The Lamp

In the year 7213 P.E. Commander Styx Assad was in stasis along with her sparse crew of two hurtling toward the edge of the universe at speeds only a quantum chronotron drive were capable of. Impossible speeds.

This little human crew, this small group of travellers representing the only sentient spaces in the entirety of existence, a species that left it’s planet of origin more than 7,000 years ago, left its Solar System 4,000 years ago and never looked back.

These were the ambassadors of isolation sent to investigate that which should not be.

450 years earlier the science team at an astronomical outpost at the edge of Andromeda flipped the switch on the largest array of multi-spectrum scanning assemblies ever developed. The Enhanced Astronomical Relay, known colloquially as The Ear, started listening.

Spanning an entire 12 planet solar system The Ear was designed for one primary purpose – listen through the cosmic background radiation for signs of intelligent life outside of our own universe. It was, in essence, the greatest monument of human denial, to have ever existed. It took 345 years to build and nearly crushed the Trans-Galactic Human Empire beneath almost insurmountable debt – but it had to be built.

2600 years earlier it had been declared beyond the shadow of a doubt that the known (and likely unknown) universe contained only one intelligent species…and we were it.

Ridiculous. Preposterous. Impossible.

But facts were facts and millennia of research and exploration had led to the same conclusion – we were alone. Completely, utterly, absolutely on our own.

It stood against the most complex and thorough mathematical models but there it was nonetheless.

It was at this point in history that some philosophers theorized the madness began. Humanity became the crazy grey-haired obsessed old man lost on a desert island finally aware that he would live his entire life alone and die incapable of passing any of himself along. It was the sudden awareness that one day it would be as if we never existed.

So rather than accept the premise and move along as well as could be expected the species entered an inflexible state of denial.

The Ear was the latest in a long line of attempts to disprove the proven but what a breathtaking attempt it was. If a blade of grass stirred in a small breeze on the far side of Old Earth The Ear could not only hear it, it could distinguish what it was and tell you. As you can imagine this took a substantial amount of computing power; In fact two of the 12 planets in the Andromeda Secondus system were great re-engineered bio-mechanical computing devices powered by the system’s great blue star.

This was, as is said, serious business.

So when The Ear was switched on (an arduous process that took 34 years) an entire species held its breath and waited.

Amazingly the signal seven months later not from outside our own universe but from within. Like a great cruel joke The Ear caught the unexpected sound of regularly spaced clicks in the rather unremarkable crude range of hertz…an actual audible sound. Nothing remarkable or quantum…just a long, unending series of perfectly spaced, infuriating clicks that The Ear confirmed was neither naturally occurring nor human made but certainly intentional.

We knew this because it was far away. Really far away. It wasn’t in another universe but it may as well have been. It was occurring at the literal edge of the known universe in a space that was supposed to be empty…pure vacuum.

Instead of a vacuum there was evidence of…something, something where there should be nothing.

Excitement rapidly gave way to gnawing doubt. It was clear that something unnatural was out there, scientific proof of something sentient and inhuman. Still, science had proven to be unreliable in maddening and unpredictable ways. After all it had proven that we were alone despite the models – now it was telling us we weren’t.

Of course we had to know, so we did what we always do when we expect there is something in the distance – we built a ship and decided to go find it.

This wasn’t any ship however, this ship had to travel fast, impossibly fast, much faster than the current standard of faster-than-light craft that had been the norm for centuries. Sure they could travel far but this ship was to go literally billions of light years. By current speeds the fastest ship would take more than a million years to go where they needed to go.

So the minds behind The Ear one-upped themselves and developed the TUS Timeripper. Not a subtle name but the ship was far from subtle. The Trans-Universe Ship Timeripper took five generations to develop and was based on quantum chronotron drive theory that literally tore a hole in the fabric of space-time and thrust the ship into a netherverse that allowed it to choose its exit.

Still with such a distance to travel it would take more than 132 years to reach its destination. The ship had to make multiple rips and folds a little like a needle travelling through multiple folds of cloth that had been pinched together.

There was no fear that the ship would one day be passed by a faster ship developed later with better technology because Timeripper travelled at the theoretical limit. Nothing could travel faster. Nothing ever would.

132 years there and 132 years back was as quick as humanity would get its answer risking the very possibility that nothing would be there because what The Ear heard was ancient. Age of the universe ancient. It could be long gone by now. Many expected it would be long gone, torn to sub-atomic shreds by the universe creating explosion that occurred nanoseconds before the sound itself…yet past the cosmic background radiation it still clicked away.

The crew were chosen for two purposes – to observe and report. They were not necessary. The ship was completely self-sufficient with all of the instrumentation necessary to analyze the source of the sound infinitely better than humans. It could travel there and back on its programming alone but this was unacceptable. This was a momentous opportunity in human history – perhaps the most significant moment since humans evolved…we had to be there.

Cdr. Assad was a natural choice. Hero of the Betelgeuse campaign at a mere 28 years old Assad had become everything humanity admired of itself, dispassionate and methodical she would ensure that once out of stasis the crew would accomplish its mission as quickly as possible and re-enter stasis for the return trip.

The crew were the real observers however – The esteemed doctors Antwin Rodriguez and Raj Bhatnagar were the ones expected to both understand the phenomenon and, if necessary, act as ambassadors…Assad was merely the delivery girl, albeit an impressive and highly decorated one, still just a delivery girl…and she was fine with this.

Rodriguez was an astro-anthropologist. He knew more than anyone about what it meant to be human and sentient…more than anyone had ever known.

Bhatnagar was a philosopher. Not really a philosopher but THE philosopher. He was the philosopher who had synthesized the philosophy of the first 10,000 years of human history into the grand whole…a Grand Unifying Theory of Philosophy. He had to be there. He had agreed.

Assad awoke first as was the plan. The ship’s interior was aglow in a soft yellow-white light when the stasis chamber opened. If truth be told Assad had been waking up for about 18 months as the ship’s systems slowly acclimatized her body to active health again. After all 132 years in stasis tends to cause some atrophy even with the best science available.

The ship had no windows. There was no need because there was nothing here in this part of the universe. A window would reveal only blackness and was, from an engineers’ perspective, unnecessary. The ship’s systems were all that were required to “see” what was going on and zero in on the source of the mysterious sound.

The big surprise was the discovery that the sound was still there, like an undying metronome it continued to mechanically click away at precisely exact intervals. Like a perfect watch.

As Rodriguez and Bhatnagar came around and eventually wandered wide-eyed and expectant to the small bridge an even bigger surprise awaited. The sound was coming from the lightless rocky dead surface of a small orphan exoplanet. A lifeless black rock of mostly carbon about half the size of New Earth’s smallest moon Nyad with no atmosphere.

Sensors indicated a perfect sphere. Another impossible moment but there was no doubt. A perfect carbon sphere at the beginning of space…an enigma at the end of time. None of it made sense. Bhatnagar was nervous. He muttered about the readings to himself. Rodriguez was the first to note the source of the signal. The only imperfection on an otherwise maddeningly perfect isolated stone ball.

“The signal is emanating from some sort of antenna or protuberance on the surface at the southern pole.” He spoke in a nervous way with an accented voice filled with excitement. “This was put here. This is intentional.”

“None of this makes sense,” Bhatnagar spoke with an edge to his voice that Assad studiously noted and tucked away. “Nothing should be here.”

“Why would you have come if you expected nothing,” Rodriguez asked puzzled by the emotional certainty. “Why sacrifice everything you knew for a trip that would take you 264 years from your friends and loved ones?”

“How could I not come?” Bhatnagar retorted. “Really what kind of a question is that. My coming does not mean I expected intelligence. I expected a small pulsar or the like. A new natural phenomenon. Not evidence of sentience. Not here. Not anywhere. That is not possible.”

“Enough.”

It was one simple word but it stopped the conversation cold.

“We have very simple orders,” Assad said, her voice cold and mechanical. Pragmatic. “The ship already gathered enough information hours before we were even awake. Our task is simple – witness the phenomenon, return to the ship and remain out of stasis just long enough to record initial thoughts and observations. The into stasis for the return. Nothing more.”

“But if there is life…” started Rodriguez.

“There isn’t,” Assad cut him off as Bhatnagar shook his head. “You know the ship would have detected it. Suit up. In fifteen minutes I open a portal to the planet’s surface adjacent to the signal’s source. We go through, witness, and return. Understood?”

Silence was assumed to be assent and the preparations began.

Assad was ready in seven minutes. She was not nervous, she was not anxious, she was nothing. Assad just was. She understood Bhatnagar’s response to Rodriguez’s question about coming. It was a stupid question. One did not turn down such an opportunity. One would lay down their life for the immortality embedded in such an opportunity.

Rodriguez was ready in 17 minutes while Bhatnagar was ready in 20. Assad simply waited. When they were assembled Assad opened the portal into blackness. Blackness punctuated by a single, odd flickering orange glow.

They walked through tentatively, Assad first followed by Bhatnagar and Rodriguez.

The portal exited exactly 10 metres in front of the source.

“What is it?” Bhatnagar asked.

Assad remained silent and simply stared in wonder.

Rodriguez answered.

“I have seen this before but I don’t understand.”

“What is it?!?” Bhatnagar was more urgent, his voice cracking.

Assad edged closer to what appeared to be a three metre high black post jutting from an impossibly smooth surface. At the top of the post was a clear octagonal container ribbed in black. Within the container was a bright orange flame flickering as if some unseen wind moved it. Assad’s scanner read that the post was made of iron while the container of some form of glass with lead in it. The flame was generated by a petroleum gas. The scanner simply presented the facts. It also made it clear that the post ended at the surface. There was not sub-surface structure. No lines feeding it. There was nothing for as far as the ship’s sensors could read.

“I have seen images of this from Old Earth’s past,” said Rodriguez. He sounded like he was speaking out of a dream. 10,000 years ago at the dawn of scientific sentience these were constructed to light thoroughfares. They called it a…a lamp.”

Assad was fixated on the flame. She never saw Bhatnagar remove Rodriguez’s helmet in one swift motion from behind. But she heard the system alarm in her comm as Rodriguez collapsed and died. She spun already in a defensive posture ready for Bhatnagar to attack…not ready however for the tears as Bhatnagar saw there was no chance to do the same to Assad.

“You cannot go back,” he shouted at Assad. “You must not return with this madness – it would destroy everything…everyone.”

“Raj, stop this. Even if we were all to die here the ship would return without us,” Assad tried to calm Bhatnagar with the logic of the situation. “We need to enter stasis and return home.”

“I cannot,” Bhatnagar sounded tired now, resigned. “I will not play a role in the destruction of my own species.”

With that he knelt, reached his hands up slowly and undid his helmet while Assad watched in stunned shock. Within seconds Bhatnagar had succumbed to the vacuum of space and was dead leave Assad alone at the edge of all things.

In moments of crisis something rigid and official took over in Assad. She knew her duty in this moment and all that was left was to perform it. Moving the bodies back onto the ship was relatively easy in the low grav environment of this small black marble. With no ceremony she had stowed them each in their own stasis chambers to be preserved for the long trip home but before heading to her own as she knew she should Assad stepped back through the portal which was still open.

There it was…the lamp. Assad knew what a lamp was from the mythology and ancient folklore of Old Earth and she hadn’t needed Rodriguez’s detached and somewhat scholarly description for help.

Here it was…somehow responsible for two-thirds of the crew’s death. This inanimate metal post topped with a harmless flickering flame made no sense but this was not supposed to bother Assad…they were mere emissaries; witnesses bound to testify on behalf of humanity if necessary but nothing more.

Assad turned her back on the post and on her troubled thoughts and headed toward the portal. There was only duty and nothing more…return to New Earth, report the events which had already been flawlessly recorded by the ship, and take on the next responsibility…nothing more.

So that is what she did. She entered the ship, closed the portal and returned to her stasis chamber. All that was to be done was to close her hatch and settle in. The ship would take over once she swiped the indicator over her head and that would be that.

Assad’s left index finger moved in a near-fluid motion from left to right…and as she began to slip into S.A. she noted that briefest of hesitations. She wondered as the fog closed in what it was she was bringing back to New Earth. With consciousness slipping away she heard the warning screaming in the back of her mind in Bhatnagar’s dead voice.

Then there was nothing.

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