First in! I've been working on this for a while, so the competition is just serendipity
Hope you all enjoy it, and all comments and chunks of
juicy criticism are gratefully received!
The final rays of the glorious sunset struck the faceted dome that protected the Plateau Garden, shimmering into a fiery cascade that swept across
For a few moments, the chaotic swirl of conversation halted, and a simple silence reigned. Couples drew each other closer, single men and women
gripped their glasses tighter or drained them in a single, reckless gulp. Every eye followed the flaming curtain as it flowed across the crystal
dome. A perfect, beautiful moment.
The last light disappeared, the sun drowned in the distant ocean, the sky a deep, velvet blue. Immediately the conversation started again, the
spell broken, chatter and laughter and jollity desperately employed to protect the people from the memory of beauty. Every mind sought distraction,
sought internal silence through external stimulation.
By the entrance to the room, Adam ducked behind a large potted fern-like plant, concealing himself as a drunken group made their way into the
lounge. He watched them enter the party, their voices too loud, their expressions too joyous, then slipped out from his hiding place, heading toward
the door. A gruff voice called out his name. Reluctantly, he turned.
“Where are you slipping off to, boy?” asked the fat, cheerful man holding a wine glass in each hand. Adam smiled weakly, wishing he had been a
“Just going to get some air, Victor. I’ll be back for…” he let the sentence hang in the air, and the older man nodded.
“Jessica was looking for you,” he said with a leer.
“I know,” Adam answered simply. “I just -”
“Wanted to be alone,” interrupted Victor. “I understand. Let me say one thing to you, young man.” He lumbered closer to Adam. “Do not leave my
daughter alone tonight. You owe her more than that.”
“Don’t leave her alone. Just…” The older man tailed off. “Please,” he said, then turned and disappeared back into the party before Adam could
respond. Adam was still for a moment, then nodded slowly and left the party.
Shellard Observatory: highest folly of the three-mile high confection named Plateau Garden; relic of a long-dead man, tool of a long-dead science,
memory of long-dead dreams. It was an empty crystalline hemisphere, a hundred metres in diameter, the apex of the ceiling dominated by the enormous
holographic reflector through which Marcus Gaston Shellard had long ago studied the barren glory of interstellar space. From this vantage point, the
Milky Way was a sparkling streak across the sky, surrounded by deep inky blackness, broken only by misty patches of luminosity that marked distant
Adam slipped into a comfortable chair that had been part of the visitor’s gallery. “I want to see Torla,” he said quietly, trusting the nanite
relays that infested every part of the observatory to relay his words to the relevant computer subsystem. Immediately, the holographic reflector
glittered in the darkness and a blue and white crescent appeared in the centre of the room. Adam reached into his tunic pocket and brought forth a
slim cylinder of white ceramic. He held the cylinder gently, cradling it in long fingers.
This is, or will be, the last file in this collection. I thought I should record it myself… but now I don’t know what to say.
The cylinder warmed in his hands, signalling it’s activation. Adam gazed at the image of Torla, the third planet in this system, suddenly wishing
he had brought some champagne from the party.
The other files have been composed by automated routines. As you’ll hopefully appreciate, it was too much for one person to compile. Everything
is too much for one person to achieve… one fact among many that I had failed to realise until now. Until it’s much, so terribly much, too late.
This collection, this encyclopaedia, was supposed to be a lasting tribute to the greatness of my kind, a testament to all we achieved and all we
were. I don’t know what you’ve found of ours, what relics we have left behind. Our cities may have fallen – but not all of them, I imagine. They
say there are two hundred and fifty thousand planets and settlements in our Stellar League. I wonder how many one person could visit in their
lifetime. Two, even three different planetary systems? A tiny fraction, anyway. Or have you found it, I wonder? How did you get here? Crawling
across the skein near the speed of light? Or did you find a way?
It was the only thing that defeated us – although it’s impossible, isn’t it? It must be, we decided it is. You can’t move a mass faster than the
speed of light. We can play with tachyons of course, we can send their marvellous geometry skimming across spacetime like a pebble across a still
Do you skim stones across ponds?
He paused, shaking his head slightly.
I had so much I wanted to say, in these few remaining moments. Torla will fall in a minute or two, and we’ll be shortly after. Strange how my
noble aspect seems to have abandoned me. I wanted to tell you of our achievements, of our glories and our triumphs. Instead, all I can think of are
our follies; our mistakes and our sickening, tragic pride.
I assume you’ll find us first, for no other reason than that is way it should be. You’ll cross the sea of nothingness that separates our galaxy
from your own, and you’ll stumble across this planet, this tiny, delicate world. You’ll find our technology, our cities long fallen and empty, and
you’ll find these words. That is how it should be. The other files will have shown you so much about us – you know our language now, and understand
our minds at least as well as we do. And perhaps, with growing empathy or impatience or disdain, you’ll access this final file. You’ll hear my
Our story began on Earth, a planet on the opposite side of the galaxy from this one. Unremarkable, I suppose, nothing special about it, except that
it was home. How terrifying to think that for a million years, two thirds of humanity’s long existence, one fragile world supported us all. One
accident, one catastrophe and we would have fallen. I wonder if you remember a similar time in your own history…
We spread out, we humans. We enjoy space, we are happiest living on the thin line between the “known” and “unknown” universe. We order our nanites
to alter our worlds, to change the geography of our planets, just so we can have something new to explore. How strange that seems to me now, and how
strange that it never felt strange before. But then, I am a product of my society, as we all are.
So we left the cradle of our youth, and travelled from star to star, vast ships carrying those brave enough to face a new world. We conquered, we
adapted, we colonised, we moved on. Our nanites preceded us, altering chemistry and geography, making our worlds habitable so we should never face
hardship. We multiplied, hungrily taking each new land, until there were no more. We were everywhere.
Suddenly, the holographic image of Torla flickered. Adam glanced at the chronometer readout that hovered near the base of the hologram. He
Torla has gone. Even now, their AIs are transmitting all they observed. It will be included in this archive, along with the others. Hergard
Station, our orbital station, will be next, in a few short minutes, and then us.
“Show me Hergard,” Adam said aloud, and the hologram changed to show a large spherical station, hanging inert in the inky blackness. The crew of
the station had all but abandoned it, seeking terrestrial diversions, too fragile inside their delicate bubble of life.
As our beginning began on Earth, so our end began there too. It was… long ago. Earth’s AIs sent emergency tachyon transmissions to all nearby
worlds, first in the Sol system and then the adjacent stars. Earth’s population had vanished, they said. Disappeared. Everything else remained
intact, the animals and insects and technology. The artefacts that people had carried – clothing, implants, even the nanites themselves, were found
in crumpled piles where they had fallen.
A tragedy. A catastrophe. And then they realised, those poor witnesses separated by light years, that they had the same report coming from the
colonies in Earth orbit, and Lune and Mars and Venus… places no-one on this world has never seen, yet all know of. Everyone, all humans, were
vanishing without warning. The cancer spread until there was no-one left. The Sol system, cradle of humanity, was empty of human life.
It took time, but the AIs in neighbouring system discovered what had happened, if not the reason behind it. There was a time difference between the
reports of disappearances, a time difference that could be accounted for by a wave travelling from Earth at the speed of light. The greatest minds of
the neighbouring worlds struggled with it for years.
Until the closest planetary system was suddenly wiped clean. Then the next system, then the next. Years separated each incident, but it didn’t
take long to realise that the Wave, this terrible scourge, had not halted at the perimeter of the Solar system. It was still moving, showing no sign
of stopping, in every direction at the speed of light. The mathematics were simple: in less than one hundred thousand years, the wave would have
consumed every world in the Human Alliance. Some even went a step further, calculating the time of the fall of the last world. This, they said, was
our destiny, if nothing were done.
Adam felt a presence at his shoulder, and turned to see Jessica standing behind him.
The planet was this one, and the time was now.
“I knew you’d be here,” Jessica said, slipping into the chair next to him.
“You were at the party,” Adam replied.
“I couldn’t take it. The Governor made everyone dance when Torla… went. Even my father joined in. They’re so desperate.”
She turned her attention to the hologram, watching the silvery sphere.
At the speed of light, the wave sped in all directions, deleting humanity as if it had never existed. We had no way of knowing what had happened
other than the AI reports – AIs which were rapidly becoming more and more unstable. Unable to fulfil their prime mandate – to serve humanity – they
were being driven slowly insane.
The tragedy of it! I almost think that they had the worse time of it. Our beautiful, noble AIs, falling to unavoidable madness, just beyond our
While the wave spread at the speed of light, the news spread at the speed of a tachyon burst transmission. In a scant few centuries, every world in
our alliance knew of the problem, and of the dark fate that awaited them. Our greatest minds struggled with the problem. Was it a disease, an alien
attack? Was it a corrupt nanite strain that consumed human tissue? Some even argued that it was a simple progression, the evolution of humanity from
this physical state to a higher plane… theories, theories, theories.
We’ve discussed it. We’ve had centuries, after all. At first, we tried to find a way to stop it, to fight it, to protect ourselves.
“What did my father say to you?” asked Jessica quietly.
“He asked me – he told me – not to leave you alone tonight.”
“But you came here without me?”
“I thought it would be better if you didn’t… if you could forget.”
“How could I forget?” she asked, tears streaking her cheeks.
It took a long time to understand that there was nothing we could do. Human beings have trouble thinking of millennia as “not enough time”. And
so the Wave swept across the galaxy, extinguishing all human life as it passed, and the curse, the very worst fact, was that we were witness to it.
Here, on the rim of the galaxy, we could watch every one of our siblings die, our poor, maddened AIs broadcasting the news again and again, scattering
our sorrow amidst the stars.
I cannot know if things could have been different. We were so safe, so perfectly isolated from anything that could injure us. Without that
seclusion, could we have fought back? Could we have found a way to defeat the Wave, had our fires of invention still burned bright?
But we are old. We are tired. We are comfortable. We must receive what comes to us, death or salvation, destruction or evolution, and we must
accept it. We have no fight left within us. It has been such a terribly long time.
“Can I stay with you?” whispered Jessica, touching his arm. “I don’t want to be alone.” Adam didn’t answer, just took her other hand in his, and
gazed out across the cavernous room at the hologram of Hergard Station.
Alone. Why did we have to be alone? It would have changed everything, if only there had been another mind out there, another being, struggling
and falling and living and dying. Why couldn’t we have found you? Our two species would have learned so much from each other, I’m sure of it. We
would have shown you Earth.
It was beautiful. You would have liked it, I’m sure. It was…
The signal from the relay station flickered and died. The room was plunged into darkness, illuminated only by the faint glow from the chrono.
We learned all there was to learn, discovered all that could be discovered. But we didn’t find an answer. We never discovered the ‘why’, and
finally we stopped asking. And now it’s too late.
Never stop. This is all the advice that I – that any of us – can offer you. Never stop.
The chrono display flickered, leaving a single, rapidly decreasing digit.
I don’t want to go.
Jessica’s hand tightened on his arm.
Please, I’m not ready -
Far above, where the Milky Way glittered in the inky darkness, the stars went out.