental music instead of words. Ada would dip her fingers in the wax. It was hot, but not burning, as long as she stayed away from the flame. She’d let it cool and harden, but not all the way, and peel it off to squish into little wax balls and put it back in the molten part of the candle.


“I’m trapped,” said the Voice. “Please, please get me out.”


The words came from the direction of the light. Ada turned her back to it, and walked out of the dream.


She spent the rest of the week on a planet with an atmosphere and primitive, floundering life. The creatures filled the hazy air with sound, and she pretended not to hear him.


***


She sat on an island in a river and watched the water flow by. It had been flowing for millenia, and would flow for millennia. The planet orbited a red star, which hung close in the sky, closer than the sun she remembered from her life. During the day it gave the world a green tint. Clouds floated overhead.


This planet had no visible life. Yet. But there were the makings of it. Ada would come back, someday, to see what came from it. If anything did.


“Please get me out.”


She heard the Voice all the time now. Haunting her.


“We should go out.”


The Voice had become her first love, in her memories. The sound of him superimposing upon another. She might have resented the Voice, but it was like resenting a dream for shifting reality. She’d loved him, and only him, during her life.


He’d asked her out in at her locker. She’d been distracted. Homework? A test? The specifics were gone, like his voice.


She could see his bright hazel eyes staring into hers, and at the tips of her fingers she felt a ghost of his skin, smooth and dark. They went to school together, first high school, then college, then he’d gotten a good job and she went on to a graduate program. They stayed together through it all, through her education, after that through moves and aging and fights and natural disasters and, well, life.


Then he started feeling pains in his abdomen.


She came home from work to a dark house. He sat on the couch, staring into space. He hadn’t noticed her come in.


“Honey. No.”


He blinked, his frown deepened, and he didn’t meet her eyes.


“Yeah,” he said.


Her first mortal life was over with that news. If she was being dishonest, and cynical, or perhaps romantic, she would tell you her first mortal life ended next to a hospital bed. Her hand clutched his as he took his last breaths, and the last words he said to her were, “I love you, I don’t want to die.”


And then her world ended.


The results of the initial biopsies began her journey, first to save her dying lover, and when that failed, to save herself. She would not, she could not end up like him, dead and gone, forever. She wanted to be here, in this flawed, beautiful universe forever.


She started her quest because of love, but she finished it because of her own fearful selfishness.


***


“I’m Michael,” said the Voice. It sounded closer with every dream.


She thought perhaps she had been turned around, and though she thought she put distance between them she actually brought them closer together. She still could not see him, but the light that had once been a pinpoint in the distance was closer. It was a small fire. There was no one around it.


The Voice continued, “What’s your name?”


She looked above her and saw stars. The constellations were familiar. She’d sat on her roof as a child with her mother every meteor shower, counting the shooting stars, and her mother had told her the names of all the constellations they could see. Ada didn’t know their names anymore—they hardly mattered anyway. They were only the doodles of humans on the sky, trying to make sense of a universe too big for them. They were only relevant on one small world, to people who were long gone.


That’s what this voice—Michael—was. A ghost.


“Are you real? I can’t tell if I’m dreaming anymore,” said Michael.


She didn’t bother answering, but he kept talking anyway.


“Please, just tell me your name.”


She looked down from the dream-stars and saw him. He faced away from her, his head turning this way and that as though he is searching for her. Her footsteps echoed through the dream.


“My name is Ada,” she said, and woke up.


***


She found Michael at the fire. She approached, and sat, and he watched her from the corner of his eyes but not directly. Like he thought she’d disappear if he observed her. He let the silence hang until it got heavy, and then she listened to him talk. He told her about the dried food he’d been eating, miraculously kept from decay, but that the water supply on his ship was draining swiftly.


He thought he was orbiting the Earth, because he could see all the constellations she vaguely remembered. He mentions Orion and the Big Dipper and Ada said, “Ursa Major,” savoring the familiarity of the words like biting into a ripened blackberry — sweet, but bitter, picked from the vine too soon.


Then he asked about her, about where she was and if she was in a ship too, if she was with the rest of humanity.


She woke up, bitter taste lingering like phantom pain.


***


Ada convinced herself it was a trap. There was no way this was a real person in danger. Humans had gone extinct many eons ago. He was a figment or a hallucination, a nothing.


He yelled for her, screaming her name into the darkness, but she stayed out of sight until she returned to consciousness.


***


His name was Michael. He had lived twenty years and slept another thirty thousand.


He was dying.


“Cancer,” he said. “They said they’d wake me up when they had a cure. But they never did. Then there was a glitch, the AI woke me up. And I’ve just been stuck here, alone, for months.”


“Where’s here?”


As he described it to her, the black receded until they were seated in the dull metal bridge of a ship, an ancient, archaic ship. Drifting in the dead of space. For Ada, the expanse of the universe fourteen billion years across was the ultimate freedom. For Michael, only the degrading old life support kept him alive.


“There were more. Sleeping,” he told her. “I tried to wake them up but…”


He’d had a sister and a boyfriend and his parents and they’d died tens of thousands of years ago thinking their brother, partner, son would one day wake up alive and well. Instead he woke up alone, still sick and dying of the cancer he’d gone to sleep to escape.


***


Jupiter and its many moons fill her vision.


Why am I here? It was the question she’d been asking herself since she passed through the Oort Cloud. She would get to Earth to find that he wasn’t there. He wasn’t real, or he was setting a trap, or he was wrong about where he was.


No matter what she would be a fool, disappointed, and alone again.


But for a moment she let herself hope that, maybe, she would have a companion out here, someone she could spend forever with and show them the universe she loved too much to leave.


She would show him the watery worlds full of life so different from anything he could imagine, nebulae and supernovae and the distant galaxies.


She let herself think, for a moment, that she wouldn’t always be alone.


***


She was too late.


Well. Not too late. For Michael, maybe just in time. But too late to give him more than an end. She cursed herself. She was no goddess. She was a coward, no better than the myths of her ancestors.


She found him curled on a bunk. His rasping breaths were shallow. His eyes sunken. In their dreams, he’d been whole, healthy. But he’d been imagined, in their dreams. He’d imagined how he saw himself, not how he was, and that’s what Ada saw.


Michael’s eyes cracked open as she sat next to him. He breathed a ragged breath, and his chest quaked. He gazed up at Ada. She expected anger, for staying away so long, but all she saw was a soft, watery fondness. He touched her face with his hand, his limbs too-thin, and he smiled. It was not a good smile — it gave him a skeletal appearance that Ada would see in the clouds of nebulae and star wombs.


Not a good smile, but a beautiful one. A familiar smile — not from her personal past, but her primordial one. She smiled back. She hoped it was comforting to see. Ada didn’t know how he saw her.


He reaching his shaking hand to hers. She accepted it. Held it.


“Thank you.”


Michael’s words were thready, thin, and lingered in the air like smoke. The last words of an entire species.


Then he was gone.


She held him in her arms, tangible and solid around him, and love for him swelled in her throat until it choked her. She knew that feeling. There was a time in her existence that she knew it all too well.


Then he was just more of the Past, a past so full she hardly bothered to remember it all. She carried his body through the ghost-ship, then to the comforting chill outside. She carried him to his planet — and hers. She would never dream again.


She lay him to rest with the rest of their kind, on a beach where the sand crabs and the birds — the ones that had somehow clung to survival on this changed planet — would return him to the natural processes they were still part of.


The sun rose, blue through a red haze.


Already the planet was reaching a modicum of stability. Life was not returning, nothing brought back what was gone. But some had made it through, and was spreading. The planet would never see another civilization reach the over-zealous industrial levels of humanity — not with resources stripped and depleted. But life… survived. For now.


In a few billion years, the sun would expand and reunite with the matter of earth. Would Ada be around to see it?


She walked the beach, comforted by the sound of waves. Before long, she found herself looking up. She longed for the stars.

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