"The Four Last Things" by Christopher Rowe. Asimov's Science Fiction, November/December 2023
Think of "The Last Four Things" as a postcard from the far side of the Singularity. Here's how it begins:
They came on a mule ship, and they lived on what was left of it after they arrived. The hull, laid down by poet-engineers in the high docks, was laminated from hundreds of thousands of layers of zepto-sec time and planck-length matter, each layer a gossamer capable of withstanding anything they could imagine. The controlling mule itself, like all its siblings, was spun up from archived biological remnants of a lost hybrid equine, integrated with specialized subsystems designed to travel between.
Yeah. It's not easy going, and it doesn't get any easier. But those of us who have been around long enough to acquire a taste for
difficult fiction will relish it. As will those readers young enough to be actively seeking out works that will challenge them. And of course those outliers who aren't supposed to get it, but will.
Oversimplifying wildly, here's the plot:
Four individuals--they may be "people" of some sort--have come to the planet Ouestmir on a voyage of discovery. There they find immortal five-meter long worms living in undersea volcanic vents and slamming themselves against the reefs that encase them--drumming, drumming, drumming. The purpose of this is unclear. But a pattern of flares and radio signals in their star's polar regions are clearly a kind of response.
An attempt to communicate with the worms inexplicably causes the death of every worm on the planet. The drumming stops. The responses from the star cease.
What the drumming meant and why the worms died is a classic science fiction puzzle that will not be solved. Because what "The Last Four Things" is about--as is signaled by a quote from James Joyce that gives the story its title--is the nature and meaning of death.
I fear many science fiction readers will find this story annoying and even incomprehensible. Others, however, will read and reread it with pleasure.
You know who you are.