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The center of the Milky Way, as seen by the Spitzer infrared space telescope, in red.

Across the Night Wall (Part 2)


To Across the Night Wall (Part 1)

The discovery of intelligent life gave us hope that there could be more sentient species out there. It only took another few thousand years to find them.

The Quinches were like us in many ways, if not physically then perhaps in some parallel, similar in their outlook. Centres of population crusted the continents with architecture that mirrored our own in diversity, if not in design. They had spread throughout their star system, but as yet could only contemplate the vast interstellar distances beyond. Once, they confessed to us, their ancestors had raped their world for its resources with scant regard for the long-term consequences. They would have tried to shoot us out of orbit had we ventured into their system a thousand years earlier. Yet they avoided catastrophe, learning the fundamental lessons before it was too late. Their homeworld still bore the scars.

And there were others, in other solar systems. To the Dring we became the focus of reverence, our journey the ultimate pilgrimage. They beseeched us to help them in their plight. Their world, locked in eternal winter, once revolved about a yellow main sequence star. They claimed that it had faded in the space of a few million years, and now the lacklustre orange-red sun that rose every morning could manage little more than a frigid twilight glow at noon. In our arrogance we faulted their science. We tried to make them understand that a star took a thousand times that long to die. But they were unshakable in their belief, as we ourselves could not give credence to the existence of the demon that was consuming their sun.

Nevertheless the Dring wished us well as we departed. I remember being saddened as their icy planet dwindled. Perhaps we had been rash to discard the faith of these benign and deeply spiritual people. In the end they had refused us permission to establish a community on their homeworld, and I couldn't help wondering if humans had become somehow diminished in their esteem. If only I'd been more circumspect as to what lay between the lines of the extensive library of theological texts that they had allowed us to examine. Could we have prevented the catastrophe?

I had been in cryo-sleep for a little under fourteen hundred years when the duty shift revived us. Now, the process had been significantly refined. This time I was lucid almost immediately after being disconnected. A few aisles down, Mission Commander Reed - Sara — was being lifted, naked and fluid dripping, from her tank by manipulators. She was delivered onto her feet and stood for a moment, glancing about and looking as unsettled as I must have seemed. She saw me and came over, her initial steps unsteady.

At first, face to face, we hesitated to speak. Finally, I said: "Hello, Sara."

"Hello, yourself."

The fluid was dissipating from our bodies (being absorbed as nourishment, we later learned). The air was pleasantly warm. We hugged gingerly, and then broke apart as others started to emerge from the tanks.

On leaving the chamber, we discovered it was no longer in the same part of the ship. We seemed instinctively to know where to go. After we'd clothed ourselves, the duty shift received us.

"How long?" I asked Dufrane, the current acting Captain. He told me. There was something about his tone that unsettled me.

"What's wrong?" I asked him.

"It's probably better that you see for yourself."

We assembled in the main conference chamber. To my surprise the entire ship's complement of Custodians was present. Everyone had been revived. On either side of me, tiers of faces, bewildered expressions, swept away around the perimeter of the huge central table. Behind and above us the Residents’ balconies were empty.

Dufrane brought the meeting to order, an image of his head appearing as big as a house over the holo-plate. It turned slowly as it spoke, his amplified voice booming down upon us. We listened in shocked silence. The discreet observation posts we'd left in orbit around the Dring planet were still relaying time-lagged information. They were many light-years behind us now and the dull red sun had almost faded to noting. As we watched their alabaster world come apart in a series of gigantic explosions, we all understood that the Dring had been extinct for centuries. There was no explanation, no clue as to what could have caused the disaster. But nothing could be done about it now. I accept what had happened and turned my attention to other matters. However, it followed me into my dreams, and transformed them into nightmares.

I slept on, another three thousand years, while several virgin worlds were successfully seeded with colonists, and then I woke with the appropriate grounding for my duty roster neurologically coded. On this shift I'd be joining Planetary Reconnaissance.

After my revival the harrowing visions of destruction and decay I'd experienced during my long sleep, tormented in my thoughts, frequently distracted me from my work. Though I coped without my psych-evaluation, I knew I should talk to someone about it.

Sara would have been the natural choice. We had spent a month together prior to hibernation after the Dring catastrophe. We enjoyed each other's company and went to the tanks with a certainty that we would go on from where we left off when we were revived. But I was brought out a full five years after she'd been woken, only to discover that she had renewed her exclusivity contract with the executive officer, Lyndon. It shouldn't have worried me that much; as immortals we had time in abundance.

Nonetheless, I brooded, unable to put her out of my mind. I tried not to let it show, and perhaps not to be outdone, initiated several relationships of my own with subordinate staff.

Maybe, on some subconscious level, I was already afraid to be alone in the dark.

Eventually Sara cornered me in my quarters.

"Are you avoiding me?" she asked. She'd come, she said, in order to review my data. An excuse, I realised belatedly. The question took me by surprise.

"How so?" I said, without looking at her and trying to sound indifferent.

But her disapproval was clear. She glowered at me, which made me feel stupid, and utterly helpless.

I stared back at her through the convoluted diagrams suspended in the air between us, and protested that I didn't know what she meant, then shrugged dismissively.

"Very well, I'll leave you in peace," she said, and gestured at the diagrams. "We can do this at another time." The wall formed an aperture. She left me standing there, by myself.

The Eternity was already in-system and I had a library of information to sift through, which kept me busy for another three months until orbital insertion. Initial observations had suggested an uninhabited planet, its rotation so slow as to be almost imperceptible. The mantle seemed to have solidified aeons ago. Only a remnant of a core still spun sluggish at its heart: just enough to generate a weak magnetic field. The star was an orange-red dwarf that had been christened Octavia before my waking, after a famous Resident pioneer, long left behind. I’d slept through her life.

We were only a week out when a colleague, Ira, spotted a feature on the fringe of the planet's terminus that seemed somehow out of place. It was too regular to be a natural formation, and soon turned out to be the first of many similar ruins littering the surface. "Nothing seems to be more than a couple of thousand years old..."

We had the planet mapped in its entirety by the time we achieved orbit. It floated over the astro-lab's holo-plate, with some of the derelict structures expanded to show detail. I had to agree with Ira. On Earth there were relics in abundance at the time of our departure that were much older, like the Egyptian pyramids. "We won't know for sure until we go down and have a closer look. Any ideas?"

My tone was sharp. Distracted as I had been, I'd missed the ruins on my initial survey, and it irritated me to have one of my staff bring the mistake to light. We were sleeping with each other, and Ira had been tactful, but that didn't make me feel any better.

She shrugged, not appearing to notice my indignation. "Hard to say. But extinction appears to be total. It looks like there's nothing left alive down there. We'll see more detail as we get closer. I've included a series of test scenarios to apply to the figures. I wouldn't like to speculate until we've seen the results."

"It could be anything: comet strike, massive coronal mass ejection. Global epidemic is unlikely. There'd be something left; plant life at least. Perhaps a nearby star went nova?" Ira thought that that was unlikely. The contradiction didn't improve my demeanour, but I managed my temper.

"Test the scenarios but keep an open mind," I told her evenly. "We won't know for sure until we get down there. Suspend the preparations for colonisation. We need to figure out what happened to the previous tenants."

It wasn't long before I was left alone at the console, with an overriding sensation that I was rapidly becoming unpleasant to be around.

The news of the postponement was not well received in the Residents' habitat — that is, until images of the dead landscape were released. Of the twelve thousand volunteers (enough to man two base ships), over eighty percent withdrew their application. The news had created a media storm and morbid fascination swelled within the mortal population. The bookies had amassed a fortune in bets and most everyone on board was glued to their viewers as the first pictures from the explorers were televised throughout the ship.

I'd selected several sites, but focused on what appeared to have been the largest centre of population: a sprawling network of decaying buildings on the equator that we named City Number One. There was a structure at the centre that had drawn my interest. It was by far the tallest surviving artificial feature on the planet: a steep-sided cone, some three thousand metres tall, surmounted by a slim spire that went up half as far again. Long fibres, encrusted with fragments, trailed from the tip, drifting gently on the breeze, like the tendrils of a sea anemone. The whole thing stood in the middle of an open area of cracked stone that was just big enough to contain it. As the explorer homed in on the apex of the spire we saw that it had broken off, a clue that once it had been taller. I brought the explorer down in a spiral around it, keeping its primary scanner focused inwards on the spire. A three-dimensional diagram of the structure, bristling with labels, began to rise out of a secondary holo-plate.

"I think I have an idea what it could be," I heard someone mutter. The viewing chamber was crowded and I had no idea who'd spoken.

"Enlighten us then, if you would," someone else said.

"Well, it's built almost exactly on the equator — to the centimetre. And those fibres are comprised of bundled chain molecules of diamond. Then there are the channels running down the entire length. They contain devices similar to the mag-coils that were once used on those old trains in the Residents' habitat. I'd suggest it's some kind of sky lift."

"A space elevator?"

"Whatever you want to call it..."

Further speculation was abruptly cut short. The explorer had reached the top of the cone. No one was at first sure of what they were seeing.

"Can you zoom in on those loose stones?"

I adjusted the optics. The image exploded, blurred, then sprang into perfect focus. Utter silence filled the room. There could be no mistaking what we were seeing. Regardless of the inhuman features, it was without doubt a skull that stared back at us. And it was not alone. There must have been hundreds of them. That was my initial guess. They rested amid other bones, straight and curved, of different sizes and shapes, some whole, others fractured and broken. Slowly the picture pulled back out again and I revised my original estimate. There were thousands... no millions...

...And then I realised. "Oh my God. The whole thing's made of bones," I said quietly.

"How many individuals do you imagine it would take to make something that big?"


I'd covered my mouth with my hand, at the same time appalled and fascinated. I removed it long enough to say: "A whole planet's population." It remained a mystery how this grim edifice had come about. In general, opinion tended towards self-annihilation through accident or war. After all, had we not nearly destroyed ourselves in the twenty-first century? So it was possible. Perhaps humans had been one of the lucky ones, surviving that era in their social and technological development. We certainly would not have had the maturity to thrive in the closed society that existed aboard the Eternity.

But something continued to nag at me. I turned to the data once more, in order to seek an alternative solution. My thoughts continued to linger on the dreams I was having in cryo-sleep: so vivid, more like real experiences than a picture constructed from a mosaic of memories.

I eventually suggested to my Mission Commander: "I think it has something to do with what's happening to the stars," when she’d asked for my thoughts on the gruesome memorial.

I saw the first lines of concern creep across Sara's brow. Her tone softened. "What's happening to the stars?"

The condescension that I perceived in her voice irritated me, but the figures I brought up on the plate went a little way towards preserving my credibility. I took her through them. "The stars are dimming," I insisted. "It's as the Dring tried to tell us. And rather than face their ultimate fate, they destroyed themselves. I think the same happened here in the Octavia System. And it's happening everywhere."

She remained sceptical. Perhaps because of that, I could not bring myself to tell her about the dreams. In them I had experienced whole lifetimes through the ages of man, while my body was suspended in the tank. I'd been a cave man hunting mammoths across sweeping plains, a vagrant who’d died old and alone in the streets of an ancient walled city. I’d marched with the Greek phalanxes and studied in the libraries of Alexandria. In Rome I’d supped wine and gorged myself on fine foods, only to succumb at last to the madness of lead poisoning. And in twenty-fourth century New York I’d patrolled the streets with a badge and a gun.

And it was not only the past I’d dreamed. I’d seen the Earth, as it would be in years to come, turning so slowly now that a single day lasted ten years, and witnessed the ground torn open beneath my feet as a tremendous force from space struck the planet. I’d lived many lives watching the sky grow progressively darker as we’d descended into the rents in the world to escape the cold. And finally the Great Redoubt, where the last enclave of humanity subsisted and would snuff itself out rather than be consumed by the darkness.

It seemed to me that man's future was mirrored in the graveyard world we'd discovered, though I remained unable to voice my fears.

To Across the Night Wall (Part 3)

© 2006 by Martin Isitt.
Spitzer infrared space telescope image of the Milky Way by NASA.