December 2007 Volume One Issue Five
Last Star - J. M. McDermott
We watched from the top deck of the western wing, Gloria and me. Neither one of us knew exactly what would happen. We knew our ship could handle a normal supernova, even a small black hole. We hoped for a large supernova and a large black hole, but with this last, lonely star and all the black holes everywhere pulling on everything's physics, not even the best AI could predict what would happen next.
This ship didn't have the best AI. We had Gloria's old preacher ship. Neither one of us had the crypto skills to manage a decent AI. I had worked the astrophysics as best I could. Gloria didn't bother to double check. She trusted me more than I did. I had spent the long hours traveling to the last star to check my numbers, adjust the shield patterns, and hope. Mostly, I hoped.
Gloria had her foot over mine, and we had curled our toe flangies together like monkeys in love. The contact may have been mechanical through our boots and suits, but it was contact, and we felt it in our toe's nerve endings, and we needed it. We were scared.
If anything really big happened, Gloria and I would have to rush down the main platform to the shield tower, and adjust the patterns manually.
"How long do you think it will take?" she said.
I watched the black spots fluctuating in the star. I had astrophysical specs on over my facemask, so I could see everything happening, and I could track the changes in the flares and dark spots.
Gloria tugged my arm. "Theo? You listening? I'm asking a question here."
"I don't know."
"You're supposed to know. It's your idea."
"I don't know."
The star - the last star - was fluctuating.
"I think..." I said. I squinted into the lights. I adjusted my lenses to see the fluctuations better. In the corner of my eyes temperatures and numbers rolled faster than I could read them with just my normal, human eyes. "I think..." I saw a pattern emerging in the colors.
"We have to get out of here," I said, "It's really big. Bigger than we thought."
Gloria didn't move. Neither did I. The star went supernova less than one light year in front of us. When stars die, it's like watching a soul leave a body. All the light jumps and blushes and then there's all this color everywhere, all this heat. Then it starts getting darker and darker in the center until it's a black void in the gravitational well, heavy and strong and dead.
I wasn't from Gloria's ship. I had grown up in a station above a golden gas giant. I spent my childhood looking out portals at a gorgeous yellow ball of swirling hurricane clouds.
My father was a freelance miner on the surface, pulling crazy stunts to squeeze out the good gases below the deadly winds. Most mining companies just sent in automatons, but my father couldn't afford anything like that. He strapped flangies to his feet, climbed into a sail pod and glided below the surface guiding his helium nets by human hand.
My mother was an engine rat on a freighter - that's what my father told me when I was growing up without her. By the time she came back around to find us she and I were almost the same age. She looked at me like I was a miracle.
I didn't know what to think about her.
Her face was just like mine, but smaller. I towered over her. I had my father's shoulders, my father's voice and large hands.
She only had one natural arm. She smiled at me. She said hello. She stripped off her engine claw so she could hug me without crushing me in half. I let her hug me with just her one hand, but I didn't hug her back. I watched her claw arm past her hair. The claw gently drifted to the floor behind her, glowing with the engine heat and the nano canisters like radioactive soup in little jars.
My father looked at my mother like looking at a holograph of a woman that wasn't really there. He told me I'd go with her if I knew what was good for me. Freelance helium mining was too dangerous for anyone with a choice, and I was too smart for it. My mother asked me if I wanted to work in the engines with her. She asked me if I wanted to get a claw arm like hers.
I asked her why anyone needed to change their arms, at all.
She smiled at that, like she hadn't realized I was so unprepared for life. "You'll see, Theo," she said.
She told me that when she left me I couldn't say her name and now I was a handsome young man. She asked me if I had fallen in love, yet. I told her I hadn't. She said that she was happy she hadn't missed everything, then.
I had never known my mother, and I had always wanted to know her, and I guessed that my father was right about freelance mining. I went with her.
On my father's station, the engine rats never really came out to the wings where the freelancers nestled beside their sail pods. I had never seen someone with a big bod mod before my mother bounced through the door with her engine rat claw.
Claw arms mapped to the brain because sometimes even a picosecond of reflex lag could damage the ship pipes, or the engine rat. Replacing arms once was cheaper than maintaining an AI, and even rich freighters that could afford robotic management liked to keep people around in case something went wrong in the wires. Something always went wrong with AI.
I didn't want a claw arm like my mother's. I asked her ship's ops chief to test me for something without a bod mod.
I flunked out of everything.
I gave up my left arm, and I went down to the engine room with my mother. I put on the microscope goggles and the insulation suit. I used my left arm to manipulate the volatiles. I crawled the pipes and scrubbed at the volatiles with nano. I watched the radioactive explosions contained by the rubbery little bots. I moved the explosions up and down the pipes with my mother. We moved fast when we saw pockets of fuel building up in the wrong spots. We had to move fast.
I saw another engine rat blown in half in an explosion of blood when he wasn't paying attention and his reflexes lagged. The infirmary sewed him back together with spare parts from the bacteria tanks. His body was all mixed up, after that, and his legs were the wrong sizes and his eyes were the wrong colors and his hair never grew back.
At night, I let my claw float free in my room. I rubbed the spongy nub on my shoulder where the claw connected to my bones. I studied hard for a certification that didn't need an arm like that.
My skin tanned from the radiation, even through the suit, and the stub where I attached the claw itched all the time. It still does.
When the freighter finally rolled back to my father's gas giant, I expected him to be an old man, with gray hair and distinguished lines around his eyes from all that squinting into sail pod screens.
He wasn't there. No one was. A century had passed since we had left this place, and the star had gone supernova, and everything I had known had fallen into the black hole. I don't know if my father was still alive somewhere in the universe, sending out messages through every ship. My mother and me cruised the wires but we couldn't find a thing. We didn't cruise the wires for long. My father was the kind of hard guy to decide he was old enough to die, and he'd hop into his sailpod and rush towards the blast wave drunk as sin and screaming my mother's name.
I had grown up with the universe like it was. I had never really thought about how few stars there were - how many black holes there were. I heard the Captain give a eulogy over the free wires for star number 2,143 and all the people there, finally burning out into black.
My mother didn't talk about it. She preferred to talk about love. I had no love to talk about, so we spent our off-hours not talking to each other. We were each alone and we were in the same quarters.
I mapped out the last stars, and their expected lifespans. While we were in FTL, I watched a few more stars blank out on the monitors because time moved so much faster outside the engine field, and word had to spread through the stations and the ships.
I really started to think about it, then.
In the mess hall, I heard stories about Captains that went nuts and drove their ships straight into black holes, killing everyone on board. I heard about AI's that became sentient and realized the universe was dying and they killed themselves with the rest of the ship because the simple electric souls were afraid of the long darkness coming soon.
When I got my bacteria certification, I was able to trade my claw arm in for a new one. The new one had belonged to the guy that replaced me in the engine room. My old one had long ago disappeared into the tanks and the natural commerce of the universe. The new arm plugged into the same spongy nub on my arm, and I could pull it off just like I could the claw. I never did. The arm didn't quite fit right. It was too long. Also, it didn't map on my neurons precisely after the claw's nub had rewritten all my connections. Sometimes I would move my right hand around, typing or holding something, and the left arm would mirror the motion. Still, that was better than the claw.
My mother was proud of me. She took me to ship's mess and introduced me to other men and women on the ship I had never bothered to meet. I was too clumsy with my new left arm and I had trouble grabbing for things. I accidentally knocked a young woman across the face when I was reaching for a water tube. People laughed at me. My mother laughed, too.
I told the woman that I was so sorry. She told me I needed practice with my new body part. She placed my left palm on her cheek and winked.
I didn't know what to say to her.
My mother invited her to our quarters for revenge, laughing. The woman never came.
When I went to the bacteria tanks, I met Gloria. "May the Christ return to us," she said, when we shook hands.
I cocked my head. "What?" I said.
She shrugged. "That's how you say hello where I'm from," she said. "Haven't you ever met Christians before? What do you say when you want to say hello?"
"I say 'hello'."
"Quaint," she replied.
We handled the recycler tanks together, and filled in for some of the others depending on the shifts. She told me about the religion she used to have. She was from a preacher's ship long left behind her in the dark.
"There was a rift in the crew," she said, over water, in her quarters while her bunkmate was still asleep.
I frowned. "Over what?" I said.
"The end of the universe, Theo," she said, sipping her water like she had just said something casual about the gravity or the bacterial cultures we were manipulating all day. Have some water. The gravity feels heavier on the left side of the bacteria room, doesn't it? There was a rift in the preacher's ship over the end of the universe. "Haven't you heard anything about the end of the universe?" she said.
I shook my head. "I didn't know it could end."
"Some people think," she said, "that when all the stars burn out into black holes, that's it for all of us. We won't have water anymore. We won't have trade routes. We'll have a bunch of ships full of people waiting for death. So, lots of people think it would be best just to die before we start to really suffer."
I frowned. "Some people?" I said.
"Others," she said, "They say that when the stars burn out, they'll roll back together and condense into one center of matter, and then there will be another big bang. We should try to last that long. We should try to be around when the universe explodes from black to burn again."
I waited for her to continue. She didn't. "Gloria," I said, "how did this break the preacher's station?"
"Well, Christ will come someday to save us all. Don't ask me who he is, I don't know. I just know we're supposed to wait for him. Or her. Anyway, I left that nonsense a long time ago. When the universe dies, I want to go with it. I left that ship for good."
I pulled her hand to my face. It smelled like the goo on the bottom of Petri dishes. My hands smelled like that too. So did my hair.
I thought about studying more so I wouldn't smell like that. Then, I only thought about Gloria for a while, and the way her long hair swam in zero-g when she unbound it.
The next time my mother asked me about love, I told her about Gloria.
Two more stars had gone supernova on our trade route. The Captain was concerned about the viability of our supplies with three stations gone to black. He divided the crew in half. My mother stayed on the ship. There's always a place for engine rats. Gloria and I were left at the station together, with a few others that were easy to replace. Bacteria tanks can be managed effectively with an AI supplement, if the programming cryptologist monitors for sentience and kills it before it spreads. Three of the bacteria crew were replaced with one cryptologist. Gloria and me were the least experienced. We were gone.
My mother cried when we said good-bye. I asked her if we'd ever see each other again. She said she'd leave messages for me in the wires, so I could find her again. I told her I'd do the same. My mother told Gloria to take good care of me. Gloria shrugged.
I left messages in the wires, but that was the last time I ever heard from my mother. I don't know if she ever got my messages. I hope she did.
Gloria and I signed on with a ship of Nihilists that lost their bacteria crew to jousting. Nihilists went from station to station preaching the end of the universe while they traded for water and raw molecules.
The true believers spent off hours doping themselves on painkillers and jousting in zero-g. Gloria and I spent off hours behind plexiglass watching Nihilists bounce around rings, smashing into each other with flangies a blur and enough momentum to rip off limbs. All of their arms were like my left arm: lopsided replacements. Most of their legs were different lengths and they added joints to the flangies so they could climb around the ship like normal people. Their bones were all plasteel. Their eyes were all different colors. They all laughed the same way, with this hearty, belly-ripping laugh that echoed if you gave it half a chance to echo. Sometimes they died.
They invited me into the ring. I pulled my left arm off, and told them I wanted to keep the rest of my body whole.
The Captain of the Nihilist ship never entered the jousting ring, either. He couldn't survive unplugged from the ships. When he found out I wouldn't joust, he invited me to his table for a meal. He told me, in the invitation, that we two were the only two who wouldn't joust. I asked him if Gloria was invited, because she wasn't jousting either, and he seemed to ignore my question. He stared off into space on the vid screen like he saw something in the vast void of space - he could stare off into space, though, with the ship's eyes. "Excuse me," he said, "I have to adjust the course." The vid blinked black.
I didn't get an answer from him about Gloria. I told her about it, and she said she'd probably get invited later. After all, she hadn't been invited to the jousting ring by anyone like I had.
I showed up to the meal, half-expecting Gloria to be there, too.
The Captain was probably a tall man in life, but now he was just a torso that ended at the base of his spinal column, with wires spilling out of his body. His skin had sunken into the gaps between bone and wire networks
For a moment, I imagined pushing my hands into the papery skin, weaving a path for my fingers through the wires and fleshy organs to reach for his soul, like breaking into a doll.
He had spread fresh fruits and vegetables in silk nets, and intoxicating liquors in tubes.
The Captain asked me if I knew what Nihilism was really about.
I told him it was about whatever people said it was about and it didn't have anything to do with bacteria tanks as far as I knew.
The Captain smiled. He poured me another drink. He told me I sounded like a Nihilist enough for him.
I asked him if there was a job I could do beside the bacteria tanks that didn't require any bod mods.
He gave me a blank look.
"I smell like a Petri dish," I said, "I hate how I smell."
He laughed at that. He told me I could always sign on with one of the old ships, like the preachers fly. He asked me if I was a Christian. I told him that Gloria was, but I wasn't.
The Captain said nothing about that, but he knew what was happening while I was at his table.
While I ate fruit and drank liquor, Gloria entered the jousting ring and killed a man with her flangies. She tore him in half, and smashed his brain with her bare hands so no one could freeze the organ and bring him back to life.
When I clambered up the corridors drunk, Gloria was there. She was hopped up on pain meds, and exhilarated and vacuuming the blood off her body, with the little glowing lights of neural upgrades - he had been a systems archeologist - like a maze of light on her skin.
I froze in the door.
She told me what she had done.
I asked her if she wanted to find a preacher's ship, and get away from the Nihilists and bod modders and killers.
She didn't answer me with her mouth. She put my hand on the side of her chest. She showed me her crushed ribs, told me how it hurt real bad, but she could almost not feel it with the pills they gave her to numb her senses before the match. I ran my hands over the ruined bones. I imagined how easy it would be to push the skin down, and slip my fingers inside and massage her heart with my hand.
I was sober enough to take her to the infirmary. The doctor replaced her ribs with plasteel. I watched them put her under and lathe open her skin. The doctor's thousand claws nimbly extricated minute bone fragments from lungs and hearts.
Her organs were beautiful things, like ripe fruits with a pulse. The plasteel had a sick yellow color that didn't match the purples and the browns and reds inside of her.
The lost bones went with us to the bacteria tanks the next shift. Gloria and I spent all the next day sampling the cultures from inside her bones, hunting for new strands of DNA that could improve the functions of the ship, or that we could trade at stations for supplies.
We found nothing very new.
Gloria and I jumped the Nihilist ship together at the first station after she had killed that man. We worked the bacteria tanks elbow-to-elbow with a thousand others in the bowels of the station. We listened to the gossip about the supernovas, and all the dying stars. In our quarters we had a window the size of a wall. We stared past the orange gas giant into an empty darkness. Gloria told me stories about how all this vast emptiness used to be full of bright lights like the way a station with windows looks from the outside.
Ships came and left and the number of stars left dwindled. I kept a chart on my desktop to track the stars that were left.
Gloria fell in with some Nihilists, more plasteel than man, that told stories about jousting and drank whiskey and oil. I didn't like it, but I didn't try to stop her.
I came back to my quarters and I never knew what I'd find there. One time, she filled the quarters with blankets and turned down the gravity until I opened the door and there was all this softness free in the air, like a living maze. All of the cloth was dark red. I came in, confused, and ran my hands through the cloths.
Gloria rammed me from behind, and knocked me against a wall. She told me, while my head rang, that jousters trained to be more graceful by moving through the silk without touching it.
Another time I came home to dozens of burning red candles floating free, hot wax hardening into blood tears. She jumped through the open spaces, swiping her flangies precisely to snuff out the fires without damaging the candles.
She told me her Nihilist friends had set up a jousting ring on the station, and we could go watch a match sometime.
I looked at her like I was in love with her and didn't want to see her hurt herself. "Do you want to kill another man," I asked, "or get killed?"
Gloria didn't say anything to that. She didn't even look me in the face.
I hid in the toilet stall while she jumped around our quarters assaulting the candles with her flangies. She banged on the door to the toilet stall when she had snuffed all the fires out. I asked her to change the air scrubbers after all that fire.
Then, she asked me if I cared that she'd killed a man.
"I don't have an answer," I said.
"Theo," she said. She touched my back. "Do you know what I love about you?"
I didn't say anything.
"You're the only person I know who doesn't philosophize about the end of the stars. You know about it, but you don't go Nihilist, or Christian, or suicidal, or anything else. How do you keep it all inside of you like that?"
"I might go Christian, yet. I want to find a preacher's ship, find out what they're like," I said, "and maybe then I'll have an answer."
She bit her lip like a little child. "I know where one is," she said, "if you really want to find one."
We worked for passage most of the way on a ship that was more AI than man. We shared quarters with engine rats and only a dozen people lived and worked on the ship, and all of them claimed they were just waiting for the computers to become sentient and drive them into a black hole. Their engines slowed down near Gloria's ship, floating in the darkness. They ejected us in bod pods onto the left platform.
Preacher ships all had the same design. Two wing platforms stuck out on either side, long and straight. The center was a single tower. Engines were at the joint between the two platforms and the long tower.
We dumped all the dead bodies into the bacteria tanks. We raised bacteria cultures that pumped out radioactive gunk that worked like fuel until we could get to the nearest station and trade our new DNA strains for faster fuels.
Gloria and I heard all the stories as gossip, and found out all of them were true when we searched the wires later on.
Captains and crews stared into the dark emptiness, and opened portals and everyone died in a few moments, flying into the vacuum. Lone suicidals hotwired the ships in FTL, and the engine field stuttered and everyone inside died in the explosion. Sentient AIs drove themselves into the nearest black hole before anyone could stop them; it took only a heartbeat in FTL. A bacteria tank broke and everyone on board fell ill with a terrible disease, and no one cared enough about living to stop it. Stations watched their stars go supernova and there weren't enough escape pods, and there weren't enough ships docked to get everyone out, so most people just closed their eyes and waited for death.
The stars were all burning out, and every human left was terrified.
Gloria told me the story of her ship. Her father preached of Christ returning to the Universe to take all good people to heavenly glory. He preached how to stave off the darkness, that Christ would take all of us to his eternal station where we'd live in paradise with the living and all the dead that were deserving of salvation. Then, the preacher talked of death like it was a holy release into the universal mind of Christ's machine.
People committed suicide. They cut themselves with lathes. They jumped out airlocks. They overdosed on pills.
Gloria's father swore up and down the station that people shouldn't damage the property of Christ. He never explained who Christ was - no one knew that - or why Christ owned everyone when not even Captains owned anyone. The people should wait for their death like good Christians, said that preacher.
Gloria disagreed with him. She hooked her flangies off her feet, and wrapped them around her neck and reached her hands in to the toe controls. All she had to do was pull on the toe mesh and the flangies would crush her neck like old wood. And, it's what she did. She told me that death was just darkness, and there was no Christ and no heavenly station, and maybe that meant that it wasn't real or that she wasn't deserving of it. Regardless, it was like seeing the future of the universe with everything in darkness. She was terrified of seeing that again.
Her father found her in her quarters like that because he had heard a strange sound through the door and he was a nosy kind of father and he had many good reasons to be one with Gloria before that time he found her dead. He saw her there, with her spinal column smashed and her eyes glazing over into darkness.
He rushed her to the infirmary, where she was pronounced dead.
The preacher, bereft, cut his daughter open and froze her brain himself. He smuggled a bacteria tank into her old quarters and cloned her body in secret. Preachers weren't supposed to do that. When the time came and the clone was ready, he replaced his arms with doctor mods - another sin. He plugged Gloria's preserved brain into this new body and praised Christ that she was still alive.
The crew looked at their sinful preacher, with his resurrected daughter and doctor arms. The crew divided. The true faithful jumped ship at the next station. The rest stuck around a while, with this cloned thing with a human brain working in the bacteria tanks just like the tank that had reborn her.
The rest died when the preacher turned off the oxygen. One minute he was preaching eternal life with the doctor claws waving in the air like a symphony of insects playing a thousand tiny violins. The crew that was left weren't the faithful and mostly ignored the preacher with the sinner's arms. Then, everyone on board fell asleep one shift because the preacher had cut the oxygen cycle.
I asked Gloria how she survived.
She said that I'd know why when I saw the bacteria tanks. She was right.
When the oxygen wasn't cycling, pressure built up in the tanks. Before the crew in the bacteria room passed out, the oxygen build-up blew the plexiglass. The bacteria crew were the only ones left alive. They rode bod pods into the darkness, beeping out distress signals until passing ships and AIs picked them up. They were carried to stations and added their stories to the wires. None of them saw each other again.
In the ship's broken bacteria room, green algae spread from the cracked tanks like a goo blanket, and filled the room, eating everything carbon and silicate.
We had to scrub the algae off the walls before we could use anything in that room. We had to rebuild the oxygen tanks, and replace the eaten circuits. We had to dump the dead bodies of people Gloria used to know into the tanks. We hotwired consoles we couldn't replace that had been eaten by the centuries of algae. We'd have to find a station to fix them.
While we worked, I told Gloria my plan for when the stars died.
Then, we went to every station we could find, filling up on all the things a ship might need in the darkness - mostly hydrogen ice. By the time we had the ship filled up and running fast, there were only a few dozen stars left, and only two stations. They were full of mass suicides and people thinking the same thing we were thinking running around and looting everything left and killing each other if they had to kill to get all the hydrogen they could squeeze into their ships to make water.
People fought with weapons and pled for mercy to join us in our ship. I had the engine rat claw back on my arm by then, and I could get the people off our ship. Sometimes they fought back, but I wasn't as afraid as they were and Gloria was used to jousting rings. We got what we wanted. I shoved bodies of people that didn't run away into the tanks so we could use their bacteria and DNA for our own survival.
On time, someone attached a modified bod pod to the side of our ship. I found it because it was siphoning power from the shields I was adjusting for our final leap. I didn't know what the thing was until I crawled along the side of the ship flashing searchlights on this human-sized parasite. I peeked into the circuitry and saw a baby in there. I pulled the whole pod inside. I showed it, with the baby, to Gloria. She told me we'd worry about babies when the time came to worry about death, and we'd certainly only worry about ours. She dumped the gurgling child into the tanks. I didn't stop her.
We left the stations and the world of men filled up with as much dense hydrogen ice we could squeeze in, and with two full tanks of good algae pumping oxygen. We hoped we had enough to keep ourselves in water.
We had to live on what we could grow in the bacteria cultures. It tasted awful, but it tasted better than death, so we got used to it. We'd have a long time to alter the recipes. It would give us something to do while we waited.
Then, I figured out which star was going to be the last star, and I told Gloria how we could save fuel if we used the supernova to blast us into FTL with the shield adjustments I had made, like my father's sail pods.
By the time we got there, soaring through the long dark, weaving in and out of the billion black holes between our ship and the last star, centuries had died outside our FTL field.
This star was the only star left.
And we were there, Gloria and me, watching the supernova on the platform wing of the preacher's ship. The last star wasn't a black hole, yet. It was just a supernova. But when this star went black, our ship would be too close.
Gloria and I broke out of our little trance. We ran down, flangies clanging on the grope bars like jousters grappling plasteel bones. We reached the shield tower. I angled the shape of the shield for an overpowering gravity pull. I angled the shield to catch the shockwave, and use it like a sailpod's wings to pull us towards the center mass. Then, the shield will roll around the developing black hole's gravity well, and the momentum of the shockwave and the gravity will throw us away from the dense matter all around us.
Gloria and I had run down, and prepped the shields for our desperate escape, but we were early. We stood there. We looked at each other, not saying a word, waiting for the gravity to grab our ship.
After all the light dies, the black holes will slowly roll back together, and then they'll bust up again and everything will start over. We think that's what will happen, anyway.
When it does, we want to be far away from the center.
So we stood there, Gloria and me. We were terrified of death. Gloria pressed her body into mine, wrapped her limbs around me.
"Theo," she said. That's all she said.
I felt the ship shaking. I felt it moving. I felt the way you feel when you know there's no more light in the sky and you're going to spend the rest of your life running through the dark from rebirth.
- END -