Escape Pod 627: Humans Die, Stars Fade

Humans Die, Stars Fade

By Charles Payseur

They come to study. Not me. Not really. No, they come for Aerik—what he’s become. What I suppose we both will become when the slow swell of time and gravity finally draw us together wholly. After everything, all the years with only the brush of winds, then this slow draining death, it’s almost something to look forward to. Even if he’s not there anymore.

But the aliens. The humans. The UEF Intrepid. They’re here to study, ship space-worn and eager, scanning like a bird poking at a pool of water with its bill, unaware of what might lurk beneath. They don’t know the gravitational anomalies of the area, the way that Aerik sometimes surges as if reaching for me, as if he can jump back from the annihilation that claimed our planets, his life, and our love. There is little I can do for them. For anyone.

I call out my warning, pulsars in patterns on my surface they might recognize. Go home. Crawl back to whatever star birthed you and cower in its safety—the universe is a huge, cold place not fit for life or love or warmth. Follow your slime-trail back to its source and hunker down and wait for death in quiet dignity. All this I signal and all it does is bring them closer, their scans recording but not understanding. They are shielded against radiation but not fully. I reach out, my awareness spreading as far as my energy can reach, and touch their ship.

“Take us in as close as you can,” the captain says.

Nicola Decker. Once inside the ship, I am inside everything, the computers an open book. A pained memory surfaces of the last moments of our planets, the people frantic to find some way to stall the inevitable, to prevent—I push it away and focus on the scene. There’s about two hundred aboard the ship, with a bridge crew of ten. I want to tell them to back away, to flee before it’s too late, but I’m not sure how and not sure what good it would do to try.

“I’m reading energy fluctuations from the black hole,” Lieutenant Dore says. “And some strange activity on the surface of the variable supergiant.”

“Probably the scans getting confused,” the captain says.

There’s a brightness in her eyes as they move nearer, as the Intrepid steers closer still, scans now sweeping me as if in greeting. And as much as I want to answer back, as much as I want to break the spell of loneliness that has been my prison since Aerik’s death, I know it is too dangerous.

“Makes sense,” she continues, “seeing as how this is the closest any have gotten to a high mass x-ray binary. Are we still in contact with Galago?”

Dore nods. “Transmissions might be garbled because of the x-rays, but they confirm receipt.”

“Good. Make sure they—” Her words cut off as we all feel Aerik rumble.

Or what’s left of him. The black hole quavers and his pull intensifies. I gasp, the solar wind connecting us surging as a bit more of me drifts away.

The Intrepid isn’t ready for it. They’re too close, and despite the training of the crew, the immediate order to withdraw, the way the engines whine against Aerik’s pull, they are drawn in. Drawn in until the gravity pulls the ship apart, the last sound I hear of them the voice of Lieutenant Dore as he tries to confirm the Galago received the last readings. And then nothing, and Aerik’s pull dies back into the black hole, and I am just a fraction dimmer.

I have learned one new truth and confirmed an old one. Humans die. Stars fade.

I try not to think about the why, because if I do, I think about the distance and the longing always between us. If I was explaining this to a human, I would say this:

“In the beginning, there were two lights, and it was good. They were warmth and fire and miracles and across the darkness of space, they reached out with minds that never really had to consider what alone meant. They had each other, always and always, and they could speak in explosions and touch with the press of gravity and radiation. They were happy.

“Around them planets formed, and on those planets life slowly developed, and the two lights watched, fascinated, as sure as they were alive that their love had allowed such life to sprout and grow. And grow. And grow until there were creatures whose love mirrored that of the lights in the sky. And still it was good.

“But in the heart of one of the lights grew a small darkness, a small fear. A doubt. That maybe, with all the myriad ways these tiny lives on their small worlds loved, he was missing something. For look how they touched. Look how they came together in pure shattering joyous pleasure. Why couldn’t the light and his love experience something like that?

“And the darkness grew.”

To me the time between the destruction of the Intrepid and the arrival of the UEF Jakarta is short. They arrive out of the void and hold position at the edge of my senses. I concentrate and extend, and slowly I brush against the shields of the ship, which are much more sophisticated than I expected. When I finally snake my way through them, it’s to find that generations have passed since the Intrepid was lost. Despite the transmissions from the dying ship, the humans are short lived and their ships move only slowly through the sea of space.

“Are we picking up anything from the Intrepid?” Captain LeShawn Mabery asks. The Jakarta is not only more advanced than the Intrepid had been, it’s also bigger, with six thousand humans on board. I am stuck between wanting to communicate and fearing that anything now will only bring them closer. It didn’t help their predecessors—what are the chances it will help them?

“Nothing,” Commander Xia Vang says, eyes translating a dozen scans into intelligible information. “But our scans are having a hard time compensating for the extreme gravity.”

“It’s beautiful, though,” the captain says, and I imagine myself from their vantage, the long spiral of my solar wind trailing through the ether, pulled into the black hole that Aerik has become. I feel it as a pain, a wound that will not close. I feel it as the constant reminder of what has happened, of what I’ve lost and what I’m losing and what I will, ultimately, lose.

I settle into the ship’s sensors and behold myself. Yes, it is beautiful.

“I’m reading some random walk with the black hole,” Commander Vang says, her hands busy on her instrument panel.

At the helm Ensign Ralph Delco is shaking just enough to be perceptible. It is his first real mission, and he’s recently lost his parents in some sort of uprising.

I try not to dig too deep into the Jakarta, but I realize now that I’m starving for information. To have living beings to watch again. Their technology is much more advanced than the species’ that lived on our planets, but it’s similar enough. I remember watching it all with Aerik, our conversations lights and pressures and eons of understanding. There is a part of me that wants to hate them, that wants to hate all biological organisms. Without them, would Aerik have become so driven, so obsessed with the ways our love lacked? I refocus on the moment as Captain Mabery orders the ship closer.

“Concentrate on the black hole,” they say, voice stern even as they put a reassuring hand on Ensign Delco’s shoulder. “Keep all engines on standby for full reverse.”

I can’t watch this. I let my awareness slip deeper into the ship, which seems much more prepared than the Intrepid had been. Their scanners and probes are designed specifically with gravitational anomalies in mind. There are weapons, too, but they appear an afterthought, retrofitted and hastily slapped on to an otherwise sleek design. I wonder what prompted them but stop myself from looking further into the ship’s logs. I don’t want to know these people. Chances are they’ll die the moment that Aerik stirs. I don’t want to care about them.

In one of the tertiary scanning stations a bored member of the crew, Ensign Malik Rosas, reclines, staring at a personnel report. Another person enters and Malik quickly closes the report. I linger here.

“You have to get over him, Mal,” Lieutenant Vera Bernard says. “He’s unreachable. Five years onboard and not a single date. Which you won’t find out by sneaking looks at his record.”

Malik looks guiltily at eir hands. “It’s not like I’m stalking him,” e says. “I just…want to get to know him better.”

“It’s a lost cause.” Vera says. “He spends so much time with his fungi that there’s a rumor going around that he’s actually some sort of alien spore.”

“Being asexual doesn’t make him an alien,” Malik says, voice probably hotter than e intended because eir face colors and e looks away, at the screen that moments ago displayed Lieutenant Kyle Ross’ face but now is just scrolling scan data. I reach out, the sliver of me that is inside their systems interacting with the display.

Malik’s head tilts to the side, brown skin losing some of its flush.

“Vera, you notice anything weird with your screen?” e asks.

She’s stopped in front of a different screen, comparing its data with one of the other sensor array’s, which she has up on a handheld.

“What do you mean, weird?” she asks, and I interact again, produce a slow flash of lights, the simplest of languages I can find in the ship’s memory.

Just ask him, I signal, unsure if Malik understands, unsure if I should be doing this. No, sure that I shouldn’t be doing this. Sure that I should be pulling away, refusing to witness what comes next. I don’t want to see. Don’t want to care if it just means they’ll die. But I signal again. Just ask him.

“I think there’s some sort of patter—”

E’s cut off as I feel Aerik rumble, gathering, and the sensor readings change. I return my awareness to the bridge.

“Something’s happening with the black hole,” Commander Vang says. “This might have been what took out the Intrepid.”

The Captain pauses. I want to shout about the thousands on board. The lives. Are they worth staying? Worth the scant data that they might achieve to watch from so dangerous a position? My awareness sweeps the ship, from the bridge to Malik’s station to the mycology lab where Lieutenant Ross looks up from his samples to stare quizzically at the warning lights that are flashing.

I pull back against the grasp of Aerik, against his guilt and remorse and desperation. I pull back and it’s like sucking in a ragged breath against the memory of his touch. I exhale, and a plume of radiated fire snakes into the darkness, directly at the Jakarta.

“Full reverse,” the Captain orders, their knuckles white as they grip the armrests of their chair.

Ensign Delco practically jumps, but complies, pulling the Jakarta away, out of my range. With the last of my strength I signal on Malik’s screen one last time.

Just ask him.

And then Aeirk surges and swallows the fire I sent out, pulling it into himself, into the darkness before going dormant again.

Once more I am alone.

I don’t hate him. I can’t, even now that his actions have taken him away from me, have taken away everything but the cold of space and the memories of happier times. If I was explaining it to a human, I would say this:

“I should have known what he was planning. I should have seen how much he wondered. How much it ate away at him. There was a time when we would watch the life on our little worlds and marvel at all its complexity. We would float, wrapped in each other’s warmth, and muse about their lives. We could watch, but it wasn’t until they started developing computers that we really got to see what they were doing. It was like opening a door into their world.

“Time seems to move differently for us, but opening that door changed things. Made us perhaps more like them. We could, all at once, hear their individual voices. We could see what they saw when they looked up at the sky and beheld us. And beheld…beyond us. For while we could see out into the depths of space, could sense life somewhere vastly far away, we could never touch it, never bothered to measure it. And yet on our planets people devoted lifetimes to puzzling out the nature of the stars. And it was there that Aerik got his idea.

“He didn’t tell me, of course. He had brushed on the subject many times, this idea of trying to touch directly. In more than winds and flares. To truly merge. But I always said we didn’t know how. That it was dangerous. That I was happy. And I was. But I was also terrified of the thought of losing myself in him, of burning too bright, too fast. Terrified of losing what we had. I thought it was enough that it seemed impossible.”

“I should have known better.”

The little ship is much different than the last two, but it is human. Running hot and with scorching to its hull. And it’s calling to me.

“This is the Galileo to Odysseus-5.”

It takes me a moment to realize that I must be Odysseus-5. I do not respond. I’ve been a fool. There had always been our rule, to not interfere. To watch and observe and never—and then Aerik broke the rule. And so much more.

“This is the Galileo to Odysseus-5…or whatever your self-designation is.” The voice seems out of breath. On edge. And yet slightly amused. “My name is Reva Patel. I was a student of Professor Malik Rosas. I need—”

The voice cuts out as I feel a new ship approach. Ships. Larger, and from what I can glean over the distance, not designed for science. The Galileo pushes closer to me, and I am torn between scaring them off before Aerik reacts and wanting to know what they’re doing. I tell myself that curiosity is dangerous. It’s what caused all of this. And yet I can’t quite make myself act. I need to know more. When the Galileo is close enough, I slip on board.

“The Fleet is not going to just let this go, love,” Anjuli Gill says. She’s elbow deep in wiring, bypassing three safety systems that can all be tapped remotely by the Fleet. It’s supposed to prevent just this sort of thing—rogue ships, dramatic chases. But Anjuli has been in…private exploration for quite some time, and she knows how to keep them flying.

“More like they’ll blow us from the fucking black if we don’t surrender immediately,” Jana Jankowski adds. They’re all married—a trinary, and I feel a pain ring somewhere inside me.

“I’m not giving this up,” Reva says. “Mal spent eir entire life petitioning for a research grant for this system. And every time they came back saying it was too risky, too dangerous. And now they’re shuttering the entire scientific fleet and placing the region in a quarantine zone. Like it’s exploration and not fucking corruption in the system that’s been draining the central government.”

“Well they’re sure wasting a fucking lot of resources right now trying to stop us,” Jana says. “I’d figure if this was really about saving money, they’d have conserved their precious plasma instead of trying to frag us with it.”

“Just keep some distance between us,” Reva says. “Hopefully the anomalies will make them think twice about following.”

“And that shouldn’t make us think twice about getting too close?” Anjuli asks.

Reva doesn’t answer, instead grabs the comm again. “This is the Galileo to Odysseus-5, please show some sign of receipt.”

I dive into their databanks. I am indeed Odysseus-5. Aerik’s name comes up as Charybdis. I read the etymology. Cute, but inaccurate. I am not the one who has gone off sailing. I am the one left at home, waiting and waiting. I can sense the other ships getting close now, can feel that these are very different than the Intrepid or the Jakarta. They are bristling with weapons, designed and executed to be warships.

And then I see the picture of Malik and Kyle. Smiling. Old. Malik had never forgotten the strange message e received aboard the Jakarta. E tried to convince Captain Mabery to return, but by then the conflicts had started. The crackdown on the Fleet. Malik had been forced out, followed Kyle into education, and lived a long life. One of eir last students was Reva Patel, who had found eir recordings of the signal I had sent. Who had been inspired by it. Captivated. Just a little obsessed. A hundred human years had passed and now there were humans again in my space, and perhaps for the last time.

“Is there any sign coming from the star?” Reva asked.

“Nothing,” Anjuli says.

I could wait. I could just let them go, be captured or destroyed. The warships are not stopping in fear of the anomalies. The space around me will soon be full. Of humans. Of death.

Aerik chooses now to rumble, to quake and quiver. I cannot just watch.

Maybe I’ve been thinking about this all wrong. Alone out here, the story starts to change when I imagine someone else listening to it. The cracks show. The desperation. The loneliness. The hope. I call the black hole Aerik because I want it to be true. But perhaps Charybdis is a better name. It is not Aerik. It swallowed Aerik. If I was explaining it to a human, I would say:

“The wars gave him the tools he needed. I wasn’t aware of what he was doing, how he was communicating with the planets, nudging them toward what he wanted. The power to move stars is not something to be tapped lightly, but Aerik always burned hot. He didn’t stop until he convinced them to create it, and then he stole it, sent it off into the sky while our planets watched in fear and awe.

“And instead of moving stars it tore a hole in space and sucked him in. For all that he wanted to be near, to become one, he took himself away. And maybe he’s somewhere on the other side of that hole and when I am finally reduced to nothing we’ll meet again. But what I know is that he’s dead. He’s dead and our planets are dead and I’m left, alive and unsure I want to be.

“He should have asked me. What I thought. If I wanted that kind of contact. If it was worth the risk. I don’t hate him. But I do blame him. As much as I blame myself. But maybe we’ve both paid enough for his mistake. Maybe it’s time to move on. Maybe now the living can start to heal.”

I’m inside the Galileo and break my silence.

I am here, I say in lights flashing on their main panel.

Jana flinches. “Fuck,” she says.

Reva smiles. “About time you answered,” she says.

The other ships are getting close and I send a stream of radiation in their direction. Not enough to cut through their shields but enough to let them know to reconsider. They stop. I feel the black hole growing restless.

Hold on to something, I say. The other ships are still within the black hole’s range, but I can’t do anything more for them. I reach out with everything I have and shield the Galileo, laying a web of gravity just as the black hole gurgles to life and reaches out.

“Are you seeing that?” Anjuli asks.

“Should we be, you know, running the fuck away?” Jana asks.

Reva sits still, body tense. I’m not sure she actually understood my message, just that she recognized it as a response. If the ship moves now, though, it will have both my web and the black hole’s pull to contend with.

“Hold position,” Reva says.

I can feel the other ships retreat, engines straining against the might of the black hole’s flaring reach. They make it to a safe distance, and slowly I release my web, relieved. The black hole quiets. The Galileo remains.

“How the fuck did we—” Jana starts, but is cut off.

“Scans show that gravitational anomalies from Odysseus-5 created a pocket of stable space when the black hole…did its thing,” Anjuli says.

“Did its thing? That a technical term?” Jana asks.

“Well what we saw isn’t exactly in the text books. I don’t know what exactly to call it. Surged or erupted or—”

My name is Dayne, I say.

“I wish it would stop doing that,” Jana says, flinching at the lights. “It’s creepy as fuck.”

“Ignore her,” Reva says, and Jana glares. “Thanks for the help, Dayne.”

I don’t think I’ll ever understand human politics. But Reva tells me that I’m something of a big deal. Proof of the utility of science and exploration. Proof that life isn’t as strictly defined as some would like to believe. They’ve set up a relay station just inside my sensory range and guarded it against the black hole’s flares. I’m connected to a galaxy of people and places. Reva and the rest of the science fleet have already started trying to communicate with other stars. I’m nervous about whether they might find one willing to talk. There are light years between me and even my nearest neighbor, but somehow that distance doesn’t seem so great.

I don’t know what happens next. But I know that I want to live, that the humans are looking into ways to slow my deterioration into the black hole. If Aerik is waiting for me, then he can wait. There’s still a universe here, now.

Or, if I was explaining it to a human, I would say:

“Humans live. Stars shine.”

About the Author

Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed Magazine, The Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.

Find more by Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur

About the Narrator

Veronica Giguere

Veronica Giguere (V.) is a storyteller of the spoken and written word. Her passion for science and innovation shines in her roles as audiobook narrator, science fiction author, podcast producer, and forever-geeky mom. According to her fellow Secret World Chronicle coauthors, she writes and narrates metahumans battling alien fascists in modern-day Atlanta. According to her kids, she makes funny noises into a microphone and takes breaks to run, crochet, and play video games. And according to her husband, she is addicted to coffee and Star Wars.

Find more by Veronica Giguere