Ed stopped, three steps from the top.
“Hoo,” he said, as spots speckled his vision, and he wavered slightly on his feet. He reflexively tightened his grip on the rail, set down his bag, and caught his breath, as the rushing sound of the ocean filled his ears. Six years ago, these stairs had been easy. Third floor condo? No problem.
But damn. Damn. The sweat beaded on his pale, freckled forehead, which extended back to the middle of his cranium. A few wisps of reddish hair were combed feebly across the expanse, like rescue lines thrown from a sinking liner.
He breathed in, breathed out, easy and clean, and felt his strength return. One last deep inhalation, and he picked up his bag. One, two, three slow steps, hand still on the rail, and he was on the landing. In front of him, his door, nondescript except for the faded false plastic brass that announced this was apartment Three C.
He fumbled in his coat pocket for his keys, which weren’t there. He tried his other pocket, then his left pants pocket, until finally fishing them gruntingly, awkwardly out of the overtight right front pocket of his loose-fit Levis. Formerly loose fit. Man.
The deadbolt stuck, as it always did, and he strained at it, the edges of the key sinking into his soft hand. “C’mon. Dammit. C’mon.”
It clicked, and he turned the knob and went in. He set down the bag on the small battered wood parquet entrance, and wandered into the narrow, spare galley kitchen.
The wall clock announced that it was two twenty three am, meaning it was actually two seventeen. Below it, a calendar, off by a month. Next to that, a wall rack, filled with bills and letters, stuffed to overflowing, half overdue.
Hell of a day, that’d been. The kid behind the ticket counter had no clue what he was doing, none, and had mangled the count. Way off. That, and the projector in theater two was acting up, and the regional manager just decides that today is the day he was going to show up? Jeezus. Hell of a day.
Ed opened the fridge, pulled out his three remaining Mickey’s Big Mouths, and shuffled over to the couch.
He settled in, grabbed the remote, and the tv stirred to life. He fumbled with the top button on his pants, which gave way abruptly. Oh, man. That was better. Musta shrunk or something. He popped open the malt liquor, and absent-mindedly picked at a bit of the Hardee’s burger left over in the fading salty red of his moustache.
In front of him, there was jabbering nothing. QVC. Why was it on QVC? Oh, right. Must have been that show selling knives and martial arts stuff, those were pretty cool. He’d had a pair of nunchuks like that once, and could have gotten good at it, too, if he’d kept it up.
But now it was just jewelry, lousy cheap crap. A bored older woman wearing clown makeup droned on about how LOVELY it was and how LOVELY it would look on anyone and what a WONDERFUL opportunity it was to get a bargain on a LOVELY piece like this.
Jeezus. Jeezus H. Just like the stuff that Debbie used to watch, late into the night, back when she was maxing out their credit cards and she wanted to hide away from him. It’d been, man, what, six months? Six months since she’d called, too late as always, crying as always? He couldn’t remember.
Shoulda known from day one that wasn’t going to work. Too needy, too much of a flake-a-zoid. Twelve years of marriage, and for what? No kids, not even friends at the end of it.
From the apartment below, the sound of music, the faint rumble of bass from an overlarge stereo, the sound of young voices and laughter. Stupid kids. Mom must be working the night shift again.
He turned up the volume, just a little, just enough to drown it out. No point banging on the floor. Punks would just turn it up. No respect, none these days. Jeezus.
He took a swig of the Mickeys, the shallow taste of cold and malt and a nice warm drunk. He pressed the button, snicked through the channels, one after another, all infomercials and music videos and old lousy movies he’d already seen. Jeezus. Click. MTV, stupid music, too loud. Click. VH1. Boring. Click. More infomercials. Clickclick.
Then a brief flash of some young thing with huge hair and wildly false breasts, and the clicking stopped. “That’s more like it,” he muttered, to the emptiness of the room. Figures Skinemax would deliver. He sighed, feeling the exhaustion down to his lizard brain, and watched as pert young starlets delivered canned lines. Jeez. What was even the name of this? Like it matters.
Might as well. Stupid movie. Probably seen it before, but he couldn’t remember. It seemed familiar, for some reason. Most stuff did. He yawned, stretched, felt the dull ache in his chest and the ache of his hips.
He slugged back the rest of the Mickeys, popped open the next one, felt the fatigue suddenly on him like a weight.
The light from the cathode ray tube flickered across the surface of his face, a scatter of photons playing across his forty-eight-year-old flesh, illuminating every crease around his dimming, fluttering eyelids. In the kitchen, the cheap battery-powered clock snicked away the seconds.
It is two forty seven AM Eastern Standard Time, on what is now Saturday, November 18, 1989. In twenty-seven minutes and forty two seconds, Ed Graebler’s heart is going to fail, and he is going to die.
I know, because I have now watched him die one thousand, four hundred and thirty one times. Just as I have watched him born, one thousand four hundred and thirty two times. His death is always exactly the same, every time, without fail. And I have record, deep and sustained record, of every time he has died since the Institute first began observing him.
Since EG1, our first complete observation, we have watched Edward Graebler die seven hundred and thirty seven billion, four hundred and sixty two million, one hundred and forty two thousand, nine hundred and twenty three deaths. Every time, he dies in exactly the same way, at exactly the same moment relative to the singularity that birthed his time and space. Thirteen point nine billion years, with his death precise to sub-picosecond tolerances every time. Terminus. The death of Edward Graebler.
At seven minutes four seconds to Terminus, he falls asleep. His breathing becomes more and more erratic, a result of the apnea brought about by the forty two percent increase in body mass he has accrued over the past five years. His heart is already damaged from three prior cardiac events, none of which resulted in any medical attention or any change in the pattern of his existence.
At five minutes twenty two seconds to terminus, he stops breathing. This lasts fourteen point one seven two nine seconds, at which point he startles, gasps in a breath, and heart racing but not fully awake, his eyes flutter open for a moment, and he utters his last word. It is reflexive, a semi-conscious exhalation.
His eyes close, and he shifts on the sofa, slightly to the right. He continues breathing for precisely twenty two seconds, then stops, as the mass of fatty tissue presses down again. This always marks the conclusion of respiration.
His system, suppressed by the alcohol, does not react. His heart begins to beat more rapidly, then more rapidly still. Sudden cardiac arrest begins at three minutes forty seven seconds to terminus, as the four chambers of his damaged mammalian heart begin to beat wildly and at odds with one another. He does not regain consciousness. Remote-field telemetrics of brain activity indicate that his oxygen deprived cortex ceases measurable and meaningful activity at EG Terminus Zero.
And with Terminus, localized spacetime becomes disentangled from the Graebler Effect, and the quantum processes of the multiverse can operate freely again.
We still do not understand why this is the case. Which is why I am here, and why we study him.
When the gathered intelligences of the Transuniversal Union were in our first hundred milennia of stepping between variant spacetimes for travel, trade, and exploration, it was assumed that the only points of dimensional crossover in identically-physicked universes were singularities and wormholes.
That was until, in our survey of this particular quadrant of this particular spiral galaxy, the Institute discovered Ed Graebler.
Ed Graebler, who is now struggling to stay awake, his head bobbing on the gelatinous collar of flesh beneath it, barely able to pay attention as music plays and two young women wrestle topless in oil on the 27 inch screen eight feet in front of him.
Ed Graebler, who every day seems to exist without any awareness of his passing life, who drifts from the labor he does not like to the apartment he hates in a car that he feels nothing about.
Ed Graebler, who is an inextricable and inexplicably necessary component of the fabric of every known universe.
Of all of the astounding and marvelous things sentient life has discovered in exploring the infinity of the habitable multiverse, Ed Graebler is perhaps the most miraculous.
That first expedition, set on mapping points of intersection between different times and spaces, registered a strange damping of the quantum field in the outer arm of one nondescript but strangely recurrent galaxy, like all of the variant branes of the ‘verse had been tightly sown together in one spot. Travel towards the rocky planet that appeared to be the source of the anomaly proved immensely difficult. Unless a very particular and seemingly random path was pursued, vessels would fail, or spontaneously detonate, or have their drives shut down. Or vanish into emptiness.
It was as if a field was cast from that world like a beam, not just in the time and space where it was first discovered, but in every time and space in which that world manifested. Even going back across the temporal dimension, the planet resisted our efforts.
Some strange, deeply alien, and unknowable intelligence was bending the fabric of time and space itself, casting out spirals of eldritch warping semi-awareness that bent probability.
Fate itself was being constrained at a quantum level, forced into an order that shattered any effort to defy it. It was terrifying. We were stymied. Some took that harder than others.
The Tzann Collective, after losing a reconnaissance mission to what appeared to be an intentionally-created fusion core meltdown, interpreted this as a willful act of war, and launched a vast armada of a thousand ships to annihilate the planet from which this energy emanated. It was led by every member of the Tzann hereditary autarky, who staked their ten thousand year rule on exacting vengeance. The entire fleet, autarchs and all, vanished twelve parsecs from their destination. Just gone. No debris. Nothing. The Tzann fell back into anarchy in all seven of their systems, and it was at this point that the Institute began trying different, subtler approaches.
We teased and prodded, angling our way in with small and shielded probes. We discovered the world, this “Earth,” odd and backward and being slowly ruined by a barbarous, promising, semi-social biped. And among these fleeting, short lived primates, just one seemed to be the locus of all of this distortion.
And there he is.
I watch him now, as he pops open his third Mickeys Big Mouth, which he drinks clumsily, pointlessly, spilling it down the front of his sweat-stained collar shirt. He will be asleep in minutes, and the slight increase in his blood alcohol level will make the difference between his living and dying.
He cannot be saved. He will always die. And yet we are helpless before him.
We could approach and come close to observe, but only if Ed Graebler did not notice us. Not simply that. No-one he ever knew and nothing about his culture or anything he has ever known could register our presence. Meaning, it was physically and materially impossible for that to be the case.
No evidence of the Transuniversal Union or the Institute could impinge on who he was, and no amount of our effort could change that. His life could not change, not by a single twitch of a single subatomic particle. His awareness, and all of the biological processes and complex arrangements of matter that made his peculiar sentience possible? It was a physical constant, seared by some unknowable and terrifying alien force into the fabric of all possible existences.
After first observation, we moved to another spacetime with the same set of cosmological constants. There, in a functionally identical spiral galaxy, we found him again, at precisely the same spatio-temporal coordinates. Ed Graebler in his little apartment, divorced, overweight, mildly depressed and in a dead-end job. He was the same. Exactly, in every measurable way, with no quantum variances.
It was unheard of. It upended everything we knew.
It was unheard of. It upended everything we knew.
As we have known for gigayears, most beings exist across times and spaces in an infinity of forms, with every possible reality being manifest in their different iterations. It is what makes us free and sentient. It is also amusing to cross boundaries and meet variant versions of yourself. Most entertaining.
But though there are an infinity of times and spaces, there is only one Ed Graebler. He exists in precisely the same way, unchanging and unchangeable, in every single universe in which he could possibly exist. From the moment of his conception to the moment of his death, his whole existence is exactly the same.
He is born at the same moment. When he is five years old, he falls and breaks his leg. When he is fourteen, he becomes hopelessly infatuated with the same girl. He works the same jobs, fails in the same ways, and dies right on time at forty-eight years of age.
And now, in the monitoring field of a hundred carefully placed nano-observation units, Edward Graebler snores. Duration, one point three seconds, at 87.723 decibels precisely, the snore aligning with every prior record of that same snore in every one of the billions of habitable universes in which we’ve encountered him.
For some reason that we do not yet grasp, he is entangled on a subatomic level only with himself everywhere.
And nothing around him can change if that change would change his awareness in even the slightest way. Edward Graebler is a fundamental cosmological constant, from Edgenesis until Terminus, the moment of his dying.
There had been some argument among Graeblerist scholars as to the precise timing of Terminus. Some, particularly early in EG Observation, had suggested that Terminus came with the complete cessation of all organic process, sometime between four and seven hours after the end of cognitive process. This was a viable theory, and actively disputed, until the still debated intervention at the conclusion of Graebler Iteration 9.07B9z756.
Dr. K’zant Mr’aash of the School Insidious hired a Krant mercenary destroyer, which obliterated the rocky world precisely one second after Graebler brain death but while organic process was still underway, thus proving definitively that the damping effect on quantum variance was delimited by Graebler’s awareness.
Brilliant, albeit genocidal. Dr. Mr’aash was both awarded the Medal of Knowledge and duly censured for such mindless butchery of billions of sentient beings.
Nothing, absolutely nothing can change what Graebler encounters, so long as he encounters it. His ex-wife Debbie is an excellent example. She must be the same in relation to him, in every universe. Every exchange, every conversation, every moment, the same. Six months ago, after their last conversation, her life opens up.
In Graebler Iteration 9.07B9z756, for example, she is obliterated by the Krant destroyer, along with all of the other inhabitants of her planet. In many, she simply lives alone and dies young. In a few, she rebuilds her life. In several--my sentimental favorites--we chose to make contact, and she became revered and honored, a transdimensional celebrity. A goddess. Debbie Graebler, the closest being to the EG event.
He stirs, and his chest heaves, and he gasps.
“Jeezus,” he exhales, mindlessly. The time is close. Forty eight years, I have observed, hidden, and now Terminus is just moments away again.
Being hidden is vital, and my carefully managed shielding is all that saves me from annihilation. The further away one is from Graebler’s awareness, the freer one is. Close in? You are only free if you remain hidden. He defines all things he encounters.
This has leading to some unsettling speculation on the part of some more radical Graeblerists. Why *must* anyone exist on this particular world? Only if Edward Graebler’s life was impacted by them. This hypothesis has been tested in literally billions of studies, and it is both replicable and consistent.
But deeper: Why is every habitable universe a certain age? Because of that show Edward Graebler must always watch on PBS nine years before his death, with the warm buttery voice talking about billions and billions of years.
Why are some stars and planets and galaxies in certain positions at this moment in every spacetime, while others are not? Because Edward Graebler observed them, or did not.
It’s just so damned peculiar.
Now, now my sensor array indicates cardiac failure under way. His brain is beginning to die, starved of oxygen, shutting down.
We have attempted to model and replicate what he is perceiving in these last moments, what this protean consciousness is processing as it dies. It didn’t tell us anything. Mostly, he is dreaming about a Hardee's bacon cheeseburger, his subconscious beginning to fragment as he ceases to be. There is a moment of light, a surge, and then a cessation.
I observe and record through a hundred sub-microscopic eyes and sensors, monitoring everything about him as he twitches and heaves his way to death. It is strangely fascinating, and though I have observed it more than a thousand times, I always catch a new detail.
The sweat. The color his neurons are perceiving, in the spectrum of gold and the light of his world’s sun.
The sweat. The color his neurons are perceiving, in the spectrum of gold and the light of his world’s sun.
He is still. And...Terminus.
My monitoring array marks the energies around quantum release, as the fabric of the universe decouples from the Graebler Effect, different now. I begin the process of preparation, drawing in the equipment for the next Graebler observation in the next spacetime, spooling the last of the data through the Institute’s transdimensional uplink.
His flesh rests, a lifeless mound of meat on the old threadbare sofa.
A single strand of fading red hair rests on his sweaty, slowly cooling face. It flickers, slightly, in the changing light cast by the simulated primate copulations on the screen before him.
I deactivate my field generator, and move over to where I can see his face with my own organic sensorium. I reach out with a tendril, and gently move the hair, as I have before so many times. The familiar touch makes my vocal sacs thrum in the oxygen nitrogen atmosphere, involuntarily.
I am touching Edward Graebler.
“Jeezus. Jeezus H.”