Afterlife by Steve Bates

Steve Bates tells of a future where an apocalyptic prediction catalyses the rise of an anti-science cult, and Archivist Galen is on a mission to preserve universal knowledge.

The lustrous insignia dangling from the simple chain around the guard’s neck was unmistakable. A semicircle resting on a thick horizontal bar. The setting sun.

If this man wishes to impress leaders of the Zafaran religion, my mission could be over very quickly. I can only hope that he is one of the billions who are simply living out their days awaiting The Bliss.

Two crescent moons hung like daggers over the sprawling city skyline. Thin scarlet exhaust trails of transports bearing residents on business or errands etched scores of overlapping arcs, with new trails continually replacing vanishing ones in a delicate dance. The figures reminded Galen of his time in the Academy, where he earned top honors in mathematics. A time when he was brimming with optimism about his future and that of his world.

Harsh security lights hurled menacing shadows onto the otherwise deserted plaza, obscuring deep cracks and scattered debris that evidenced metastasizing neglect. The building Galen approached was more rumor than edifice, with most of its levels underground and no sign or window to offer a hint of its doleful purpose.

The guard, who had been dozing or praying, stirred and reached for something in his black waistband. Galen forced himself to cross his hands in front of his midsection, palms facing skyward, in the manner of the Zafaran faithful. “The all in nothing,” he intoned, hoping that he sounded sincere.

The guard hesitated, then returned the gesture and the phrase with greater conviction. Galen avoided eye contact as spoke the words that he had practiced all evening. “I am here to retrieve two detainees for interrogation.” Though he could recite their names, scientific accomplishments and supposed crimes from memory, he withdrew a millimeter-thick document reader from his satchel and feigned a casual glance at it. “Damica and Alden.”

If only you could see me now, Malena. This is the craziest thing your husband has ever done. Surely, the guard or the scanner will detect that the document is a forgery. But it’s too late to turn back.

The guard frowned. “I was not informed of a retrieval tonight.”

“This is a highly confidential matter. We need to determine if any associates of these criminals are planning similar offenses.” Galen held his breath as he placed the document reader in front of the scanner. For several excruciating moments, nothing. Then, with a soft whoosh, the portal began to slide open.

He followed the guard down dimly lit corridors and onto a conveyor that descended to the sixth detention level. They entered a frigid, sterile chamber bathed in pale blue light. Each wall contained row after row of metal vaults. The guard located and unlocked unit 6047, slid out two lifeless figures and loaded them onto a hovering gurney.

One of the galaxy’s leading physicists, Alden had been forced into stasis - the ultimate punishment - with eyes wide and fists clenched in defiance. Damica, his mate and equally acclaimed colleague, had folded her arms over her chest and closed her eyes before her life functions were suspended, seemingly resigned to her fate. Her ashen face prompted an image to arise unbidden in Galen’s mind: Malena on her deathbed.

She had failed to join me for breakfast that morning, which was so unlike her. I remember entering the bedroom, thinking that I was prepared for the worst. How could I be?

“Do you want me to administer the revival serum?” The guard’s inquiry shocked Galen back into the present.

“Uh, no. I will do so.”

Once they returned to the plaza, Galen took control of the gurney and muttered, “Thank you.” It suddenly occurred to him that the guard likely would report this event, and he fought the impulse to rush to his transport. A nightbird wailed as he loaded his cargo. He realized that he was shaking.

A melodious sequence of tones from the transport’s control panel heralded an official holovid broadcast. The Chief Administrator appeared with her trademark half-smile. “Greetings. As you may know, the members of the Planetary Council are selected by a computer program that samples public opinion and weighs it along with candidates’ qualifications to find the best and most compatible Council members.” Galen typically anticipated these announcements with little trepidation; in the six previous elections he had won his Council seat handily, thanks in part to his lengthy service as Archivist. But these were strange times.

The Chief Administrator read the names of the six victors. The top vote-getter, and by right the new Council chair, was Zafaran High Priest Vosslar. The other five winners were Vosslar sycophants. The Chief Administrator introduced the new leader, who exuded narcissistic gratification. “I am honored to be chosen for this important post. I intend to minister with great devotion to your physical needs as well as your spiritual welfare. In these difficult times, I implore you not to be deceived by the false prophets of discredited religions or the dangerous proponents of science.”

“Home,” Galen directed the transport’s navigational system. “Top speed. We’re running out of time.”

The meeting that had set Galen’s nighttime adventure into motion featured the leading scientists in the known universe, who shared technological developments regularly through a network of instantaneous communication relays enabled by quantum technology. Galen glanced around the virtual table at the flickering images and asked no one in particular: “Is Baldren not participating?”

“Archivist, I fear that some of the relays no longer function in her galactic cluster,” stated Kahlo, a three-meter tall, pale green researcher from a remote galaxy.

Omnia, a squat scientist with a thick exoskeleton who lived in a solar system near Galen’s, was less diplomatic. “It is painfully clear what is happening. Even on the planets where the Zafaran priests have not yet taken over ruling councils, they are putting extreme pressure on council members to eliminate funding for science.” Omnia’s antennae quivered in an expression of exasperation. “They blame us, as if we wanted this to happen.”

Kahlo issued a sound that the translation program could not interpret but that most participants guessed was a sigh. “Like many of you, I was taken by surprise at the rapid spread of this religion and the fanatic degree of adherence to it. In retrospect, it is an understandable reaction to an unprecedented discovery.”

Galen shifted uneasily in his chair. “Cosima, what can you tell us?”

“Experiments are continuing in several galaxies. But each new report only confirms the initial findings and our worst fears,” said the physicist, a brightly colored amphibian who lived in a cylindrical spacecraft that roamed the cosmos. “The rate at which the universe is expanding continues to increase exponentially. The timeline is difficult to establish, given the variations in the concentration of dark matter across the universe.” She made a sweeping gesture with a long turquoise fin. “It is now beyond doubt that, at some point, all atoms and subatomic particles in the universe will tear themselves apart in their unimpeded rush to infinity. Matter and energy and time will cease to exist. Whether you welcome it as The Bliss or simply accept it as scientific fact, there will be nothing. It will be as if the universe never existed.”

The floating cities of Rautus shone gloriously under the light of binary stars. How Galen wished that he could have seen them in person. The Archivist closed the holovid and selected one depicting the graceful inhabitants of the jungles of Ternia, who still refused to allow scientists to study their shape-shifting abilities. He beheld the vast network of ancient castles under the methane ocean covering Curvele, and then the curious lifeforms who were bred on Prila to survive in the vacuum of space. Finally, the Archivist admired the largest waterfall on Daran, which produced a torrent of symphonic sound, vibrant color and emotionally stimulating scent that drew massive numbers of visitors. In the foreground of the holovid stood a young Galen and his mate, just two cycles after their decision to pair permanently. Malena regarded Galen with pure adoration.

How lucky he had been. He had hardly seen Malena while the core project was in its critical phases. Yet she remained patient and devoted as Galen directed the mining of his planet’s interior and its transformation into a gigantic computer. The envy of the galaxy, the resulting system controlled the planet’s environment and weather, ensured that food was grown and distributed efficiently, managed housing and education, coordinated below-ground, surface, air and near-space traffic, and hosted the Archive of Civilization. His life’s work.

I waited too long. I had promised you one last vacation. I’m so sorry, Malena.

With a motion of the fifth and sixth fingers of his left hand, Galen closed the display. He noticed Damica standing at the entrance to his workspace. “I am happy to see you out of bed. Are you feeling better?”

“A little wobbly. And nauseous. But I guess that’s to be expected.” This was the third morning since Galen had revived the couple from stasis. She supposed that she should be grateful. She was alive, and the Archivist’s home was lovely. But she and Alden had many questions. She examined the silver-colored, meter-wide metal sphere that Galen had been manipulating to display holovids. Its surface featured all manner of data ports, several forms of writing and a few primitive drawings.

“Think of it as a library,” said Galen. “Or, better yet, as a kind of seed. I have distilled the most significant data from the Archive, a regrettably small sampling of the accomplishments of known lifeforms, and have compressed it into this sphere.”

“But why?” asked Alden, who had followed his mate to Galen’s workspace. “The content of the Archive is available to every civilization. And, unless something unexpected has occurred since I was put into stasis, it’s all going away.”

Galen appeared to be gazing at a distant horizon. “This is why I brought you two back. I want you to find this sphere a nice new home.”

The lab was exactly as Damica and Alden had left it when authorities arrived at their high-orbit space station and took them into custody. The capsule that was the focus of their experiments was suspended in the center of a translucent, spherical chamber more than 50 meters in diameter.

“There are no guarantees,” Damica told Galen as she ran tests on the computer system.

“I understand. But what do we have to lose?”

Damica laughed. “If we find an alternative universe, it might not support life as we know it. And even if sentient beings exist there, they might never find your sphere or might not be able to access the data in it.”

“Yes, yes,” said Galen. “But I could die happy knowing that I did my best to preserve even a fragment of the rich stories of our many remarkable civilizations. I don’t fear death, but I rebel against the proposition that all of us will have aspired and achieved and lived and died for nothing, to be extinguished without a trace. This data could help another civilization. It reflects the wisdom acquired by trillions of lifeforms, many of whom found ways to avoid war and needless destruction.”

Damica called up a display summarizing the couple’s research. “Our universe has a unique signature defined by certain constants, such as the weight of protons and the strength of the electromagnetic force. These constants make our universe possible. We have run computer simulations using slightly different numbers for these constants to project whether they might correspond to similar universes with the possibility of life. One such signature has shown particular promise. We need to upgrade the capsule and run new experiments to determine whether any lights - indicating stars and, by inference, possible inhabited planets - exist in that universe.”

“We would have only one chance to send your data sphere to such a universe,” said Alden. “In our experiments, the capsule is surrounded by a protective energy field inside a larger energy field, like a bubble inside a bubble. We adjust the constants inside the larger bubble to match the signature of an alternative universe, which opens a gateway to it. The capsule can gather information about that universe while still anchored in our own. At the end of the experiment, we change the constants inside the larger bubble back to those of our universe, and the bubbles are deactivated.”

“Amazing,” said Galen.

“Transporting the capsule into another universe permanently would require that we open a gateway to that universe, eliminate the small energy field around the capsule, and then deactivate the large energy field. In theory, it should work.”

A device on the Archivist’s right arm signaled an incoming priority message. He grimaced and advised the couple: “It looks like we have been discovered.”

“Archivist, I am astonished by your behavior.” High Priest Vosslar reveled in grandiose finery of deep purple and black, featuring a prominent setting sun emblem. He caressed a fold in his robe and tilted his head as he cast a predatory glance that chilled Galen to his core, even though it was communicated through a holovid. “Abducting and reviving two convicted criminals is a serious offense. The justice computer will surely find you guilty. Why would you forfeit your life on such a foolish errand?”

“I apologize for my clumsy actions,” Galen said, crossing his palms slowly as his mind raced to concoct a response. “I wanted to debrief the couple for my historical essay on their crimes. Of course, I will return them to stasis as soon as -”

“Don’t insult me!” the priest thundered. “You and I know very well that you intend to use them in some sort of unholy experiment. They were removed from society because they dared to seek a cosmos separate from our own. Their blasphemy is now yours.” The priest sat back in his pitch-black chair and smiled. “Whatever your scheme might be, you will not succeed.”

Galen considered pleading the case for sending his data sphere to its desired destination, but he concluded that he could never persuade Vosslar to allow such an attempt. “What is it about the loss of everyone and everything in the universe that pleases you so?” the Archivist demanded. “How can you be so blithe about the erasure of the lives and achievements of so many sentient lifeforms? I suspect that you fear the discovery of another universe because it would invalidate the premise of your religion - not to mention your own power.”

“Ah, Archivist. I am saddened that you have not made your peace with the coming change. The pure nothingness of The Bliss will relieve our bodies of our pain and sins, and it will fill our souls with eternal comfort. Except for you and your scientist friends. There will be no comfort for you.”

“We will take our chances.”

“I am afraid that you will not have that opportunity. My colleagues on the Council have agreed with me that you must be stopped. A warship is being dispatched to your station. If you do not surrender, the station will be destroyed, along with everyone in it.” Vosslar crossed his hands and placed dramatic emphasis on each word as he pronounced his favorite sentence:

“The all in nothing.”

In a storage chamber down a narrow corridor from the lab, Galen recorded a holovid designed to play automatically, using an advanced translation program, if the sphere detected contact with a carbon-based lifeform. “My name is Galen. I am a resident of a universe that exists - I should say existed - separate from yours. My universe likely will have perished before you find this data sphere. I have sent this to you in order to memorialize some of the accomplishments of the diverse inhabitants of our cosmos.”

The Archivist pointed to various locations on the sphere. “The data can be accessed through this keypad or by attaching cables to these ports. I hope that you will share these stories for the benefit of all intelligent beings.” He paused to consider his final words. “I have spent my life attempting to foster and preserve knowledge, to help individuals and civilizations grow and prosper. Our time is gone. I pray that yours endures.”

“Prepare to be boarded.”

Vosslar and six heavily armed soldiers had docked a shuttle at the space station and were using lasers to carve up the external portal. Glancing at a monitor, Damica could tell that it would not take them long.

Alden was covered with sweat as he emerged from the three-meter-wide experimental capsule. “Can you run diagnostics on these enhancements?”

“No time. The priest is here with a small army,” said his mate, her fingers flying over a computer terminal. Without looking up, she asked the Archivist: “Is the data sphere ready?”

“Yes. This polymer covering will shield it from radiation. Can you position it in the capsule so that it can be found readily and will be protected from any extreme acceleration or impact that the capsule might experience?”

“The protection we have selected should suffice. It will have the additional benefit of providing anyone who might discover the capsule with the DNA of two sentient beings.”

“You’re going in the capsule!” exclaimed Galen.

Vosslar and his soldiers burst through the first portal and started marching briskly toward the lab.

“We want to give your sphere the best chance of being found,” said Alden. “I installed a viewscreen in the capsule so that we can verify any instrument indications of stars once we enter the new universe. And I fitted the capsule with thrusters so that we can orient it in the best direction and give it a nudge.”

“How much life support does the capsule have?” asked Galen.

Alden smiled wistfully at Damica. “It was not designed for passengers, so we have decided to bring the stasis serum and administer it after we launch the capsule toward a star or galaxy but before our air is exhausted. While I am not thrilled about going back into stasis, at least it will be on our terms.”

“And,” said Damica, “we are bringing the revival serum with us. The chance of some intelligent being discovering us and administering that serum is extremely low. But, as you said: What do we have to lose?”

Alden approached Galen. “Archivist, we thank you for allowing us to conduct our final experiment.” Alden accepted the data sphere from Galen, passed through a membrane on the outer chamber and ascended the conveyor to the capsule. Damica gave the computer its final instructions, hugged Galen and followed Alden. High-pitched sounds confirmed that Vosslar’s troops had reached the final portal to the lab and were destroying it. As Damica prepared to seal the opening to the capsule, Galen shouted: “By any chance, do you have room for a third passenger?”

“If you don’t mind cramped quarters,” she replied. “We have plenty of both types of serum. But hurry.”

As Galen ascended the conveyor, he could not suppress a laugh.

Malena, it looks like we are getting that last vacation after all.

Dual energy fields burst into existence, pulsing orbs of phantasmal fire that filled the interior of the capsule with intense light and washed out the vision of the three scientists temporarily. Damica and Alden embraced tightly; the Archivist cradled the data sphere. Presently they felt a vibration in their bones and a sickening sense of falling in every direction at once.

Vosslar and his troops burst through the final portal but staggered momentarily under the sheer force of the energy that suffused the lab.

“Destroy that demonic device,” the priest commanded. “Blast it to Hell!” The soldiers turned their weapons on the chamber containing the capsule. Observing no immediate damage, Vosslar grabbed one of the soldier’s lasers and fired furiously on the main computer console, his face contorted in a pernicious grin. Sparks flashed and a sickening smell arose as metal and plastic were reduced to slag.

“Dismantle the lab and retrieve the bodies,” Vosslar ordered. “Find them!”

Damica, Alden and Galen would never see the anger on Vosslar’s face transform into fear. There had been just enough time for Damica’s program to set the trio and their treasure adrift in a place that Vosslar could never reach.

It was as if a titanic storm beset the capsule and, having expended its energy in an implacable effort to vanquish the fragile ball, abandoned its assault with dramatic suddenness. The capsule became so still that its occupants could hear their own breathing. Damica maintained a fierce hold on Alden; Galen stretched tense arm muscles but quickly re-gripped the data sphere as it began to wander in the weightless environment.

The scientists detected blurry but colorful streaks and splotches on the interior wall of the capsule, the reflections of blinking instrument lights. They touched one other gently for reassurance and examined faces closely, recognizing equally astonished expressions. Their vision still was still not completely back to normal, so they did not yet venture a look at the viewscreen.

They were in no hurry.


  1. Mind-boggling to imagine these 3 and their collection of data/stories/memories representing the entire legacy of a dying universe. Wonder what it's like where they ended up.

  2. Well written story. Classic Science fiction with a lot of world building in a very short time. The anti-science cult and their acceptance of what was coming makes an interesting antagonist to the story. I liked it. Thanks for sharing it with us.