Art by Norman E. Masters
the 'exotic, mysterious, unknown center of the Kosmos'".
Starting in approximately 101 G. E. the Grand Assembly of the First Stellar Hold earmarked an appropriation to be used... "for a systematic survey of the known Universe to compile a catalog of all phenomena as an aid to exploration, colonization, and any other purpose deemed fitting by this Assembly." A committee was appointed to administer the fund, and to establish the basic format of the program. The first major goal was the determination of the exact center of the Universe for use in establishing a frame of reference for subsequent work.
On 7 Green 114 G.E. the newly commissioned and fully equipped fleet of survey ships departed from Ailentrac, the space port of Consil II. In deep space the ships formed into sweep formation, calibrated and correlated their search detectors, and shaped their first orbit into unmapped space. Trip duration was to be approximately fifty cycles. The first five sweeps produced the anticipated results, correlations placed determination of center within a tolerance of one thousandth of a parsec.
The ships then deployed in a microsweep of the indicated central area. The exact date of the discovery has been lost, but records show that the survey was entering into the fiftieth cycle of the expedition. At the geometric center of the Universe, they discovered an occult formation. Little more is known today about the nature and internal structure that was known then. The little party warily approached a small spheriod which appeared to be covered with a dull, black surface, reflective to any radiation the explorers were able to transmit. The object emitted no radiation on any known frequency; and it registered no discernable sign of awareness to the approach of the explorers.
After a reconnaisance period including visual and radio-observation and spectrographic analysis of reflected radiation, a physical landing was attempted and completed without incident. The surface showed no indication of having any sort of opening, and frustrated all attempts at physical analysis. Quite accidentally, one of the explorers noticed that it was possible to see into the center of the object using something to block the starlight.
In the center of the formation those men discovered a multitude of dim pinpoints of light arranged in a pattern which suggested an ornate drinking cup, and from which the Black Chalice derived its name. The discovery added increased intensity to the men's struggle to gain entrance. Supplies were running short, and as yet they had learned nothing about the strange formation. Apparently in desperation, they attempted to blast an opening with a small fission device.
The mirror surface defeated them; the reflected explosion destroyed all the equipment in a line-of-sight relation with it. The remains of the party returned home and submitted their report.
In 152 G.E. the Third Tactical Squadron of the Stellar Hold made contact with the Black Chalice. Following orders the fleet went on Full Battle Alert, and completed an Enclosure around their quarry. After an interval, an assault party was set down and they established a beachhead.
Once again tests were made; all without conclusive results. The only conclusion they indicated was that the barrier had no physical existence; but at the same time, there was no way of refuting its reality. More attempts were made to gain entry, but this time men were more respectful of the reflective qualities of the barrier.
Presently they exhausted their resources and contented themselves with maintaining the quarantine of the Enclosure. This was the state of affairs until 178 G.E. when a change in government was followed by a tax refund which resulted in a cut in the defense budget. The Third Tactical Squadron was one of the units demobilized. The menace of a quarter of a century earlier had proved to be no menace at all. The Black Chalice had simply become the center of the Universe. The decommissioning of the fleet did not even rate coverage from the news media.
The Black Chalice was unvisited almost entirely during the ensuing millenium. Occasionally, a scientific expedition would come to test a theory upon the brooding formation; but they always left almost as quickly as they came; no richer in knowledge; poorer, however, in theories. Once in a great while, a man came to satisfy his own curiosity, or in a search for inspiration, much as the mythical "Quest of the Holi Crale". The Black Chalice received them all, by way of taking no notice of their existence; and when they left, it left a mark, a dark enigma, upon their minds.
In approximately 1703 G. E., Favot I, known in history books as the Bloody, consolidated his empire. As peace and order returned, people began to derive some of the benefits for which they were so heavily paying. Under the aegis of the Imperial Fleet, travel became safer, repair and refueling points more available and dependable. The human race became more mobile than ever before.
Cranic Jizdimir, a commoner, but a shrewd businessman, is the man who sold the Black Chalice. A baffling scientific entity suddenly became the "exotic, mysterious, unknown center of the Kosmos". A massive publicity campaign followed. A Black Chalice Lines, Ltd. opened up under Imperial Patent and offered a "complete range of tours to suit all incomes." A small company began to manufacture "Explorer Kits" containing whole series of tests to perform with guaranteed negative results.
The first voyage left on 34 Orange 1923 G. E. and arrived on 16 Blue of the same Cycle. By this time the surface of the formation was covered with little bits of abandoned equipment which had failed to prove some theory or other. Here Naquin Rivkne, a 7th grade Techneer, met the fate that made his name known to every literate being.
Rivkne was one of the first men of the Star Voyager, flagship of the Black Chalice Lines. In the light, but definite gravity, it was difficult to keep a steady footing on the mirror surface with the junk strewn all around. Rivkne slipped and fell, accomplishing accidentally what other men had not been able to do after thousands of years of sporadic effort. For when Rivkne fell he did not land on the surface, but fell on thru it.
It was definitely not simply the falling that did it, tho the posture of the body and the attitude of it in relation to the surface was vital. It also required the correct sequence of thoughts, emotions, impressions in shadings too fine to be denoted by this crude linguistic tool. No one has been able to duplicate exactly the circumstances; few have really wanted to try. There is as yet no way to get back out. But, hi-freq retrans communication thru the surface from the inside out is possible.
Rivkne was able to retrans what he experienced in the formation before he starved to death. After he gave up his futile efforts to escape, he began to explore his prison. The spheroid was not empty, but full of a substance without form. He could sense that something was there, but he could not physically experience it. Movement was possible by some sort of mental effort; he was not clear as to the manner in which this was possible. It may have been a problem in communciation.
Finally he moved toward the array of lights in the center of the formation. He could not touch them; they were protected by some sort of shield. At the base of the Chalice he found something which is not detectable from the outside. He described it as a "pushbutton in the middle of nothing." Over the button was some sort of symbol which he could not adequately describe.
A human being is a curious monkey, and he will probably be until the end. Rivkne pushed the button. Nothing happened. He played with it until he got tired of it, then drifted back to watch the rescue attempts which were still progresssing. Rivkne could not be saved.
Just before his end, he returned to the center. It was assumed by this time that he was delerious, for he started to rave and babble that the lights in the Chalice were moving, coming together, and that he had ended the Universe. He stopped retransing shortly after that, and he died.
The rescue team thought Rivkne had been delirious when he said the Chalice was changing shape. time proved them wrong. Soon the change could be seen from the surface by the rescue workers. The lights were moving very slowly, but they were accelerating and they would form a single light in the center.
This is the end. Reports coming in from the astronomical outposts on the Imperial frontiers all indicate the same thing. Star traces are changing. Stars with red doppler effects thru all recorded history have changed. There are no longer red effects anywhere; the Universe is no longer expanding. It is moving at a slow but accelerating rate back toward its center.
We are doomed. I am writing this account in hopes that it may survive and serve as a warning sometime in the future. I will place it in a tidurmag projectile and fire it outward in the possibility it may escape the confusion. Take warning!