The End Of All Things

How To Read This Story

In the year 4492 (JAD 8779.350), a young woman named Acacia Sokian received an inheritance from her great grandfather, Captain Nordlund Sokian, which had been held in trust for her until her one-hundred-and-first birthday. The inheritance included various personal artifacts in the form of digital documents and accounts of his historic expedition to the edge of the universe. These artifacts are presented in the order Captain Sokian intended, beginning with the last of seven audiovisual logs, transmitted via quantum string beacons. The rest of these logs are presented in descending order, from last to first. These are interspersed with historical documents, themselves presented in chronological order, from first to last. These historical documents (presented in PDF format) provide context for the topics discussed in the logs. DO NOT skip them. Text presented in italics is the narration of Acacia’s reaction to each artifact. The Appendix at the end provides a timeline for further context. To calculate the dates indicated, subtract 4304 from the JAD number given.

THE BEGINNING

Acacai had not seen her great grandfather Nordlund since he left, on her fifth birthday, when he gave her a model of his Neutron Ship, Reacher 5. It was the fifth generation of ships using Neutronautical technologies derived from the fabled Ephesian Engine which had been discovered at Earth’s core over five hundred years earlier. With its quantum tethering technology, the vessel was able to skip through space like a stone skipping on water. When Acacia was born, the previous Reacher vessels had already exhaustively mapped all galactic filaments (strands, sheets and superclusters of galactic groups) within lifetime range of explorers. But still, non-humanoid sentient life had never been discovered.

As a child, Acacia never could have understood her great grandfather’s passion to disprove the Diaspora Hypothesis. But as she approached her one-hundred-and-first birthday, the loneliness of an empty universe began to set in, and she started to wonder what his discoveries meant in light of the exhaustive exploration of our universe in the intervening eons since space travel began over two thousand years ago. If there is no life but Earth-born life, then how are we, as the sole sentient inhabitants of the cosmos, to respond to our apparently infinite significance? If there are no others to be discovered, then what mystery is left to give meaning to our existence?

These are some of the documents she inherited. They include news blasts, certificates, and ship’s log entries, which had not previously been released on the Multi-Galactic Nets. Of particular interest are the logs, recorded by Captain Sokian himself, which were received from transmission beacons, designed to relay navigational data and new discoveries back to deep space outpost Rapa Nui, via quantum string signals. Captain Nordlund and his crew had launched a total of seven beacons during their voyage to the end of all things. Beacon 04 was missing from the original archives. Many people have speculated about the fate of Beacon 04. Even more have theorized about the fate of Reacher 5. Both the fate of the beacon and the fate of the vessel are likely to be uncommon.

This cache of documents begins with the seventh and final quantum string signal, relayed from Beacon 07.

INCOMING QUANTUM STRING SIGNAL _ _ _

REACHER 5: BEACON 07

JAD: [UNKNOWN]

LOG CONDITION: [FRAGMENTED]

EXPLANATION: Due to inconsistent super-string paths along Beacon 07’s return route, the Artificial Intelligence Cortex (AIC) judged the loss of 10-20% data to be acceptable if survival of Beacon 07 could be ensured to within adequate signal range of Rapa Nui. This resulted in a greater magnitude of quantum torque than expected, causing audiovisual data to be lost or corrupted. This also resulted in the corruption of the Data Indexing Matrix, so that the percentage of data loss cannot be determined. Audio was converted to text.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): UNKNOWN

This was the first log entry Acacia came upon when she opened grandpa Nord’s cache. Before she even read it, she had a feeling it had been his last entry before he died. Reading the explanation of the message’s fragmentation, she realized the AV had been compressed to audio only, and then the audio had been converted further to text only. The beacon must have had difficulty finding its way back from such an unimaginable distance. Not only that, since the Data Indexing Matrix was corrupted, Acacia couldn’t even know how much information had been lost. Since the news had reported on Beacon 07 almost five years earlier, no additional beacons had been recovered. Acacia disabled the auto-reader and tried to remember grandpa Nord’s voice as she read the plain text. The blank spaces represent corrupted portions of the document.

“My name is Nordlund Emmanuel Sokian. This will likely be my last entry. The tethering system has become unreliable in this quantum flux. Most of our systems are behaving erratically. We are nearing the edge. Neutron negatives are accelerating beyond ______ ___ _ _ _ _ _____ _ _____ I think we are still moving in the right direction, but our navigation system___ _ _ ___ _____________ _ _ _ ______ _ __ __ ______ _ _ not be sure of the viability of this beacon. I know it will ne____ _ __ ____ _ _ _ _ _____ _ __. I only hope its data can be received and deciphered, that is, if the shifting doesn’t corrupt the signal. As a precaution I am reprogramming the AIC to prioritize structural survival as long ___ _ _ _ _ _________ ___ _ __________ last bit of power reserves to signal____ ____ _ _ _ _ _____. This may allow the beacon to force its way close enough in order to send its message to deep space outpost Rapa Nui along the edge of the Pacificana gulf.

Ha ha ha! Although with these shifts being so unpredictable, it may end up skipping to the other side of the universe and landing over at Tristan Da Cunha at the bottom of Atlantica! Oh…

Acacia imagined her grandfather sighing deeply as he slipped into philosophical musings…

Sliding along these frays and fragments of space can make you feel like a trapeze performer, constantly leaping from one bar to another. They have the most amazing aerobatics performers on Kepler_____ _ _ _ __________without even__ _ ___________ _ ____ _But I won’t lie, it wears on the ___ _ _ _ none of us have been sleeping well. _ ____ _ __ __ _ _ not like navigating an asteroid field. Instead of avoiding chunks of rock or ice_ _ _ ____ invisible chasms of the unknown. And the dreams! Strangest dreams_____ _ _ ___ like the Wizard of Oz. Sorry if I seem a little melodramatic. Still I can’t help ____ _ _ feel___ _ every__ _ _ ___ out the observation panels, feeling _ _ ____.

Black emptiness behind. Black nothingness ahead. The blackness behind is everything that is or ever was or ever will be. The blackness ahead, well, that’s something else altogether. It’s the end of all those things. I overheard Lieutenant Ander actually praying “God help us.” But I can’t help thinking, “How can God help us when we are beyond the very rim of his creation?” I feel as if we are the___ _ _ _ _________ _ ____ __ ______ Two thousand years ago___ _ _set foot on the moon _ _ _ never would have believed we could _ _ _. Nor would they have believed what we’ve found___ _ _ __ _ _ ___________ As I sit here in my Last Captain’s Chair, trying one last time to____ _ _ ___my last message, to the last of our_ _ ______________ _ _ _ _not a diaspora__ _ _ _____ _ _ ____ It’s empty…

She knew he would have sighed a heavy breath on that thought. Emptiness.

_____________we are utterly alone_ ________ _ ___ _ _ _ ________ _ For some this is a great relief. For most, it is the supreme terror. But for me ____ ___ _ _ _ ______ what lies beyond _____ __ _ _ _ the beginning____ ___ __.”

END TRANSMISSION: [DATA REMNANT IS CORRUPT]

RECEIVER PORT: [RAPA NUI]

“Dang,” Acacia thought, frustrated at the fragmentation of the message. “I hope you found some hope in those last hours. I wonder what ‘beginning’ you were referring to grandpa. One-hundred-and-one certainly doesn’t feel like a new beginning to me.” Acacia had been considering leaving her home on Kapteyn B and visiting Earth. She had been there when she was younger and remembered feeling an invigorating sense of belonging. Mother Earth held a spiritual magnetism for many people. All the most ancient holy writings were either from Earth, or referred to Earth. The news of her inheritance, and her grandfather’s cache stirred up an old familiar uneasiness in her. She wanted to believe in the Diaspora. But grandpa Nord’s lectures on universal biodiversity, countless reiterations of the ancient Drake Equation for intelligent life, and his railing about the ‘obstinate endurance of religious delusion’ had never stopped ringing in her ears. Maybe a visit to that sacred blue jewel could rejuvenate her faith; faith in the unknown, if nothing else.

Next up was an incredibly old document. A couple thousand years old, it still had an Earth date on it, a symbol of a nearly forgotten era when the majority of mankind still called that orb home, marking their time by solar cycles. That dating system had long been abandoned (except by some religious fanatics), for the universally standardized Julian Absolutionary Dating (JAD) system, which used a precursor technology of quantum tethering, to synchronize relative timelines across multiple galaxies. The JAD had remained intact even on the steep time gradients experienced by human colonies near black holes, though most of those colonies had adopted isolation or been abandoned several hundred years ago. The impact of relativity had proven either a lure to isolationists or a deterrent to trade.

This document’s title struck her as particularly ironic, given the discoveries and theories posited since then.

Click here to view document: The End Of All Things (We Are Not Alone)

Acacia smiled at the quaintness of this report. Little did they know that millions of people like herself would one day call Kapteyn home. And that the barely restrained enthusiasm of these ancient Earth-born people would be met with disappointment. But was it really so disappointing to find brothers instead of strangers among the stars? She could remember learning in secondary school about the mixed reactions of the founding fathers aboard Emissary One, the ark which carried the first settlers to Kapteyn B so many centuries ago.

Now here was another message from grandpa Nord, still no audio-visual data. Acacia chose to read manually again—an arcane skill that had proven valuable over the years. She had acquired it during her junior year at Arnold Nelstrom University. Like her romanticized ideas of Earth, reading made her feel rooted somehow, connected to a lost history full of people who knew where they came from and where they were going. People for whom certainty, even naïve certainty, was worth the effort it took to manually decipher textual encodings of language scribbled on actual paper. Some of her college peers and now even her friends had teased her for wasting so much time on manual reading and writing, but she had come to appreciate this lost art.

INCOMING QUANTUM STRING SIGNAL _ _ _

REACHER 5: BEACON 06

JAD: [UNKNOWN]

LOG CONDITION: [AV CORRUPT. TXT SATISFACTORY]

EXPLANATION: Due to inconsistent superstring paths along Beacon 06’s return route, the Artificial Intelligence Cortex (AIC) judged the loss of audiovisual data to be acceptable if survival of Beacon 06 could be ensured to within adequate signal range of Rapa Nui. Therefore, AIC converted imaging matrix to augment navigational arrays. However, after deployment of quantum string signal, the beacon’s tether was unexpectedly severed. Beacon 06 itself, possibly destroyed in a wormhole collapse.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): 8701.270

The JAD calculator is going crazy again. It first started acting up way back when we tried to slingshot passed that black hole a few months ago. We were having difficulty keeping power levels up, so we figured we’d save some energy using the gravity well to launch us a few lightyears, but it ended up being more trouble than it was worth. I think this will be the last time we have a semi-reliable date, so I just want to put it in the AV log to make sure: eight-seven-zero-one, point two-seven-zero. We were able to calibrate the JAD for traversing the Gulfs of Pacificana, Indianna, the southern arm of Arcticana, and even Luna, which I know has never been done before. But after the failed slingshot, our conversions just stopped working. And after jumping through several of the un-named gulfs beyond Amanzari’s Filament, we had difficulty making sense of the tether location logs. Eventually we just couldn’t keep up with the quantum tectonics, if that’s really what the problem was. Still not completely sure. We were getting some pretty weird readings around Big Baby—the black hole I mean. So we’ve had to scrap the JAD. Who needs a clock anyway right? Being out of positive particle contact for so long just makes things go haywire. We probably should have expected this though. The Julian Absolutionary Dating system is about a thousand years old anyway. And even then, it was an adaptation of the earlier Julian year system used by ancient astronomers around the Earth-year two-thousand. But at that time, little was understood about quantum tectonics, especially in the gulfs of space separating galactic filaments. Even so, the JAD’s quantum tethering equations become obsolete when you reach beyond time. You could say it was only a matter of time before time itself became obsolete. Traverse enough gulfs and cross enough trans-galactic thresholds and we might as well be in another universe, let alone another time. So who knows if this or any additional beacons will find their way home before the human race goes extinct from old age.

Anyway, that’s enough diagnostics for now. I know you need some AV bites for the news so, to explain our travels thus far, I would like to introduce a cartographical sketch by one of the foremost minds of our day. She has envisioned the universe more beautifully and comprehensively than all her predecessors. Frankly, I think she understands superstructures far better than any of the galactic media’s scientific consultants. Her name is Acacia and she is my great granddaughter. She’s six years old today!

Acacia smiled. To know that someone as far away as grandpa Nord was thinking of her was a comforting notion. It felt like the edge of the universe was looking back at her. It was a strange sense of assurance that she wouldn’t be forgotten or lost among the countless specks of consciousness (namely humans) scattered across the universe. Even though an infinite gulf separated them, they were still connected somehow—like two particles at opposite ends of a quantum string. “Light speed is ancient history,” she thought to herself, smiling. “Love travels at the speed of thought.”

Let me hold it up so you can see. See that? Look at that! Colors and everything! And on real paper, from all the way back at Kapteyn B! It’s been a while since I was that close to Earth. The thirteen lightyears between those planets is truly infinitesimal compared to the distance we’ve travelled on this journey.

Anyway, she called it the forest of the universe. This here is a planetary star system (in fact it’s our solar system, Kapteyn), represented by a tiny little ladybug, just a speck of life in a vast universe. This leaf that the bug is sitting on represents a galaxy, our galaxy, the Milky Way. This branch with all the different colored leaves growing on it is a galaxy cluster, what we call our Local Group. There can be tens, hundreds or thousands of galaxies in one cluster. And a galactic filament is like this tree with all the branches growing on it. Ours is called Laniakea, meaning “immeasurable heaven”. Ironic how small it now seems in comparison to the rest of our universe. And finally the spaces between the trees in the forest are the Great Gulfs of the universal superstructure. They used to be called voids, until astronomers began understanding negative energy and dark matter. And this is me, great grandpa Nord, represented by the monkey, swinging from tree to tree. Now when space travel was in its infancy about two thousand years ago, it was believed to be impossible to travel from even one branch (galaxy cluster) to another one. In fact, people back then thought it would take a million years just to explore the Milky Way! Ha-ha! But as you know, the discovery of the Ephesian Engine changed all that. After that, even the gulfs between galactic filaments came within reach. Whoever left behind that marvel of machinery may be to thank for the greatest technological leap in the history of sentient life. Now, other deep space expeditions have crossed gulfs like these ones, here and maybe here. This one might be the Pacificana Gulf, here’s the Atlantica Gulf. You may even be watching this AV bite from one of the colonies out that way. But all these trees and spaces over near the edge: we don’t know anything about them. In fact, the only tree (or galactic filament) that has been named out this way is the Amanzari Filament, after Doctor Amanzari Norton. But after just six months aboard the Reacher 5, we’ve left that tree far behind. Yup, we swung like a monkey along superstrings like vines, until finally we’ve come to the edge of the forest.

Acacia became lost in her mind, imagining her great grandfather’s smiling eyes and the sound of his voice. She was beaming, as if she were still the six-year-old girl whose grandpa was pouring over her clumsy drawing. And she was beginning to miss him again. Upon waking from her daydream, she had to rewind the recording before continuing.

Now, this over here, this meadow at the edge of the forest—this is the Great Gulf of Sokian. I know, I know! It seems self-serving, and I’m sorry, but the crew took a vote. Twenty out of the twenty-seven of us already laid claim to the lesser unnamed gulfs we’ve crossed. The only folks left to hang their names like a clothing wire between two of these trees are the senior staff. And they insisted I go first. And hopefully you’ll get the charts along with these personal logs. But honestly, I’m expecting this to be the final gulf. So where will this monkey swing to next? I don’t know Acacia. I guess I’ll have to become a flying monkey. Maybe there’s another forest on the other side of this meadow. Maybe there’s a castle with a wicked witch! I like to think there’s an ocean, with tropical breezes and white sandy beaches. Paradise.

Acacia paused again, this time with that quiet sense of loneliness one feels after a funeral. When a loved one is gone forever, it’s as if a cavern opens up in the chest, and distraction is the only way to avoid the aching emptiness. She could almost hear the sandpaper scrape of his dry hands against his unshaven chin as he changed the subject, offering her a reprieve from these depressing contemplations.

We should start experiencing edge tares pretty soon. It was once believed that quantum strings only resonated within the galactic filaments, but the Reacher missions three and four showed us that even out here in the great gulfs, the web of creation is intact, though a little frayed. It’ll be like navigating a spider’s web with a few broken threads. But the R5 was built for this. Our tethers are still mostly operational, and though dark matter strings are much less frequent out here, we are still finding plenty of them, and the computer is constantly making course corrections to ensure we don’t hit a dead end before we reach the edge… of the universe, that is.

END TRANSMISSION

RECEIVING PORT: [RAPA NUI]

Acacia, flipped to the next item, another antique document. This one she recognized from her elementary school history classes. She had even seen the original bronze plaque during a visit to the Founder’s Museum in Emissary City.

Click here to view document: The End Of All Things (Emissary 1)

INCOMING QUANTUM STRING SIGNAL _ _ _

REACHER 5: BEACON 05

JAD: [-3697.180] [ERROR]

LOG CONDITION: [NO AV. TEXT FRAGMENTED]

EXPLANATION: Shield Capacity deteriorated naturally as a result of quantum shifting and necessary power diversion to dark matter tethering system. Audiovisual data has been deleted or was not recorded. Text data only. Unknown factors have caused text data to become corrupted.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): -3697.180 [ERR_R]

The black hole______ _ _ _ ____________ can’t maintain _ _ _ _ _ _________ Seemed strange going into it_____________ a few weeks just repairing our hull, not to mention we had to do a complete reboot of the navigational systems—both the array and the tethering system. In fact, we lost most of our tethering logs. I’m just grateful that all of them were transmitted with the last beacon, beacon number three. Ander can’t stop complaining about how this vessel’s shell was supposed to be built out of a composite of the most indestructible materials known to exist. The man has just been whimpering constantly since the incident. It’s kind of pitiful I think. He really_______________ _ _ ____Truth is, all our nerves are shaken. In fact, if you must know, I’m recording this in the wake of a nightmare. I just can’t fall back asleep. Why we ever____ _ _ ___ I’ll never know_________ _ _ _ _ really sobering. It’s amazing to see just how far we’ve come__ __ _ _ _is amazing__ _ ____________________________ ______ _ _ gravity well__ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ______time gradient made for a huge delay_ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ under control, well kind of_ _ _ _ ___________________________ _ _ _ _ _ ________________to push the Diaspora Hypothesis out of my mind_______ __ _ _ _ _ _ ______ prehistoric travels is something I have always had difficulty____ _ _ ____ _ ___ _ _ _ ___ that even this voyage may have been __ _ ___ _ _ _it’s impossible. __ _ __ _ _ _ an original event. ___ _ _ ___ _ _ _ ___ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ ________________________________________the Ephesian Engine to be buried the way it was. Maybe a multi-verse shift or a dimensional rift, or, or, or something! But it could not have been from this universe___ _ _ _______ _ _ _ __  ____It can’t_____ _ _ _ out of my head! _____ _ _ _ _________ the grand idea to slingshot around Big Baby…. Oh, sorry, that’s the name we gave the black hole—largest one on record. You know, unheard-of discoveries are just par for the course around here. I hope another expedition can do some good solid work there, take time to sort out those quantum string signals we were seeing. Usually a quantum string is severed at the mouth of a black hole, but… I don’t know, it almost______  _ _ _ _ _ _ _ ______ _ _ _ just really strange. Too bad I don’t have time to_____ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ Some PhD is going to write a paper for the_______ _ _ _ _ Acacia___________________________________ _ _ _ _ _ _ like some kind of swirling__________ _ _ _____________ _ _ _ _ were actually incapacitated. Well I think so. It’s all kind of a blur___________ _ _ _Wizard of Oz kind of tornado. Ha ha! Do you remember that story Acacia? Remember your favorite character? You would have loved it out here baby girl. Although I would never wish these nightmares on anyone.

END TRANSMISSION: [DATA REMNANT CORRUPT]

RECEIVER PORT: [RAPA NUI]

            Acacia could remember grandpa Nord watching the Wizard of Oz with her when he would visit. Both she and her grandfather were aficionados of ancient Earth cinematic literature. Her favorite character was the king of the flying monkeys. What was his name? She hadn’t thought about that story in quite a while. Not surprising that grandpa Nord would reference it in his logs after having a nightmare. Certain parts of that primeval tale always gave Acacia the creeps. And she would sometimes wake from nightmares spawned by that whirlwind tale. When she did, if grandpa Nord was around, she always gravitated to the door of his room to knock, rather than her parents’. He would encourage her with stories about guardian angels, a benevolent Creator and other myths he had never believed in, himself. Looking back, she could still feel his affection in the fact that he would condescend to speak her childish language of faith, which was certainly a foreign language to him. He ensured that she always slept beneath the gaze of her loving God. But for Acacia, this sense of appreciation was always mixed with deep sorrow and even pity, as Nordlund himself was never able to find a home in the folds of faith. The folds of space seemed to enwrap him and sooth him more readily. And so it was beneath those blankets he always slept, under an empty sky. And for this, Acacia was unsure how to mourn.

Next was another famous document from the history books. Acacia still had portions of this one memorized since childhood, as did many studious Kapteynian children.

Click here to view document: The End Of All Things (Zephaniah Dribald)

REACHER 5: BEACON 04

FILE NOT INCLUDED IN OFFICIAL REACHER MISSION DATABASE…

ARCHIVIST’S NOTE: Beacon 04 was encrypted with a quantum scattering algorithm whose key is a passphrase known only to the sender of the message. All attempts to access this document since its reception on JAD 8719.043 (several years after receipt of the other beacons) have failed. Even so, beneficiary statutes dictate that it be included in the cache upon transfer to Acacia Sokian. The only unencrypted portion of this file was a reiteration of this statute, “This is a private message, to be delivered directly to my great granddaughter, Acacia, with the rest of her inheritance, at the age of one-hundred-and-one. It is my desire that she be the only one made aware of its existence.”

ENTER PASSPHRASE: _

Acacia had certainly never been made aware of this document until now. No news outlet had posted it on the Multi-Galactic nets. Was it possible that no one (except the Archivist) knew that Beacon 04 had ever been recovered? She wondered who may have tried or succeeded in opening it in the nearly seventy years since its undisclosed recovery. Those among the military cultures of Centauri would have considered this a ‘Top Secret’ document, given its exclusivity. How unlikely must it have been that officials would release it to her, still unopened? And yet, here it was, dropped in her lap. The infamous Beacon 04, her great grandfather’s long lost message, preserved just for her!

“But why would grandpa Nord have sent me a secret message?” she thought. And why encrypt it? If the scientific community were allowed to analyze it, maybe they could have uncovered some clues about the fate of Reacher 5.  Was she really the only one who knew about it? Did the Archivist know?

But Acacia quickly realized that all of these were unanswerable questions. Not only were there confidentiality laws in place to protect the identity of Archivists, but he (and any other decision-makers involved in the concealment of Beacon 04) could be anywhere in the universe. It would take a lifetime to search them out. At the same moment that Acacia’s quick mind settled on this conclusion, it occurred to her that the answers might be found within the log file itself.

“Grandpa,” she whined aloud, “you forgot to give me the password before you left.” She pouted childishly for a moment, before letting her attention drift to the next document in the cache, carried away by the lure of nostalgia. But as she read on, in the back of her mind, curiosity kept churning. The unknown was beckoning her. From the edge of the universe, great grandpa Nord was daring her to solve his riddle and hear his voice once again.

Even so, Acacia moved on. The same curiosity that was awakened by that empty passphrase field, was equally seduced by the seven still-unread documents in the cache. So she pulled up the next bit of text, a news blast from over five hundred years ago.

Click here to view document: The End Of All Things (Dyson Sphere)

REACHER 5: BEACON 03

JAD: [8700.275]

LOG CONDITION: [AV DATA FRAGMENTED]

EXPLANATION: Shield Capacity deteriorated naturally as a result of quantum shifting and necessary power diversion to dark matter tethering system. Audiovisual data has been corrupted, though many parts remain intact.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): 8700.275

Now, in anticipation of a visual encounter, Acacia leaned forward in her seat. She could remember all those years ago, when it was feared that Beacon 03 would be the last beacon sent by Captain Nordlund. The silence that followed seemed endless, even as news reports and speculation flooded the Multi-Galactic nets.

“Beacon 03 may be all we have left of this historic voyage.”

“Will Beacon 04 ever arrive?”

“Was Beacon 03 the end of Reacher 5?”

It was at this moment that Acacia also remembered her grandfather’s comment in the previous message from Beacon 05. He referred to Beacon 03 as having been the beacon before that. She thought this strange, but she shrugged it off, assuming he must have misspoken, intending to refer to Beacon 04. In spite of the echoes of those stressful years, Acacia was overjoyed that the audio-visual data had been preserved, for this beacon at least. She would now get to see her great grandfather in full holographic dimensions. It had been a long time. She blinked and there he was, sitting across the desk from her as if he’d never left. Two hundred years looked good on him. She felt ashamed for having forgotten that. But there he was, bright-eyed and jovial, even with his beard grown out.

Hello there! Cap’n Nord here again. We are currently crossing the last great gulf before we reach the Amanzari Filament. We’ve been having trouble finding superstrings to tether to, so we’re plotting a slingshot course around this black hole we found nearby. If this were any other mission, we might want to stop and take a look, because it is actually bigger than any black hole we’ve found in the past! That’s probably the reason this region is so barren. Big Baby (as we’ve come to call it) is a glutton. Who knows what half-digested chunks of ancient space may be floating around in her bottomless belly. On that note, she seems to be giving off some strange readings. It almost appears as if some quantum tethering could actually be traversing the event horizon. But we’ll leave it for the next explorer. For us it’s just going to serve as the biggest catapult in history. Ha ha! I think the JAD will hold up, but we’ll see. You never know exactly how the clocks will react in an unmapped gravity well. Sometimes the temporal gradient can knock your calculations off by a century or more, but I’m confident in our AIC’s ability to anticipate and compensate for any issues. Plus, it’ll sure save us some energy. Some of the string paths have been draining our reserves more than expected. So hopefully Big Baby can give us a good push, during which we can regenerate our power supply.

Well like I said, we are approaching the Amanzari Filament, and we have already travelled farther than any human before. And if the proponents of the Diaspora Hypothesis are right, farther than any sentient life form ever. On the other hand, if they really are right, then this path we’ve taken is only here because it’s been travelled before… and that by us.

Grandpa Nord squinted and shook his head…

Makes your head spin doesn’t it! You see the paradox they get thrown into? They would have us believe in a universe where nothing is new, where everything we’ve discovered has already been discovered before. If you ask me, that’s no better than saying it was all created by some omnipotent intelligent being. Well guess what, as I chase the fraying edges of our expanding existence, I’ve yet to see positive proof that we are the only ones in here. There has to be life other than Earth-born life. There just has to be. The odds are simply too great for us to be the only ones. Yes, yes, I’ve read the latest genetics reports from Karma Zed III. But I just think we must be missing something. If mystery is not eternal, then nothing is!

You may ask why I’m so opposed to the Diaspora Hypothesis. Why I have such strong feelings about it. Well, I am not just some senile old man, who can’t let go of traditional ideas about the nature of the cosmos. I have legitimate philosophical objections to it. The Diaspora Hypothesis is tantamount to supernaturalism! Just think of the logical conclusion! If there is no life but Earth-born life: then why is that? According to all that we have ever known about mathematics, quantum probabilities, sentience, and the origins of life, we cannot be the only ones! If it is true, then the only explanation must be something beyond the naturally occurring reality. And believe me, we’ve come to know the nature of reality pretty well. I guess the real problem I have with the Diaspora Hypothesis is that, fundamentally, it demands a super-natural explanation- some divine hand, working to preserve humanity and at the same time inhibit all other evolutionary lines. Sounds like an inflated version of one of those petty tribal gods worshiped on Earth eons ago: picking his favorite bunch of Neanderthals to bless and squishing the rest. And when you get into those waters, you end up with such audacious claims as manifest destiny, divine purpose, chosen-ness and other nonsense. Sorry but I’m just not quite religious enough for that. I guess I just don’t have the faith (or maybe the arrogance) to believe that the stars only exist for our enjoyment, or that the universe was somehow designed as a home for such insignificant specks as us humans.

Just as Nordlund began to hang his head with the subtle wince of someone grieving over his own words, he perked up again, and looked away from Acacia. The image flickered and Acacia heard a distorted voice in the background. She couldn’t understand what it said, but her grandpa leaned back in his chair and shouted over his shoulder,

What’s that Ander?

The voice replied,

I said you better come look at this sir. The black hole… it’s… there’s… just come look! I’m coming.

END TRANSMISSION

RECEIVER PORT: [RAPA NUI]

The recording ended as he rose from his seat.

Acacia paused, feeling uneasy in the wake of this tirade, delivered by a man whom she deeply respected, and whose expertise on the subject could not be denied. He had always wrestled with the metaphysical implications of his discoveries, more than any other explorer she knew of. But her heart broke for the loneliness that seemed to her inherent in his vision of reality.

She pursed her lips as her grandfather’s words reverberated in her ears. One moment, she could feel her convictions growing cold beneath the certitude of universal meaninglessness. The next, she was disquieted by Nordlund’s seemingly over-the-top vehemence toward anything he couldn’t explain. Was he in denial about these things? Or was she? How could he assert certainty and mystery at the same time? Maybe he couldn’t, at least not well enough—and maybe that’s why she always tasted the smoky flavor of unreliability in his words. And yet, this intuitive distrust was always at odds with the lucidity of Acacia’s own rational mind. Perhaps, if one could learn to hold mystery and certainty in tension—that would be the key to faith.

The next document was a literary excerpt from “The Diaspora Hypothesis”, a 432 page book published in the year 4015, by Dr. Aurelius Amanzari, an influential author in the years following the Centauri Space War.

Click here to view document: The End Of All Things (The Diaspora Hypothesis)

REACHER 5: BEACON 02

JAD: [8700.185]

LOG CONDITION: [AV DATA FRAGMENTED]

EXPLANATION: Shield Capacity deteriorated naturally as a result of quantum shifting and necessary power diversion to dark matter tethering system. Audiovisual data has been corrupted, though many parts remain intact.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): 8700.185

Once again, Captain Sokian’s holographic image appeared across the table from Acacia, looking conspicuously younger than the last time. This was now only the second beacon launched by him during his voyage, and it contained some technical explanations about quantum travel.

Well folks, we’ve officially passed the point of no return. We are now beyond “Lifetime Range”, which means the amount of time it would take for us to get home (which is increasing exponentially as the universe expands around us) has exceeded our crew’s collective remaining life expectancy. So if we turned around right now, even Ander, our youngest ship-mate would be… uh…

Acacia felt warm and couldn’t help but smile, watching and listening to grandpa Nordlund as he tapped his canine tooth with his index finger and looked at the ceiling while he calculated in his head…

…about four-hundred and fifty-three years old by the time we got home… give or take a decade. Point is, these beacons are now our only connection with the rest of humanity. It’s kind of sobering. Reminds me of the first time I went swimming in water that was over my head. Or you know what? It’s more like doing trapeze without a net because, as you may know, we’re using superstrings to para-locate (or jump) from one place to the next. If you haven’t read up on the Ephesian Class engines yet, well, I guess this is as good an excuse as any to try and explain quantum travel for the viewer.

You see it’s not really travel at all, because it’s not as if we are leaving point A, passing through a region of space in order to arrive at point B. That’s more like warp era travel. No, we para-locate from point A to point B instantaneously. It’s called para-locating not “relocating” because relocating implies the passage of time between being in one place and being in the other place. Quantum travel is instantaneous. Wherever there is an object (or a bit of matter) in space-time, there is a quantum entanglement, which means various neutrons, electrons and other subatomic particles are all intersecting in a particular way at that location, causing that object to exist there—it’s like the intersection at the center of a spider web. What the Ephesian Engine does is, first, it maps the quantum string manifolds between entanglements. Imagine two interconnected spider webs. Then imagine tracing the path along those silky threads, from the center of one web to the center of the other. Then we transfer the quantum cohesion (that’s like the stickiness that attaches the spokes of the web to the center); we transfer that stickiness along the superstrings from point A to a place where all those same strings are in close proximity to each other, almost intersecting, almost entangled, point B. When this new center of quantum cohesion is created, entanglement occurs. That’s when the identical properties of the original entanglement appear at the new location. Thus at the same moment that Reacher 5 dematerializes in one place, it rematerializes (or para-materializes) in another place. It was this instantaneous travel that made gulf leaps possible.

So why can’t we just leap all the way back home? Well, for one thing, space is expanding much more quickly out here, so we’re travelling faster than light even when we’re standing still. But also, when you get this far out, it can be difficult to find quantum strings that reach far enough. When we link and begin to resonate with a quantum string, it’s called tethering. But there’s just not much out here for our navigational system to tether to. It requires positive particle contact, which can become scarce in the great gulfs. So we have to make frequent course corrections. In more densely packed regions of space, the AI can calculate a long series of jumps, but out here, it takes a little more elbow grease to find, map and ride a manifold superstring to a new location. And since strings are constantly drifting and shifting, plotting a course home (particularly making the calculations between each jump) would just take too long.

So we leave these beacons, which only need a single quantum string. And they send pulses of data along a series of strings back to the nearest deep-space outpost; in many cases, Rapa Nui.

END TRANSMISSION

RECEIVER PORT: [RAPA NUI]

Click here to view document: The End Of All Things (Karma Zed III)

REACHER 5: BEACON 01

JAD: [8699.280]

LOG CONDITION: [AV DATA FRAGMENTED]

EXPLANATION: Shield Capacity deteriorated naturally as a result of quantum shifting and necessary power diversion to dark matter tethering system. Audiovisual data has been corrupted, though many parts remain intact.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): 8699.280

Well we’ve been on the road, so to speak, for only about two months. Currently we’re working on calculations to jump the gulf of Luna, which has never been done before. We’ve already gotten kind of dependent on the AI plotting course corrections, but with a jump this big we just wanted to be sure, you know? We’ve been at it awhile, so I figured I’d take a break, have some dinner, and send our first beacon.

So here we are, preparing for the first of many “never-been-done” attempts, which will eventually become commonplace on this voyage. I have to say I am incredibly honored to be in the company of such an amazing crew. If there were ever a group of people suited to perform the impossible, this is it. Men and women who have dedicated their lives to the spirit of exploration. Just the prerequisite of having taken the LLF pledge, ensures that you’re working with the most committed and expert team possible.

Then Acacia heard a muffled voice in the background. Nordlund turned his head and responded to it,

Eh? You don’t think very many people have heard of it?

The voice replied in indiscernible tones.

Oh, ok.

Then Nordlund turned back to Acacia,

So the LLF I referred to: myself, Ander, Shephard, Joanne there…

…pointing over his shoulder…

…and the rest of the crew have taken what’s called the Life’s Last Furlough pledge (LLF). This is an oath, taken by some of the best and brightest explorers, near the end of their carriers, to sacrifice their last days on the altar of discovery. It was actually born from the early Centauri Olympics, when genetic modification was all the rage for athletic elites. These physiologically enhanced athletes were the fastest and strongest in history. They could manage their heartrate and metabolism and all that. And they were really intelligent too, able to calculate and strategize on the fly, according to complex probability equations—really amazing stuff! It propelled sports to whole new level. But in response to this trend, there started a movement of natural athletes, called Nathletes. These Nathletes rejected the notion of physiological superiority for a philosophy of passion and self-sacrifice. Miraculously, they began to rival the genetically modified competitors, especially in endurance sports. Eventually, they were taking gold medals in water sports, like open water swimming, underwater endurance and others. Finally, a Nathlete named Joshua Carpenter beat the record-holding super competitor for breath-holding under water—even when that record-holder was making his new personal best! Afterward, when asked what his secret was, he said that, while the super competitors calculate how many molecules of oxygen they will need in order to return to the surface without drowning, he simply had no intention of ever returning to the surface. For him, every competition was a one-way trip. Save nothing for the return journey, and you will be forced to reach beyond the limits of others.

And so, for explorers, every expedition is like an endurance race. But the problem is that there is always a return trip. So when you reach a certain age and the prospects of returning safely begin to tempt one to explore no more, some of us reject that slide toward complacency. Instead we choose to forge ahead, and pledge ourselves to one last expedition. For the sake of discovery, we pledge our lives to a final one-way voyage, before which our Life’s Last Furlough is enjoyed with family and friends, and the knowledge that once we depart, it will be the ultimate departure, and consequently the greatest expedition of our lives. And so we join the chorus with Pan, that ancient elvish boy, when he says “To die would be an awfully big adventure”. Many of the greatest discoveries of the greatest explorers in the last several hundred years have been made on their final expeditions, from which they never returned.

So when you receive these beacons and log entries, please don’t pass over them lightly. They are the last legacy which my crew and I leave to humanity. They are your inheritance. They are the essence of our lives, spent for discovery. And if they are lost, so are we. But as long as our discoveries survive and contribute to the path of mankind, I think somehow, we will live on in them.

END TRANSMISSION

RECEIVER PORT: [RAPA NUI]

At this, Acacia paused again, wondering how many beacons may have been sent by her grandfather but never recovered. How frustrating it can be to not know what you don’t know. Only seven beacons for a voyage to the end of the universe? That couldn’t possibly be all there was. And of those seven, one was not even accessible!

Acacia scrolled back to the Beacon 04 document. Again, she read the Archivist’s note: “Beacon 04 was encrypted with a quantum scattering algorithm whose key is a passphrase known only to the captain of the vessel. All attempts to access this document since its reception on JAD 8719.043 (several years after receipt of the other beacons) have failed. Even so, beneficiary statutes dictate that it be included in the cache upon transfer to Acacia Sokian. Not only so, but the only unencrypted portion of this file was a reiteration of the statute, ‘This is a private message, to be delivered directly to my great granddaughter, Acacia, with the rest of her inheritance, at the age of one-hundred-and-one. It is my desire that she be the only one made aware of its existence.’”

That’s when Acacia determined to try and discover the passphrase to open her great grandfather’s secret message. She thought of all the obvious choices: Reacher, Sokian, Acacia, Ephesian. She tried a series of prime numbers, the MeV’s of all the subatomic particles in various orders, even the term “Diaspora”. But as expected, none of them worked. She was sure that officials must have tried all these and more. Next she tried some quantum tectonic equations she had recently learned at Arnold Nelstrom University. Still no results. She then set herself down to try every different word contained in all the other log entries of the other six beacons. The Archivists probably tried that too. But were the experts as disappointed as she was when even this didn’t work? She then included all the words from her other inherited documents. All this took several hours, but still nothing she tried would unlock the document. Finally, frustrated and nearly despairing, Acacia got up from her console and went to the balcony of her little habitat unit. It overlooked the city, beyond which she could just barely see the Dribald Plains, with their ancient irrigation mechanisms gleaming in the dim light of day, under a red sun.

“What a dreary place,” she thought. “No wonder so many people have been migrating to Earth lately”. That’s when a dust devil began to kick up out on the plains. In spite of the automated irrigation, the dry season still managed to coat the fields with dust and the wind would whistle around the city, whose buildings protruded up from the plateau like a hundred turbine blades, stuck in the ground. Acacia watched as the whirlwind vacuumed the dust into a swirling funnel and danced across the expansive farmlands. “Well they don’t have those on Earth” she thought. “At least not since the development of weather control systems.”

And it was that instantaneous, almost subconscious glimmer of a memory, mixed with the germ of imagination that conjured the image of a tornado on the brightly lit plains of ancient Earth. That infinitesimal image caused the seedling of a familiar melody to sprout in Acacia’s fertile mind. A quiet sense of home grew inside her. And as she began to hum, her arms relaxed, almost imperceptibly, on the railing where she had propped up her chin. The melody swelled as she hummed along, still not thinking about it at all, “Hm-hm, hm-hm, hm-hm-hmmmm” turned into “Ba-da, da-da, da-da-daaah, the wonderful Wizard of Oz…” And she smiled, while the tornado writhed both on the Dribald Plains and in her heart.

“Ba-da, da-da, da-da-daaah, the wonderful Wizard of Oz” she murmured again.

“You would have loved it out here Acacia” she could hear her grandfather say, “Wizard of Oz kind of Tornado…remember your favorite character?” She was now remembering his log entry from, what was it? Beacon 05? What was her favorite character anyway? The king of the flying monkeys… she squinted and began tapping her canine tooth with her index finger, wracking her brain for that distant memory… A long silence followed as Acacia gave that kind of thinking stare that is anything but empty.

“Nikko!” she said aloud, and stood upright. And after gazing and grinning a moment at the distant whirlwind, which soon vanished into the dusky sky, she bounded inside, back to her holographic console.

REACHER 5: BEACON 04

FILE NOT INCLUDED IN OFFICIAL REACHER MISSION DATABASE…

ARCHIVIST’S NOTE: Beacon 04 was encrypted with a quantum scattering algorithm whose key is a passphrase known only to the sender of the message. All attempts to access this document since its reception on JAD 8719.043 (several years after receipt of the other beacons) have failed. Even so, beneficiary statutes dictate that it be included in the cache upon transfer to Acacia Sokian. The only unencrypted portion of this file was a reiteration of this statute, “This is a private message, to be delivered directly to my great granddaughter, Acacia, with the rest of her inheritance, at the age of one-hundred-and-one. It is my desire that she be the only one made aware of its existence.”

ENTER PASSPHRASE: _N_i_k_k_o

PASSPHRASE ACCEPTED… RETREIVING DATA… DECRYPTING…

INCOMING QUANTUM STRING SIGNAL _ _ _

REACHER 5: BEACON 04 (decrypted)

JAD: [UNKNOWN]

LOG CONDITION: [GOOD]

EXPLANATION: [ERROR] Beacon has been reprogrammed, not within specified parameters. Message delivery delayed by quantum tectonic shift, resulting in delivery to Tristan Da Cunha. Shield Capacity naturally deteriorated as a result of quantum shifting and necessary power diversion to dark matter tethering system. Audiovisual data encrypted with quantum scattering algorithm.

= = =

CAPTAIN’S LOG: NORDLUND SOKIAN

VESSEL: REACHER 5

JULIAN ABSOLUTIONARY DATE (JAD): UNKNOWN

It has been three years. We are trapped.

Grandpa Nord’s voice buzzed with a slight distortion over the first few words, which could be heard before his face became visible in the holographic display. His image blipped on and off for a few seconds while his breathing continued, uninterrupted. His face was unshaven and his eyes seemed exhausted. Acacia leaned forward as she listened.

This will be my last log entry… and, at the same time…

Nordlund paused with a cynical smirk on his chapped lips, and gave a subtle “hmph”

…and at the same time, it will not be my last log entry.

He spoke slowly and gravely.

We are… preparing for a procedure… no…

He paused again, and ran both hands through his unkempt hair, shaking his head.

We um… you need to know what hap… that we didn’t… that I didn’t come to this decision lightly. Nearly a million people is anything but trivial. It has been three years. We are trapped at the center of… a planetary mass… Um, we were attempting to slingshot passed Big Baby—that’s the black hole we discovered—biggest one on record that I know of.

Nord’s thoughts seemed confused, like someone who had not thought enough or had thought too much about what he was going to say. He cleared his throat and continued.

So we were attempting the slingshot around Big Baby. But then it did something I’ve never seen a black hole do before. It was as if it began vomiting something out. It was like some kind of accelerated evaporation, but matter was emerging, particles and light and entire star systems. That’s when something went wrong with our quantum tethering system. It could also have been the navigational array, though even after three years of going over and over it, it’s still hard to nail down what exactly happened—what… kind of anomaly brought us here. But suffice it to say, we para-located across the event horizon as Big Baby was collapsing… or dispersing… or whatever it was doing. I don’t know. If it weren’t for the Ephesian Engine and those intact quantum strings traversing the event horizon, our vessel would have been destroyed in this… eruption… of space-time. But somehow a quantum resonance path had managed to cross the threshold of this thing and three years ago today, we found ourselves adrift in what appeared to be a preserved… bubble of ancient space. You see, the way black holes work is, they straddle the bulk between ribbons of space-time, so to enter one is like entering a rabbit hole: there’s no telling where they’ll spit you out. But it’s as if this rabbit hole has been turned inside out. So there we were in this ancient star system.

Grandpa Nord took a deep breath, scratched his head and continued.

But it was not just any bubble of ancient space.

Then he swallowed as if the words were stuck in his throat…

I’ll never forget Ander’s first reaction. It was like something out of a dream… or a nightmare… he had that ominous tone of someone who had just seen a ghost. “Are we home?” he said.

Smiling and shaking his head as he continued to itch at his scalp, Nordlund quieted himself. He seemed to have difficulty lifting his head to face Acacia as he spoke the next words.

It was Earth… right before our eyes! That blue jewel droplet revolving around that golden blazing fire we call the Sun. Long-range scans instantly confirmed it, only, there were less than a million human lifeforms on the surface. So, pretty quickly… in fact, before we even finished repairs on the hull, we tried to para-locate into a standard orbit around the planet. But that’s when the second “malfunction” occurred.

He pronounced the word “malfunction” with a cynical gesture.

We didn’t achieve the orbital location we had expected, but instead found ourselves… you won’t believe this… encased at Earth’s core. At first we thought our navigational logs had been damaged in the previous jump—that somehow our quantum string maps of the Earth solar system had been corrupted, causing us to jump to the wrong place. But we checked the logs and they were fine. Then, when we started scanning the vicinity we found quantum entanglement patterns that were inconsistent with what we knew to be Earth’s quantum patterns. Remember the spider webs? What I mean is, the spider webs weren’t in the places they were supposed to be. At least not where they were supposed to be currently, on solar date 4398. But with more scans, and Shephard applying some of his temporal equations… You know how they say disasters come in threes? We eventually were able to backwards extrapolate the quantum patterns and realized that these really are Earth’s actual quantum patterns. They’re just… a lot younger—about 12,000 years younger to be more precise—which means, we are now trapped inside prehistoric Earth, somewhere around solar date 6,000 BCE.

Nordlund leaned back and looked at the ceiling with the laughter of resignation heaving in his chest. It must have been a full minute before he started speaking again. Acacia’s mouth hung open and tears welled in her sky blue eyes.

…I know. I know Acacia. We rode the tornado and we’re in the Land of Oz now baby girl!

He continued with interspersed chuckles. A dark foreboding hovered over Acacia even as she was compelled to smile with him.

…It’s quite a predicament, I know. So what do you think? Am I crazy? Is it even possible for us to be here? I know what I’m proposing doesn’t sound possible, but I’ve… we’ve all had three years to think it over. There can be no more doubt—we are talking absolute, actual time travel… and in a form we never anticipated. Somehow, twelve thousand years ago, Mother Earth was pulled into a wormhole or a black hole or something, and relocated here temporarily. We may be looking at a natural occurrence of para-location, but on a scale we couldn’t have conceived of. But I know what you’re thinking. How would I know for sure? How can I know? I can’t right? Unless we could somehow get back to where we belong. Unless we could prove from outward observation that this really is our Earth.

Well, what we’re about to do will hopefully solve that paradox, at least for you guys out there in the older universe, or the real universe, or whatever you want to call it.

So here it is Acacia…

His eyes began to well with tears, which he wiped away with a sniffle before they could wet his cheeks. Acacia let hers flow freely until they began to tickle her chin. The woman bit her lip and wiped the streams away before they reached her neck.

We are going to stay. Now we’ve sealed the deal on our one way trip. There is no way to return to our universe. And not only that, I’m pretty sure that what we’re about to do will seal the doors of faith for me as well. By being shut in, in the interior of our home planet, I think I will finally be shut out forever. It’s only appropriate that I’ll be spending the rest of my days in the burning belly of the Earth, right? Acacia, you always loved to tell me stories from your ancient holy books. Remember the stories of Noah and Gilgamesh? Remember their flood? I always wanted stories like that to be true. And not just to be true, but to really be the hand of a holy God, some loving mastermind working to abate suffering and provide hope, even behind all the chaos of the cosmos—someone from whose vantage point, the chaos is discernible as beauty and complexity. In a mind like that, a better man than I could take great comfort. A better man than I would not need that mind to be his own. But therein lies the curse of every explorer—I just had to see it, to know it for myself what lies beyond. We (all of us, not just explorers) are driven to grasp the ungraspable, to see the un-see-able, and to experience the inexplicable. So I guess, in a way, I should be happy, because that’s what I am experiencing now.

The holographic projection of Acacia’s great grandfather leaned forward and flickered, looking intently at her, as if he really could see her eyes and sense her thoughts.

It is impossible to para-locate from inside a planetary mass without seriously risking de-materializing the entire planet. Since I am convinced this Earth is temporally contiguous with our own, I am unwilling to risk that. But neither am I content to just abandon our mission. It is too important. The only remaining option is duo-location. Believe me, we have been over this and over this. We’ve spent three years mapping and remapping the quantum entanglements in this ancient Earth system, calculating and recalculating all the quantum tectonic factors. We’ve run hundreds of simulations. We’ve finally come to accept that this is our only hope (if you can even call it hope). Duo-location involves significantly less quantum torsion. And though it will cause catastrophic tectonic activity and have other unpredictable effects on the surface of the Earth, it may give some of the inhabitants a fighting chance. Our lives are already forfeit to this voyage. And I will not accept failure. I only hope you can understand we are not presuming to dismiss the inhabitants on the surface. Nearly a million lives is no small thing. But the journey of discovery is always more costly than we expect. Mystery has to be worth everything. If mystery is not eternal, then nothing is.

And on that note dies my last hopes of believing Earth’s most ancient legends. Don’t get me wrong—I now firmly believe in a catastrophic global flood like Noah’s, and maybe even the world emerging almost miraculously from out of nothingness. But there is no cosmic hand waving over the waters. There were no divine acts of creation or judgement. Somewhere deep down, I always wanted it to be that. But I know now that it is our strange universe and our own malfunctioning technology, our fumbling in the dark that will have created the greatest miracles and cataclysms of antiquity! I am convinced from our simulations, and our forecasts of the upheaval which our procedure will cause on the surface, that we will be and always have been the cause of Noah’s flood. And not only that—the Ephesian Engine itself, mankind’s greatest mystery—it’s us! We are the fable! Destined to die in this crumpled metal can, our bodies will disintegrate over thousands of years, and all the identifying markers on this spacecraft will be worn away by the heat and weight of Earth’s core. Then, one day, we will be exhumed, like an unmarked tomb, nameless and less than forgotten—never known. We have created a temporal loop of recurrence. You would think it would feel like a privilege to be both the seed and the branch of deep space exploration. But if entrapment in an infinite paradox is the cost, I’d rather be the fruit that falls dead from the tree.

Captain Nord took another of his trademark deep breaths to center himself and change the subject.

Now duo-location is, like I said, the lower-energy alternative to para-location. But it was outlawed almost immediately upon discovery. You can understand why when you realize that it is the total replication of matter, including consciousness. Can you imagine the civil rights paradoxes that would ensue if people began replicating themselves all over the place? It would be worse than the early years of human cloning!

Nordlund’s words were stilted as he tried to emotionally fake his way through these practical explanations.

What does this mean for us? It means we won’t be leaving Earth’s core… ever. But we’ve programed Reacher 5 to duo-locate with all its crew to a location beyond the threshold. Once outside the bubble, the replicated ship and replicated crew will continue the expedition in our stead.

The old man leaned back in his chair again and crossed his arms.

I have to admit I’m torn now—between some mystical notion of the continuity between myself and my copy, versus the egotistical hope that he finds nothing at all. Part of me really wanted to be the one to go the farthest, but instead I am trapped here, closer to home than I ever cared to be. This is not the kind of one-way trip I anticipated.

Not only that, but I am torn between undeniable reality and an equally undeniable drive to believe the unreal. When we fire up the Ephesian Engine and initiate the duo-location protocols, we will likely be sentencing hundreds of thousands of people on the surface to death, and setting the stage for fourteen thousand years of cultural religious development. So much for those mysteries. So here I am, imprisoned in the known, in a bubble of impossibility, drifting along the outskirts of a universe whose edges are still a mystery to me—a mystery I will never unfold. I will never even see the glow of the stars again. What did Amanzari say, that they are “lanterns hung in the heavens to light our way”? I guess they weren’t hung there for me after all.

Acacia, I am encrypting this message for you, and you alone. It is yours to do with what you will. I haven’t told my companions, but I’ve programmed the duo-location protocols to exclude certain quantum strings so that the new crew will have no memory of these events. They will likely interpret it as a failed slingshot attempt around Big Baby. And as far as we can tell, this bubble will be invisible from the outside because it has already re-entered the bulk. That should prevent any wasted time trying to rescue us. Personally, it’s comforting to think there will be a version of me out there who hasn’t wrestled with the death of faith like I have, but who presses on boldly to the edge of the universe; someone who can face the darkness at the end of all things with a guiding light of hope and mystery. But I wanted the truth to go to someone. You’ve always been a greater child of faith than I. Where I’ve always seen darkness, you’ve seen a friendly face looking back at you. Perhaps you share the vantage point of the one who discerns beautiful complexity in the midst of what looks like chaos to the rest of us. Though I am shipwrecked, both in spirit and in truth, I hope you can find the fortitude and strength of heart to weave even my vessel’s uncommon fate into the cosmic tapestry which is your faith. It is important that you do, because I’ve come to realize the end of faith is the end of mystery, which in turn is the end of discovery. It is the end of all things.

I love you Acacia. Goodbye.

END TRANSMISSION

RECEIVER PORT: [ERROR] [TRISTAN DA CUNHA]

REACHER 5: CHRISTENING SPEECH

Given by Captain Nordlund Sokian upon commencement of the maiden voyage of Reacher 5

In the Stone Age, humans developed the use of tools. In the Iron Age, we smelted metals from ore to improve those tools. In the Middle Age we traversed the Atlantic. In the Modern age we traversed the clouds. The Industrial Revolution paved the way for global conflict. The advent of the internet paved the way for global cooperation. The early astronauts set foot on the Earth’s moon, two-hundred and thirty-nine thousand miles away. Explorers of the warp drive era set foot on Kepler, six hundred light years from home.

The Centauri Age that followed showed us the benefits and the dangers of technological shortcuts. We colonized well over a thousand worlds in just over a hundred years, but we were still fumbling in the dark, and our technologies tore rifts in the fabric of space, isolating the Centaurians for nearly a century, and threatening to end our exploration of the cosmos. But the Quantum Analogue Revolution of 3852, and the discovery of the Ephesian Engine in 3880 have precipitated the next great age of human development. We are moving beyond space travel, to an era of space cultivation. We are no longer in the dark. We have been given new tools, and we are improving on them. EE1 through EE4 engines, back engineered from the Ephesian Engine were mirrors and echoes of the original. In the end, they have proven formidable substitutes. But the EE5 engine aboard this new Reacher spacecraft is the first complete and operational replica of that ancient wonder. Now we are firing up the real thing. In the same way that our ancient ancestors used the very first knife to carve their symbols in wood and stone, we will use the R5 to carve our name across the very shell of existence. In the same way that the very first boat carried humanity across the unfathomable waters, Reacher 5 will carry us across the unfathomable void. The mission of Reacher 5 will be to catch the tearing edge of our ever expanding universe. Nothing like this has ever been attempted, nor was it possible until now.

What will we find in that outer darkness? No one knows. But that is why we must go. My crew and I have taken the pledge of our Life’s Last Furlough. God forbid that we would return to this blue jewel again. Our lives are forfeit to discovery. Knowledge is our chief end. Faith in the unknown will sustain us, and certainty of hope will be our final resting place. But if history has taught us anything about discovery, it is that no resting place is eternal, for it is our journey as collective humanity which is eternal. Therefore, no frontier is final. There will always be a new horizon to chase. Like those who went before us, we are making the way for those who will come after us, who will reach farther than we dreamed or dared. It is for them that we give our lives to discovery. It is for explorers who have not yet been born, that we blaze this trail across the stars, so that the end of our path will be the beginning of theirs. It is my… prayer… that at the end of my life, I will be able to look back, considering my children and grand-children and great grand-children, knowing for sure that my end has established for them, a new beginning.

Acacia slumped back in her chair, her cheeks still salty from dried tears.

“Computer” she said, “How soon can I catch a ship bound for Earth?” The automated voice replied,

“The next scheduled departure for an Earth-bound ship is in three hours.”

“Purchase tickets” Acacia ordered, and walked to her room to pack her things. As she sorted through shirts and skirts, she began to hum, “Ba-da, da-da, da-da-daaah, the wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

THE END

—————————————————————————

APPENDIX

Timeline:

This timeline is intended to provide more context for the story of Reacher 5. It uses solar dates to list significant events in the history of space travel leading up to the Reacher 5 expedition. Bold items indicate events whose source documents are included in Acacia’s inheritance cache. To calculate the Julian Absolutionary Date (JAD), just add 4303 to the solar date.

2432 – We Are Not Alone: Kapteyn B civilization detected

2715 – Emissary 1 Launched to colonize Kapteyn B

2985 – Emissary 1 Landed on Kapteyn B finding ruins of a HUMAN civilization

2800 – First successful Warp drive engine test

2855 – Emissary 2 launched and soon landed at Alpha Centauri system

2860-2995 – Warp Drive Era: Enumerable star systems explored and colonized in the Milky Way

3000 – Centauri Rifts discovered – end of Warp Drive era

3010-3112 – 100 years of Centauri isolation

3880 – Ephesian Engine discovered at Earth’s core – Neutronautics discovered

3895 – Quantum Travel achieved from reverse engineering the Ephesian Engine

3900 – Construction of Dyson Sphere begins

4000 – Dyson Sphere converted to Dyson Cloud after Centauri Space War (Centauri Rifts agitated)

4015 – Diaspora Hypothesis proposed amid post war pessimism.

4090 – Neutronautics powered by Dyson Cloud enable first intergalactic travel within the Local Group

4091 – First contact with sentient life (humans) on Karma Zed III in neighboring Virgo Cluster

4150 – Neutronautical technology enables first galactic filament expeditions beyond the Local Group

4175 – Neutronautical expeditions map Laniakea, Europa, Africana, Asiaticus, Indo-Negra galactic filaments

4200 – Neutronautical expeditions map Americana, Sodeaster, Australic, and Antarcticus galactic filaments

4251 – Ephesian Engine EE2 enables the first Gulf Leap to the Amanzari Galactic Filament

4251-4390 – Engines EE3 and EE4 used to exhaustively map all galactic filaments within life-time range

4393 – Life’s Last Furlough policy established for explorers, Nordlund Sokian is the twenty-first to adopt it

4397 – Reacher 5 with EE5 system launches to reach the edge of the expanding Universe

4397 – R5 Beacons 01-03 sent

4398 – R5 Beacons 05-07 sent

4492 – Acacia Sokian receives her inheritance and reads R5 Mission Logs

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