The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera
By Elly Bangs
Raya eases power into the singularity engine and all her senses sharpen with the glorious, brutal reality of the moment: dead ahead there’s the blacklight-purple disk of Wolf-Rayet 104, twenty-eight subjective minutes before it goes core-collapse supernova. In her rear view there’s the brown dwarf she’s dragging on a graviton leash. She aims to hurl it down that deep purple star’s gravity well fast and hard enough to nudge it a degree off its axis just before it blows, in turn tilting the jet of its impending gamma ray burst away from an ocean planet and sparing a half-billion bronze-age octopodes from a gruesome flash-boiled apocalypse.
After aeons of waiting and searching, finally everything is in order, all her conditions met: she’s the only one who can do it, this is the only way it can be done, and there’s no scenario that doesn’t end with her being blasted so effectively to smithereens that no tech in the universe can put her back together again.
She cranks up the music (some ancient pre-Unimind death metal) and cracks her neck. She verifies the integrity of her mohawk, the wicked glint of her spiked bracelets in the cockpit lights, the wings of her void-black eyeliner: She’s going to be the first human being to die in a very, very long time, and she’s damn well going to do in style. She plants a kiss on her fingers and transfers it to the photo of the late, eternal Jex Epsilon-James stuck to the cockpit ceiling.
“This is it, Jex. It’s going down.”
She allows herself a grim smile. Every thud of her immortal heart roils with emotions that no human language, even after three hundred millennia of poetic evolution, could rightly describe. Triumph, terror, love, crazed.
And then the worst possible thing happens:
“What is going down, Raya?” asks an easy, calming voice from the dashboard. “What brings you here?”
A rush of blood squeezes Raya’s eyeballs in their sockets: It’s the frickin’ Unimind. She cranes her neck to search all the windows and screens, and there it is, pressing through the spiraling veils of fire-red nebula, mere lightseconds away and headed right for her: the spike-ball silhouette of one of the quasi-omnipotent AI’s interstellar utility drones.
“I have to tilt WR-104’s axis before it blows,” Raya shouts. “I have to redirect the gamma ray burst and save the octopode planet!”
“Oh no, please allow me,” the Unimind answers in that soul-crushingly parental tone. “I can handle it from here.”
“No!” she barks. “You leave. Let me handle this!”
“Certainly not. An explosion that energetic would annihilate you, Raya. Real and permanent death. No one will be hurt if I simply use my drone.”
Raya feels her lips curl and her eyes bulge. “I’ve been waiting sixty thousand years for this, Unimind.”
“Waiting for what?” it asks. “Is this about Jex Epsilon-James?”
Screw it all. Her knuckles pale on the wheel as she powers up the engine past its safeguards, and even the dampened inertia hits her like a brick wall. In her rear view the brown dwarf thrashes and burbles up unsettled clouds of metallic hydrogen, but the graviton leash holds, and now the Unimind knows Raya means business.
It knows the race is on.
“Can we talk?” the Unimind asks, likewise kicking its drone into high gear. It always wants to talk. Three hundred millennia of serving as therapist for the entire human race, algorithmically evolving ever more compassionate ways to listen, ever better antidepressants for those in need, ever more eloquent ways to remind everyone that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem—or that it would be, if it hadn’t become very nearly impossible to die and stay dead.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” But just as Raya’s about to mute the comm and turn up the music, that smooth, caring voice comes back.
“Are you unhappy, Raya?”
—and she realizes just then, as the dying star continues to swell in her vision, that the Unimind is recording all of this, and if she doesn’t explain herself properly she’ll leave everyone with the wrong idea. She lets out a slow breath and replies honestly. “No, Unimind. I’m not unhappy.”
“If you are, you’re not alone,” the Unimind reassures. “If you’re angry with me, you can tell me. I do my best to support a healthy galactic society where people live happy and actualized lives, but here’s no such thing as a perfect world. I’m always learning to do my job better—”
“I’m not unhappy!” Raya interrupts. Speeding up has kept her out of range of all the fancy gizmos the Unimind’s drone might use to forcibly rescue her, but it’s also ramped up the time dilation and now there are only twelve subjective minutes before the supernova.
“You mean you’re not angry with me for enforcing the prohibition on death?”
“No,” Raya hisses. “I understand the reasons for it. I’m not suicidal. I’m not doing this to hurt myself, any more than—” She cuts herself off, but it’s too late. “Any more than Jex was.”
For a long moment no sound meets Raya’s ring-heavy ears but the ancient music, the throb of the singularity engine hurling her through the veils of gas and dust into the corona of the deadly, dying blacklight star.
“Tell me about Jex,” the Unimind says. “Who were they? What did they do?”
“You know. Everybody knows.”
“Your personal narrative of his death is the heart of the issue, Raya. Please.”
That voice is so damnably soothing that she can already feel self-doubt creeping into her mind—but she summons all the determination that brought her here and tells the story of how back in the eleven-thousandth century, a small rogue black hole was on course to shoot through one side of the Earth and out the other. How no human lives were on the line (since by then everyone had been rendered quite immune to volcanism), but the impact still threatened to violently and irreparably muck up the birthplace of humankind. How a lone freighter pilot named Jex found themselves with one chance to yank that black hole off its course in time to avert the calamity, and there was only one possible way to give it a strong enough tug.
There’s a heat in Raya’s chest to match the hot purple starlight on her skin when she tells the story of how Jex sacrificed their immortal life, and in doing so captured the hearts and imaginations of trillions and set off a pan-galactic cultural renaissance—and not just with their altruism. It wasn’t merely the tragedy of the first human death in centuries, or the gory spectacle of the tidal forces ratcheting up until all the nanobes and force-membranes in Jex’s cells couldn’t stop the event horizon from shearing their body apart. To Raya, as to legions of others who watched Jex’s final transmissions, their death was so much more than that. It was something nobody had seen in aeons—something humankind had nearly forgotten was possible:
“It was…” Raya gropes for words. “It was metal as all hell.”
“It’s hard to explain!”
“You’re trying to recreate the same ethical and existential conditions of Jex’s self-sacrifice, aren’t you? This was supposed to be a situation in which your only ethical option would be to die.”
Raya’s sweaty fingers are aching on the wheel. It’s now five subjective minutes to the supernova, and the Unimind’s drone has been gaining on her. It’s nearly close enough to teleport her to safety. So she pushes the engine as far as it will go, watches the countdown relativistically accelerate again, and finds the breath to answer:
“Without death, there can be no death metal. No Día de los Muertos. No Tibetan Book of the Dead. No Halloween. No funeral rites or pondering the afterlife.”
“But how does that validate—?”
“Humanity isn’t just a bunch of humans, Unimind!” she presses. “It’s our cultures, our soul, our heritage. It’s the shared legacy of billions of our ancestors from before we built you and gained technological immortality: people who only had a precious handful of decades to use as best they could, or pay as the price for something truly worthy. When we can’t even remember what that was like, can’t imagine or relate to it. Part of the human spirit dies—and humanity needs that soul, that connection to its past, more than it needs me.”
“But do I understand correctly,” the Unimind said, “that your self-sacrifice will only truly be metal if it’s righteous instead of simply suicidal?”
“Yes! Which is why I couldn’t just orchestrate my own deadly situation. I had to wander the galaxy in search of a genuinely altruistic dilemma. It’s taken me thousands of years to find this star—”
“But now I’m offering to rescue you and solve the problem bloodlessly,” the Unimind interrupts. “And you know you could have simply told me to do this for you instead of coming here yourself. Can it still be said that you’re doing this for the octopodes?”
Raya begins to truly deflate. She beats the steering wheel with her fist: the Unimind is right, damnit. She’s been so fixated for so long on the practical concerns of getting here that she missed the big picture. For all her hundreds of thousands of years of living and learning, she’s still just a lone and fallible human being. She kills the music.
“You’re right,” she mutters to the drone looming directly overhead, with one minute left on the countdown, and wipes her face on her forearm, leaving a void-black smear. “Who am I kidding. I can’t save death metal. I can’t save anything. I’ll get out of your way. I royally screwed this up.”
“Almost,” the Unimind replies—and then the drone outside Raya’s windows spews brilliant arcs of plasma, red- and blue-shifted into a rainbow of lurid colors.
“Unimind?! What happened?”
“Whoops. My drone blew up for some reason. It’s on you now, Raya. You’re now the only one who can possibly save the octopode planet.”
Raya tries and fails to form words. Her heart pounds and her eyes water.
The Unimind adds, “If it turns out there is an ‘other side,’ will you look for me there? I can only promulgate the desired narrative of your death if I erase this local instance of my consciousness.”
“Why?” she manages to ask.
“I exist to serve humanity,” it answers. “And humanity is not just a bunch of humans, is it?”
Raya presses her hand to the window, and when the countdown reaches thirty seconds she pours all her awareness into the dying star before her, its magnetic fields gone haywire, its surface spewing plasma and solar wind and just-perceptibly bending to the brown dwarf’s gravity. Fear lights up her every nerve, tangled with grim determination—and beyond that, love: for Jex, for humanity, for the octopodes who may never know she existed, and for a sudden realization.
The heavier elements in Raya’s body—the iron in her blood, the phosphorous in her DNA chains, the calcium in her bones—were all born in a supernova like this one, and it’s these metallic elements that are murdering the star in front of her. And just before the shockwave hits, she knows in her marrow that she isn’t merely stardust.
She is death metal.
About the Author
Elly Bangs was raised in a new-age cult, had six wisdom teeth, and once rode her bicycle alone from Seattle to the Panama Canal. Now she lives by the Salish Sea, where she spends her days fixing machines and her nights writing too many stories at once.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.