KaktusKontainer I

Stars

by djkaktus

They called the star Agatha, as long as it could be called a star. It appeared as if overnight, shining bright in the northern skies — brilliant, even against its peers. I remember when we first saw it, on the hill outside of town with Bethany and Richard, laying in the low grass and watching this new herald burning brightly in the heavens above us. God, what little we knew. What little we could have known! In those dying moments of summer, when it was just you, me and Agatha in the infinite dark above, who could have felt the cold winds of fall fast approaching?

What would you believe, if I told you how it ended? Would you know how close I am to you, even now?

Then came reports — slowly at first, convincing only those who wanted to believe the worst, and then a wave that swallowed even the firmest skeptics. Not a star, but a meteor — a primordial inferno, set loose by the chaos of creation to scream across the cosmos until it met its statistically inevitable end. They gave it another name, then; the 2022K-14 meteor, but we still called her Agatha.

It helped, early on, to give an identity to this catastrophe. Helped some people to meet it with dignity. What I would have done, they would say, were it not for Agatha coming to town. A pity. Others begged, some fell prostrate and worshipped her as a God, as an impending force of judgement. They called out to her — in fear, in desperation, insanity, but their pleas echoed off of unhearing ears, and Agatha continued forward, compelled by fate to complete her grim work.

It was in those dark hours, when all the lights were going out on our shriveling civilization, that the greatest minds of our generation discovered the last way out. I was called to duty, as I had been when I was young, and all of those years of research that had long since been decried as wasted suddenly found new purpose. The journals I had saved, the tables and calculations and endless arithmetic, all were given new life in the dying light of mankind. Agatha, it was determined, was far too large and far too fast for all the weapons of war that humanity had spent so much time perfecting to make any noticeable difference in her trajectory. She could not be destroyed, not with any arsenal built by human hands. But she could be averted.

There is distance between us, my darling, but it is less every day. I want to see you. I want to be near you again.

Still, the numbers never came together. We toiled, for weeks on end in the darkest laboratories on the planet, for an answer that would never manifest. While the world burned above us, and while the last remaining threads holding our human decency together frayed at the ends, we found nothing but frustration at the bottom of our efforts. There simply was not enough time. Any attempt now to divert Agatha's trajectory would not make a meaningful difference. We would have needed to take action a hundred years prior, and sixty-million miles away.

It was a colleague of mine — Desmond Elliot, who made the Great Discovery. I remember meeting him at an event some years prior, some dull gathering of astrophysicists with more hair on their chins than on their heads. I remember the knowing smile you gave me when I rolled my eyes at his conjecture, that if space can be manipulated then so can time, that you don't need to push a hole through spacetime to get to where you're going, just wrap it around itself. The Elliot-Thurman Retrocausality Engine is what they would call his miracle, a device that directed tachyons backwards through time to bend its flow sideways, and then push it against itself. With a stable hand on the ship's automated rudder, all you had to do was ease it sideways into the slipstream, and you would drop from one loop to the other. Simple.

They didn't mention how many pilots they put into the testing rigs — but none of us wanted to know. Agatha had consumed us, just as it had consumed the sky, and if the pilots didn't return, then all the better for it. They would be spared the worst of what was coming. It couldn't be done with just rudder control and aileron. The onboard computer could tell you when the slipstream was formed, but the moment of dropout could not be handled by a machine. The computers were almost too efficient — too willing to ease into the transition. They were pulled apart, all of them, and history became filled with dark streaks of flaming debris that were once machine and pilot.

A team was assembled - pilots, engineers, physicists. In simulation we could make the transition once every four or five attempts, but we'd only need one. The first team to leave did so aboard a vessel called One Last Chance. The objective, really, was simple: find Agatha, across the vastness of space, and then nudge her sideways. The required variance was only millimeters; extrapolated over enough time and distance, Agatha would pass a hundred million miles from Earth. If our doom could be averted, the moment she was out of range the project would cease to exist — in the future, no such disaster would have ever inspired our efforts. We just had to find the right time, and the right place.

How long has it been? How many lifetimes have passed since I held you in my arms?

One Last Chance left our planet like a conquering hero, to the cheers and adulations of a desperately hopeful populace. Their course laid in, a team of seasoned veterans at the helm, and a one-way trip into infinity ahead of them. You were with me when we watched them rise into the sky, a sky now dominated by Agatha's grim spectre, and disappear into the night. I remember you squeezing my hand, flashing another smile, but a softer one this time. A smile weathered by grief and tempered in anticipation. Once she was free of our solar system, One Last Chance turned towards the universe, set light to Elliot's engine, and vanished into history.

We didn't know how long it would take, though theory supposed we would know immediately — or rather, we wouldn't know. But days turned into weeks, and Agatha grew nearer, and our messiah never emerged. It wasn't until a month after Agatha left that we determined what had happened - One Last Chance had left the slipstream, one hundred years prior, and then been immediately obliterated. We were foolish — even a century prior, Agatha had been going too fast. They arrived when they were set to arrive, and then were atomized seconds later. We had started picking up their distress signal, flung free from the ship during the collision, in the late 70s — a signal we didn't know the origin of, or what it could possibly mean, but the central computer recognized it now. They, like all of us, were just too late.

Another vessel was built, and another team assembled. We were so close, but our math had been off. We had to go further back in time, push the Engine harder than we had before. The next attempt failed to cross the slipstream — a nervous pilot pushed their craft too slowly and was scattered across a millenium. Another attempt was destroyed before they had even left the solar system, when the Engine inverted and they were flung into a dark, cold future. Time after time, we re-ran our calculations, loaded women and men into increasingly sophisticated vessels, and pushed them over the edge, and one by one they were late, or too far away, or annihilated. For a year we sent vessels into space, praying that this one would be the one, and each time ended in disaster.

Did you pray for me, when you realized I was gone?

And then, one day, there was nobody left. Mankind had been reduced to quiet, miserable pockets of whimpering animals hiding underground. There were no arks to carry us away, no shields under which we could hide. Every scientist, every architect, every possible combination of team available that could pilot our vessel had been exhausted. A day came when I walked into the hangar of our most recent iteration, and I was alone. There were no engineers. There were no scholars. There was me, and there was Finality. One more ship, needing only a single operator, with an Engine that could run for a million years, or more. By flooding the interior of Finality with the same tachyons, its pilot could stay as they were, static and unaging, for as long as it would take.

You begged me to stay, begged me to go with you underground. Maybe it will miss us, you said. Maybe it will only graze us. How you had maintained your optimism, I could not understand. I might never understand. But I knew how it ended — I had plotted Agatha's trajectory myself, a thousand times. Without exception, she would descend from the sky and, in an instant, set the atmosphere alight. She would punch a hole twenty miles deep into the Earth, and the ejected molten rock would blanket the planet. We would burn, all of us — even the ones who had gone underground. The continents would buckle, the seas would thrash and break the shore, mountains would slide into the chasms of shattered Earth and then we would die, all of us, screaming. Agatha had waited a billion years for this moment, and she would not be denied.

I left you in the morning, before you had awoken. There were no nights anymore - there was the Sun, and then there was Agatha, but our room was dark and you didn't see me go. I loaded the few things I wanted to remind me of you, and took our truck to the launch center. There was no one at the gate to welcome me, no one in the lobby to greet me. No one to perform a preflight check, no one to wish me well, no anxious and eager crowds cheering my departure. The facility was dark, and I was alone, save for Finality. I made the necessary preparations, had a final meal, and then laid in my course. This time, we would not be late.

Did you even wake in time to see?

Finality rose, on a pillar of fire, into the light of the morning. There were no scenic views on my ship — she had none of the artistry of her sisters, with the curved glass and polished steel of One Last Chance long since having been replaced by bulkheads and sensors. But I had kept a small porthole, just to the right of where my head would rest, from which I could look out into the cosmos. As Finality climbed, I caught my last glimpse of you from this side, with the world stretching further and further away from me. I thought of you, laying in our bed, expecting me to be there when you wake. I wondered if you would feel betrayed, like I had abandoned you. I wondered if you would think I was trying to flee, and leaving you behind.

If only you knew, I mused, considering myself. The space for my body within Finality was no bigger than a coffin. There was room enough for the slipstream controls, and enough for me to turn sideways if necessary, and that was it. I would not age, and I would not need food or drink. The onboard systems would maintain my life, so long as it was required. All I had to do was push the ship over the slipstream, and then wait.

My path out of the solar system took three weeks. On the twenty-third day I passed by Agatha. Our paths crossed as I was waking, and in the dim light of that far edge of our celestial neighborhood I spotted her, silently following the path set for her. As I watched her pass, I couldn't help but feel a sense of grim familiarity. We were the same, she and I — both of us set in motion by forces that existed long before we did. Both of us powerless now to escape our destinies. I wondered about her, as she pulled out of view. Was she a living thing? Did she dream? Was Agatha afraid of her death, as well? Did she have anyone she loved waiting for her back home?

I turned away from the Sun and into the dark of open space. I had never been religious, despite my mother's insistence, but in that moment I closed my eyes and asked for something. I did not pray for salvation, nor an end to pain. This path I walked now was not one that could be avoided, but I did pray for courage — not just for the moment, but for all the moments to come. The Engine behind me roared, and time and space sang together as we inverted, twisting and dancing. For a moment, we were all at once — every vessel that had come before me, all together in a single line. As they began dropping from the slipstream, or being destroyed by it, I looked to my right. Was there a ship that would follow me? Was there anything for us after my mission?

For a moment, as my hand trembled in the darkness, I felt yours on mine. Were you here, with me? Guiding my actions? The world grew dark. As Finality crossed the slipstream, she tumbled out into nothingness, ejected into a place that was very different than my own. When I came to my senses, I surveyed the heavens. I saw no stars, no planets. Nothing whose light had reached me, wherever I was. For a moment I felt panic — what if I was late? What if I, like the others before me, had come out on the wrong end? If I had been ejected into the heat death of the universe, Elliot's miracle would end here.

But the computer came online, reassuringly reminding me that it was not the future we had landed in, but a far distant past. Out of my tiny porthole I saw it now, streaks of luminescent gas, a cosmic miasma, and behind them points of light. We were in a dense nebula, far away from Earth, with nothing but space and time between me and my home. Despair gripped me. Was I too far away? Had //Finality come out too far away? Would I have enough time to get back?// I thought of you, in our bed, and locked my jaw in determination. I would have to make up for lost time, but I could get there. I could make it happen. The computer laid in a course for Agatha's projected trajectory, and Finality's extralight engines flung us through space.

I was alone.

For eons.

From my coffin in space I saw wonders, my dear. Oh, if you could have only seen them. The birth of stars, of worlds. Dreams and nightmares like you could never believe. For years, then decades, then centuries, until any measure of time devised by man was insufficient. How far can the human mind stretch? How long can it persist in the face of endless, inexorable time? I would close my eyes to dream, and lifetimes would pass. I sang once, a song my father used to sing to me before bed, and the song lasted a thousand years.

The change of Finality happened so gradually it took me seven-hundred years to notice it. The flight computer warned me about trajectories variances, and had to compensate. When I scanned my vessel to find the disturbance, I discovered — to my dismay — that the ship had nearly quintupled in size. Gas and particulate from the young universe, attracted by the pull of the extralight engines, had begun to accumulate across the hull. The scanners were unimpeded, but it would not be long before the extralights were damaged by the crust of ionized metal forming around Finality. I could only watch in horror as my tiny window to the world around me became cloudy, and then dim, and then dark. After another four-thousand years, I was in total blackness.

But the extralights continued on, as long as they could. I came to the grim realization that I would run out of propulsion before I found Agatha, if I could even find it in time. I had hoped to rely on the extralights to give me time to find it, but without them I was just a missile. But there was another way. My scanners did not know where Agatha was, but the computer knew where she would be. While I still had command over Finality, I made a course correction to a point one-hundred years in the past from where I had come, and brought the engines to maximum power. One Last Chance had not been able to disrupt Agatha's arc, but Finality could.

I made the calculations myself. We had significant mass, now, and that mass would only increase as we hurtled through space. Any angle of attack would be sufficient, so long as we made contact with enough speed. Finality screamed through the sky, extralights blazing like the sun, until the dust and debris caked over the nacelles and they were suffocated.


I dreamed of you, in those days. Often I would slip back into sleep and be in your arms again, laying in our bed, talking about work or your studies, or what we wanted to watch on TV. Where had the time gone? We had talked about starting a family, about getting a dog. You wanted to move to Vancouver, but I wanted to stay closer to our parents. We always felt like we had nothing but time, that we couldn't spend it fast enough. While I slept in my cocoon, I thought of you. What would we do together, if I was able to save us? Where would our lives take us? Carolyn, you had told me, if it's a girl, Carolyn. If it's a boy, George - after your father.

Sometimes I would dream about the world I left. You died, I am sure of it. When Agatha struck the Earth, she would have turned it into a cloud of hot vapor. In the worst of them, I would see you laying there, as you were when I left you, when the wall of fire engulfed our home. I wonder if you felt any pain, in that moment, or if it was over before you realized it had even happened. Did you curse me, then? Did you cry out for me? Did you think of me at all?

Did anyone think of me at all?

Is there anything left to think about?
















Oh, the stars. We're all just stars.
















Do not fear, my darling. I'm getting close, now. I have been in the dark for so long, but I have not given up. My body has changed, but my mind is resolute. I will not abandon my mission, not now. It's so dark in here. The scanners tell me that Finality is tumbling through space. I wonder how large it has gotten? I wonder if it will be large enough to disrupt Agatha's course. I run the numbers again. It must be.

Something strikes the hull, but I barely feel it. Nothing can stop me, now. Nothing will stop me from reaching her.

I am so close. I can feel it. The scanners have not found Agatha yet, but I know she is out there. I am going to find her, and I am going to save us.

Then, when I've completed my task, I will return to you. We can be together again.

I am coming home.


What would you believe, if I told you how it ended?

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