I wrote this a couple of years ago from a brief outline that I found tucked away in a corner of my hard disk. I don't know how old that was.
© David Given 2009
Step, step, step, step.
He walked quite quickly, with a smooth, unvarying gait. His bare foot came down onto the dark substrate, making no noise in the vacuum. Each pace was followed by one exactly like it, and then another, and then another.
Step, step, step, step.
The environment around him was unchanging. Above, the faint light of far-distant galaxies shone down. Below, the dark substrate sucked the light away.
Step, step, step, step.
The only motion was at the horizon, and even that was difficult to make out. Faint pinpricks of light, exactly on the border between the sky above and the ground below, would repeatedly shine out and then fade in a slow, regular rythm. Suns.
Step, step, step, step.
His eyes remained focused on one such sun, far ahead. In all the time he had been walking, it had not approached appreciably.
Step, step, step, step.
Another such sun lay far behind. He never looked around to see it. If he had, the photons of light that would hit his retinas would have taken just under thirty days to have reached him.
Step, step, step, step.
He had been walking like this for nearly six hundred thousand years.
Occasionally, very occasionally, the galaxies overhead would ripple briefly as a warp ship would pass by. Once one had passed within metres of him at several thousand times the speed of light; the gravitational eddies had caused him to loose his footing. That had been the only time his pace had been disturbed.
The warp ships could cross the distance he had travelled in a matter of days. He preferred to walk.
Step, step, step. Step.
He stopped walking.
His left foot had descended a few centimetres too far. The substrate was supposed to be completely flat. He looked down, but could see nothing; feeling around instead, he found that he had stepped into a shallow depression. The substrate in the depression had been slightly roughened. It was obviously the edge of a well, but the closest well was still over ten light-days away; the one he was heading for.
A little investigation revealed that the depression deepened off to the left. He thought briefly and followed it. His original assignment could wait; it would not take long to look into this.
Step, step, step, step.
There had been no trace of a sun in this well. It would have made itself glaringly apparent had there been one. Furthermore, he had no knowledge of a well anywhere in the vicinity. This would seem to indicate that the dark well had been forgotten for an extremely long time.
A few thousand kilometres on, the depression started to descend further. The slope grew steep and jagged, and he had to start picking his way carefully. In the past he had always had the light of a friendly sun to aid him when doing this. This time, there was only the insignificant galaxy-light.
He descended slowly but steadily. After a while, little drifts of gravel began to appear in the indentations. He studied a piece carefully. It was cold; three kelvin. All the heat it had once had had radiated away into the intergalactic void.
The gravel became more common, and boulders started to appear, and after a while the substrate was entirely covered with rock. The going became quite hazardous. The rock was loose and shifted underfoot. Several times he had slipped and slid down scree slopes, an avalanche of rock silently rushing down with him. Once he was buried and had to dig himself free.
He was at an estimated hundred kilometres below the level of the substrate when snow started to appear, shining in the dim galaxy-light.
It was just the faintest dusting of nitrogen ice, of course. It tended to accumulate under rocks and in the spaces between gravel. This worried him. The time taken for appreciable amounts of solid nitrogen to sublime off at these temperatures were extreme, even by his standards.
The snow did tend to bind the gravel together, making it easier to move. Unfortunately, if he remained in once place for too long, his own radiated body heat would cause the snow to evaporate away from the ground he was standing on. The gravel, no longer bound, would be more inclined to give way. He kept moving.
As he descended, the snow slowly thickened; oxygen started to appear, forming a neat layer underneath the nitrogen. All solid, of course. Other gases soon followed. When he reached an estimated eight hundred kilometres below the surface, real water ice underpinned them all, and he knew he was nearly there. The terrain started to level.
Eight hundred and fifty kilometres below the surface, he found a dead plant.
It was a simple mountain grass, tucked in the crack high on a boulder. Its position meant that it had not been covered by the metres of assorted frozen gases and liquids that he was now wading through. Its fine stems had cracked under their own weight and had fallen, now lying on the surface of the frozen nitrogen.
He examined it briefly, and moved on.
A little while later he found, to his relief, a river. Up here it was just a simple mountain stream, which would normally trickle down the valleys to feed some larger torrent further down. He had been worrying about the light. In the pitch black around him, with only the distant galaxies providing any light at all, simply finding his way was hard, and trying to navigate to the central sea would be even harder. Now, of course, all he had to do was to follow the stream and he would eventually get there.
The going was not as good as it could be. He could walk on the surface of the stream, where the ice provided good footing, but in these steep valleys, ancient avalanches of frozen air tended to block the path. He could climb up the side of the valley and walk down along the ridges, but that involved having to pick his way through the rocks. There was also the risk of losing the stream, way down in the dark.
He usually found it easier to push his way through the frozen air, letting his own body heat melt a tunnel.
The mountains turned into foothills, and the stream grew in size. Other waterways met it, and it swelled. Soon, it became a substantial river of ice, flowing nowhere.
He found his first town.
He took some time to explore it, although it was not very large. Its dark buildings, buried under the white canopy of snow and air, would probably have housed a few thousand people once. He walked down streets of silent, beehive shaped structures, their outlines just visible in the dim light. Some mounds in the snow became empty vehicles on closer examination. In the central square there was a statue that had somehow managed to shed its load of snow, and the dark stone stood stark above the whiteness: a woman, standing erect, holding a loaf of bread in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. She stared away into the darkness as if she were waiting for someone.
There was a body nearby.
The body interested him far more than the statue. It was lying on its back, and had once been dressed in a heavy environment suit. The extreme cold and the millions of years of time had not been kind to it, and the sophisticated plastics had crumbled away, leaving the body exposed to the vacuum. There was enough of it left to reveal that the faceplate had broken. Judging by the posture, he thought, it seemed feasible that the ancient man had fallen, broken the faceplate and died, and then his friends had rolled him over onto his back. Seeing that he was dead, they left him there.
Perversely, the body had survived the time far more capably than the environment suit. There were even traces of blood around the man's mouth, evidence of explosive decompression; and there were no signs of decomposition, which indicated that it had probably frozen very quickly. Even more damning, there were no signs of ice sublimation around the eyes and mouth. That meant that the temperature must have very rapidly dropped by a huge amount.
The signs were, therefore, that the man had been wearing an environment suit, in the cold and vacuum, while walking through the streets of a town where it should be normal to wear shirt sleeves.
He left the body and examined one of the houses. It was still reasonably intact, and showed no signs of being air tight. A family had once lived here; there were still toys and possessions strewn across the floor, lightly dusted by the ubiquitous layer of frozen air. Some of the cupboards were standing open and seemed to have been ransacked. Perhaps the owners had packed hurriedly and left. It made a certain amount of sense.
When he attempted to investigate the upper storey, the wooden stairs crumbled beneath his weight. He eyed the roof, and left.
The river continued on.
The town marked the edge of the mountains. From here, the river began to wind leisurely through rolling hills. The area must once have been quite densely populated; the river frequently passed through small villages, and on a number of occasions he found himself having to climb down dams. Off in the distance, only just visible in the dark, he could occasionally make out angular marks in the snow that were probably walls or roads. He did not investigate.
The hills gradually lessened. The river grew even more, merging with other watercourses. Quite soon the landscape flattened out completely, and he knew that he must be on the flood plain. The river must once have been impressive: a life-giving artery, nourishing the fields that fed the entire population of the well. Now it had been motionless for millenia, and the fields to each side were completely sterile. All he could see was the pale snow stretching out on all sides, open under the deep vacuum of space.
When he found the river mouth he estimated that he was, perhaps, a thousand kilometres away from the mountains at the edge of the well.
There was a city here. He walked through the empty streets. The skyscrapers reached up above the snow on all sides, darker shadows against the blackness of space. There were more vehicles all about, most of them collapsed in on themselves; the concrete buildings had survived the cryogenic temperatures rather better than the simple metals of the cars and buses. He paused briefly to leaf through the shattered remains of one. There were remains of brightly-coloured, contrasting paint on the fragments, together with some kind of embossed logo. He thought that it might have been an official vehicle of some kind, but he could not read any of the writing. It had had no passengers.
He thought that there would probably be answers here, somewhere. The city was obviously important, and chances were that it had been the well's capital. When whatever disaster befell this place happened, then this was where the response would have been organised. There would be records, somewhere, that would tell him what happened. The problem was finding them, and then deciphering them. He had been around for a long time, but languages changed rapidly, and he usually found that every well he visited --- every populated well, that is --- had a new language to learn.
However, there was another potential source of information. Somewhere there would be a warp ship port. There, he decided, he would be much more likely to find useful records. After the disaster, it was quite likely that visitors would have arrived for quite some time before the place was forgotten. If he looked around, under the topmost layers of snow he would probably be able to find their footprints.
He found the port out by the docks. The warp ships would once have flown in and landed in the sea, and then been towed into the harbour along with the other sea traffic. It was a common pattern and he had seen it many times before.
The emergency landing field was a square kilometre of ice that had been brushed clean of snow. This had happened before the temperature had dropped enough for the last traces of the atmosphere to freeze out, and now it was dusted with a light sprinkling of noble gases. This was not enough to disguise the marks made by many landing legs. There were vehicle tracks through the snow towards the city, as well. The dead well had been busy once.
There were no ships now, of course, but he did find some collapsed metal buildings towards the edge of the field. One of them puzzled him for some time, until he realised that it had once been a crude atomic reactor, probably functioning as a power station. The reactor core had cracked open when the building had collapsed, and what was left of the fissile material was gone. The last traces of radioactivity had gone.
The reactor worried him. There should be no need for anything as crude as nuclear fission here.
The other building had been the port authority. He found some documents inside in a variety of languages, some of which he knew. Anything made of paper had shattered in the collapse --- cryogenic temperatures are not kind to wood pulp --- but there were some computer storage devices that were still readable. To his disappointment, though, they did not tell him anything he could not have otherwise have guessed. One day, the sun went out. The temperature dropped. As many people as possible were evacuated. Later, the refugees tried to maintain a presence in their well, but interest faded over time and eventually nobody cared any more. The last record was a journal entry from the last man to staff the port authority. He told how there was no longer funding and when his tour of duty was over, he would not be replaced.
The only visitors since then would have been the ones who had stolen the uranium out of the shattered reactor. And after that, nothing. The well faded out of history and memory and was gone.
He climbed out of the remains of the port building and looked around. Over to one side he could just make out the bulk of an ancient warp ship, now caved in. The records had mentioned that; it was a water-borne passenger liner that had waited too long to leave, and found itself frozen in. About half the personnel on board had been evacuated through smaller ships before it was crushed by the ice. Afterward, looters had picked the hulk clean, and during the vast gulf of time since then it had collapsed in on itself. There was nothing of interest there.
He put the storage device down, and headed out to sea.
The water had thickened with ice crystals before freezing, and under the frozen air the surface was grainy and provided good traction. At this temperature, the ice was too cold to be slippery anyway. He made good time; after about a week's walking he decided that he was probably in the vicinty of the sun tower, and started to examine the sky.
This was the difficult part. The sun tower was not usually very hard to miss. Now, though, it was black against the black sky. The faint light shed by the distant galaxies was not nearly enough to see it from a distance. His only real chance of finding it was if it occulted one of those galaxies. It took another week of walking in huge circles, stopping every hour or so and studying the sky, until he finally noticed the tell-tale hairline of darkness through one of the diffuse masses in the sky. After another couple of days, he was there.
The sun tower rose out of a tiny, nondescript rocky island. The island had been put there mainly for aesthetic reasons. The tower itself was rooted deep in the substrate that underpinned the well, and could not be toppled by any mere force of nature.
He picked his way up through the rocks to the base of the tower. Condensing moisture had frozen against it, and it was thickly glazed with ice, so he carefully worked a small rock free of the frozen ground, and used it to scrape away at the side of the tower. Eventually he managed to expose a small area of the tower's side. He threw the rock away, reached in, and placed his palm against the side of the tower.
Nothing. The tower was completely dead.
He was a little disappointed. He had hoped that there was still a tiny trickle of power left in the tower's systems, just enough to talk to him and, maybe, open a door. It had been a remote hope, though, and he had not really expected to find anything. But it would have saved some time.
Without power, the tower could not let him in. There were no entrances at the base. There was, however, an entrance at the top. The problem was the tower, by virtue of what it did, had to extend above the atmosphere. It was almost exactly a thousand kilometres high.
There was a spiral staircase around the outside. The steps were about seventy-five centimetres wide. There was no railing.
He glanced around once at the empty landscape, and started climbing.
The world rotated about him. The stairs went past, one after another. He never grew tired and he never grew bored. He reached the top.
The summit felt isolated, disconnected from the rest of the universe. The tower itself felt impossibly thin, somehow inadequate to ground him against reality. As he stood on the very tip, he felt almost as if he were on a platform floating in the middle of endless space. He was very aware, though, that if he fell off, slightly short of eight minutes later he would hit the surface. And then he would have to climb up again. He was careful.
The tower was about fifty metres wide, and hollow. The walls were moderately thick, and there was a comfortable space to walk around on the top. He approached the inner edge, and then, very cautiously --- if he fell down the inside, he would probably die, eventually --- looked down. Far, far away in the distance, there was a tiny violet point of light.
There was another staircase down the inside. He descended. He was even more careful.
The inside was bigger than the outside. It went down all the way to sea level, and further. The faint light grew brighter, very slowly, and shed coloured highlights on the stairs without actually seeming to illuminate anything. He had to be cautious anyway, but the deceptive shadows added another layer of difficulty to the climb.
He reached the bottom some ten kilometres below his starting point, on the ice outside the tower. The iris closed off the complete bottom of the tower, leaving only a gap a few metres wide in the middle. On the wall beside the last stair was the manual control; a simple wheel with a handle. He turned it.
There was silence for a moment. Elsewhere, a counterweight had moved, and was sliding down a frictionless shaft. It took a few moments to build up speed, and then the gears engaged, and silently, smoothly, the iris opened in a blaze of light. He stepped down again, on the other side of the iris, and was suddenly on the other side of the world.
Everything was bathed in a caustic, violet glare that shone up from the gulf below. On every side, vast, shadowy shapes hung amid endless vistas, marching off to infinity in all directions, poised to unfurl. Above there was only the dark horizon, gleaming with greasy violet highlights where the light shone against it; and below, there was only the Core, an eye-searing amethyst of painful light. Elsewhere the gulf was empty. Not black, but a vacant nothingness tinged with purple. On the edge of vision, it was possible to delude yourself into seeing a hint of structure.
Between the world above and the gulf below there were some platforms, suspended by cables, and connected by disconcertingly long catwalks. One connected to the bottom of the tower stairway, and it was along this that he walked. The catwalk swung very slowly.
The platform was close by one of the folded shapes. Cables had been strung between the pleats of the folds and some very traditional winches fastened to the open decking of the platform. There were also some other items of machinery of a different kind, and when he arrived he stroked each one in turn, looking for a response; these were dead, too.
He paused for a while, and slowly turned, carefully inspecting everything he could see. There was only really one thing he could do; but he did not know if it was an entirely good idea. The only reason it needed doing now was because it had been undone, then. It must have been undone for a reason. Yet there were no obvious signs of damage to anything, and if there had been it should have been fixed. This action of simply... shutting down... the well was unprecedented.
But there was no real choice. All the equipment was dead, because there was no power. That meant he had to open one of the power collectors.
The winch was powered, but that did him no good. Instead he had to turn it by hand. The cables tightened and the platform swung alarmingly, but that had been accounted for, and the other cables that guyed it to the world above tightened and prevented any further movement. Slowly, ever so slowly, the huge shape that towered over the tiny platform began to move. It became apparent that the fabric was folded around arms hundreds of metres long. The arms began to move. Glacially, the fabric spread out around them, and the collector began to unfurl. The thick actinic Corelight from below percolated up through the widening aperture and reached the collector's inner surfaces. Energy began to trickle into the accumulators. Like an inverted flower, the collector opened itself to the Core and was exposed to its mercies.
Now there was power, and his job became considerably easier.
The machines on the platform woke up from their long sleep, one by one. At first they were querulous, demanding information, confused by their isolation. But as more and more became active, they settled down and began doing their jobs. They inspected the other collectors, that were all still closed. They checked the systems in the tower. The examined the substrate around the well. They probed space for millions of kilometres both above and below the world. They checked the records of the last time they were activated, and what had happened when they had been deactivated.
There were no problems, anywhere. Apparently, the power systems had been carefully shut down, the collectors closed, the tower mothballed, and all the other systems that ran the well had been deactivated and disabled. It had been done deliberately and with care.
But there were no records of this. The machine's memories had been wiped clean. The machines had been without power for so long that they had even forgotten how long it was.
He stood at the edge of the platform, stared down at the Core beneath his feet, and thought.
Eventually, he reached out and touched one of the machines again. Around him, the world slowly stirred. All about the platform and the single open collector, the other collectors began to open. For as far as his eyes could see, there was movement.
The trickle of power into the accumulators became a stream, and then a torrent, and then a flood.
He waited only long enough to check that the systems were all running correctly. It would take about two days for the accumulators to charge sufficiently, and he wanted to use the time: not that being too close to the tower would harm him, but it might be an inconvenience. So, he turned and walked back along the catwalk to the base of the tower.
Just as he stepped up onto the first step, though, he hesitated for a moment, and then looked down. The Core stared back up at him. If he fell, he thought, he would fall for millions of years before the the ravening power of the Core managed to volatilise his body. He probably wouldn't even go mad in that time. But he stared, nevertheless, and he wondered for a moment just what was happening down there in that realm of distorted physics and reversed entropy. But then he turned and started climbing.
Ten kilometres up, at sea level, he stopped and placed his hand on the wall. It turned out that he had misestimated the distance, so he had to climb another few hundred metres before he reached the surface; but then the tower obligingly opened a tunnel through its fabric to let him out. He walked down it, away from the violet glow behind; the Core shed a foul light, but it was light nevertheless, and outside it was very dark and cold indeed. Just before he reached the end of the tunnel the tower rippled briefly, shrugging off its collar of ice. He patted it briefly in thanks as he stepped out and down into the snow, and the tunnel snapped closed behind him, shutting off the last of the light.
It turned out that he had left the tower on the opposite side to which he had arrived, so he circled round the island and started to trudge back through the snow towards the mainland.
Two days later he became aware of a shadow in front of him.
Turning, he saw high in the sky, nearly above him, a tiny spark of reddish light. It wavered briefly, nearly guttering, and then began to strengthen unsteadily. He frowned in disapproval, but then the spark suddenly flared, gathered momentum, and started to brighten and change colour, becoming whiter. Around, the snow began to shine in the faint light.
And then, quite silently in the vacuum, the spark expanded into a golden ball of fire, a flaming sphere of energy erupting out of the tip of the tower and ascending gloriously into space. It was a sun.
The light and heat blasted down. He flinched, quite reflexively, and put a hand over his eyes, but it was unnecessary. All around, the topmost layers of air flashed into vapour and were gone in a moment. The nitrogen and oxygen snow took a little longer. The glare of tropical sunlight on the snow and ice felt almost unbearable; the white fields stretched away in all directions. Far away in the distance, the edge of the well rose up in majestic, white-cloaked mountains, crisp and perfect in the vacuum; but there was already a faint wavering to those edges as the air began to rise.
He walked on, footsteps crunching down into the melting snow.
The air pressure around him exploded. It did take some time to raise the temperature of all that air from so close to absolute zero, but it was still only a few hours. Faint winds began to tug at him, growing more and more insistent as the day passed, and the snow began to twist and spin in little flurries. The sky slowly changed from the empty blackness of space to a deep indigo, and then it slowly softened towards a rich, ultramarine blue. The clarity started to fade, as ice crystals filled the air, and towards evening he found himself struggling to push his way through hurricane force winds.
Above, the now hidden sun had reached the peak of its arc at noon, and was falling back towards the ground. It was losing its focus, now, fading, becoming larger and redder and more diffuse, and when the expanding ball of incandescent hydrogen finally fell into the reborn atmosphere it dispersed with very little fuss. Night fell again, but this night was not the motionless stasis of the endless aeons that had passed before, but was instead the roaring, vibrant night of a spring storm.
The next morning, the sun rose again, created anew by the tower. The hurricane had become a full blizzard during the night. He was still forcing his path onwards through the wind and snow, but making very little progress. More importantly, the visibility had closed in around him, and he was no longer sure that he was going in the right direction. This close to the sun tower, even navigating by the sun was unreliable. So he eventually gave up, and lay down and let the snow cover him. That night he slept for the first time in over half a million years.
The next day, the pressure and temperature had risen far enough that liquid water could form. The snow lost its abrasiveness and became soft and sticky. Very suddenly, the sky cleared. The suspended ice crystals melted and then almost immediately evaporated; further up, the water vapour condensed again, and just as suddenly the sky clouded over. As evening fell, it began to rain.
By this time, he had started walking again. The rain was cold, just on the verge of freezing, and was no match for the ocean of coldness below. If he had stayed still, he would have been in real danger of being frozen to the ice. Even so he found his feet freezing to the surface, and he had to wrench them loose with an audible crunch every time he took a step.
The well's atmosphere was already beginning to settle down after the turbulence of the thaw, but it would take decades, perhaps centuries, for the ocean to melt.
A few days later he finally found himself approaching the city. The devastation was almost total. The combination of the hurricanes and the rising temperatures had finally undone the ancient stasis, and entropy was in full reign. Practically all the buildings had collapsed, and there were just piles of debris where the skyscrapers used to be. All the streets were blocked with driven snow. Out by the docks, the little landing field on the ice had been swept away almost entirely, with only a few metal fragments remaining frozen onto the surface; the wrecked warp ship had collapsed completely, leaving a hollow in the ice full of twisted, crumbling metal, now all glazed with fresh ice.
He walked back up the river.
There was sound, now. The winds howled and roared, although not as much as they did a few days previously. Beneath that he could hear the land itself, slowly thawing. Cryogenic ice met liquid water and crackled and shattered. Long-frozen structures finally crumbled and collapsed in on itself. Snow built up into towering piles by any windbreak, and sagged and shifted as it melted. And everywhere was the trickle and drip of water.
The hurricanes had nearly died away completely by now. This was the calm before the real storm: the exploding air had stirred itself thoroughly and was now nearly all the same temperature. Soon, however, the land would start to heat up in the sunlight. It would heat the air above it. The huge heat sink of the ocean, however, would cool the air. A few weeks from now, the peace would be broken by a gigantic, toroidal storm as the two bodies of air vied for supremacy. The entire coastline would be scoured clean, and nearly every trace of the long-forgotten civilisation that had lived there would be lost. He hoped to be away from the well by then.
He retraced his steps back through the plains, then up through the lowlands. Some of the hills had been blown clean by the hurricanes. The long dead plants had crumbled away to dust, exposing the dark soil, which was soaking in the heat. The air wavered above these patches, and the wind was uncertain, blowing little gusts in his face.
Some of the fields contained the bodies of domesticated animals, dead for millions of years and now thawing again. He wondered whether they would decompose; it was possible that some bacteria could have survived the long freeze. He shrugged mentally. It was not his responsibility.
The village had suffered much the same fate as the city. Oddly, however, the statue was still standing. The woman had lost one arm, and now appeared to flourish the screwdriver defiantly against the elements. Now in daylight, he could see that she was staring up at the sun tower, with the dawn sun full in her face.
He wondered briefly whether the statue would survive the coming storms. It was unlikely.
The mountains were difficult: there were avalanches almost continuously as the rocks thawed and loosened. Here, the edge of the well towered up above him. A thousand kilometres was the figure; like the sun tower, and for the same reason, they had to be high enough to keep the atmosphere safely within the well. The climb down had been done in the eternal darkness, but the climb up was in daylight, and time passed. It took a long time.
As he finally stepped up onto the smooth flatness of the surface, there was a momentary streak of blue light overhead. Cerenkov radiation; a braking warp ship. It was not the first he had seen. Thirty days after the first dawn the light from the new sun would have reached a neighbouring well. The inhabitants had noticed, and, being human, had sent a ship to investigate. He looked back: it was late evening, and the fading sun shone a red glow on the boiling crimson clouds that covered the entire land surface. Off in the remote distance, towards the sea, lightning flickered almost continuously. He silently wished them luck, and hoped that they would not try to land.
Word would spread. A new well; such things had never been heard of. People would flock here, and find mysteries to solve. Fragments of the old civilisation would be dug up and analysed. The story would become known. Eventually, some people like him would arrive; some would ride the warp ships. The sun tower would be entered and the machines probed. They would see that they had been recently reactivated, and they would investigate why, and they would investigate why they had been shut down. The mystery would, eventually, be solved. Not soon, but there was plenty of time.
The well lay spread out before him, a hazy pocket of potential life, tucked in a tiny crevice of the incomprehensibly vast surface. There was no life there yet, but there would be, soon.
But it was not really any of his concern.
He turned his back on the well, and started walking into the blackness.
Step, step, step, step...