In The High Quintillions

by Colin Campbell

Cosmic Charlie pulled Lilla by the hand down the steps through flying rice and confetti toward his car--but his car wasn't there. Instead, a red Porsche sat at the curb next to the church. It was covered in paper flowers.

Charlie stared at the car and then Lilla's father was standing there grinning and pressing car keys into Charlie's hand. "This is our surprise wedding present for you. Congratulations, kids."

"Oh daddy thank you," Lilla said and she kissed Charlie and they climbed into the car.

The reception was at a picnic grove in the mountains behind Santa Barbara. Charlie marveled at how well the car handled as he drove up San Marcos Pass. He was amazed that he was married. He was 20, and he and Lilla were both still virgins. He was proud of that. He stepped on the gas a little bit more and the Porsche surged ahead even faster.

Then at the turnoff he misjudged the curve and misjudged his speed and the car went skidding off the edge and there was a long endless plunge with Lilla's scream surrounding him as he uselessly stomped the brake and then there was a stupendous impact and a bounce and then Charlie was upside down with blood dripping across his eyes and he couldn't move to wipe it aside and the only thing he could see was Lilla staring blankly, her white dress spattered with red, and a metal rod sticking through her head from one ear to another like a Steve Martin joke arrow.

Lilla's white dress was all he could see. The dress became brighter and brighter and he was roaring through a tunnel of darkness toward a bright light. And then he passed through. He floated dreamily out of consciousness into a shouting cascade of dream imagery. His heart stopped.

His complicated biomechanical sensory systems failed, and the whole organic machine of Charlie's body came to a halt.

Still, each individual cell hoped to survive. A good competent muscle cell is still alive hours and hours after the coroner signs the death certificate. Cut an arm off and wait twelve hours and put it back on--it can live. It's been done.

The cells are tough--the delicate part is the control system. When that fails, everything goes to hell in a hurry and each muscle cell sits there dimly in the dark muttering "C'mon, gimme a pulse of blood and I'll run like hell, we can still get out of this mess."

But the pulse of blood never came.

It was several days before the bodies were found and then the families gathered for the funerals.

At the funeral Charlie's father found himself talking to Lilla's parents. "Charlie had such big plans. His pal Zepp always called him "Cosmic" Charlie, his plans were so he's gone. Poof."

"Unless he's reincarnated," said Lilla's mother.

"Reincarnation is a silly notion," said Lilla's father. He was a mathematician. "There's not a chance in a quintillion that a person could be reincarnated."

Charlie was unable to see the tears at the funeral, nor the mourning that preoccupied the families for weeks. Charlie knew nothing about it because the unique biochemical sensory device his DNA had built was no longer reporting to his consciousness: the complex organs and interconnective systems were dead.

But his DNA was still alive.

DNA is not a static thing. It's a complex assemblage of billions of atoms writhing and vibrating and accomplishing tasks at the core of the cell.

Trillions of Charlie's cells were still alive, still waiting for that pulse of oxygenated blood, still conducting a purposeful internal activity, his stubborn DNA still maintaining a kind of consciousness. Charlie dreamed he was still alive.

But weeks passed and the planet continued to spin around the sun, and Charlie's last surviving internal cells began to shut down their processes.

Six months after the funeral, Zepp and a dozen of Charlie's other school pals met at his gravesite overlooking the Pacific ocean. They drank too much and didn't mention Charlie.

Charlie's DNA still vibrated and communicated to the other strands of DNA inside each demised cell; DNA is like a virus and can survive even if crystallized. And so part of Charlie's consciousness dreamed on, unaware of the passing time.

On the first anniversary of the crash, Charlie & Lilla's parents met at the gravesite on the cliffs above the Pacific ocean, and once again they remembered Charlie. It was the last time anyone visited Cosmic Charlie's grave.

Charlie's school pals graduated and scattered; Lilla's pals were were all back on the East coast.

Lilla's mother and father died together in a plane crash nine years later. Twenty years after that, Charlie's mother died of cancer, and then within days his father shot himself.

Both of Charlie's brothers died in the Pacific Attack by the Asian Hegemony. After 60 years Charlie's sister was dead, too. Soon after that everyone in the world he had known was dead.

The Earth continued to spin, and the offshore winds ruffled the grasses growing on his grave. Some of Charlie's DNA still twirled and vibrated down below.

A century after Cosmic Charlie died, a severe earthquake split off a sliver of the cliffside cemetery, and Charlie's gravesite slipped toward the sea.

A thousand years after that, a new ice age began. Humanity retreated toward the tropics as glaciers covered North America with mile-thick ice. The coastlines of Europe receded and England and France were once again a single land as the English Channel turned into a narrow river. Charlie's gravesite was now a dozen miles from the shore.

A hundred thousand years passed. A comet smashed into the Pacific ocean and 2000 cubic miles of water flashed into steam and the resulting storms and climactic disruptions killed 90% of all life on Earth. Charlie's cliff tumbled into the newly risen ocean and began to be subducted by plate tectonic activity.

A few humans survived the comet impact and they regrouped to again cover the world with cities.

Millions of years passed and the continents shifted and drifted. Los Angeles scraped north past San Francisco and piled into Alaska. Charlie was now part of a geological stratum far below the surface, but a few strands of his DNA still vibrated with a sense of self- identity.

The Sun drifted into a cloud of hydrogen gas and flamed briefly brighter; huge solar flares erupted and boiled the Earth's surface and dense clouds formed. Now Earth looked like Venus.

In the heightened electromagnetic field of the more active sun, the Earth's spin rate declined rapidly. The day was now 30 hours long and the rotational energy transferred into heat made the continents erupt with volcanoes. After hundreds of millions of years, no humans were left on earth, although many survived in orbit and on planets of other stars. Charlie's molecules were now thoroughly reduced to traces of carbon and organic matter in a vein of rock.

After a few billion years the sun began to run short of hydrogen and started burning helium instead. The sun ballooned into a red giant 70 million miles in diameter and Earth was scorched to a cinder of iron. Mercury and Venus were consumed by the fire.

Now Earth was the innermost planet. Then the sun raced through the fusion progression as it ploughed through another rich cloud of virgin hydrogen gas, and then went supernova.

Earth was vaporized. The remnant of the sun was a white dwarf star that dimmed gradually over billions of years into a dark, barely warm lump of dense matter.

By this time the universe had expanded to its limits and began to shrink. All matter compressed toward the center and after a hundred billion years the universe was once more a zone of furiously compacted energy smaller than the diameter of an atom. It reached the limits of smallness and exploded outward again.

At first the new universe was nothing but boiling quarks and leptons. It expanded, and then went through the era of inflation in which it hyperexpanded into a hundred trillion quadrillion universes, each as big as Charlie's original universe.

Each universe cooled as it expanded and hydrogen and helium gasses formed. In a few hundred million years there were trillions of new galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars, and the stars raced through evolution to explode into supernovas to form new elements. Hydrogen and helium were joined by concentrations of carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and silicon and sulfur.

As soon as these elements were available, dirtball planets began to form out of the clouds around most suns.

Universes formed solar systems the same way everywhere. Bode's Law--the curious periodicity of the orbits of the planets. The biggest planet was always in the Jupiter spot. Earth's spot turned out to be a resonance with water. In every star system, a water planet formed at the distance where it could, given the heat of the sun. Always it was a double planet, and the tides of the close large moon kept the waters churned and sloshing.

The third stone from the sun was always awash in water and the tidal and heliomagnetic churnings mixed and separated various kinds of muds.

There are only a few ways for quarks to fall together into hydrogen atoms. Hydrogens can combine to form other elements, but they were the same elements everywhere. There are only about a hundred kinds that could stay together long enough to look at.

Well you rub these elements around with running water for a few billion years and they organize themselves into DNA. They can't help it, any more than a hydrogen atom can help it when it mixes with another hydrogen and changes to helium. That's the starting point. Helium is the building block for life chemicals. Three heliums make one carbon.

Every solar system had pretty much the same history. Every life world evolved some kind of dinosaur while probing the land masses. The designing and launching of land mass probes was an absorbing hobby for life, and then the comets and asteroids wiped things clean and it was always the smaller, cannier designs that survived. The comets smashed things up every few million years.

Just as there's only one way to put a solar system together, there's only one kind of DNA pattern that will bring about the specialized organ, the human brain, that has been developed to transmit and receive information from other consciousnesses, and to store data. The problem with consciousness is that you need a memory, and memory can be stored only in a physical system. A consciousness can access and use memory, but only if the hardware is working.

Although a given DNA structure is unique in its own universe, it is bound to occur in another universe sooner or later if you have enough universes. Since there are infinite number of universes, there are an infinite number of universes with identical DNA structures. In each universe, after ten billion years there were 10 trillion galaxies, each with 100 billion stars and 100 billion water planets.

A small percentage of solar systems didn't pan out, but of all the solar systems in a given universe, 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 had planets just about like Earth. Somewhere in the high quintillions. And as luck would have it, as life evolved on one of those worlds, one of them developed exactly as had Earth. And Cosmic Charlie was born again.

His life proceeded exactly as before and then there was a red Porsche at the foot of the stairs and Lilla's dad was there with that strange smile and he was holding out the car keys to Charlie.

Charlie was filled with a sense of deja vu. He started the car and drove up San Marcos Pass, and once again skidded off the edge, only this time he survived, paralyzed from the chest down.

He went through rehabilitation and learned to live in a wheelchair. Two years later Charlie was visiting at a friend's house and the friends were invited to a party, but it was on a non- wheelchair-accesss boat, and Charlie couldn't go. By this time he had a drinking problem. He stayed home to take care of the host's dog and parakeets for a weekend. On Saturday night he opened a liter of Stolichnya and sipped it as he poked around the house. He opened a drawer and there was a big pistol, a .44 Magnum just like the ones Dirty Harry used. He took out the big black steel thing, it was as long as his forearm, and he took a long drink of vodka, and he waved the gun around and pulled the trigger a few times and it clicked, and on impulse he put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Brains splattered on the wall, and Charlie's DNA awareness plunged blindly ahead once again into the foamy chaos of the Big Bang.

A billion quadrillion years went by and another universe evolved a copy of Charlie's DNA and it produced another copy of him and the universe propelled him through exactly the same red Porsche crash, and there he was with the pistol in his hand once again and he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger and the gun clicked, and clicked, and clicked.

Then Charlie opened the gun and felt a sudden chill and his stomach churned when he saw the dull brass of the single cartridge in the cylinder, and the circular pit in the cartridge's primer where the firing pin had struck. In this universe it was a dud.

If there are an infinite number of duplicates of you, your consciousness won't notice the loss of an individual body or two. If you pile your motorcycle into a tree and crush your head, a few bodies out of the infinity might die, but all consciousness would still exist. The consciousness would not be aware of the dead bodies, no more than we are aware of the fingernails and feces we shed each day.

There were endless identical universes in which his every alternative choice was lived. His DNA structure could be developed during a 100,000 year window: from the start of the Cro-Magnon era until humans learn how to program the DNA themselves, after which the baton of consciousness is carried forward by silicon and teflon creatures and mankind joins the dinosaurs.

Sometimes the DNA was identical but the society was primitive: when Charlie was born into a Stone Age family, he rarely lived longer than a few days, due to a low Apgar rating and a lack of sophisticated medical attention. If he did manage to survive infancy he almost always died in childhood due to clumsiness.

True human consciousness doesn't emerge until the connection between the right brain and the left brain, the corpus callosum, knits together around age 10; Charlie's DNA was rarely able to get a complete, fully developed brain into existence, let alone a sexually mature body.

Each time Charlie's DNA replayed in a new universe, the events of his life were depressingly similar. Even with the best foods and nutrients available, his DNA structure was unable to build a strong, dextrous body, and he fumbled through life after life with the same clumsy embarrassments scarring his emotional development.

Not only was Charlie's DNA a less-than-perfect plan, susceptible to early disease and death, but also the greatest number of human births takes place in the last millennium of human existence. The likely places for Cosmic Charlie's DNA to occur and survive turned out to be societies that had equalled the medical advances of the mid-20th century. That was the only place where Charlie's DNA came to full adolescent bloom. And each time he drove the new red Porsche off the cliff.

So far, in how many billions of iterations, he had yet to live long enough to reproduce. He was always the one asleep in the back of the car coming home from the prom when the drunken driver piled into the parked road grader. He was always the one drowned in two feet of water during the Cub Scout canoe trip.

There were untold billions of universes where Charlie drove drunkenly onto the freeway in the wrong direction and suddenly realized it just as the oncoming car smashed the world into oblivion, and a quintillion years went by and another Charlie woke at home in his own bed with a terrible hangover and he didn't remember the crash. In his universe he'd gone home by a different route when a traffic light turned red instead of green as he approached the intersection. He sat at the red light and passed out instead of going onto the freeway, and woke at 5am slumped over the wheel, head aching, back stiff, the motor still running and the gas gauge on E. He was still drunk but he drove safely home and flopped into bed and never even remembered that he'd passed out. He never did figure out where the gas went.

In all the universes there wasn't a Cosmic Charlie who made it to his 24th birthday. But the Charlies kept on relentlessly coming into existence.

It was true that the assemblage of his particular pattern of DNA was unlikely; but every few quintillion universes or so, it would pop up again. Not always the same situation; sometimes the DNA structure showed up in days of Wyatt Earp and Jesse James of the old West, and sometimes the DNA structure was born on the moon, but all seemed to come to grips with the universe in the same inefficient manner.

Consider a cube one light year on a side. Now set off a flashbulb inside it once every hundred billion years. Now imagine a being so long-lived, and so slow, that it perceived the flashes as a continuous glow. That's what Charlie was: a collection of miniature flashes of DNA existence, one per universe, that pile up until they appear to be a continuous beam of light.

To the pervasive consciousness of the universe, Cosmic Charlie is a window, a hardware assemblage. The assemblage blinks on every few billion years, and to the viewing consciousness it is as though the time gap did not exist.

As trillions to the trillionth power of universes blinked in and out of existence, a resonance built up across a timeless dimension, and when the number of individuals with the Cosmic Charlie DNA reached the high quintillions, the resonance linked with itself into a higher consciousness, aware of itself in the same way that the pubescent brain becomes aware of itself when the corpus callosum is finished and the time differential between the two lobes become the "now" that our consciousness resides in.

UltraCharlie became more and more aware of the huge network of his being, but he couldn't control the individual cells well enough to discuss it or cause a change in the life-pattern. Might as well ask a neuron to explain a thought that has passed through it as a chemical pulse. He still kept driving that red Porsche over the cliff.

Charlie rode through googolplexes of universes from big bang back to coalescence, and it seemed that the bangs were happening faster and faster, subjectively, while in his childhood the orbit of one planet around a sun was nearly infinite. His consciousness was limited to that of the particular body he grew in, and his consciousness merged only with others of his exact DNA structure.

But as his experience grew, the infinity of other individuals with his DNA structure became apparent. The more he learned, the further away his particular childhood seemed. Now he resonated with the consciousness of all the members of his genetic structure--the old man and the young boy, the gnarled and maimed ones, and the ones hopelessly mired in pretechnological poverty.

And suddenly he was walking down the steps toward the red Porsche, and this time when Lilla's dad gave him the keys, he handed them to Lilla, and she drove flawlessly over the mountain to the reception. A year later Cosmic Charlie, Jr, was born, and then the infinite flicker of DNA combinations began again.

Except that this time, the super-consciousness gained contact with subtler variations of the DNA cognates, rather than merely with the exact-duplicate Charlies. Charlie's cross-universal consciousness reverberated along with the DNA of his offspring, too, and Charlie moved up a notch on the Karmic wheel.