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I vividly remember a scene from a short story (?) I read back in the sixties or seventies, and am trying to remember the publication and title. If it sounds familiar to you, please post.

The scene is set in the distant future after mankind has slowly spread all the way to the far side of the galaxy, the core zones being too hostile to life (energetically). In all that time, we have never encountered another star-faring race. We have been modified slowly by the course of evolution over the millenia.

As the scene opens, it appears we have finally had a first encounter with another civilization. There is a meeting set and gradually dialog is established. The twist comes when it emerges that these creatures are, in fact, also the descendants of Earth modified in different ways during their slow passage the other way around the galaxy. We have proven that we are, indeed alone.

The story ached with pathos at the loneliness of being the only intelligent species in existence. (In terms of evolutionary theory, this would likely make us a ring species.)

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Pretty certainly Harry Harrison's Final Encounter. It concludes

”We are alone,” Hautmaki said, looking at the massed trillions of stars. “We have closed the circle and found only ourselves. The Galaxy is ours, but we are alone.” He turned about, not realising that Liem, the golden-faced alien – the man – had turned at the same time in the same manner.

They faced outwards, looking at the infinite depth and infinite blackness of intergalactic space, empty of stars. Dimly, distantly, there were spots of light, microscopic blurs against the darkness, not stars but island universes, like the one at whose perimeter they stood.

The two beings were different in ways. In the air they breathed, the colour of their skins, their languages, mannerisms, cultures. They were as different as the day is from the night. The flexible fabric of mankind had been warped by the countless centuries until they could no longer recognise each other. But time, distance and mutation could not change one thing; they were still men, still human.

"It is certain then”, Hautamaki said, “we are alone in the galaxy”.

”Alone in this galaxy”.

They looked at each other, then glanced away. At that moment they measured their humanness against the same rule and were equal.

For they had turned at the same instant and looked outward into intergalactic space, towards the infinitely remote light that was another island galaxy.

”It will be difficult to get there”. Someone said.

They had lost a battle. There was no defeat.

  • This is likely the right answer, but my first thought was Poul Anderson's "The Horn of Time The Hunter": When the interstellar traders called the Kith were persecuted in the Star Empire, they scattered and fled. One of their ships now returns from a twenty thousand year relativistic round trip towards the galactic center. This ship's crew did not find the Elder Race that they sought and do not yet know whether the Empire, the Kith or even humanity still exist. They find a planet of aquatic humanoids, but discover that the inhabitants of the visited planet are descended from human colonists. – Klaus Æ. Mogensen Sep 27 '18 at 9:13
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    I've read that one too. The big difference is that in the Harrison story the encounter means that the whole Galaxy has been explored - those going clockwise around the Galactic Centre have now met up with those who went anticlockwise, or vice versa. The Anderson story makes no such assumption, since as you note, the returning explorers are unsure if Mankind even still exists. . – Mike Stone Sep 27 '18 at 10:06
  • Do you really want the full quote in spoiler tags or is it fine in normal quote markdown? – TheLethalCarrot Oct 12 '18 at 9:51
  • Perfectly ok as far as I'm concerned. I'm still not sure what I did to make those exclamation pints appear everywhere. – Mike Stone Oct 12 '18 at 12:14
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    >! is for spoiler markdown, > is for quote markdown. When you use spoiler markdown it acts awkward when there are line breaks. You can get it to work but the best way I've found is just using <br> to cause the line break. – TheLethalCarrot Oct 12 '18 at 13:51

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