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  • Writer's pictureJohn Richter

abyss (short story)

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Its gets stronger and stronger with each passing day. And all the while, he knows his long, arduous journey is finally reaching its denouement.

Tasked with finding the object of ultimate salvation for his dying race, Aldo is the lone survivor of an expedition spanning so many lifetimes and immeasurable distance, he’s simply lost track. With the passage of time, Aldo’s memory has waned some. He no longer remembers the specificity of the ultimate object he seeks, or what it looks like. What he is certain of, is that it’s close, and it’s making its presence known.

Aldo is all that remains of the twenty-person expedition charged with delivering the preservation of humanity. Some died of natural causes. There were those on the crew that thought the treasure they seek existed on one of the many other worlds they’d wasted time exploring - to no avail. They tried ever so hard to convince Aldo that this planet or that planet had the missing element they sought…they were wrong.

Aldo checks his ship’s inventory:

• Enough propellant for three jumps:

• Two exploratory jumps, one for the big jump back home

• Two relay beacons to help him return to where he’d just been.

• Food stocks will last him for one week

• The garden’s been long depressurized and destroyed (thank Wallers for that stunt)

• Water recycler is still running nominally

• Scrubbing and filtration systems are running at 92% saturation, with no remaining backup cartridges

Time is running out. He’ll have enough water to sustain himself, but he’ll either starve or asphyxiate before long. He’s fine with this reality - he knew the risks associated with this mission, as well as the risk everyone else runs at home until his successful return. Everyone’s laying their lives on the line. At times his crew seemed to forget the gravity of their charge, and even it’s purpose. They told him he’d gone too far - that he’d ventured too long, and they’re too late. Thankfully Aldo was quick to convince them that selfishness and defeatism would be the real death of the mission and everyone at home.

Aldo has been charting new star maps for over six years now – at least he estimates it to be six years. With every new jump, he’s ventured farther into previously uncharted zones of the universe. There were those that warned him against this - quite strongly, even - to stay within the confines of charted regions of the cosmos. Had Aldo trusted that foolish advice, though, he would never have been nearing the successful end of his long campaign. The signal presented itself to him, and for everyone’s sake, he needed to follow that lead - from the day it appeared, he knew this was the answer to all his long searching, and nothing or no one will keep him from achieving this goal.

Upon entering the observatory, Aldo brings up his updated star maps and uses them to help plot a course for his next jump. This signal that calls to him again and again is stronger than it’s ever been, making it difficult for him to pinpoint its location in a specific direction. Whatever this entity is, it’s not communicating to him verbally. It’s not a message that’s specifically decipherable, but it’s becoming louder in Aldo’s mind, and he realizes in order to get a better handle on its location, he must focus solely on the signal. He meditates for many hours in his observatory, trying to figure out where its presence is strongest. It’s so damn close - but where?

After a day or maybe more, Aldo identifies his target - in-between a galaxy cluster and a drifting supergiant lies a mysterious faint blip in the darkness of space. What this mass may be is unknown - a galaxy? a quasar? a rogue star? Through extensive focus, Aldo knows this point is not only his next stop - but where lies the treasure he and his kind most covet. The path ends there.

Back in his control room, Aldo deploys a relay beacon, enters in his coordinates, and ignites his antimatter engines with one of the last canisters of fuel, blasting him straight towards his goal. As the ship traverses through space at superluminal velocity, Aldo cannot help but notice his surroundings age around him. He knows that every moment that passes, decades and lifetimes pass him by, yet he couldn’t look a day over fifty, and in the best shape of his life. As an attempt to pass the time by, he ventures a guess at what his current age - how many millennia he has passed confounds his little contest.

‘How long have I been gone?’ he ponders. ‘How long could humanity have held out before my return? Were Wallers and Mayfield and Zhang correct all this time? Am I too late?’

Quickly Aldo decides to stop the game, realizing he’s simply suffering obvious exhaustion from conducting such a protracted, grueling mission. Fatigue seems to be influencing his conscious self - a dark, slippery slope that he’d be better to avoid unless he wants to end up like his unfortunate comrades. He was sent here on a mission - a mission whose end is now within real striking distance. He is not too late. And when he returns, with cargo in tow, the whole world will rise from the brink of calamity, and will show their gratitude hundredfold over to this man alone, who sacrificed all and suffered all to deliver their redemption.

Yet… ‘what if they aren’t grateful?’

With a soft but sudden jolt, the faster-than-light antimatter burn ceases, and Aldo’s ship arrives at his exact coordinates. Snapping back into a clear, focused mindset, Aldo rises from his pilot’s seat and approaches the large observation window to view a sight no living thing has ever experienced.

Before Aldo lies a scene truly devoid of logic or reason, much less anything physical. Nowhere he looks are there any stars, or galaxies - no points of light to be seen. Only a deep, silent, black emptiness. In the lands of the waking and living no one’s ever witnessed a true void in space. Aldo speculates whether he has somehow passed into a black hole and survived. He quickly returns to his console to check the connection with his last relay beacon - had he jumped into a black hole, that signal would’ve clearly been long-severed. Luckily the connection is active…though still leaves many questions about Aldo’s new environment. Has Aldo reached a point in space so far that not even light can reach him? Or has he reached the unreachable - the edge of the universe?

As Aldo tries to digest this new discovery, he cannot be blamed for thinking of how he’d be welcomed back home: the lone survivor of the most treacherous expedition in history to deliver humanity’s salvation returns successfully, venturing to the literal edge of the universe to find it. The repercussions of this deed would stretch eons – a triumph of the largest order would be merely a jumping-off point.

Aldo takes control of his ship and yaws forward nearly 90 degrees when his new reality takes another dramatic turn, at last discovering undoubtedly the source of this mysterious telepathic signal that’s consumed him for so long – a small, luminous, solid white planet. Confused, Aldo searches the area for the author of this planet’s pronounced radiance, but alas there was nothing for lightyears around but this strange entity, Aldo’s ship and (of course) Aldo himself. Accepting he has now ventured into the realm where comprehension surrenders, Aldo collects his focus and pilots the ship towards this bright shining world in an eternity of darkness.

As he brings his ship closer, small features of mostly featureless mountain ranges line up and down the terrestrial body. A small tinge of doubt gnaws at Aldo deep in his conscious: here he is, blasting forth to self-illuminating perplexity on the absolute brink of the universe, drawn in by a telepathic beckoning that no one could appropriately translate. There will be many people back home who won’t dare believe this. There will be some who claim every single word Aldo says is a damned fiction which would call into question even the object of their own rescue that he will deliver. Yet, his is simply a new version of reality that he’s discovered – it is an expedition, after all. Perhaps the naysayers will need to be convinced just like the naysayers who accompanied him on this journey.

Aldo begins to enter the atmosphere of this strange world, and is taken aback by the lack of resistance his ship faces as it descends to the surface, as well as the total absence of weather. His ship coasts through the black, empty skies, as he flies over seemingly endless white, featureless mountains. Aldo reckons this must be some ice world, with ice so pristine it must be mirroring light from a star so distant that Aldo cannot see it even if he had perfect vision. It’s also very clear that there is no day or night here – without the presence of a sun, all that exists is the white surface and the cold black void above.

The signal is all around and inside him now, making locating the precise origin especially demanding. After gliding over another set of featureless white pinnacles, a vast white plain reveals itself, and the mysterious telepathic entity sends a message so clear and unyielding that Aldo begins lowering his ship almost possessed. He deploys the landing gear as he lets the trance-like power of the entity’s message draw him closer. Then, more gentle than the most skilled pilot, Aldo’s ship softly touches the surface of this impossible environment.

Aldo approaches the main observation window, looking out on the blank, featureless white plain. He knows it is out there – the missing piece of the puzzle that will save both himself and all humanity from ruin, but there seems to be nothing but white, untouched, perfect terrain. ‘Where is it?’ There’s nothing out there, but there is something. And whatever that “something” may be, it’s brought him here, to the end of his journey. Aldo heads to the lower level of his ship to suit up for an EVA.

Upon opening the hatch, Aldo immediately takes a reading of the atmospheric content, but his detectors are immediately on the fritz and keep sending error messages – best to just assume the air is toxic. He steps onto the surface, expecting the crunch of snow or ice, or some kind of dust kick-up – anything except solid, hard terrain, not unlike smooth concrete flooring. Before he can give ample time to mentally digesting this experience, he finds himself immediately marching away from the ship, drawing farther into the white expanse, towards his long-sought bounty.

The march goes on. And on. And on. And even further. Aldo must be marching for hours upon several hours towards this point of contact, constantly pulling him forward. He’s tired, weary, and feeling a bit delirious, but still he marches on. He turns occasionally behind him to make sure he’s still within view of the slowly diminishing shape of his ship on the horizon as well as to ensure himself that he’s not sleepwalking.

Without notice the ground seems to drop off under his feet, and instantly Aldo finds himself tumbling down the steep wall of a crater. As his body doubles over itself, Aldo panics at seeing a large crack spider across his helmet visor, as well as hearing a large crash on his life support pack. When he finally rolls to a stop, he quickly tries to cover up his visor crack with his gloves – a failing attempt to plug the small stream of oxygen escaping through his helmet…though he realizes this is futile. Breathing the planet’s sweet-tasting air, he is astonished to find no trace of asphyxiation – if anything it’s crystal clean air that is better than the recycled smog he’d been living with on his ship. Quickly Aldo removes his destroyed helmet, closes his eyes and takes in two deep full breaths of the light, almost sugary-tasting air.

As Aldo exhales he opens his eyes, and that’s when he sees it: a small, black, featureless oblong orb sits on its side on the bottom of the white crater. Resembling an ostrich egg, it appears larger than it really is, contrasted against the blank white environment.

Aldo immediately recognizes the object in front of him. This is what had contacted him – what sent him beyond uncharted space lightyears ago. This is what he’d fought so hard to achieve; what he’s been sent here for. He crawls forward and examines the egg-like mass. Upon closer inspection, there seems to be no texture or markings whatsoever. Realizing the safety of his new surroundings, Aldo removes his gloves and touches the orb – completely smooth, no friction at all. He picks up this object, shocked at how light it is in his palms.

As he examines it, thoughts flood Aldo’s brain. This is the tool of humanity’s salvation. There is no other explanation for it. It knew to contact him; it reached out to him. It knew Aldo’s mission, and the gravity of the situation back home, and presented itself to Aldo to fulfill his purpose. This item is the ultimate truth he’s been seeking. ‘So many tried to sway me from reaching this point,’ he thought, ‘from answering its call. The missing piece was trying to be found but no one else was smart enough to listen. But I listened. That’s why it chose me. That’s why it called out to me. This was meant for me!’ …he showed them, the fools!

Aldo looks out on the starless black sky, then down at his new treasure as his perception of reality seems to become a bit clearer. Maybe - just maybe - he’s been incorrect in his evaluation of where he is. For this entity to have drawn him in all this time, all the way to this point…perhaps he’s not reached the edge of the universe, but it’s very center. And this – this dark egg-shaped entity, could be the very nucleus of all creation, with this weary and worn traveler as its protector. Aldo tries to imagine the ramifications of this new-found truth. He holds in his hands the heart of the universe, that’s chosen him as its champion. Contemplating his new-found endowment, he thinks of his home world, his people existing in danger. By harnessing the power of the universe, he could liberate his people, and liberate all the other peoples on all the other worlds from whatever maladies they suffer. He will deliver salvation to all – and all those who join in the spoils of his work will show eternal gratitude. A triumph on multiple worlds shall be a good start…

Yet… ‘what if they aren’t grateful?’

What if he utilizes his new limitless influence to save them from the brink of annihilation yet they do not display the appreciation he deserves? What if they fail to understand the hardships he’s endured to attain the instrument of their recovery; the lengths he’s gone to in order for them to enjoy the plunder? Would these meek, selfish, unruly peasants even deserve this element of their salvation? Would they even believe him?

Aldo understands its significance…Aldo understands this moment more than anyone ever could. More than the naysayers back home, more than the naysayers on his crew that fought to keep him from coming here. More than the ungrateful freeloaders who will exploit his prize and spit on him just like they’d done back home. He understands this deeper than anyone. Aldo gave a solemn vow when he agreed to this mission, but now the mission has transcended far beyond even the imagination of its framers. This device – this new treasure the universe has bestowed upon him – it was meant only for him.

Aldo sits and mediates, at the center of all that exists, cradling the center of the universe, that only he and he alone deserves.

A new fear begins to grow deep in his heart, and he stares at the black egg. He reckons at some point, thieves may arrive and try to take his treasure away from him. Someone could find the beacons he left all throughout the cosmos, leading straight to him and his reward. Aldo lets out a shriek of anguish into the sterile white nothingness of this ghastly world as he realizes his ultimate folly. How could he be so foolish, here at the this most glorious moment? His impatience and suspicion begins to take hold, and he stares back into the black nothingness of his treasure. His mind races.

‘This object could be dangerous in the wrong hands,’ he thinks to himself. ‘It’s value is beyond anyone else’s imagination, yet everyone who knows of its existence will stop at nothing to attain it. If I bring it home, it will be wasted on a petulant, unbefitting race who likely misuse it, and will never honor the hero who delivered the instrument of redemption. Yet if I leave it here, someone else will come here and snatch it away from their own, to all of our peril!’

‘I’ve suffered too long to get to this point and have all my efforts be snuffed out, or to play second-fiddle. This is my prize and mine alone. Only I can treat it with the respect it deserves. I earned it – it’s mine!’

‘But then again…what if it can deceive, like all the others?’ Aldo wonders to himself. What if, even now as its proper owner holds and protects it, the entity is already sending out signals to another, who is less-worthy of the responsibility? Anyone else out there who may find this object will never fully recognize its value, not like he does. Because of this, he knows that it cannot, must not, and will not find itself into anyone else’s hands. Though, he cannot merely stay here for eternity on this barren white glowing world, beautiful as it is.

The true reality of Aldo’s situation begins to sink in; a hard truth that pains Aldo more than any hurt he could endure if he lived ten thousand more lifetimes. He now knows why this entity has brought him here all this way, to where it all began.

For its own safety, he must destroy it.

Aldo cries out into the white abyss, already mourning his actions before he has made them. He hates that he must do this – to travel so long and far, to put up with so much hardship for this, but he knows now this is the only path left for him. This is the moment his whole life has led to.

Slowly, Aldo rises to his feet and raises the object over his head, appreciating this final moment before termination. Through tears he stares into the smooth black treasure he so vehemently coveted, and received a final telepathic communique. Again – a message that no one could ever fully decipher or translate, other than a subliminal motion of approval and encouragement. Aldo knows this is what he needs to do – it wants this.

With this final blessing, Aldo takes a deep breath and crashes the object down onto the ground with all his strength, immediately destroying his long-sought treasure. And for a flash of an instant before the destruction of the universe, Aldo has his final realization of his actions and what he’d done, and how frighteningly stupid he had been.

And then…POOF!

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