The local galaxy conglomerates were roughly globe shaped, with long tendrils of gas to other conglomerates, sometimes interrupted by star clusters. Eddie Shenzen stared at the image the ship projected in the emptiness of the command deck.
As always he got up earlier from his cryobed than his fellow explorers, so he could admire the surroundings at leisure. But when the hatches of the ship were raised he looked at the deepest darkness he had ever witnessed. A few times he noticed vortices and swirls as if the passing of the ship disturbed the gas clouds. The total absence of light scared him, unreasonably so, and made him feel terribly lonely.
He closed the hatches again and asked the ship to display the Milky Way on the deck before him. The countless points of light settled his nerves. Not just the lights though, also the knowledge that his family, friends -indeed the human race as a whole- was present on many of those lights.
The distance they traveled in the past four years was unimaginable, due to the tremendous speeds the ship could achieve. Still, it meant their way home was another four years. Eddie just hoped they could find anything of interest in this total desolation.
Initially it seemed like a great plan to investigate the empty space between clusters and conglomerates. Humanity had managed the jump from the Milky Way to the neighboring star clusters, but no one ever dared enter the no-mansland furthest removed from the stars. At this moment, in the loneliness of the command deck, Eddie wondered about the wisdom of accepting this challenge.
He scanned the reports and noticed exactly nothing of interest. No stars, no planets, no weird or unexpected constructs, nothing at all. Emptiness and darkness. The status of his fellow explorers showed them all peacefully asleep in their cryobeds with two more weeks ahead.
“Yes, Eddie?” the voice of ship seemed to come from all around him.
“Is there anything of interest in the vicinity?”
“Don’t know. An asteroid, a sun, a planet, protostars, exotic matter. Anything.”
Ship remained silent for a while, searching databanks. Then the answer came: “We recently passed a rogue planet. But it was outside the parameters you might want to assign to anything.”
“Tell me more, will you?” Eddie said, curious.
“Eight days and seven hours ago we passed a dark planet at less than half a light-year removed. About five times Old Earth, slightly higher than average gravity for humans. Atmosphere is reasonable, not immediately deadly, but a spacesuit is recommended. Temperature is remarkably high for a planet without a sun. There’s a high likeliness of internal thermal processes.”
“Any possibility of leaving this can for a little while?” Eddie asked. “I mean, it looks like nothing even remotely of interest to us, far and wide.”
“Visiting that world would be an option. Apart from dark, cold gases there is little of interest in this area.”
“And I think my colleagues won’t mind,” Eddie said.
“Since they are all asleep, you are the only one who can order course changes.”
“Alright then, let’s visit that rogue planet.”
The ship altered its course nearly imperceptibly until they had reversed their direction and headed back.
One week later the ship entered orbit around the planet. It was a dark world with a thick cloud cover, where some kind of chemical process caused long, fluorescent streamers that made it look like a piece of candy.
“I’ve never seen something like that before,” Eddie remarked.
“The phenomenon is recorded eight times in my databanks,” the ship said. “Nine times now. It’s a phenomenon that has a volcanic source, which correlates to the tectonic expectations for this world.”
A hole in the cloud cover showed deep red streams and lines on the surface.
Eddie whistled softly. “You don’t want to walk there,” he said.
“Correct. Temperature well above one thousand degrees Celsius near the lava flows. There is a regularly shaped structure on the planet.”
“Oh? Naturally formed or not?” Eddie asked.
“The chance of a natural occurrence is less than thirty percent.”
Eddie felt a twinge of butterflies in his stomach. He did not really expect anything, but you never knew. This world had once originated from somewhere, so why not somewhere that an alien culture could have visited, perhaps to leave a monument? “Show me, will you?”
An image appeared on the command deck and the spot ship had detected approached rapidly. Midway on the slope of a huge, dead volcano stood, clearly, a constructed building. Majestic pillars supported a roof many kilometers long and wide and weirdly shaped towers protruded through holes.
Eddie again whistled softly. “Definitely not human, that much is obvious. Does it resemble any of the ruins we found in the past centuries?”
Ship again remained silent as it searched ancient databases. “No, no similarities found in up to six billion years.”
“So this could have been created by a previously unknown race?”
“Quite possibly so.”
Eddie considered the implications. He was still the only one awake, although his colleagues would wake up in the next couple of hours. “I want to visit the surface, see what’s down there.”
“That’s not in line with previous agreements, Eddie,” ship said.
“Doesn’t matter, ship. I’ll go down, have a look and return. Don’t try and stop me.” Ship remained silent.
The lander descended through the atmosphere on pillars of fire. The small craft was shaken vehemently, but finally landed without damage at the foot of the huge construction.
Eddie placed his first careful steps on the volcanic rock, but the ground was solid and wind and weather had eroded the sharp edges off the rocks. He looked up and saw the silhouette of the building in sharp contrast to the fluorescent colored bands in the sky that bathed the surroundings in ghostly yellow, red and green colors.
“See this, ship?” Eddie aimed his helmet camera at the slope and the gigantic columns that protruded from it. Hundreds of meters further stairs began that seemed made for giants. They led directly into the building.
“Yes, Eddie. Are you certain you wish to enter alone?”
“I am, ship. There’s no harm. Look, this has been empty for millions of years, if not billions.” He started to climb the stairs and soon sweat trickled across his back.
“Eddie, the atmosphere is becoming more breathable for every few meters you climb,” ship explained through the helmet speakers.
“Great news. That means I can get rid of this bloody suit soon,” Eddie panted. The stairs finally reached an immense square underneath the roof. In the middle of the square was a distinct, silver pillar; mirror finished, like a piece of art placed in a strategic, central location. Eddie noticed his own body, slightly distorted in the reflections. While he observed the remarkable artifact a slight tremor traversed its surface as if the silver were fluid and he disturbed it with his gaze.
“Ship, do you see this pillar?” Eddie asked.
A crackle sounded through his helmet. He tapped the spot on his helmet that held the speakers of the suit, but there was no improvement. He walked back to the stairs. “Ship?”
“Was I out just now?”
Eddie nodded. “The roof blocks radio signals. I’ll go exploring for a bit, so don’t worry.”
“That is not one of my programmed emotions, Eddie. But thank you for reassuring me.”
Eddie noticed the irony and he grinned. “Is it safe to breathe here?”
“It should be.”
Eddie unlocked the glove of his suit and felt the air with his naked hand. It seemed pleasant enough. He took off his helmet and breathed the atmosphere. Fresh, with a hint of sulphur, not surprising on the flank of volcano. He took off the rest of the suit and left it at the top of the stairs.
The columns that supported the roof were covered in glyphs forming complex patterns, telling most likely the story of this place. His attention kept being diverted to the silver pillar in the center. When he was inevitably in front of it again, he stretched his right hand to it and softly allowed his fingertips to caress the smooth surface. One moment it seemed the universe shrunk to a single point, with Eddie as the center. He blinked and the feeling was gone.
“Weird,” he mumbled. At the back of the hall he found more stairs, leading down this time. He walked through lofty corridors, always down and finally reached an impressively large cavern, many times larger than the entrance hall. From the floor of the hall, several hundreds of meters below him, rose a pyramid with a road winding from the bottom to a flat top. Along the road at regular intervals he saw statues. Curious Eddie descended the final stairs to the floor of the cavern and the foot of the pyramid.
The first statue he found was an insect like creature, reaching to his middle. The material it was made of seemed to be some kind of glass and the colors used created, as far as Eddie could determine, a lifelike representation.
He tapped it, but it was really a statue. He did feel a tremor go through his fingers when he touched the statue and he decide to place his hand on it. Immediately images flooded his mind in which many of the creatures were visible. Intrigued he held his hand in place and soon a sequence of images displayed the history of the species, from dawn, to rise and glorious conquest through the galaxies and then the inevitable decline and extinction, millions of years condensed to a flood of images lasting less than a minute.
Eddie let go and resumed breathing. Impressive, he thought. He looked along the way and saw dozens of statues on the bottom tier alone. Some sort of gallery? The next statue was more humanoid, arms and legs, but also a set of tentacles that seemed to grow from the creature’s back. Again Eddie placed his hand on the statue and again an extensive history played in his mind, longer than the previous one. These creatures were grander and more majestic than their predecessor with a flair for drama and their artifacts were mysteries to their descendants, as Eddie found out when he walked to the next statue and placed his hand on it.
He walked from statue to statue and each time was shown a time span of hundreds of thousands to millions of years in which the recorded race rose, spread out and disappeared.
After the tenth he started to notice patterns and he also noticed that each next statue took him a step further in the history and evolution of the universe. In the macro images he saw, he began to recognize the galaxies and clusters like they would have been billions of years ago.
It’s a history book, Eddie thought. All the way to the top? He looked up and did a quick count. Hundreds of statues he would have to touch. I’ll climb up first, before I waste all my time here. He started to move and within half an hour he reached the top of the pyramid.
From the top a narrow, glass bridge crossed over to a narrow opening in the walls of the cavern. Eddie walked across and entered the next room, a smaller hall with dark alcoves in the walls. In the exact center, lit by beams of light from the ceiling, was a large, metal throne on which another statue sat, as lifelike as the statues on the pyramid. The statue had hardly any humanoid aspects and consisted mostly of tentacles, a too big head with large, bulbous eyes and a beak filled with sharp teeth.
Eddie walked past the alcoves that seemed to hold some kind of dark force field that yielded slightly but withstood all his attempts at pushing through.
“Stasis fields do not yield, Eddie Shenzen,” a voice behind him said.
Eddie’s heart was in his throat. Shocked he turned and looked straight in the eyes of the creature on the throne that had turned his head to him. “Wa… you’re alive?”
“Of course. I am a Historian. We are immortal.”
Eddie’s heart calmed down a little. “I thought there was no one alive on this planet.”
“Outside us Historians, that is correct.” The creature rose up in a fluid movement. It was clearly twice Eddie’s size, even without taking the dais of the throne into account. It descended the stairs in a regal, sliding motion without taking noticeable steps.
“You know my name, how?” Eddie asked. Curiosity quickly supplanted his initial fight-flight reaction.
“Your thoughts are an open book, human,” the creature said. “We were the first in the universe. From our warm seas we looked up at those islands of light in a sea of darkness and even then we knew we wanted to visit those islands.”
Eddie grinned. “I know the feeling. Humans are much alike.”
“All races on display in the gallery are like that,” the creature said. “My name is Hutha Ren, by the way, although it conveys only a minute particle of my being to you.”
“The gallery? The pyramid in the cavern?” Eddie pointed at the place he had just come from.”
“That is correct. All the races that were successful in the surrounding galaxies, from before, now and the future are represented in that gallery.”
“Of the future?” Eddie asked. “How can that be?”
“Historians can use the Axis of Creation to discern past as well as future. Your coming here was known all along, Eddie Shenzen.”
“The Axis of Creation?” Eddie asked. “What on Old Earth is that?”
“The silver pillar in the first room,” Hutha Ren said. “The artifact that was here before we crawled from our warm seas. Hidden in the deepest darkness between the lights.”
“Can I use it too?” Eddie asked. “There are some mysteries in our history that I would like to have clarified.”
“Of course you can. I will teach you. After all, we have all the time we need, for we are the immortal Historians.” Hutha Ren slithered across the floor in the direction of the glass bridge until he could look at the huge pyramid.
“Wait until my friends back on the ship hear of this,” Eddie said. “This could be the most important discovery in out history.”
Hutha Ren was silent.
“I don’t remember seeing a human between the statues in the gallery,” Eddie remarked.
“That is correct,” Hutha Ren said.
“But, we have colonized multiple galaxies, hundreds of star clusters. Humanity is a force to be reckoned with in the universe.” Eddie raised his hands, the question clear on his face.
Hutha Ren uncurled one of his tentacles and pointed at the alcoves. “Historians often spend time in deep sleep, light dreams for difficult time. There is a place for you, too, the twelfth, empty alcove to your right.”
Eddie blinked. “Why? What makes you think I’ll stay?”
“What else is there for you?” Hutha Ren asked.
“Family, friends, colleagues? I’ll admit our closest base is thousands of light years distance and it will take years to get there, but I call it home,” Eddie said.
“Not any more, Eddie Shenzen,” Hutha Ren said with sadness in his voice, “Historians are the last of their race. We only observe the other, successful races.”
Eddie started to realize Hutha Ren was trying to make something clear to him. “How do you mean, last of our race?”
“Like me, like the nearly dozen races before you that braved the deepest darkness between the islands of light and found the Axis of Creation, you are the last of your race. The Axis grants immortality, a view of past, present and future, but the price is loneliness, disappearance of your entire species.” Hutha Ren gestured with a few of his tentacles. “Imagine, in tens of thousands or millions of years, another race will wonder about the creatures who came before them and left so many artifacts and buildings behind, wondering why you disappeared so suddenly.”
Eddie felt a deep chill in the pit of his stomach. “You can’t just do that,” he said.
“Alas, it has already happened, like the Axis of Creation has foreseen.”
Eddie laughed nervously. “No, this must be some kind of bizarre joke. It’s not true! I must speak with ship.”
Hutha Ren was silent. He stared at Eddie with his big bulbous eyes.
Eddie ran back across the glass bridge, stumbled off the pyramid and climbed back up to the great entrance hall and his space suit. Putting on the helmet nearly felt like coming home and ship’s voice was music to him.
“Ship, status,” he commanded.
“All systems operate within parameters.”
Eddie sighed with relief.
“Although the cryobenches are empty, Eddie. You asked me to report matters of interest, this seems important.”
“What do you mean, empty?”
“Empty. Your colleagues disappeared over ninety minutes ago, as if they never existed. Not even any DNA traces remain.”
Eddie felt darkness rise inside him, tears rolled down his cheeks, he screamed at the universe and kicked and punched anything that was close by, but he could not even hurt himself. He lay at the top of the stairs, arms and legs stretched out, view of the black and red landscape the fluorescent bands in the sky like ghostly northern lights, alone with his thoughts.
In the end he got up and returned to the Historian, Hutha Ren.
“How long for the pain to diminish?” Eddie asked.
“In a million years no one will remember a thing about humanity,” Hutha Ren said. “Only the Historians. And your head will have rationalized sufficiently to alleviate the guilt. You will function again.”
“Then wake me up around that time,” Eddie said. He stood in the alcove and waited until the deep sleep carried him off.