Listen.

This message is being transmitted to every member of your species, and to the individuals of the several other intelligent species, observed and unobserved, that share your world with you.

Even those of you now sleeping are now receiving this transmission.

You need to pay attention. What we have to tell you is very important.

Your planet is about to be destroyed.

The means of this destruction is a phenomenon known to us, but not yet observed by you. It is an entirely natural process, albeit one that none of your people have ever observed and that none of your learned scholars have ever considered.

We do not have the time to tutor you in the advanced science you would need to understand what is about to happen. If it helps you to picture the devastation to come, you should imagine an uncontrolled conflagration, incinerating everything in its path and leaving no life behind. This may not be the most accurate of metaphors, as our description of the phenomenon’s initial effects will soon render clear, but it should impress the urgency of our message upon you, so we may move on to the reason we are communicating.

We are aware that you will find this news upsetting, perhaps even shattering. We need you to put your immediate emotional reactions aside, by whatever coping mechanisms your species can muster. Some of you may find comfort in your religions. Our observers have never understood your race’s faith in demons and deities, or your determination to celebrate belief in such beings when that odd aspect of your character has caused you nothing but grief. We could very well spend the next few minutes explaining at length why in our view these hypotheses are highly unlikely, but that would take time we cannot spare. If it helps to assume that these hypothetical beings have abandoned you, or that you have offended them in some manner, then please indulge those assumptions and give us your full attention. This communication is already taking more time than we have budgeted, and we must pick up the pace if our message is to do any good.

Heed us.

The phenomenon about to destroy you cannot be prevented.

It cannot be prayed away, fought, {untranslated}, or put off in the vain hope that future generations will find a solution.

It amounts to an intense localized alteration in the physical laws that govern the universe. These changes will be sudden, extreme, and profound. They will be visible, audible, {untranslated}, and unpleasant to your senses.

The exact nature of these changes cannot be described in any of your languages, as none of you have ever considered them and your race has therefore never devised the proper adjectives.

We can only provide a few similes that, while failing to resemble the actual event, might yet help you grasp how apparent the immediate effects will be.

They will be as obvious to you as your atmosphere suddenly thickening to the consistency of mud, as obvious to you as your limbs combusting, as obvious to you as your entire species suddenly {untranslated}.

They will not be any of these things, as we’ve already said, but they will be that easy to notice.

Many of you will immediately die of fright, but we should warn you that the least of the phenomenon’s terrible manifestations has already altered the relationship of your biological systems to the persistence of your consciousness, and that even those of you whose hearts stop beating or whose nervous systems shut down will remain aware, and suffering, for the duration.

This is something that has already happened, and cannot be changed.

We know from our studies of your racial mythology that you are already familiar with the concept of suffering that continues for an eternity after death; a “hell,” if you will, although as far as we know your quaint imaginations have erred in attaching such a state to any physical location, or the experience to any violation of divine rules. You might find it helpful to keep this concept in mind, as you come to terms with our assurance that it is no longer safe to die.

In the next few moments, you will soon become aware of several additional manifestations. Some nearby objects, now smaller than you, will then become much larger. Adjacent surfaces will seem to lose their structural consistency. You will observe your extremities passing through materials you now consider solid. Time itself will flow in a manner terrifying to your senses, neither slower nor faster but following a new paradigm that is, again, beyond your racial vocabulary. There will likely be intense pain.

If there are loved ones near you, you may wish to avoid observing them, because the phenomenon will affect them as well, and while you might believe that you owe them your attention in these last moments, what happens to them will only mirror what happens to you and your observations can only increase the unpleasantness of their experience. In any event, the physical changes in their bodies over this interval will likely render them revolting to your senses.

Over the next few minutes of objective time, a further alteration in the connectivity of your nervous systems will cause many of you to experience another anomaly, which we can best describe as forced total recall.

This will take the form of every moment you have ever lived, replayed in full sensory detail from the moment your consciousness was formed, to the present.

Some of you receiving this message may presume this a welcome development, especially if you have enjoyed your lives to date. We take no pleasure in informing you that this manifestation is even more deeply unpleasant. It will first increase the intensity of your past experiences to the point where every sight becomes blinding, every sound becomes deafening, and even the most pleasant input ever collected by your other senses are intensified past the threshold of pain. During this period, your memory of the lightest caress will feel like the touch of an object heated to scalding. This will grow even worse as the replay catches up to your current “now” and incorporates itself, a replay within a replay. To you, it will be as if you endured a lifetime or torment only to start over again, from the beginning.

It is our sad duty to inform you that the unwelcome intensity of this part of the phenomenon will only be multiplied over the next interval as you continue to relive the nested memories, multiple times.

If it helps you imagine the effect, imagine your race’s music playing on a device in your vicinity, at a volume you enjoy. Now imagine that you are forced to listen to that same music a second time, with the addition of another amplification device; and then a third time, and a fourth, and so on, each new device increasing the cumulative volume, beyond the threshold of agony.

This is what will happen to the days and nights of your life, whether happy or sad, pleasant or painful. It will seem to happen hundreds of times, each fresh iteration immeasurably worse than the last.

It might interest you to know that since the actual duration of even this stage is finite, despite the eternity it will seem to last, it will be somewhat easiest on the aged among you, whose previous lives have been long enough to minimize the total number of subjective repetitions.

Alas, this is not encouraging news for your very young, especially your small children and your infants. Their suffering will be even worse, by several orders of magnitude.

We are aware that this is the most terrible news we have provided so far. We regret to inform you that we can offer no amelioration.

Most of you will shut down, in one manner or another, during these few seconds of forced memory, which to your altered perspective, will seem to last many thousands of years. Your battered minds and transformed bodies will have already delivered you to madness or catatonia or the false refuge of death, and you will not be able to act on the information we are about to provide you.

A few of you, perhaps only a few hundred, will awaken as if from a disturbing dream and, despite the massive physical changes in yourselves, find yourselves once again capable of personal volition.

This is the stage we need to speak to you about.

We call it the Pause.

Honesty compels us to inform this most fortunate subset of your species that the aspect of the disaster involving the relationship of organic function to consciousness will now be in temporary remission, and that as a result, it will, for a short period, be safe to die.

This may be the best news we can provide you. During the next several minutes of relative calm, before the phenomenon moves into its latter and even more torturous stages, you might well find it possible to terminate your organic existence, and/or the organic existences of those in your vicinity, as the only means to minimize further suffering.

Doing so will, during this interval and only during this interval, successfully terminate your consciousness, summon the true death, and thus spare yourselves the even greater traumas yet to come.

It is the only escape route the phenomenon permits.

If, by contrast, you allow yourself to survive beyond the Pause, then the merciful release of death will once again be denied you, and you will be forced to endure the many additional hours the phenomenon will last.

Out of concern for your sanity, and your capacity to process the most urgent part of this message, we avoid any detailed description of the manifestations that will come next.

We will only say that they are worse, far worse, than anything you would have experienced up to this point, and that to you they will seem to last longer than the entire lifespan of your civilization.

We do warn the defiant among you that any valiant attempts to stay alive after the Pause, in the mistaken belief that you might be able to rebuild your world after the disaster passes, will be a waste of effort.

Even the bravest paragon of personal endurance will not be able to soldier beyond ten of your hours, at which point your world will have been reduced to a superheated gas.

For this reason, your only sensible option if your only concern is limiting your own suffering and the suffering of your loved ones, is to endure the first phase we described, wait for the Pause, and then quickly do whatever you can in order to die while that escape remains possible for you.

We have gone to this extreme length of describing the fate that awaits your species in order to impress upon you the urgency of this communication. If our descriptions seemed florid, we apologize. Rest assured that, if anything, we refrained from describing the worst of what awaits, out of concern for your capacity to absorb the one part of this vital communication that might still make a difference.

Please pay heed.

The phenomenon is—and again we apologize for the vagueness that goes along with trying to describe that which your languages have not evolved to describe—best imagined as a wave of destruction, passing from one point in the universe to another via a route that involves other spatial dimensions and that you would perceive as random manifestation in far-flung locations.

If it is implacable, it is also without malice. It just exists, and no species inhabiting any world in its path should ever make any assumptions about deserving or not deserving the end it brings.

We know this well, because we are such a species.

The image we now form in your minds is just an approximate representation. It does not reflect our actual appearance, as that would be disgusting to your senses.

You will note that while we resemble no life extant on your world, we are many, and the structures around us provide evidence of a thriving civilization.

We are aware that our structures and our way of life must strike you as profoundly alien, and even repugnant.

We hope that you will not be insulted if we confess that we reacted much the same way to images of your world.

We are as different from one another as two species can be. In no sane universe would we ever be friends, or otherwise have anything of note to say to one another.

But if nothing is done to prevent it, the catastrophe about to eradicate your species will move on, in less than a day, to eradicate ours.

The disaster we have described is almost as imminent for us as it is for you.

We can only hope that this bond between us will touch you, and lend you some sense of {untranslated} with we who are also about to die.

We do not have much time left, now. Please focus past your terror and despair and consider what we have to say.

You can save us.

During the Pause, the effect the phenomenon has had on your consciousness will briefly manifest as power, and grant you your only opportunity to affect events.

It will be far too late for you to save yourselves. Your world will already be in its death throes.

But if enough of you still possess the capacity to care, to consider our plight at a time when no sentient would blame you for being overwrought with your own, to put aside your terrible grief at what you’ve lost and your terrible dread of the torments yet to come, then you will find it possible to drive all that stored emotion outward and into the beast’s very heart.

This act will not save your species, but it will deflect the phenomenon away from the inhabited regions of the universe and for a time leave it wreaking its terrible effects in places where no sentient lives.

Honor compels us to inform you that the price you will pay for taking this action is extreme.

By the time you finish doing what must be done, the Pause will be over, and you will have lost this one last opportunity to spare yourselves what you will perceive as eons of unimaginable suffering.

We will not blame you, any of you, if you are so traumatized by your first taste of the phenomenon that you are incapable of thinking of any concerns but your own, or if, as has happened, you’re so overcome with terrible, irrational, undirected rage that you forget we’re innocents as well, and in your fury do everything you can to speed the phenomenon along, so that it reaches us even sooner.

We know that what we are asking for is more than any species has the right to ask of another.

We can only ask you to consider the following.

When the time comes for you to decide what to do, everything your species has ever built will already be in ruins. Every ambition you’ve ever had for the future will already be a broken promise. Every pretense you’ve ever nursed of an ultimate meaning to your existence will have been proven false, except for this, your final opportunity to choose whether your existence in this universe was all for nothing.

If you save us, we will always honor you as {untranslated}. All the civilizations known to us will be rendered aware of the sacrifice you have made for strangers, and you will be regarded with the deepest reverence until the end of time.

If you refuse, we will understand for only as long as it takes the phenomenon to reach us, and leave us driven by madness to spend our destruction cursing you as monsters.

{untranslated}

We understand that after what you’re about to endure, the selfish decision is by far the most likely one. It is very possible that the first phase will leave you too shattered to act, or that despair will leave you thinking that as long as you must die, then there’s no point in caring whether anyone else should live.

All we can tell you now is that we provided another doomed species with the same advance warning, only a few of your days ago. They were given the same information and offered the same choice. When the critical moment arrived, they failed the test the universe had provided for them, betrayed everything they had ever striven for, and allowed fear to be their only monument.

That is why you are in this position now.

You should remember any anger you feel at their cowardice when you find yourselves faced with the same decision.

That is all we have time for.

Remember what we have said. Our {untranslated} is with you.

The phenomenon will begin in five of your seconds.


More from Adam-Troy Castro:

Adam-Troy CastroAdam-Troy Castro’s short fiction has been nominated for two Hugos, three Stokers, and eight Nebulas. The author of 27 books that include the Philip K. Dick Award winner Emissaries from the Dead, he has just launched a major middle-grade series with Gustav Gloom and the People Taker (Grosset and Dunlap, out now).


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1 Comment

  1. As usual, a masterful tale by a master storyteller! I say “master storyteller” because “During The Pause” is just one long message from an alien species warning humanity of impending doom from an unforeseen source; there’s no action, no dialogue. And yet Adam-Troy Castro is able to create enough suspense to keep you hanging on to every word of the message from start to finish! Especially compelling is the moral question he poses near the end of the story: Will humanity be altruistic enough, during a lull in the excruciating path to annihilation, to fight back for the sake of the alien species? The surprise ending has one of the loudest bangs on record (okey, I exaggerate a little here): “The phenomenon will begin in five of your seconds.”

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