The planet is mostly blue, clothed in water and grey clouds. It is a lot like Earth, really. The side that faces the star we have come to collect is bathed in golden light. The planet has no moon, so the side spurned by the star is condemned to constant darkness.
I stand by the small window, looking at what I have come to think of as Target Planet 4. In many ways it reminds me of home. I will never see home again.
“How long until initialization?” the old man asks, coming up behind me.
“Ten minutes,” I answer, without turning. I know the figures by heart; I have focused on nothing else for fifteen years. The old man stands beside me. He is not, strictly speaking, an old man, but he is the older of us two, and when you travel for years with only one other person for company, names tend to become irrelevant.
The nature of our mission is so resource-consuming that it would have been impossible to send an entire team of experts and as such, only the two of us came. Two men, with the backing of all the Nations of Earth. Two men, with the fate of the human race in our hands. I look down at my hands, and then look away. I have been biting my nails again.
We have traveled together, the old man and I, thousands of light years through a wormhole, the invention of which was the greatest scientific achievement of the 24th Century. In Z-space, time and space don’t matter.
“Seven minutes,” I say.
“You ready?” the old man asked.
I consider lying. “No.”
“Excellent. Come on, kid.”
We make our way to the control panel and strap ourselves into two nearly identical chairs side by side. My chair is uncomfortable. The fate of the world in the palm of our hands, and not even a cushion to rest our buttocks on.
The translucent surface before us is covered with icons and floating switches. We will not need those today. The multitude of switches was used a few weeks ago, when we were still on the other side of the star. Today we will need just one.
There is another screen beside the surface, transmitting from a holo-cam outside the ship, displaying our target.
“Two minutes,” I say, and am surprised to hear the tension in my voice. I look over at the old man. He is staring straight ahead, through the screen, at the star. He doesn’t look nervous, but I can see him swallow a couple of times. I want to say something else, something other than how much time we have left, but my tongue seems frozen to the roof of my mouth when I try.
And so I say nothing. Perhaps it is the best thing to say.
In the past, when most people thought of destruction from space, they thought of asteroids: big, angry rocks that dropped in uninvited like your aunt at Christmas and left destruction in their wake. Like your aunt at Christmas. But asteroids were okay. Asteroids could be destroyed before they got too close. The real danger, when it came, was much, much worse.
It was a black hole.
No ordinary black hole, either, but the result of two stellar black holes crashing into each other, an improbable cosmic bastard weighing more than a hundred red giants.
The black hole was advancing silently, devouring light and life, heading for Earth’s sun. After it ate the sun its gravity would pull Mercury into itself, then Venus, and then Earth. But by that time it wouldn’t matter anyway: with the sun gone Earth would be dead, barren, and cold.
NASA gave an estimate of 400 years. 400 years until the world of men came to an end.
The obvious solution was to escape. Earth had developed wormhole technology and mapped Z-space; we could flee the solar system before Death came knocking. But escape to where? There weren’t many known habitable planets. In fact, there weren’t any that had all the favorable conditions that were needed to sustain human life.
Ten years after the black hole was spotted, an unknown astronomer changed all that.
He discovered a planet similar in size to the Earth in the Andromeda Galaxy, one of a cluster of planets but not part of a solar system, since the cluster had no star to orbit around. The planet had a theoretical Earth Similarity Index of 0.95 and was only 8 light years away. It was 60% water, frozen in huge seas. Theoretically, it would be able to support plant and human life.
All it needed was a sun.
“One minute,” I say. One minute until everything is in place. Hopefully.
What if it doesn’t work, I think. Then I dismiss it. Some things do not bear thinking about.
I count silently in my head.
The old man touches an icon on the surface.
Neither of us moves.
It takes the signal eight minutes to travel the distance between us and our target. It will take light another eight minutes to travel back. At the initial eight-minute mark, I look at the timer. Somewhere behind the star, the thirty-five devices that we left in place weeks ago—to soak up the heat of the star, storing it to power what come next—have just come to life, opening a gigantic wormhole between them. It is the biggest wormhole man has ever created. It has to be.
It is going to catch a star.
We released the devices at different times at different places, allowing the star’s gravity to pull them into position. This was one of the most dangerous and uncertain parts of our entire mission. Years of planning, all the calculations, it all came down to this. If one device got puled in too quickly or too slowly, the whole thing won’t work.
But it does.
We see it sixteen minutes after initialization: the area of space around the star goes from inky black to blue, then to white. The wormhole opens, like a huge, gaping mouth, a tear in the fabric of space. An abomination wrought by the hands of men.
It is beautiful.
The gravitational field it exerts is massive. It is enough to cancel out the star’s own gravity and draw it into the hole.
“Jesus,” the old man says. His mouth hangs open. I know how he feels. Even in my wildest imaginings—and I have had a lot of those—I never imagined it would look so terrible. And oh, so beautiful.
We watch as the outer reaches of the star touch the wormhole and vanish into Z-space, that place where space and time blur into each other and into nothingness.
Still, neither of us moves. Neither of us says anything further, and when I turn to look, there is a tear shining in the old man’s eye.
The whole thing took a little over four Earth months.
During that time the old man and I ate and slept and monitored our displays while we drifted farther and farther away from the wormhole. In our spare time we sat at the window and looked out at the work of our hands.
During that time the star went from full to the shape of a half moon, getting ever smaller, and then it was gone.
Toward the end I worried that the wormhole would not shut down in time, or that it would become self-sufficient, a black hole in its own right. Despite our calculations, the balancing of masses and half-lives, it was possible. No one had created a wormhole this big before. As it turned out, though, I needn’t have worried. The wormhole collapsed onto itself exactly as calculated, as though it were a bubble poked with an invisible child’s finger.
In a flash, the wormhole was gone. The star was gone.
I stand at the window, looking out into space.
What we have done is only the beginning. All we can do now is hope that the star came out exactly where we meant it to. And then all the planets will have to be set in motion around it, each in perfect orbit. Every planet will have to be exactly the right distance away. Especially New Earth, which will also need time for most of its water to melt before any man can live on it. But I try not to think about that. There are other teams to take care of that. We have done our bit.
The planet I saw earlier—the only inhabited planet in its solar system—can be seen no more. With the star gone, darkness has fallen over everything. But I know it is out there. Dead. Barren. Cold.
I wonder how the people of the planet—sentient beings, who one day might have invented space travel themselves—felt, what they thought when they saw their source of life eaten up and knew that death was upon them. I will never know.
I’m sorry, I think, and turn away.
We will never return to Earth, never know if our mission is a success or a failure. We simply don’t have the resources for a return trip. But then we knew this all along. Sometimes, in life, you don’t get all the answers. You simply do what you can and hope.
The old man sits in his chair. It is all he does these days. I cannot blame him. His life’s mission is over. What is left for him to do?
We haven’t spoken in four months. We will both die here in space. There is nothing to say.
But even as I think this I know it isn’t true. There is still one thing, one thing that needs to be said while there is time. I open my mouth to speak, but only a croak comes out. My voice is rusty from lack of use. I clear my throat and try again.
“I love you, Dad,” I say.
He doesn’t reply. He doesn’t turn around. I do not know if he even heard me. But that’s okay.
I walk through the ship, turning off every light. When I am finished the ship is as dark as space itself. I feel my way back to the front of the ship and take a seat next to my old man.
The seat is uncomfortable. I do not mind.
We drift on through space and time and darkness, and when I turn to look out the window I see that in the total absence of light all the stars have come out to play.
This is an old story. I wrote The Men Who Danced With Stars in February of 2014 for the amazing writer formerly known as The Alchemist and his Corner, where it ran under the name of “Starheist”.
But this has always been one of my very favorite ideas, and it always felt wrong, incomplete somehow, that it wasn’t on my blog as well.
At long last, I feel, its journey is complete.
And as always, I thank you for reading.
29th September, 2015.