THE MEN WHO DANCED WITH STARS

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.

30.

15.

10.

0:05…0:04…0:03…0:02…0:01

“Now.”

The old man touches an icon on the surface.

Nothing happens.

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.

***

Author’s Note

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.

Nyameye.

29th September, 2015.

The Traveller

I travelled the world and saw its wonders:

I walked the edge of the earth and looked down the Great Abyss,

Gaping, proud, endless, whispering words of comfort and invite, calling passers-by to stop, to come closer to the edge, to gaze therein.

But I did not stop to look.

I walked among the pillars of the sky, and I saw the giants who carved them, cared for them, kept the heavens from falling.

I felt their loneliness and their sorrow, and how all they wanted was someone to talk to.

But I did not stop to say hello.

I saw sacred inscriptions on the Pillars, Old words of High Magic that held ancient wisdom long lost to man.

But I did not stop to read them.

I journeyed the seas in infinite wonder, among the kraken and the Sea Witch which rode him, among the many souls of the restless dead which are claimed by the sea for all eternity;

And when my ship sank I walked the undersea halls with the Lord of the Sea.

I saw his treasures, more gold and silver than any man could count;

But I passed them by, and did not take any.

I walked the glass beaches and climbed the Black Mountains

And saw the Brothers at the top of the world, the great Worms that see all:

The Fire Dragon, whose breath causes summer, and the Ice Dragon, who slept because his season was not come yet,

And here I did say hello, because I did not want to be rude, not to a dragon;

But I did not stay for long.

I rode upon the backs of the Great Eagles

And did not once look down;

I walked the desert trail,

And saw it vanish behind me;

I faced the Sphinx;

I answered her riddles.

I sailed the wind; I rode the storms

I fought a Cyclops,

And outwitted the Serpent King,

And chased the moon across the sky,

And ran with the Night Hounds

And I traveled the world,

To come home.

To you.

But you were not there.

Not anymore.

All there was

Was a note

That said

You’d grown tired of waiting,

And you’d left.

The Sun, The Garden, The Wind.

The thing you notice first—if you care to notice at all, and not many do anymore—is the sun. You do not notice it because the day is hot, and you do not notice it by the absence of its effect, because the day is not cold either. No, you feel the sun on your brow, but the thing you notice is that although it is there the sun doesn’t seem to be shining with all its might. It is almost like he—if the sun can be called a he—didn’t wake up fully, almost like he spent too long shining somewhere—on a couple who would be parted forever once night fell, perhaps, and wished with all their hearts that the day might tarry a little longer—when he was supposed to be asleep, and showed up for work today only half awake.

The sun is the thing you notice first, if you care to notice anything at all.

There is a garden in front of you. It is wild and overgrown and bare in patches where the cold earth does not suffer life to take root. Perhaps the garden was tended for once; perhaps someone still comes by and waters it from time to time. Then again perhaps it has always been so: wild and resilient, teeming with life in some places and completely barren in others, just like our world itself.

Green leaves are interspersed with wilting brown. Some leaves carry both, hosting both life and death at once. It is a difficult ground, the garden, and it makes you admire the plants that have survived here in spite of everything. Makes you admire them right up to the point when you cut everything down to make way for a nice little rose garden that you’ll have to water every day, home to flowers that will bloom at dawn and perish by sunset.

A wind blows gently against your cheek, soothing and cool. It makes you wonder for a second where the wind comes from and where it is going, but it also makes you stop wondering, content to sit here and enjoy the breeze. If someone asked you, you would say it was quiet out here. But it’s not. To hear, you would have to stop moving, stop fidgeting, stop thinking, only listen.

And the first thing you would hear—if you cared to hear at all, and not many do anymore—is the voice of the wind, whispering secrets carried from far and wide into your ear as it went by, carrying secrets from here, too, to the unnamed corners of the world, carrying them to They That Were And Ever Will Be.

The wind is how the gods keep track of all that happens on Earth.

But you do not know this. All you know is that it feels good to sit here in the sun, beside the garden, here with the wind. All you know is that beyond the sound of the wind in your ears is the sound of a carpenter hammering on a block of wood; the chirp of a bird that is here now and will be gone when you look up; the creaking of the Earth as it spins around you; your own heartbeat.

Mother.

I walk alone.

The market street on which I walk was once busy, with street sellers flogging their wares loudly to busy passersby. Now it is empty. The stalls are still there, but only ghosts attend to them now. Nobody does trade here anymore. What is there to buy? The market is dead, as are many of my friends.

I just might be joining them soon.

I remember where I was when all this began. I, like so many, was a part of the huge throng that gathered before the old city temple to witness the death of the priests. The recently crowned King had found faith in a strange new god from the West, and had decreed that all servants of the old gods be put to death. One by one the priests were killed, their blood flowing down the steps of the temple. It proved to be a grave mistake.

No rain has fallen since then.

It has been a year since the last crops in the field withered and died. Famine has the city in its merciless grip. The people starve, and the king does nothing but hole himself up in his palace and pray to his cold, unfeeling god.

I keep my head down, and walk on. They are waiting for me.

I pass through the market and immediately turn left, into a narrow street. I know exactly where I’m going. After a couple of minutes I come to an unmarked door.

I take a deep breath and open it.

I emerge into an empty room. It looks like it was once a bar but it has been a long time since any drink was served here, for when famine strikes alcohol is one of the first things to go. Walking across the deserted space, I come to another, smaller door. It’s near impossible to see unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and I open that too. There’s a flight of stairs going down to what was once the cellar of the bar. I go down and emerge into a wide, dimly lit space.

They are here.

They all turn at the sound of my arrival with wide, expectant eyes. I do not bother to count; I know there are exactly nineteen of them. Or are there more? New people are always joining us, each of them driven mercilessly before the whip of the Great Famine. The cruel hand of hunger has drawn lines on each and every one of their faces. Most of them I knew before the famine hit; all of them have changed drastically. We all have a few things in common though: We all are women, we all are mothers. Most of them, like me, are widows. And we all are bound by a secret that would condemn us if it ever got out, even in this broken world of ours.

For we all are here for one reason and one reason only.

It is here that we gather to eat our children.

I do not know exactly how this group began, but I cannot forget how I came to be a part of it. One day I was walking the street, near faint from hunger, when I came upon two women who took pity on me and brought me here. Here I was offered meat. It was not much, but it was more that I had eaten in weeks. I even had some left over to smuggle home to my seven year old son.

It was much later that I learned that I had been eating the baker’s son.

The following week, we ate the daughter of the taxman’s wife.

And on it went. Every week we cast lots to see whose child we would eat next. On weeks where rations from the Palace were enough to see us through we would not meet, but such occasions were few and far between. Deep down I was disgusted at what we were doing, but I dared not complain. After all meat was meat, and we were desperate. So I kept quiet, and went along.

Until last week, when the lot fell on me to bring my son.

My only child.

No.

The baker’s wife – a woman who was once plump and kind-faced, but is now lean and rarely smiles – speaks first. “You’re late. Come, bring the boy. Let’s have it done.”

I say nothing.

One of the other women says, “Wait. She comes alone.”

The baker’s wife turns suddenly. After a minute, she asks quietly, “Where is the boy?”

I do not answer. I do not tell them of what I have done. I do not tell them that rather than offer my son unto the altar of our fellowship, I offered my body to a palace guard for three days on end in order to smuggle my son into the palace as a slave. There he will live a hard life, a cruel life of servitude, but he will live. I do not tell them this.

But my silence is enough. They know what I have done, as only mothers can.

What happens next happens in a blur. I am seized and bound and thrown roughly to the floor. The women gather around and stare down at me. I can feel their hate. I can see the anger in their eyes at my betrayal. But I see something else there too. I see shame.

At length, one of them speaks: “What shall we do with her?”

“There is only one thing to do,” replies the butcher’s wife, drawing a knife out of nowhere.

I do not struggle. More wood is added to the fire, which roars. I can almost feel its eagerness to roast pieces of my flesh. Somebody turns me over as the butcher’s wife puts her blade to my throat…

…and slices it open.

And as the world fades to black, my last thought is: It does not hurt as much as I thought it would.