[] Dark Mode

Far Reaches

(posted in fiction)

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The mapping of the cosmos is a tedious thing. Modern ships are equipped with a variety of methods with which to dispel the tedium, but even so, the majority of waking time is spent in solitude and silence, with little to distract from the immeasurable bleakness of interstellar space. I choose to spend most of my travels asleep. Not from necessity, as advancements in human longevity continue to advance long after we perfected the science of cryogenics. My preference for sleep is due rather to the unsettling thought of spending quiet centuries alone while traversing the dark and empty space between the stars. The human mind was never meant to endure such isolation.

It was during a mission to the outer edge of the closest spinward arm of our galaxy that I was awoken. Alarms and flashing lights greeted me as I emerged from my narrow cryogenic chamber. Glancing at my watch, I saw that the ship was still over a hundred light years from its final destination.

I stumbled slightly as I rushed to a nearby console. My muscles were weak, and my mind reeled with fleeting images from the surreal dreams that one often endures when frozen for extended periods of time. I quickly silenced the alarms, then accessed the status report to ascertain the cause of my premature arousal. The ship’s report was unambiguous; it had detected another spacecraft.

It was not entirely unprecedented to discover evidence of human presence in previously uncharted corners of the galaxy. The vast distances between established colonies made any kind of reliable or timely inter-colony communications impractical at best. Most colonies severed ties to Earth entirely, as messages arriving hundreds or thousands of years after their dispatch were largely deemed pointless. It was not unheard of for colonies to launch their own missions to regions of the galaxy previously thought untouched by those of us who still called Earth home. But the sheer vastness of space made it infinitely improbable that two such efforts should ever cross paths. Now, faced with the existence of this other ship in a region of space that I alone should have occupied, my mind turned to alternate possibilities.

I had always been aware of the rumors of non-human artifacts scattered throughout the galaxy. It is impossible to be in my line of work and not hear the tales of derelict spacecraft, long-abandoned alien colonies, and other evidence of a deceased civilization far more advanced and far more ancient than our own. While humans have found many forms of life outside our solar system, the closest we’ve come to finding another sentient race among the stars are these signs of a long-dead one. After a lifetime of being on the receiving end of such stories, perhaps now I’d now have one of my own to tell.

I entered the necessary commands to bring forth a visual representation of the mystery ship. What little notion I still had that it may be of human origin was quickly extinguished. The craft displayed on the monitor before me was undeniably not of human design.

This was obvious to me despite the crude rendering provided by my ship’s sensors. The craft was a giant sphere, its surface broken by dozens of enormous spikes connected to one another by a webbing of shafts. A true visual of the craft was impossible, as it was too far for my ship to illuminate, and we were dozens of light years from the nearest source of ambient light. The flickering image projected by the console left me uneasy–there was something menacing about the appearance of the alien ship. It surfaced within me memories of overheard conversations; disquieting theories about the deceased civilization from whom we inherited our small corner of the galaxy.

My ship had aroused me as a matter of protocol, but as it sensed no immediate danger, it had already begun preparations for me to return to my cryogenic slumber and resume course. There was no urgency to my current mission–it was a standard exoplanet assessment in a system a little over two hundred light years from Earth. I decided that a few extra hours here would have no impact on a mission that would take over four hundred years to complete anyway.

The journey to rendezvous with the other ship was a short one. Once I was within range to receive a true visual, I did so at once. The strange ship’s appearance only further cemented in my mind that it could not possibly be a product of Humanity. Several surfaces of the craft were decorated with glyphs and symbols that bore no relation to any human language.

Other details also revealed themselves. Millions of years spent adrift amidst unending micrometeor showers and cosmic particles would take its toll on any ship, however the ancient vessel seemed damaged to an even greater extent.

A chill had spread over me as I observed the results of my more detailed scans. Something about them bothered me–as though there were an important detail I was overlooking. I tried to reassure myself that it was merely my overactive imagination, misremembering whispered tales overheard during my brief respites on Earth between missions. But the creeping unease remained as I donned my spacesuit and prepared to board the alien craft.

Filled with a sense of morbid curiosity that far outshone my fears, I positioned my ship as close to the other as was safe. After bringing my ship to a complete stop, I launched myself out of an airlock into the black and silent vastness.

The alien vessel loomed before me, a growing mass of darkness silhouetted against the scattered stars. I had focused my own ship’s lights on the tiny region it had identified as a possible access hatch, where I hoped to gain access to the ship’s interior.

As I floated nearer to the hatch, to my surprise, the alien ship showed signs of activity. The immense dark surface came to life with pinpricks of blinking green light. This caught me somewhat off guard, causing me to neglect my suit’s maneuvering thrusters when I should have begun to slow my approach. My attention was instead consumed by the mesmerizing patterns of flickering dots that now filled my field of vision.

When my senses returned to me and I realized my miscalculation, I began to decelerate immediately and raised my hands to brace for impact. The impact never came, however, as just prior to my arrival at its surface, a larger green light turned on above the hatch, and the hatch slowly slid open. It swallowed me like the mouth of a starving interstellar creature, anxious for the arrival of a tiny morsel of food.

My suit continued its controlled deceleration as I passed through the opening and into the darkness of the alien ship. I only came to a complete stop after having already traveled a considerable distance within.

The chamber in which I found myself was of considerable size–large enough to house my own space ship at least three times over. In the dimness I saw strange mechanical contraptions lining the walls and ceiling, the function of which I could not immediately ascertain, and the likes of which have no counterpart among the technology of man.

The scene did not seem wholly alien to me, bathed as it was in the white light cast by my ship through the still open hatch behind me. So it was with fortified nerves that I activated my suit’s maneuvering thrusters to propel me deeper into the alien chasm for a closer look at some of the machinery.

I don’t know how long I spent studying the strange contraptions, nor did my more detailed inspections of the massive arm-like devices result in further revelations as to their purpose. My curiosity did, however, serve to draw me deeper and deeper into the vast chamber.

When the hatch by which I had gained access began to close, I had already moved so far away that all hope of escape was lost to me. I could do nothing but watch with a growing sense of dread as the light from my ship was slowly pinched out by the closing maw. At last, the light was snuffed out completely, leaving me entombed in complete darkness.

In my fearful scramble to orient myself and activate my suit’s flashlight, I pushed against one of the strange machines, and was soon spinning uncontrollably through the vast, silent emptiness of the alien chamber.

Before I could regain my bearings, the cavernous chamber became bathed in the same sickly green light that I had observed on the ship’s exterior. By the dim illumination I observed that I was now accelerating downward toward the floor of the room. Faster and faster I tumbled, my suit’s thrusters unable to compensate for my quickening descent. My final thought as I collided with the ground and lost consciousness was that my presence must have triggered automated systems beyond just the entrance hatch–including some form of artificial gravity.

Strange dreams came to me while I lay unconscious in the alien ship–dreams which to this day I cannot recall with complete clarity. I do know that I dreamed of the ship as it had been in eons past, before the calamitous events that had caused its abandonment. I dreamed of its architects: An ancient race that inhabited the galaxy millions of years before the Earth’s sun had even formed. And I dreamed of a force far more ancient. A chaotic force that predated even the universe itself, powerful enough to slowly unmake an entire civilization spanning hundreds of stars across thousands of light years.

When I awoke, I found myself relatively uninjured on the floor of the vast chamber, which was still illuminated by dim green light. I discovered through my suit’s sensors that not only had the chamber been imbued with artificial gravity, it had also been flooded with an atmosphere that, while unsuitable to breathe, did provide a medium for the propagation of sound. My footsteps echoed ominously through the vast room as I regained my footing.

I spent the next several hours exploring the maze-like interior of the ship, searching for a way out. I made my way through countless automated doors, dimly lit corridors and tunnels, and dark chambers ranging in size from claustrophobic to cavernous.

Most areas of the ship seemed to be made to accommodate beings roughly twice the height of an average human, but there was a surprising lack of basic commodities you would expect to find on a space faring vehicle. There was nothing that resembled any kind of furniture, no command centers, no living quarters. Every inch of the ship seemed to exist solely to serve some mechanical or structural purpose.

All throughout my wandering I was accompanied by an ever increasing sense of dread that I was exploring the interior of my own eventual tomb. While my suit’s power and oxygen supplies were in no immediate danger of running out, they were not inexhaustible, and I was still no closer to finding a means of escape.

Several times I came across what appeared to be digital panels on the walls displaying the same glyphs I had observed on the ship’s hull. At first I had been hopeful that they might contain some form of schematic or map of the ship, but no matter what I tried I was unable to evoke any response from the displays.

Occasionally I would hear the baritone rumblings of creaking metal coming from deep within the bowels of the ship–as though it were vocally protesting my interference with its slumber. Something stirred within me memories of my dream, and I prayed that the ship was the only entity that my presence had awakened.

Despite my deepening claustrophobic terror, some primal force of curiosity continued to drive me deeper and deeper through the labyrinthine hallways and chambers of the alien ship. Over time I began to notice odd markings on the walls that steadily increased in frequency as my travels progressed. Written in the same alien language, these markings were made using some luminescent substance that glowed eerily in the ever-present dim green light. As I continued on, the markings became more dense, and their structure and form shifted, as though written with more haste and less care. I couldn’t shake the terrifying image of a madman scribbling fervently upon the walls of his asylum.

Eventually I arrived at a door that, unlike all the others I had encountered to that point, did not automatically slide open upon my approach. The door was smeared haphazardly with the same luminescent substance that had been used to adorn the surrounding walls with the alien hieroglyphs. My attempts to physically pry the door open were in vain, so I turned my attention to a small panel attached to the adjacent wall. It housed an array of twenty five buttons, each marked with a unique symbol from the alien language. As I studied the panel, several of the symbols jumped out at me as familiar. A closer inspection of some of the haphazard scribblings on the wall behind me revealed, among the jumble of otherwise indecipherable marks, one sequence of glyphs repeated over and over. With some effort I managed to find an instance of the pattern relatively unmarred by overlapping writings, and began the process of entering the sequence on the control panel by the door.

The sequence contained nine digits, and as I entered the seventh and eighth, the deep rumblings of ancient metal around me seemed to intensify. My hope was that the door was an airlock, or perhaps the entrance to a decompression chamber that would provide me with a means of escape from the innards of the great behemoth in which I was now lost.

Once I had completely entered the code, the sickly green light flooding the hall suddenly turned an intense shade of red. The distant booming sounds grew louder and closer, amplifying into a deafening crescendo of metallic groans. There was a hiss, and I was completely overcome with a sense of dread as the door next to the panel began to slide open.

My assumption to this point had always been that the vessel was an alien ship, abandoned here for unknown reasons on its way to some other destination. But what purpose would any ship have to stop here in this barren region of space between spiral arms of the galaxy?

Suddenly, my mind grasped the detail from my earlier scans of the ship that had caused me consternation: This vessel had no obvious means of propulsion! Could it have been built here in this placid region of space intentionally? If so, what unspeakable horror had the ancient race believed to be so sinister that it could only be contained here, unfathomably distant from any inhabitable star systems?

A blast of strange wind and energy emanated from the room beyond the door. It reached out, filled my mind with unimaginable dread, and slammed me back into the wall. I became certain that this was not one of the aliens that had flourished in this galaxy ages ago; it was something much older, more ancient even than the oldest stars in the universe.

A basic law of physics states that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. So does not the powerful creative force that birthed our universe demand the existence of an equally powerful destructive force? Could this presence I now felt be even the tiniest grain of that force, somehow captured and contained within this prison by the ancient alien race? If that civilization did indeed dabble in harnessing the terrible forces I now sensed emanating from that infernal chamber, then perhaps that explained their eventual extinction and disappearance from this galaxy so many ages ago.

Flashes of my earlier dream returned to me. Though the evil, seeping power that flooded into the corridor was terrifying, it was a mote of dust compared to the incalculable power of the terrible cosmic entity I had dreamed. I had seen it bleed from the massive black hole at the center of our galaxy. I had seen it reach across a hundred thousand light years to consume the civilization that dared defy it.

As quickly as the dark presence had come upon me, it was gone. My mind reeled as I lay there, barely able to comprehend the panic, dread, and sheer terror I had experienced just moments before. It was in this half-mad state that I continued to stumble through the winding hallways of the alien ship. For how long, I cannot say.

In my mind, I was following the trail left by the sinister entity as it raced through the giant, moaning craft. How I was so sure of that I do not know. True or not, I eventually found myself in an area of the ship that had been damaged. Whether the damage was that which I had observed earlier from my own ship, or newly created, was unclear to me.

It wasn’t long before I identified a breach in the outer hull large enough to accommodate my passage. Shortly thereafter I was once again looking at the black silhouette of the alien vessel blotting out the few visible stars beyond.

As I maneuvered my way through space back to my own ship, I no longer felt the presence of the strange, dark entity that I had unintentionally freed from the alien vessel. Why it had been imprisoned there, and where it had gone after its release I dare not speculate. I quickly left that infernal place. Despite being deeply shaken, I managed to resume and complete my mission. Though I fear it was my last.

I can no longer endure the cryogenic sleep necessary to maintain sanity during centuries-long interstellar missions. Since my encounter with the dark presence in that alien ship, the dreams I experience have taken a horrific and sinister turn. I am plagued with visions of the unendurable suffering of an entire civilization as it is agonizingly wiped out by an unspeakable horror.

In my dreams, the source of ire for the sinister force of destruction is not the ancient race that came before mankind, but mankind itself. Whether these dreams are produced by forces of prophecy or madness, I cannot say.

But I fear the worst.

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