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,
"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
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.
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
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
big....now he's gone. Poof."
reincarnated," said Lilla's mother.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
pals graduated and scattered; Lilla's pals were were all
back on the East coast.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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. 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.
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
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.
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.
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
equaled 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
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
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
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.
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
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