Exhalation (Chiang)

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Summary of the Short Story
Microsummary: A society powered by air pressure faced their inevitable end as the air in their enclosed universe tapped out, causing everything, including thought processes, to slow down significantly.

In a universe filled with a species powered by exposure to air, a mechanic believed that air (also known as argon) was the source of life. The mechanic started an investigation to discover the true origin of life, leading to an astonishing revelation - their universe was not infinite but a sealed chamber, slowly filling up with air. Over time, the air pressure was increasing, causing their thoughts to slow down.

The Anatomist — narrator; a curious and introspective individual who conducts an auto-dissection on his own brain to figure out the truth of their existence and impending demise.

All that we are is a pattern of air flow. My memories were inscribed not as grooves on foil or even the position of switches, but as persistent currents of argon.

The mechanic's claims were initially met with disbelief, but further investigations confirmed the theory. This shocking revelation led to a widespread panic, with various groups either promoting conservation or exploring ways to reverse the increasing pressure. The mechanic ultimately accepted the inevitability of the universe reaching perfect equilibrium—a state of absolute rest, where all life, thought, and time itself would cease.

The mechanic then expressed a faint hope of existence of another universe, and its inhabitants possibly finding a use for their exhausted universe as a reservoir of air for their own. The mechanic envisioned these beings exploring their abandoned universe and through their imagination, bringing a sense of life back to the once bustling world. The mechanic wrote a testament of their universe, hoping it would be discovered by the future explorers, and through reading it, these beings would bring the mechanic back to life, albeit in thoughts.

I hope that your expedition was more than a search for other universes to use as reservoirs. I hope that you were motivated by a desire for knowledge, a yearning to see what can arise from a universe’s exhalation.

In drawing to a close, the mechanic expressed a warning and an encouragement to the future explorers—to anticipate a similar fate to all universes, but to take joy in the miracle of existence.