Escape Pod 290: Tom the Universe

Tom the Universe

By Larry Hodges

I permeate this universe, which I’ve named Tom, and guard against its destruction. If someone had done that for the universe I came from, then Mary, my sweet Mary, would still be alive, and I wouldn’t have killed her and everyone else when I accidentally destroyed that universe.

And now I’m on the verge of destroying much more.

My name is also Tom. I was an undergrad in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that January in 2040 when I made the discovery that doomed us all. My field of study was cognitive science, the study of human consciousness. What makes us aware of ourselves? Is it just the biomechanical workings of the brain, or something else?

Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I spent countless hours in the lab eliminating the impossible, and there didn’t seem to be anything left, improbable or not. The interconnectivity required for human consciousness to exist was just too many levels beyond what was possible. By all rights, we should all be unconscious blobs of matter mechanically going about our business as directed by electronic impulses from the brain, with no more consciousness than a calculator. I suffered brain cramps in the lab trying to figure out what improbables were left.

When I could think of nothing else to try, it was time to relax and let my subconscious figure it out. So I got out the Frisbee and called my lab partners.

Mary, Joey, and I–Tommy, as they called me–called ourselves the “ees.” I’d only met Mary when we’d started college, and adored how she laughed when I explained my love for her in neurological terms, with dopamine and neurotransmitters. We did everything together, or so I thought; classes and labs, movies, and late-night bull sessions with pizza and ice cream, usually followed by pints of morning coffee. Our future together was assured; as soon as we graduated, we would get married. I’d even convinced her we should wear purity rings–I had special ones made up with a brain emblem.

Joey and I grew up together on the same street, playing stickball and videogames. He and I were going to be buddies for life.

Professor Wilson, our adviser, reluctantly let the three of us be lab partners even though he said it’s best not to put friends together. Amazingly, we got a lot done when we weren’t reading the neurology cartoons taped to the walls or playing with Catzilla, the lab’s iguana-bodied, cat-brained hybrid mascot. And then came that morning when we went outside the lab on Charles Street to toss the Frisbee around among the oak trees by the front steps. The fresh air was an escape from the antiseptic stench of the lab.

“You throw like a girl!” Joey said when my toss to him banged against the ground, way off line. He stood half a head taller than me, with that eternal mischievous grin I’d known for twenty years. He was the only person in the world who could get away with a ponytailed bouffant, which I would yank every chance.

“Like a girl, huh?” Mary said, throwing the Frisbee as hard as she could at Joey, who barely blocked it. Mary grabbed the rebound and faked another throw while Joey cringed. “Want some more?” She was my sweet pixie, five feet of tiger and spice, never still, never silent. Recently she’d taken to tying her long blond hair in a ponytail like Joey, giving me a second target to yank. I was the smart one, with a crew cut.

“Okay,” Joey said, “you win. You both throw like girls!” Mary smacked him with the frisbee again.

As we tossed it around, I became aware of my awareness of the Frisbee’s location at any given moment. Somehow my mind tracked this and so many other things. The complexities were staggering. I got so caught up thinking about this that I forgot to be aware of the spinning Frisbee coming at me.

It went bonk against my head, and suddenly the answer to my question shook free. Great complexity meant great interconnectivity meant great density meant . . . it wasn’t just improbable, it was astounding. But it was the only thing that wasn’t impossible.

The interconnectivity required for human consciousness could only be satisfied by infinite density at a single point. A singularity.

Unless Mr. Holmes was mistaken, every one of us carries a singularity in our head. The mass doesn’t register in our universe, or else your body–and everything else for a long way around–would fall into it and squoosh, a quick way to end one’s existence. No, the singularity is just a point that floats around, stuck in your brain, presumably created while your brain was being created, with its mass in some alternate universe or state.

Actually, as any physicist could tell you–and I’m not one, I learned this later on–singularities do not really explode, no matter how many times that happens in science fiction stories. All universes start as singularities that expand exponentially, the so-called “Big Bang.” There’s no explosion, just a single point that gets bigger and bigger until you have a full-sized universe.

“You okay, hot shot?” Mary asked. I realized I was still standing outside the lab, saliva trickling out the corner of my mouth. I wiped it off and re-entered the real world.

“I’ve got something!” I exclaimed, as visions of singularities danced in my head.

“So do I,” she said, hugging me, her red cardigan sweater pressing against me. Oh, if I’d only lost my train of thought and hugged back! I took off for the lab, colliding with three students on the way to the fourth floor. Mary and Joey followed. I ignored Catzilla’s rasping meow as I ran to my lab station to do research and think.

Once I knew about the singularity in my brain, the obvious next step was to experiment on it. But a singularity takes up no space, and is therefore rather hard to test. So I sought the advice of a physics grad student. I didn’t tell him why I needed to expand a singularity, and he didn’t tell me the consequences, thinking it was all just theory talk. He explained what was needed in the foreign language of physics, but I picked up the one part I needed: “Flood it with tachyons, so that the entire quantum evaporation happens in an instant.” I had no idea what the second part meant. It turned out that the physics lab had one of the new tachyon emitters, which he showed off for me. Just what the neurologist ordered!

He assured me that tachyons were harmless, essentially massless–my eyes glazed over when he started talking about “imaginary mass”–and would shoot right through anything at faster than light speeds. I felt in sudden need of a tachyon shower.

Mary and Joey had wandered off, which I thought strange at the time since we were at a key stage of our work, but I didn’t need them for this and so didn’t stop to wonder where they might be. (If I knew then what I knew now. . . .) When no one was looking, I turned the tachyon emitter on full blast, entered the tachyon field chamber through the “Do Not Enter!” sign, and the rest is. . . .

I started to say “history,” but of course it was actually the end of history. The singularity in my brain expanded like any other “Big Bang,” creating a universe and destroying ours.

Including Mary.

My friend the physics major never said anything about branes. Not brains, but branes, one of those physics terms that I knew nothing about back then. It seems our universe existed inside a brane, which in turn existed in a higher-dimensional space-time continuum, in equilibrium with other universes in their own branes. When the singularity in my head became a universe in its own brane, it knocked our universe and its brane out of equilibrium.

Our universe and its brane happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, near another brane which it now teetered into. There have probably been countless cases of singularities expanding into universes, but only rarely–as in this case–is a new one so close to another that it knocks the older one out of equilibrium.

What happens when two branes collide? Both of them, and everything inside, are destroyed. And it doesn’t take billions of years. Since it all takes place in a higher-dimensional space-time continuum, the collision takes place at all times and spaces simultaneously–as if that word has any meaning in this context–and the entire existence of the universe and its one hundred billion galaxies was wiped out. Not just gone forever, but never existed. The Milky Way Galaxy, Earth, humans, Baltimore, Frisbees, Catzilla, none of it ever happened. Mary who? She never was, no matter how vivid her memory was to me.

The only thing in my old universe that wasn’t destroyed was me. My body doesn’t exist anymore, and in fact now never existed. But when the singularity expanded from a point to an entire universe in its own brane, my consciousness expanded with it. That’s why I permeate this universe, which I named Tom since it all came from me. Every proton, electron, quark, lepton, tachyon, it’s all me.

But I miss Mary, the rose of my existence. In my human form I had never appreciated her as I did now–and her death, or non-existence, was my fault. Was there any penalty, any torture, I did not deserve?

I had actually done far worse, destroying the universe, billions of humans, and–as I soon learned–quadrillions of intelligent aliens scattered throughout the universe. Yet these were just numbers, faceless hordes I’d never meet or miss. With Mary, it was the ultimate betrayal, her life snuffed out by me, the one person she should have been able to trust, in the second worst betrayal of trust I would ever know.

Once free of my body, I had the quantum computing power of the entire Tom Universe at my beck and call, and I made use of it. I was a little confused during the Planck epoch (first 10^-43 seconds after the Big Bang), but sometime during the Grand Unification epoch (up to 10^-35 seconds), I figured out what had happened. By the end of the Inflationary epoch (10^-32 seconds), I’d analyzed the previous universe and simulated in my mind all that had ever happened that I cared to see. (Of course, I never knew about these various “epochs” during my previous life.)

Seeing all that I had obliterated in such detail forced me to face what I had done. They were not just numbers or faceless hordes. They were real, intelligent beings, both human and alien ones throughout the universe. Their hopes and dreams not only wouldn’t be realized, they no longer ever had hopes and dreams, or even existed. My crimes were almost imagining. It took a hundred years to get past my depression.

But I learned something else in my analysis of my old universe. I learned what Joey and my sweet Mary had done. That made me forget about all I had destroyed.

I decided there were three things I needed to do, three goals that I would devote my entire being toward achieving.

I actually have very little direct influence over what happens in the Tom Universe. I barely have the horsepower to knock a stray pencil aside without a billion years’ notice. I can move tachyons about, but what’s the point of that? I’m the weakest of the five forces of nature, the other four being gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I have so little influence over anything with real mass that nobody, not even the Einsteins from both universes, would deduce or detect me. And yet, in cosmological time, I get a lot done.

It took a huge force of will to concentrate on moving things just so, but I did so for billions of years as I influenced the movement of atomic particles this way and that, according to my calculations. It’s not easy when you have to constantly recalculate, thanks to the blasted Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the bane of my existence. I remember how difficult problems used to give me brain cramps; imagine a brain cramp the size of the universe. That’s what you get when you spend a few billion years concentrating on one thing. But I got results. Professor Wilson would have been proud.

With my influence over the course of a billion years, matter in one star system coalesced subtley differently than it would have otherwise. Two hunks of rock, a few hundred pounds each, would have missed each other, but with billions of years of focused thought I got them to collide just so. A large chunk of rock broke off one of them, and took off into space, a meteor. (Actually a meteoroid, but I prefer the colloquial term.) The second hunk of rock ricocheted off the first and hit another meteor, knocking off another large chunk of rock. This meteor took off in the same direction as the first one, about a minute behind, just as I’d calculated.

Those two meteors would take care of my second and third goals. But for now, forget about those meteors. They won’t be heard from again for ten billion years.

My first goal was the toughest. Mary, sweet Mary, how I missed her! I set about recreating her and my old universe in all its details, right from the beginning. With the quantum computing power of the Tom Universe, I could extrapolate all that had happened, and set about duplicating it.

You can call me God, since I applied whatever light touches were necessary to recreate my old universe. Trust me, galaxy formation is not an easy thing when a ninety-pound weakling at the beach can kick sand at you and all you can kick back with are a few photons. Just to get the raw materials needed I had to create supernovas, and explode them just right. But a photon here, an electron there, and it adds up if you do it long enough. Soon I had the matter and energy needed, all in the right place at the right time. I created our solar system, Earth, life, evolution, hamsters, and eventually Homo Sapiens, all exactly as it had happened in my old universe.

It wasn’t easy affecting evolution since I could barely nudge a strand of DNA. I could move an atom so it affects a molecule, which affects a nucleotide, which affects the DNA. It took many millions of years, and I almost died for want of a galactic-sized aspirin. I had second thoughts about recreating history exactly as before, since that meant Hitler, bubonic plague, cooked spinach, and acne–five years of it for me–but any changes would alter future history, and I couldn’t risk that. Once I’d set the initial conditions early in Earth’s history, the rest was inevitable, with minor adjustments now and then, thanks to Heisenberg. As to the rest of the universe, I let it evolve on its own, and it ended up pretty close to the original.

Finally the Tom Universe reached TOM, the Time of Mary.

Oh, and me too. I got to watch both of us grow up. With me, it was diaper changing, playing with Joey, bullies stuffing me in lockers, dropping the fly ball to right field that blew the big playoff game–damn, I wanted to change that–then off to college. With Mary, it was diaper changing, ballet classes, middle school queen bee, high school prom queen, boyfriends I didn’t know about, then off to college where she finally buckled down and studied. We met, we dated, and then Joey joined us as we formed our lab group.

Joey, Joey, Joey. The things I know about you now!

But now I had Mary back. I couldn’t hold her in my arms because I didn’t really have arms, unless you count eighteen billion human arms, since they are all part of me. But after 13.7 billion years of planning and execution, her beautiful mind and body existed again. I had achieved my first goal.

I caressed her with the molecules that bounced against her body, as well as from within, since the very matter that made up her body was me. I felt her at every level of existence, the limbular, cellular, molecular, nuclear, and lepton/quarkular. Such sweetness and beauty. . .

. . .and such betrayal. There I was, just as before on that fateful day, experimenting on my singularity, unknowingly about to destroy the universe . . . again. And there, in Dr. Wilson’s office nearby, on his sofa, were Mary and Joey, just as before, with their bodies–made from me!–entwined, their lips locked. Mary’s purity ring lay on a table nearby.

I’d played it out in my mind a trillion times, always with the same result. Small bursts of cosmic rays spontaneously burst into being throughout the universe as I heaved universal shudders of horror. How could they?

In my youth as a universe, I could never go beyond that moment. What point was there? Mary and Joey betrayed me, and must pay the price.

And yet, as I matured as a universe, my youthful hot-bloodedness was replaced by a more experienced thoughtfulness. It took nearly 13.7 billion years–just a few brief million years before Mary, Joey and I would come into existence again–before I could bring myself to look past the betrayal and calculate what would have happened if I hadn’t destroyed the universe. It was just a simulation in my cosmic mind, and yet it seemed almost real to me.

“I can’t believe we did that,” Mary said as she dressed. “Right here, not fifteen feet from the lab.”

Joey was silent as he pulled up his pants and put on his socks and shoes. When he was done, he continued staring at his feet.

“We’re his best friends, and look what we’ve done,” Mary continued. There was a long silence. Mary stared at her purity ring for a long time before putting it back on. Catzilla stood nearby, staring with accusatory eyes.

“We can’t ever tell him,” Joey finally said. “It would be too much for him.”

“How can we face him?” Tears streamed down Mary’s face.

“We won’t,” Joey said, his face granite.

A week later, Joey transferred to another university, which he claimed focused more on his areas of neurological interest. For several years he maintained occasional email contact with Tom before fading into his past. He never contacted Mary again.

Mary missed a week of school, citing illness. When she returned, she surprised Tom with a candlelit dinner and the finest French food. Thoughts of singularity expansion were put on hold. Later they would work out the theoretical framework for consciousness–including singularities and their part–and their research would revolutionize the field. When Tom wanted to expand a singularity, she convinced him the dangers were too great.

A month after the candlelit dinner, Tom proposed. They married, had three kids, and had fifty happy years together.

I replayed over and over in my mind the simulation of what my life would have been like with Mary. The life I’d lost, and the two lives I was about to kill. A cosmic tear rolled down my metaphorical cheek.

For ten billion years, the two meteors had shot through space for their long-planned rendezvous, my second and third goals. Now I watched as they approached Earth, just a few million years to go. What have I done? My betrayal was far worse than theirs. Mine was the greatest of all possible betrayals.

One of the meteors meant nothing to me; its destination deserved its fate. I focused my will from every corner of the universe on the other meteor as it soared through space. If I could just nudge it to the side, even a few feet. . . .

I could have calculated in an instant if I would be successful, but I did not. If I was going to fail, I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t want to waste even a snippet of my mental energy on anything except saving Mary. I strained with all my mind, stretching the very fabric of the universe to the limit. If I had enough time, I could move mountains, but I did my best work in billions of years, not millions.

The meteor lurched slightly to the side. Would it be enough? I pushed and pushed, praying feverishly to whatever god there might exist beyond me. I could feel the meteor as it continued to veer off course.

It entered the solar system, still nearly on course. Fear permeated the universe as I watched it draw closer and closer . . . all I can do now is watch.

The first of the two meteors, now the size of a marble after going through the atmosphere at twenty-six miles per second, comes through the roof. As I’d planned ten billion years before, it strikes my other me, seconds before he/I would start the expansion in the singularity in my brain that would have led to the destruction of the Tom Universe. My head splatters in spectacular fashion, with red flowering out in a contrived Fibonacci pattern of great beauty. I’ve saved the Tom Universe and all its occupants from myself, my second goal. Billions of humans and quadrillions of intelligent aliens will now continue to exist. I no longer care.

The second meteor is only a minute behind. I’d fought it for millions of years, straining with every fiber of my being, and yet it is only barely off target . . . would my efforts be enough? I had been too afraid to calculate in advance. I can now see Mary and Joey in Dr. Wilson’s office, just as in our original universe, their bodies entwined in ways I would not believe possible if I weren’t sensing it with the very matter they use to do it with, their bodies. Joey, my good buddy and friend, is on top, facing Mary, who makes moaning sounds that I’d heard in my simulations a trillion times before.

A second before the meteor arrives, I see my efforts are for naught. The meteor is off target by only a few inches. My piercing scream shoots through the Tom Universe, unheard by anyone as it echoes through my cosmic mind, rattling constellations throughout my universe on the microcosmic scale.

The second meteor slices through Joey’s back and Mary’s stomach, leaving behind matching holes the size of Frisbees in their bodies and a trillion times larger in my heart. Catzilla, who’s been hiding under a nearby table, scurries from the room in fear. My third goal, revenge, has been achieved.

In desperation I let loose a storm of tachyons toward Mary’s head. Since tachyons are essentially massless, I can maneuver them easily. The tachyons flood the singularity in her brain, which begins to expand.

She will live! Embodied in her own universe, just as I am. Just as I had done, she will recreate our universe, and eventually me, and we will be together again . . . pleasure coarses through my universe.

And then I freeze, my metaphorical jaw dropping. Mary’s expanding singularity is not alone. Tachyons have also flooded Joey’s brain, and his singularity is also expanding.

I make one last use of the quantum computing power of my universe, and see the horrible truth. Joey’s and Mary’s universes, now in their own branes, are too close together. Their branes are on a collision course that will destroy both, leaving me alone in universal misery.

NO!” I cry as pain explodes through me. Closer and closer the branes move together for their inevitable rendevous.

I react mindlessly, writhing in agony as my metaphorical muscles convulse. This has little effect on matter, but like corks shooting from bottles, tachyons shoot out everywhere, permeating the very fabric of my universe.

Singularities everywhere begin to expand. Not just the billions inside human brains, but also the quadrillions inside intelligent creatures throughout my universe. Quadrillions of new universes emerge and expand, in close proximity to their neighbors, overloading the uncountable branes. The branes, no longer in equilibrium, collide with each other like dominoes throughout the cosmos. One by one they pop like soap bubbles, until there is nothing, there never has been anything, and just as my existence ends, there is no pain.

About the Author

Larry Hodges

He’s an active member of Science Fiction Writers of American with 86 short story sales, including 23 SFWA “pro” sales. His story “Leashing the Muse” was a finalist for the Washington SF Association Small Press Award for 2016. His story “The Awakening” was the unanimous grand prize winner at the 2010 Garden State Horror Writers Short Story Competition. His story “Rationalized” won the November 2011 Story Quest Competition. He’s a graduate of the six-week 2006 Odyssey Writers Workshop, the 2007 Orson Scott Card Literary Boot Camp, and the two-week 2008 Taos Toolbox Writers Workshop. In the world of non-fiction, He’s a full-time writer with eleven books and over 1700 published articles in over 150 different publications.

He has a bachelor’s in math and a master’s in journalism, both from University of Maryland. In the world of table tennis he’s a member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame (as a coach and writer) and is certified as a National Coach, the highest level. He’s also a member of the USA Table Tennis Board of Directors and Chair of the USATT Coaching Committee. He coaches at the Maryland Table Tennis Center.

Find more by Larry Hodges


About the Narrator

Mat Weller

Mat Weller

Mat Weller is the servant to a lovely family in eastern Pennsylvania. After his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he sometimes re-watches old episodes of X-Files on Netflix and other times retires to his basement booth where he records noises that get played on the Internet. Rumor has it he also makes delightful chocolate chip cookies.

Oh, and in October 2014, he beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.

Mat had the honor of producing for Escape Pod from 2010 to 2016. He is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, and he narrates a growing catalog of books for ACX.

Find more by Mat Weller

Mat Weller