TIMES ARE BURNING
The light slowly burned off his feet. He knew he wasn’t supposed to look but he couldn’t help it. The fine line of frost was running up to envelop his head while he was being systematically broken down. He laid back and opened his mouth, taking the largest breath he could before his lungs froze. His heart stopped. The muscles in his neck froze. Then the frost froze his eyes. As his brain iced over, his last thought was of the laser burning up through his body.
He awoke in the delivery room trying not to scream. A small yelp jumped out of his mouth before he could stop it. Running his hands down his chest, he stopped by cupping his genitals to make sure he was still completely intact. Of course, he had been through this a few times and in the back of his mind he knew he would be fine. Still, the thought of being destroyed and shot across galaxies in what seemed like a heartbeat wasn’t the most reassuring feeling.
“Are you still with the living, Zachary?” Shelia Vortentsiez asked.
Zachary looked over at her. Her skin was glowing pink instead of its usual gold. Here and there a patch of frost still stuck to her naked body. She looked as though she was sweating profusely as most of the frost started to melt.
“I still have trouble getting used to it,” he said.
“To what? The galaxy jaunt?” she asked him as she slipped into a white jumpsuit that they had provided in the human unloading area. He took one last glimpse of her perfectly round breasts before they were swallowed by a material that looked and felt like cotton, but came from something he didn’t want to think about.
“You say it as if it was as simple as slipping through a pneumatic sidewalk.”
She shrugged her shoulders then began to twist the last few drops of moisture from her hair.
“The thought of having all of my atoms frozen, then broken apart and shipped across a few galaxies—not to mention shot through numerous wormholes into hyperspace past who knows what—on a laser beam tends to bother me a bit.”
“Why? Are you afraid that they won’t put you back together right again?” She nodded at his groin. “Did they forget to put an inch of it back or is it the frost?”
“Funny.” They both smiled. “Do you know that we are traveling so fast that we are piercing through space junk and if a ship happens to be in the path of the beam we’d punch a hole through it?”
“And the ship’s force field would seal it up. I’ve been through the basic training course. You should worry more about why we’re here and less about whether or not you still have a soul.” Shelia tossed a jumper at him. She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and made no indication of turning away while he got dressed. Her eyes, in an almost lazy fashion, drifted over his body until he covered up.
Zachary wasn’t crazy about being sent on this expedition with Sheila. Out of the entire universe it turned out that human life originated on two other planets, just two. One was a few thousand years behind earth and the other was millions of years ahead. Zachary felt more at home with the primitives from Gurist than the future people like Shelia from Tokernupkh. The Tokernupkhians were all slight empaths and had no conception of modesty. Tokernupkhians also had no ponderings over the human soul.
“Earth was riddled with multiple religions before we grew out of them. The only leftover belief is in something that powers the mind and body from some other point,” he told her.
“You’ve never even been to Earth,” she pointed out. “The only thing about you that resembles an Earthling is the fact you can speak most of the languages.”
“So Tokernupkh had no spiritual leanings in the dark ages?”
“How much did you read about me before you agreed to come on this mission?”
Agreed was a strong word. The Cthulhulians specifically asked for him to come when they heard that the humans were sending out an expedition team to talk of the impending crisis. And he hadn’t read much about Tokernupkh. He was too fascinated by Shelia Vortentsiez. At thirty-five she was a triple Ph.D. She stood just under six feet at one-hundred and thirty-eight pounds. Her body was something of a teenage boy’s fantasy and her mind put his to shame. Her hair was onyx, not black, but onyx and it reached past her knees. She spoke all thirty-nine languages of the Tokernupkh Empire and most of the languages of the Earth Empire. He didn’t pay much attention to the history of her planet when there were tons of footage of her playing grügernik, which was similar to volleyball. Like the ancient Romans they played in the nude, again no conception of modesty.
“I know about your training and schooling. I was very impressed with your—”
“Body,” she said with a half-smile.
His face reddened a bit then he said, “Your empathic abilities are stronger than most from your Empire.”
She glanced at the numerals on the display built into the wall. He had no idea how to read them, but she was familiar with enough languages to make them out. She said: “We have a few minutes before they want us to suit up so we can get to know each other a bit.”
“I would like that.”
“Like you, I have never been to our origin planet. Like yours it is now destroyed by the change of its galaxy. My ancestors engaged in war and pollution to the point that they had to move on to the nearest satellite like Earthlings did with your moon. After that we realized that if we were to survive we would have to cut out all of these unproductive measures that were driving us to extinction. Any religions that we may have had were most likely dropped at that point.”
“So I guess the Tokernupkhians aren’t overly concerned about the crisis?”
She looked at him sternly. “We would lose the entire Empire if it came to pass. That is why I volunteered to come out here to R’lyeh.”
“Fair enough, anything you’d like to know about Earthlings or my-self?”
“No, I’ve researched both topics thoroughly. I would like to know more about R’lyeh and the Cthulhulians, since they are more inclined to communicate to the Earth Empire than my own.”
“For starters those aren’t really their names; they’re just what we call them because of the way they look. A few billion years ago they discovered Earth. This was before Earth even had their first space rocket. They tried to beam down some information about themselves and their planets. Most people were immune to the telepathic rays. The rays got into the head of one person and as luck would have it he was asleep every time they shot him. The guy was named Howard Phillips Lovecraft. He thought he was just having nightmares and he turned them into these fictional stories about the gods, one named Cthulhu in the sunken city of R’lyeh. For a while there a few thousand years ago, they actually thought it was a religion through a mix up in the educational departments.”
“You named them after fictional characters?”
“I didn’t name them anything. The name Cthulhulians was a joke from the Earth Empire that stuck when we found out that it was impossible to speak their language without having large holes bored all the way through or heads and having our intestines pulled through our new throats.”
If she was even slightly interested in what he was telling her she was great about not showing it. “Don’t you think it will bother them calling them monsters?”
“They don’t care. They are the oldest living species in the universe. Right now we are within a few hundred light years of where the big bang occurred. At this point in the culture they have nothing that offends them.”
“Then they should have most of the answers we came her for,” she said.
“Maybe, maybe not. Nothing like this has ever happened to where it could be remembered or recorded.”
“Speaking of which: how do the Cthulhulians take record?”
“They had these giant books for a while, but they were about as big as you or me. Then they used a system of giant pillars to tell the history of all known planets to them. As time went on they just passed the information telepathically.”
“Wouldn’t there be danger of misinformation at some point?”
“No. They don’t lie or hide things from each other. If they ever had emotions, they weren’t like anything you or I have. And there is no trace of them now. They are strictly scientific creatures at this point.”
Zachary watched as she stepped over to the small adjoining room. “And these are the suits we have to wear?”
“Only if you want to live,” he said.
The suits seemed huge. There was enough room on the inside for him to move around in. The controls were hard to figure. Cthulhulians didn’t understand comfort on a human level so he really had to give it a push to get the legs moving. Shelia seemed to be having more problems than he was.
“We can’t just wear space suits?” she asked him from a few meters back.
“The gravity is light to the point where we would float away, hence the giant monstrosities of denizens. Plus the atmosphere would eat up most of the things we can make portable on our respective empires.” The thought made him wonder who cleaned these suits. After a minute of thought he decided he didn’t want to know.
Zachary stopped and waited for Shelia to catch up. He took in the landscape. Every picture that he had ever seen of R’lyeh was taken at nighttime. They were close enough to a star to get light and heat but the gases that made up the atmosphere blocked out most of the light. There was a gray/green cast over the air. Through it he could see the hideous mountains that looked more like badly stacked luggage than a mountain range. He could see some of the things he took for mountains were moving. That must be some of the Elders. He and Shelia had taken enough of the retinal impressions of the creatures here to not be too disturbed by meeting one in person.
They were on a path that might have been from an old horror movie broadcast on walls or television sets long before they could broadcast them in your head. Zachary wasn’t crazy about the idea of walking up a long dark path into a cave on the side of a mountain. The mountain may even be a living thing. He pushed the thought out of his head as Shelia caught up with him.
“This is spooky,” she said as they resumed their march up the mountain side. “Do you think that they’ll have an answer?”
“They’ll have an answer alright, it may not be what we want to hear but they’ll answer our questions.”
On they marched through the dark countryside.
Up ahead a few humanoid creatures were waiting. They appeared nude and had a rubbery skin that glistened in the night. They had faces that would be the result of a horse running headlong into a dog. Their sharp teeth were broken off and looked more like jagged rocks than anything else. Their eyes were small and dark. Zachary was surprised that more creatures on this planet weren’t blind due to the lack of light. Their ears stretched out and up like a dog’s, but a few of them had pieces missing or they looked broken. The creatures’ skin was the color of milk that had been sitting out in the sun.
“Are these things friendly?” Shelia asked him.
“How should I know? Being a guest of the elder ones, I don’t think we’re going to get eaten any time soon,” he said.
One of the creatures at the front raised a long-fingered bony hand and pointed off to its right. Zachary and Shelia followed its finger to see a large hole in the side of the mountain. The two scientists looked back at the creature and it shook its head before uttering a grunt that would keep either of them from sleeping for some time to come. It was as if someone had reached inside their minds and rubbed the whole place down with ice. The sound caused both of them to shiver in their suits.
Zachary thanked it and heard that same guttural sound come out of the speaker to his suit. He had seen advanced translation like this before in dealing with nonhuman life but he had never had the firsthand experience of using it.
“I guess we do as he says,” Shelia said as they both turned to walk into the mountain.
The cave was an entrance to a huge labyrinth. Carved throughout were thick pillars erected to hold up the ceiling. Each one had an architectural design that Zachary couldn’t dream of. From the top of the pillar to the bottom was a carved history of different events of the planet. Zachary could make out certain parts of modern history that were barely visible. The pillars were miles high. He went up to another one to see the carvings of different species. He ran as fast as the suit would take him, checking pillar after pillar.
“Zachary, what are you looking for?”
He ignored her question and kept looking around until he found what he was looking for. She came up behind him after calling his name a few times. She looked at the pillar but nothing registered to her. “What is it that you are looking at?”
Still ignoring her question he ran his gloved hand on the wall. He knew that the suits might add a degree of strength so he was careful not to damage the pillar or the carvings. “Do you have any idea what this is?” he asked her, not expecting a response. “This is the true history of Earth. I could spend years studying this pillar. Right here is where the sun turned into a red giant and wiped out the planet.” He jumped a little in his suit. “You see this,” he said as he pointed to hundreds of little carvings that didn’t ring any bells for her. “This was thousands of years after the earth was abandoned. There was life there again. It was a new species just coming around.”
“I thought your planet of origin was abandoned because the humans on it destroyed it?” she asked.
“They, we did. It was so polluted that very few things could have lived there. I guess this was nature’s way of telling us it would get over what we threw at it.”
“Come on, Zachary. They have been waiting a long time for us.”
“This is what all of us are going to have to face. Only unlike these small unformed animals we know what is coming.” He thought that he was going to have a breakdown. He was chosen because he could hold it together better than most. He breathed in the artificial air deeply. He felt the cold air reach the bottom of his lungs and then he pushed it back out. The room crystallized in front of him and he was back on the mission.
Shelia asked him if he was alright. He nodded a response and then set off toward the destination once again. The hallways grew even larger in the following chambers. Off to their right there was a group of beings that looked like flying amoebas. They were large and gelatinous. The pair could see right through them.
“What are those?” Shelia asked.
“We called them Yogs in school. They are like the information gatherers of this planet. You see the things that look like a bunch of nuclei inside them? Those are multiple areas they use to store information. Those bumpy things that cover them are like dendrites in our brains. It is amazing how fast they can learn.”
“I should have been briefed more,” she said. “Why do we not talk to these Yogs instead of whomever we’re going to talk to?”
“Like I said, the Yogs are information gathers. They are not leaders. They just report up the line.”
“Well, what are the things that control this place?”
Zachary stopped and his face went pale. He raised one gloved hand and pointed forward. Shelia followed where he pointed and just about fainted.
The room before them seemed to stretch to the top of the mountain. It was a trick of the light or it could be that the whole time they were inside the cave they were walking downward. The top of the room must have actually been much higher than the top of the mountain. Most of the room was taken up by a tremendous throne and by what sat on it. The thing was partially humanoid, except its head looked like an octopus. Two wings that were much too small for flight hung over its shoulders. The color of its skin was the green you’d see from a rotting animal. Its eyes, where one eye would make ten of the two of them put together, looked down at the visitors.
From a spot somewhere under the tentacles came a horrid sucking and smacking noise. It sounded as though the beast was eating and it just finished sucking the flesh off a man. Then booming inside their helmets it said: “WELCOME TO (something that didn’t translate). YOU MAY CALL ME (again something that didn’t translate but sounded like a farting noise). I HAVE BEEN AWAITING YOUR ARRIVAL.”
Zachary stepped forward and put his lips together and blew, trying to mimic the noise he heard the things make. “We come here bearing a question that only you can answer.”
Zachary heard his voice being translated into the same sucking noises. And then the noises came back at him.
“YES, GO AHEAD.”
Zachary held his hand out to Shelia. She said: “As you know the universe has stopped expanding. And now that it has stopped we are starting to see a reversal of direction.”
“THIS WE KNOW. WHAT IS YOUR QUESTION?” It could have been the translator but Zachary thought he heard a demand in the voice.
“The universe is starting to collapse. All life on every planet in every galaxy will eventually be destroyed. How do we stop it?”
“YOU HAVE TRAVELED ALL THIS WAY TO ASK US SUCH A QUESTION? WHY DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? WHAT IS OUT THERE THAT IS WORTH PRESERVING?”
They hadn’t anticipated that the Cthululians would ask a question in place of an answer. Nor had they anticipated the Cthululians would not register that they were the ones that sent for the two scientists.
“Life,” she answered without pausing. “There is so much beautiful life on so many planets. There is the future for our children. We want them to grow up and live long lives as well. If the universe collapses there will be nothing left for anything.”
“AND YOU?” It didn’t spend anytime considering Shelia’s answer. Zachary now had the possible fate of all things and time in his hands so he answered truthfully.
“I want to live. I want to live knowing that there will be a tomorrow that I can wake up to. I want to go the rest of my life knowing that there is nothing on the horizon but more days.” He could feel Shelia looking at him but he didn’t dare look over at her. He hated himself for being so selfish but he didn’t want to lie.
The big creature blinked twice and said: “THE TRUTH, THAT WAS THE LAST THING TO BE EXPECTED AT TIMES OF PERIL. THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION IS THAT THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO. THE UNIVERSE AND ALL WORLDS WILL COME TO AN END IN APPROXIMATELY THREE BILLION YEARS BY YOUR TIME, DOCTOR VORTENTSIEZ. I HARDLY THINK THAT YOUR CHILDREN WILL BE ALIVE. WE UNDERSTAND THAT THE AVERAGE HUMAN LIFE ENDS AFTER ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY OF YOUR YEARS.”
“But there must be something that you can do? You are the most advanced civilization in the universe and all you can tell us is to give up?” Shelia demanded.
“WHAT SHOULD BE DONE? DO YOU THINK WE HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY TO STOP SUCH A THING AS THIS? DO YOU THINK THAT THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENED?”
“What do you mean?” both Zachary and Shelia asked in unison.
“THIS IS HOW THE UNIVERSE WORKS. IT EXPLODES INTO BILLIONS OF FRAGMENTS AND MAKES ITSELF. WHEN IT IS FINISHED IT COLLAPSES UNTIL IT IS FORCED TO EXPLODE AGAIN. THERE IS NO BEGINNING OR END. THIS WILL NEVER EVER STOP.”
Shelia, betraying the first hints of defeat, said: “But how can you know this?”
“YOU CAME HERE WITH ONE QUESTION AND YOU CONTINUE TO ASK. THIS UNIVERSE RUNS OFF OF ENERGY. ENERGY IS FOREVER FOR THE MOST PART. IT COLLECTS AND IS RELEASED INTO US FIRST. WE ARE CREATED WITH ALL THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE UNIVERSE.”
“In other words you have nothing to worry about?” Shelia said.
“DO YOU REALLY THINK THAT ENTROPY IS EXCLUSIVE TO HUMANS? WE WILL HAVE NEW BATTLES TO OVERCOME AND NEW THINGS TO DISCOVER. THINGS NEVER COME BACK THE SAME WAY TWICE.”
Shelia turned to leave. “Let’s go. At least at home we are working on a solution instead of giving up.”
Zachary stood there for a few moments. Thoughts danced around in his head. “I’m not going,” he said finally.
“I’m staying here. I want to go over those pillars and discover the true histories of the universe.” He turned to the giant still sitting on his throne. “May I stay here to study your histories?”
A long pause drew out between them. “YOU MAY STAY IF YOU WISH. ON THE CONDITION THAT YOU TRANSLATE AND SEND THE INFORMATION YOU GATHER OUT TO OTHER WORLDS.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Why would you want to do that instead of going home?” she asked, ignoring their host.
“Home? You know that years and years have gone by in what was seconds to us. It has been sixty years since I left. There wasn’t much for me to begin with. If I stay here I can study all the cultures that ever existed. If we only have one chance with nothing we can do about it, I want to stay and do something that will mean something wonderful for me.”
Sheila’s eyes jumped back and forth while she considered this. “You know that one of my Ph.D.’s is in history, right?” she asked.
“I know,” he said.
They joined hands in acceptance of a new life that would be spent in pursuit of their core interests, fulfilling to the end.
Food for Thought
If they Big Crunch were to happen (the opposite of the big bang, the universe collapses in on itself) and if humanity were still around, how would they cope? Would they pool all of the knowledge of the universe together to stop it, or would they just give up?
About the Author
Adam Armstrong is a life long native to Northern Kentucky. He is a professional writer with over 1,500 paid publications to his name in everything from short fiction to critical reviews to articles to writing in trade journals. He lives with his beautiful wife, Melissa, and their wonderful son, Dylan, in a slowly self destructing house. When Adam is not churning out writing he spends much of his time traveling the world, currently spending time in South East Asia. Once an eon he updates his blog at http://wordsandsquiggles.blogspot.com/.
EPUB MOBI PDF