#24 – Horror Vacui

“How much longer now?”

“You asked me that an hour ago.”

“Well, I’m bored.”

“Go be bored somewhere else. There’s a whole ship to explore.”

Lex rolled her eyes. Sal hated being spoken to while he was flying, even if the ship was functionally on autopilot. Anytime he was in that seat, which was little more than battered metal and a thin, deflated cushion, he developed a God complex. She didn’t really get it, but then again, she was an engineer. It didn’t matter what she thought, so long as the ship kept working. 

“I notice you’re still here,” said Sal, turning in the pilot’s chair. A short beard, gristle really, had begun to grow around his significant jowls. Razor-burn spotted his neck, and his eyes were sullen and low, as if he’d just come off a bender. 

“Just hangin’ with my pal, Sal.”

Sal snorted. “You really want to look out at all that?” One hand waved across the view-screen. The fathomless black firmament, barely speckled with a few points of light, was all there was to see. It unnerved Lex. She’d been flying with the Gunnison for a little more than eight months and had spent a lot of time looking out of windows. Short-haul ships weren’t equipped with cryopods. Something about frequent cry-cycles damaged the cells, so they were stuck at sub-FTL speeds, bouncing between the supra-light buoys marking the trade-lanes. 

“No,” answered Lex, “not really. It’s kinda fuckin’ boring. Why’s it so empty, anyway? Don’t we usually see more stars?”

Sal shrugged. “Charting new trade routes takes you to some weird places. Maybe a black hole? We’re pretty far out. Lots could be here we don’t know about. Ask Polina. She’s the physicist. She might be able to tell you what’s what.”

“But she wouldn’t do it with the same gusto as you, Sal.”

“Fuck off.”

“Love you, too.”

“Get goin’, now. Go play cards with Briggs or Moray or somebody. Leave me alone.”

“Just so long as you promise not to tell me why you’re so keen on being alone.”

“Remember when I told you to fuck off?”

Lex laughed, waved once, then left the bridge. The doors slid shut behind her. Sal was finally alone. He looked once over his shoulder, then checked the comm-link. “You still there?”

“Yes,” came the reply. “Do you think she knew I was listening?” A faint accent indicated the speaker had grown up someplace metropolitan. Maybe Prosperity, or one of the stations around it. Sal made a mental note to ask Polina about it sometime.

“No,” he said. “She didn’t have a clue. Just coincidence she noticed the same thing about the missing stars.”

“Do you think the others will notice?” asked Polina.

“Not likely. They spend more time drinking and playing games than they do looking out the viewports. She’s the only one with half a brain.”

“Well, let’s hope she uses the correct half and keeps this to herself. I don’t want the crew to panic.”

“Well, I gotta tell Sharp. But after him, that’s it.”

“It better be.”

“Hey Polina?”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think we need to panic?”

There was silence for a long moment. Too long. Then the reply: “Not yet.”

“Roger,” said Sal, closing the link.


The noise of the mess pressed itself upon Lex as soon as she entered; over half the crew was here now, and those three other people made it feel like three times that. The mess was the biggest room on the ship, but that didn’t mean much aboard the Gunnison. It also happened to be the ugliest. The walls were steel-grey and looked like little more than sheet metal hung vertically, covered only by strips of seldom-used netting moored to the wall at the top and bottom like the masts of an ancient ship. Lex liked how they looked, even if they were kind of pointless; though the ship was hardly modern, it had been retrofitted with an artificial-gravity unit that kept the floors where they belonged.

Across the mess, Moray was stirring something in a pan. It made a sizzling sound that promised a better meal than Lex knew Moray to be capable of delivering. The big man waved at her as she entered and gestured to whatever was in the pan. Lex shook her head, then turned to the table where Sharp, the captain, and Briggs, the other engineer, sat. They had scattered cards across the table and were looking at one another intently. Lex grabbed a seat at the end of the table and watched them for a long moment where neither moved.

After about a minute, she interrupted: “Are you guys actually playing this game, or is it just a staring contest? What kind of money do you have on the line?” 

If Sharp heard her, he showed no sign of having done so. Lex turned to Briggs, who shrugged. “Don’t worry about him, Lex. Staring at the cards isn’t gonna make ‘em any better. He knows he’s cooked.”

“Does he? He seems pretty convinced he has a shot, here.”
“That’s the overconfidence of command. Once you put a guy in charge, he thinks he’s hot shit, needs to be humbled. This is me doing him a favour, really.”

“Shut up, Briggs, it’s been like four months,” said Sharp. His eyes never moved from the cards. “Fuck. Okay. Call.”

“Show ‘em.”

Sharp laid the cards across the corrugated metal table. There was no confidence in his face. He didn’t even bother taunting his opponent. A single vein bulged in his forehead. “Just show ‘em, man. Don’t mess around. Marlene’s gonna be pissed enough at me for gambling when I get home.”

Lex watched Briggs. The younger man was looking at Sharp, mouth agape. “I’m honestly shocked. Really, I am.” He held his cards in his fist, not even looking at them.

“Can you get this over with? Sal called me to the bridge like five minutes ago. Says it’s important.”

“And this isn’t? I was just going to say that I’m shocked you were bold enough to make the call. I honestly thought you’d fold.”

“Briggs. Stop being a dick. Just show me your cards.” Lex could hear the edge in Sharp’s tone. She’d worked with Briggs a lot longer than she’d worked with Sharp, who’d recently been re-assigned by the Company. Everything she’d heard about the man suggested that he was a perfectly affable – if somewhat bookish – captain. She’d also heard a series of stories about the lagoon-side casinos on Jollity that suggested he wasn’t as clean-cut as he seemed. She made a mental note to tell Briggs – remind him, really, considering he was the one who’d found that information on the captain – to maybe find a different opponent.

Briggs sighed and laid the cards across the table. Lex snorted. Briggs had nothing.

YES!” cried Sharp, leaping to his feet. A barely-restrained smile crossed his face. “I didn’t think I had a chance, and I swore I wouldn’t be cocky if I won, but godDAMN does it feel good!”

“Good game, cap’n,” said Briggs, extending a fist. Sharp bumped it. “You got one more in you? Or do you gotta go?”

Sharp considered. “I should probably head. Maybe later.” He grinned. “I know your tell now, man. You’re gonna be in for it when I get back.”

Briggs opened his arms wide in a kind of who-me stance. “See you then, boss.”

Lex leaned toward him. “So why’d you let him win?”

Briggs shrugged. “Guy looked stressed about something. His comm kept going off.” He grinned. “I also got to see what he looks like when he’s got a shit hand. Not sure I needed the preview to figure it out.”

“Truly, you are a noble so–”

Without warning, the Gunnison began to slow. Then it stopped. Everything after was a blur. Lex later recalled it only in snapshots, seconds of memory preserved only for the horrors they held.

One. The ship stops. Plates, bowls, cutlery, glasses, liquids, food, the hot oil in the pan, the cards on the table, the loose metal nut that Briggs had dropped behind the bulkhead two months prior – it all flies into the opposite wall with a horrific metal crunching sound that makes Lex think she’s died.

Two. She watches Moray die. Unmoored to anything, he collides with the wall faster than her eye can follow. His body floats away in a crumpled heap, globules of blood already beginning to gather in the air, the gravity unit clearly damaged by the calamity. She and Briggs luck out – their heavy workpants and the short distance between thigh and metal save them from the same fate. Mostly. Lex hears a sound she can never unhear, then looks down at Briggs’s lap to see a white shock of bone extruding from his thigh. He’s screaming. She’s only just realized that.

Three. A klaxon is sounding through the Gunnison. The lights in the mess have vanished, replaced by dull yellow running lights like submerged fireflies. A tinny voice is speaking over the comms. Sharp’s. It takes a few seconds for the words to coalesce into anything that carry meaning. Siren so loud. They need to go to the bridge. Now. 

Four. Lex pushes herself out of the seat. She’s floating but a few inches over the table. Her legs scream at her. They might not be broken, but they’re certainly bruised. She helps Briggs out of his seat, trying not to jostle his leg, trying not to even look at it. She wraps his arm over her shoulder, then uses the lip of the table to launch herself toward the exit.


Lex didn’t realize how bad it was until they arrived on the bridge. 

The soft whirr of the automatic door announced their arrival. Somebody must have hit a switch, because the alarm stopped as soon as she entered. She heard a short gasp, presumably at the sight of Briggs. Polina. The astrophysicist was strapped into the co-pilot’s chair, next to the ashen-faced Sal, whose hands were dancing anxiously on the console. Floating nearby was Sharp. Small bubbles of red rose from his head, but he seemed alert and gave the crew a sad wave as they entered. He was about to push off the wall and toward the arriving party when Sal unstrapped himself instead. The big man lifted the semi-conscious Briggs from Lex’s shoulders and set him into the pilot’s chair. Polina quickly rushed forward, filling the open wound with a medi-foam. Enough to keep him steady. At least for now.

“Moray?” asked Sharp, breaking the silence.

Lex shook her head. “Was standing when it happened.”

“Jesus.”

“What the hell happened? An asteroid?”

“No,” said Sal, shaking his head. “An asteroid would’ve come up on the sensors, even out here where there’s no light to bounce off of it. Also, we’d still be moving. But we’re not.” His eyes danced over to Polina’s, and he raised his eyebrows. Questioning.

Polina nodded, and Sal continued.

“Pol and I have been monitoring some unusual activity in this sector.”

“What kind of activity?” asked Sharp irritably.

“I was just getting to th–”

Polina spoke up. “–Don’t worry, Sal. I can take it from here.” She looked first to Sharp, then around the cramped room. “We detected an unusual phenomenon as we passed out of the last cluster. We’re still a few dozen parsecs from the nearest trade route, with no known objects in-between.”

“What was the phenomenon?” asked Sharp.

“We noticed that the stars were going out.” Polina’s voice was cold as she replied. It took a moment for Lex to realize it wasn’t the steely nerves of the scientist. Polina was afraid.  

Sharp pushed himself into an upright position, or at least as close as he could get in zero-g. “What do you mean, going out?” Anger had begun to creep into his voice.

“As in, we couldn’t see them anymore,” said Sal.
“Right,” replied Sharp, “but did they actually ‘go out’ as in ‘go nova,’ or is it something else?”

“Something else,” answered Polina hurriedly, “but we’re not totally sure what just yet. We have some theories.”

“Like?”

“We think they’re being blocked. Obscured, that is.”

“By what? A rogue planet?”

“No,” said Polina sadly. “That would definitely have shown up on our sensors. Planets are composed of elements we know and can identify, even in the dark. This was all dark.”

“What the fuck?”

“It gets worse, too,” continued Polina. “As far as we can tell – and this is limited, based on scans that we can run – it’s not anything we’ve ever seen. It’s like there’s some strand of something, and we’re caught in it.”

“Well, let’s get out. Sal, throw the ship in reverse.”
“Can’t do it, boss. Front thrusters are buried in whatever this shit is. No way to pull ourselves out. I tried. We’re trapped.”

Nobody said anything then. The only sound was the low and rhythmic breathing of Briggs in his chair. Then their world came apart. A great shudder ran through the Gunnison like a death rattle, then the jarring, violent shriek of tearing metal. The sirens began to go off again, shining yellow across the bridge, and the bridge door’s locked shut. The whole ship shook, throwing everybody save the seatbelted Briggs into the nearest wall, though fortunately not as quickly as before. A hiss of air could be heard, indicating that the vacuum seals elsewhere on the ship had been breached. Then there was silence, and everything went still.

“What. The fuck. Was that?” asked Sharp.

Lex floated to the console, her hair cloudy around her head. She typed something quickly.. Next to her, Briggs had drifted again into unconsciousness. A tremor rolled through the ship as she worked, and the rest of the crew shifted nervously. 

“Fast as you can, please,” said Sharp.

 Lex wanted to call him out for being a dick, but decided that wouldn’t help anything. At least not yet. She swore under her breath. “That can’t be,” she muttered.

“What can’t be?” asked Sharp.

“This – all of this.” She turned to him. “I don’t really know how to say this. There’s no good way.”

“Just spit it out. We can worry about gilding it in our reports.”

“Something’s attacking us.”

Another long silence. Then Polina spoke, too scared to moderate her tone. “What, like an alien?”

“Not exactly. And I don’t want to leap to too many conclusions. The Confederacy hasn’t found any complex life in known space, but we know it’s out there. It makes sense that we’d run into it eventually. But this – whatever it is – is peeling apart the hull. The mess is totally exposed to the vacuum right now. I think it detected something there. Food, maybe. Warmth.”

“Why hasn’t it attacked us yet, then?” asked Sal.

Lex hesitated. “Because there’s more blood at the end of the ship.”

Sal let out a long whistle. “Shit.”

“This is fascinating,” said Polina. “A life-form totally undetectable by any of our instruments–”

“Definitely,” said Sharp, in a tone that suggested he didn’t care in the slightest. “But it’s not my concern right now. My concern is getting what remains of my crew back into home space.”

“I told you,” began Sal “I don’t have a way to–”

“I think I do.” Lex. She finished a few last seconds of furious typing, then stepped back from the console. “It’s risky, it’s stupid, but I think it’s all we got.”

“Well?” asked Sharp. “What is it?”

“We blow the Gunnison’s reactor.”

“Wha–”

“Just a small detonation. Controlled. One cell per second. Enough so that they propel one another instead of combining. If we trigger the ejection command on the bridge at the exact right time, the module will detach from the ship. Propel us away, back towards the Cygnus route. Or at least I hope. The inertia might not be enough, and we’ll have to survive on emergency rations. But it’s the difference between dying later or dying now, when whatever the hell’s out there decides to come back.” Lex’s voice was shaking as she finished. She wasn’t the talker, at least not to big groups. She had no idea where this had come from. 

“It’s a stupid plan,” said Sal slowly, “but it’s also the only one we’ve got.”

Polina laughed. It sounded false in that small space. It might’ve been. “Agreed.”

“Cap, I’m gonna need the override codes to blow the reactor,” said Sal.

Sharp’s face had gone white, either from loss of blood or the fear of what came next. But he floated over to Sal and began to punch something in.

“Wait!” cried Lex. 

“What?” asked Sharp.

“I forgot – I can’t believe I forgot. But we can’t do it on the console. It has to be manual.”

There was a long silence as the import of this fell on the crew. Then Sal said what everybody was thinking. “Lex, that’s through the mess. It’s all vacuum.”

“I’ll do an EVA. There’s suits in the bulkhead.”

Sharp shook his head. “If you’re setting the sequence manually, it’s still a one way trip. There’s gotta be another way.”

“There is no other way.” Everybody turned to the sound of the voice. It was weak, and strained, but it was Briggs. His face was practically grey, but his eyes blazed as he spoke. “I’m going with you, Lex. You need another engineer. We don’t know what’s happening out there. We need to stack the deck as much as we can.”

Lex’s eyes met her friend’s and thought of a million reasons to say no. Her lips parted in a grim smile. “Guess we’d better suit up.”


Inside her EVA suit, Lex took a deep breath and tried not to think of how little material separated her from endless nothingness. It was not easy to dismiss this thought from her mind, especially when the only distraction was the sound of her own breath echoing inside her helmet. Sharp had asked her to update them on their progress over the comms as they went, but Polina had piped up to suggest that, in the absence of any knowledge about whatever had attacked the Gunnison, perhaps all radio communication should be kept to a minimum. Their suits’ running lights had also had tape hastily applied over them, just in case the visible spectrum made them just as vulnerable.

These considerations did not provide any additional comfort.

Lex and Briggs floated inside the hallway just outside of the ravaged mess. The ship’s airlock seals had been activated automatically as the mess had been attacked. Sal had sealed the opposite end of the hall. When they gave the signal – just a quick on/off of the radio – he would open the mess door, and they’d float through in the dark, across to the opposite end, where a floor panel would provide an access ladder, allowing them to reach the reactor.

Lex counted about six hundred ways she could die in the next five minutes. She pushed them from her mind and looked over at Briggs. His face had a sickly, jaundiced look. Lex didn’t know how much of that was the poor light thrown by the runners or the wound. Another thing not to think about. She took a deep breath, then flicked the radio.

The door opened, soundless in the vacuum. Lex gestured to Briggs, and they floated through.

It took a moment for Lex to orient herself as she floated into the mess. While the fundamental structure of the room was still there, the entire roof and part of one wall were missing. Only a few lights were left on the wall to her left, scattering faint light in a thin halo like the last embers of a doomed campfire. A few stars could be spotted, speckled across the cosmos above her, but they disappeared abruptly when she looked too far to the right.

After that, there was nothing. She couldn’t call it an abyss, because that suggested some measure of depth of volume that indicated that there was structure or space to it. This was nothingness, pure and simple. As if a child had peeled back the wallpaper of the universe to reveal the howling black emptiness beyond. 

It terrified her, but she tried not to show it as she took Briggs’s hand and used the frame of the door to launch herself across the room, careful not to apply enough inertia that her landing might hurt. 

Or worse, that it might be noticed.

For a few brief, paralyzing seconds that felt like years, she passed in front of the expanse, trying not to look, not being able to do anything but look. She closed her hand tighter around Briggs’s and felt him squeeze back. Then they hit the far wall, more heavily than she hoped but not as hard as she’d feared. She found the console that opened the maintenance corridor, then pressed the entry code. It slid open soundlessly.

She gestured for Briggs to enter, then followed him. The door closed behind her.


“Well, that was the scariest shit I’ve ever seen,” said Lex. She’d taken her helmet off and tucked it behind the netting on the wall in the reactor’s room. Briggs had taken his helmet off. His breath was coming in short gasps, but his eyes were alert. They looked as scared as Lex felt.

“That wasn’t right,” he said. “Felt like we weren’t meant to see it or something. It was like my brain didn’t even know what to do, you know? I’m trying to talk about it now and I can’t. Like all my words’ve been stolen.”

“I hear you, partner. Let’s just get this shit over with.”

Together they rigged up the detonation sequence. It was relatively simple from an engineering perspective. The Confederation had mandated self-destruct sequences on all vessels – commercial, military, or personal – since the Internecine Conflicts seventy years prior. All captains were obliged to scuttle a ship rather than let it fall into enemy hands, lest reverse-engineering allow a lower-caste world to elevate itself. 

The primary failsafe against misuse was that it required a specific set of codes, as well as manual detonation. Lex and Briggs each knew this, and once the sequence was timed, there was nothing else left to say.

“I need to do this,” said Briggs.

“Don’t be stupid. It was my idea.”

Briggs laughed. “What does that matter? I’m not doing so good, in case you hadn’t noticed. Don’t waste your life.”

“I wasn’t asking.” Lex floated close to him. “I think I could win a fight against the guy with the busted leg.”

“Now who’s being stupid?” Briggs laughed, a cold sound without mirth. Then, without warning, his hand shot out and grabbed a loose wrench. In the next second, he slammed it into the front of his helmet. A spiderweb of cracks spread across it. He held the wrench in front of its face. “I don’t want you to get hurt, and this shit will fly everywhere if I break it. Which I will if you don’t go. And your helmet won’t fit my suit, so don’t even think of trying to be a hero.”

“Fuck you,” said Lex. “Don’t put this on my conscience.”

“You heard Pol say how far out we are. Go. Get out of here. Tell the Confederation what happened so they can stay the fuck away from here.”

Lex looked at Briggs for a long moment. Each considered the other. Calculating. Then Lex relaxed her shoulders and nodded. She floated over to her helmet and put it on. She turned to Briggs and tried to think of something to say, but nothing seemed quite right. So she simply raised a hand, then left that place, never to return.


Lex was barely settled back on the bridge when the detonation began. Sal sat at the controls, watching the readings with an uncharacteristic fierceness. Everyone else was silent. Thinking. Praying. Whatever people did when they retreated inside themselves.

It began as a series of tremors. Then there was a violent shaking sensation, and a sense of lightness as the bridge module separated from the rest of the Gunnison. A flare bloomed in the night, growing hotter and redder, propelling the survivors away from the site of the wreck.

The light from the dying ship had already begun to fade when Sal finally exhaled and opened the viewscreen for all to see. The fading glow lit up the emptiness, revealing the wall of black that extended beyond the top of their view. No stars could be seen past this structure, which was unmoved and seemingly undamaged by the violence at its feet. 

Then something moved, a thin tendril of black against the dying ship. This glimpse at the indescribable sent a thrill of terror and sublime awe through Lex. For a moment again, she was a primitive on a long-dead world, looking at an unchanging and unknowable sky. 

Then she was back, and they were hurtling through the dark.

Hurtling towards home.

#11 – Lighthouses

The story below was written and based on concepts provided by one of my best friends, Austin MacDonald.

The astronaut slept. When he slept, he dreamed. The dream never changed anymore. It began with him on a raft, or perhaps some kind of skiff, far out on the ocean. In the dream, he was a mariner, not an astronaut. It was night and the sky was black overhead and the sea below was the kind of fathomless dark that only exists when light has never visited at all. The sea roiled, and the ship rose and fell in the wake of each wave. The sky above was dotted with stars, tiny pinpricks of white in the inky firmament. The mariner adjusted the tiller, veering towards shore. He could not see it, but he knew it to be there. 

A beam of yellow shone out across the water. No sound of foghorn to accompany it, but it was a beacon all the same, a spear of sunlight in the night. Once more the mariner adjusted the tiller, turning his way towards home. Above him the stars glimmered, brilliant and immovable.

Then he woke up, and he was an astronaut again.

–––––

The astronaut unstrapped himself from the sleep module, using the grab bars to launch himself forward through the ship towards the ovoid command module at the end of the corridor. He drifted past empty cryopods and did not look at them. Viewports on either side of the ship revealed the stars, but he never looked at those, either. His only check-in on the way to running the maintenance cycles was on the crop of soybeans that grew then under white light like sterile hospital light. Dew clung to vibrant green leaves, the only true source of colour in that place. The astronaut was pleased to see them progressing, but the memory of the last crop lingered in his mind. This yield would be less than that. A knife of worry turned in the astronaut’s gut. This was the third crop in a row with diminishing returns. 

The astronaut left his plants and drifted through the ship, back towards the command module. The astronaut’s beard floated around his face. He had considered cutting it, but decided not to. Like everything about him, it only had so long. The beard would be a marker of time passed.

There was no door to the command module. They hadn’t thought they would need doors. The astronaut angled himself forward, using the wall’s inertia to push himself to the seat. He brought his knees to his chest, fetal-like, then drifted into place. A quick glance at the monitors showed that all readings were sound, just as they were every other day. Spontaneous mechanical problems didn’t exist in a vacuum the way they did on Earth. In space, everything was as it always was. 

The astronaut dimmed the lights. He wondered why he still checked. The readings said what they always said. 

All systems go. Cryopods offline.

Only one lifeform aboard.

–––––

The ship’s life had begun out of desperation. A cloudless night in late April on the bluffs outside Tel Aviv had been the place of revelation. An Israeli astronomer had spied a dark patch in the sky that occluded the nebula he was looking for. He tracked it over the course of a couple nights. It did not take him long to realize what it was, and he reported the discovery, excited, but otherwise nonplussed. The prospect of discovering an asteroid and getting to name it was an honour, but it wasn’t what he looked at the sky for. He wanted to see beauty, not darkness. He kept the discovery to himself, not wanting to tell others until it had been confirmed.

A few days later, he had been contacted by members of Mossad and the American F.B.I. They had brought him to a dark room in a dusty building on the edge of town. Sounds of traffic reverberated through the sheet metal walls, making the inside seem even more vacant. Fear had taken the amateur astronomer then, and he had prayed quietly for succour. Then the door opened, and two men sat down. They reminded him that he was not handcuffed, and they apologized for the dramatics of the situation.

They then very politely and carefully explained to him that the world was going to end. 

The astronomer paid little attention to what they said next. Only the basics were clear; top-level space agencies had done the projections for the asteroid’s course and calculated its size and mass. It was approximately one-and-a-half times as big as the Chicxulub impactor that had led to the death of the dinosaurs. Worse, it was due to impact the Earth in six months’ time. The estimated impact site was in the Alboran Sea, thirty kilometres south-south-east of Gibraltar. 

The agents then carefully asked the astronomer if he had told anyone else and he said no, he had wanted to wait. They asked him again and he said yes again. Then they asked him what he would name the asteroid. The astronomer thought for a minute and then said Abaddon, for surely they were looking at Hell itself. 

The agents nodded and said that this made sense. The American agent then withdrew a pistol and shot the astronomer in the head. They left that place and never came back.

The world could then be segmented into two different groups of people: those who knew and those who didn’t. Most of the world, billions and billions, continued on with their lives in complete ignorance of their coming annihilation. Only the most powerful – the very rich, politicians, certain super-celebrities – were told. Once they were told, they began to plan. 

There were two schools of thought on how to approach the crisis. Given that the most major impact event in human memory was the 2013 Chelyabinsk air burst, there was at first a significant misunderstanding to the severity of the coming event. It is difficult for the human mind to comprehend how an impact off the European and African coasts might trigger volcanic events in Indonesia. It cannot conceive of tsunamis taller than skyscrapers, nor can it understand the centuries of global cooling that would follow. It is not capable of working on such scales.

There were some who wanted to remain. They would build bunkers and live their whole lives underground if they had to, palaces of concrete beneath hundreds of feet of soil. Even the architects of these vaults were not sure whether the residents would survive, but some thought it a better hope than the alternative.

The alternative was the Terra.

The Terra had been named in memory of what it would lose and as a representation of what might be gained. The ship itself was little more than a tube with wings, an interstellar dragonfly; even the wings themselves – solar sails – had an iridescent sheen reminiscent of the insect. 

The two plans were put into motion. The rich descended into their bunkers, where the sheer amount of soil cut them off from communicating with one another. A generation would be born, live, and die underground. The remainder looked to the stars.

Proxima Centauri is the nearest star system to Earth at a mere thirty-eight trillion kilometres, a stone’s throw in cosmic terms. The solar sails of the Terra would gather the solar winds, allowing the Terra to approach a few percentage points of the speed of light. The journey would take approximately thirty years. There were a few complications, of course; the amount of provisions that could be stored was relatively small, given that the success of the solar sails depended on reducing mass as much as possible. This necessitated that the ship’s available weight be devoted primarily to cryogenic chambers where the passengers, pilgrims from a desolated world, might sleep until they reached their destination. Tickets cost tens of billions and were snapped up in an instant. The passengers were put to sleep, not to wake for thirty years. 

Only one person would wake during the long journey, to perform regular maintenance checks.  A single engineer. 

They left the Earth three days before impact. The engineer, who was now an astronaut, stayed awake long enough to watch. It was night when it happened. Fire consumed the land, and all of the glittering lights across the darkened globe disappeared.

–––––

The astronaut’s beard was longer now, and he had to pull himself through the ship carefully. Supplements had done little to ward off the bone decay that astronauts typically experienced during long voyages. He was sure that a doctor might have diagnosed him with osteo- something or other, but even an orthopaedic surgeon could not have afforded a spot aboard the Terra. 

He realized now, thinking back, how foolhardy the plan had been. What if there had been a system failure on his pod and he had drowned? What if he had developed some kind of cancer, or perhaps an embolism? One person to maintain humanity’s future was an almost psychotic level of idiocy. In a strange way, he was glad he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. 

The astronaut floated to the viewport with a palmful of soybeans in his hand. The colour was almost painfully brilliant in that stark space. He held it up to the viewport, wondering how something that green might be allowed to exist in all that dark. 

–––––

A memory of blood. Each pod opened carefully, thawed. A pool of blue water. The rich didn’t know that it was just colouring, something to make the whole process seem more advanced than it really was. Something to disguise the fact that they were just upjumped primates who had come too far from home.

One punch with the screwdriver to the throat. The holes were always perfectly round, not even ragged at the borders. Ruddy crimson bubbles would float and pop as the cryopod’s occupant aspirated. Death always followed, too many minutes later. The astronaut was sure that they never felt a thing, and he told himself as much.

He wondered if God could see this far, and if He understood that a man needed protein to survive.

–––––

Countless years passed, and the bodies began to disappear. When the astronaut was not eating or drinking or pissing or shitting, he hovered in a trance. His beard was white and now floated in a cloud of snow about his face. It was dirty and tangled and matted in places. He had tried talking to himself, but a hyper-awareness of the possibility of insanity had made him stop. There was nothing to do other than to look at unchanging maintenance readings or the void of space beyond the viewports.

The memory pushed itself up. He tried to push it back, but it was seared into him. How long ago had it been? How long since he had awoken for that first set of maintenance checks.?

He remembered. He remembered the last time he felt hope. The pod had opened, and he wasn’t dead. An indicator next to it told him that a year had passed. A year since the Earth had died. All he had to do now was do his checks, then he could sleep for another year. He practically raced through the ship, scratching at the scruff around his face. His limbs were sore and cramped but his heart was full. He would survive! There was a future. Faces of his comrades looked out from their cryopods with shuttered eyes. Behind them, the whirr of the hydroponic array churned on, generating bulbs that would then be frozen and planted on the new world waiting for them. 

All checks were green, of course. The astronaut, who used to be an engineer, was impressed. In his experience, the rich loved to cut corners to save as much as they could. The fact that the Terra operated so smoothly told him that exceptions had been made in this case. Reassured, the astronaut floated back to the aft end of the ship. 

It was then that he saw it. An abyssal feeling of emptiness tore itself open inside him. 

Outside the port viewport, the solar sail soared out of view, a paper-thin skyscraper that reflected the blizzard of light from inside the ship. 

On the starboard side, there was nothing. Nothing save for a gnarled mess of metal and plastic where the sail had been. 

The astronaut felt his brain flood with adrenaline. Time slowed. A thousand connections and implications began firing in his brain, the neurons driving as quickly as they could, calculating, hypothesizing, all coming to the inevitable conclusion that there had evidently been some sort of accident and that he was now lost somewhere in interstellar space between a dead world and his destination.
Outside of the viewport, the stars peered back without blinking.

–––––

He never dreamed of land anymore. Just the sea and the lighthouse. That’s all there was.

–––––

The astronaut had tried, of course, to calculate the distance. But there were too many variables, and he wasn’t a physicist. All of the physicists had been left behind on this project, outbid for their seats after being promised that their work would be their salvation. The cryopods on this ship only had room for the truly important. The astronaut himself had been spared by virtue of his necessity; they simply could not make the journey without an on-board engineer.

The stars didn’t even look the same so far from Earth. Constellations were largely similar, for in a cosmic sense, he had only crossed the street. But everything was slightly off, and it made his measurements difficult. Complicating it further was that he had no sense of how the destruction of the Terra’s starboard sail might have affected their course. It was possible that, even if he got in the cryotube now, the ship might never arrive at Proxima Centauri. It would instead miss entirely, travelling beyond into an inconceivable emptiness.

The astronaut did the best he could. He used the ship’s readings to determine that the loss of the sail had had a massive negative effect on the speed of the ship. He ran numbers again and again, desperate to change them. But they never changed. 

It would take the Terra approximately forty-nine thousand, six hundred and twenty years to reach Proxima Centauri – or at least where he hoped it would be.

The astronaut looked at these notes for a long time. Then he tore them up. Bits of paper like two-dimensional gnats floated about his head. It was against regulation to tear up paper. The pieces might find their way into something important.

The astronaut watched them float away, wishing he could too.

–––––

Bones decayed and splintered. The mind frayed. The astronaut lived on. It was his duty. Not for the passengers, but for everybody else who didn’t get a chance.

–––––

He drifted now over a bed of dying plants, a sea of  autumnal yellows and golds that never belonged in this place.

Was he wrong to have spared his own life? Hopelessness is one thing, but there’s a far cry between ending a life and ending a species. Could he bear that burden?

He wondered again how far God could see.

–––––

Decades passed. The astronaut was asleep when the lights went out and floated emaciated and frail in a white-and-grey cloud, swallowed by his own beard. The sudden change prompted him to wake. The ship’s power had finally failed. Not even the core of the ship, the centripetal wheel, remained powered. The astronaut probed his mind, trying to remember what he had forgotten. What did this mean for the recyclers? For his air, for his water? Panic threatened to rise in his chest but couldn’t muster the effort. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

The Terra was black and dead. The only light now from the stars. The astronaut floated to the viewport, pulling himself in with gnarled arthritic hands. He stayed there and looked out with ancient red eyes. He watched the stars as long as he could. 

They looked so much like lighthouses. 

#3 – Black Hole Swan

In the distance, the universe ended. Lark watched it happen, his eyes glazed and dull. His fingers scrabbled inside the jar of peanuts, flicking off as much salt and grease in the can as possible. He shoveled the peanuts into his mouth, then checked the time on the monitor.

It was only seventy-five minutes into the morning cycle. The ambient lighting of the station was pale blue, still brilliant, emulating the morning sun on Prosperity. Not that it was particularly good at that; Lark hadn’t been home for the last six shift cycles, but he had grown up there, and he remembered what the sun was really like. Sure, the money was good–everyone who did long-haul posts knew that–but what they didn’t tell the rooks was how fucking boring the waiting was. 

Lark couldn’t help but look at it. They always said you weren’t supposed to, and Grimes was always reminding him not to, but he couldn’t help it. There was nothing else to do. Each day was an endless cycle of routine tests: tests to ensure the station’s orbit was stable; tests to make sure the prisoners were alive; tests to the disposal mechanism’s release signal. How could he be blamed for sneaking a look every once in a while? You couldn’t get this kind of view on Prosperity, after all.

Even with the UV filters on at 99%, Lark had to wipe his eyes and look away every few moments. A vibrant blue tail unfurled itself from the star which made up one-half of the binary system. The tail was in the process of being swallowed by the other half of the system: the black hole which Cygnus Station orbited. 

“You shouldn’t look at that,” said a voice over his shoulder. Grimes. The man’s voice was neither angry nor condescending. Just empty. Grimes had been on-station longer than Lark, and he was beginning to show it. “You don’t want to burn your eyes out.”

“I’m not going to burn my eyes out looking at a black hole. That’s the opposite of what they do.”

“Not talking about the black hole. Figured you might have noticed the supergiant star in the last few shifts.”

“I put the filters on.”

“Yeah, those filters are rated for shit. Red stars, maybe yellow at best. But blue? Might as well start fitting yourselves for a new eye now.”

Lark muttered something under his breath, but said no more to Grimes. The latter man was busying himself at the console, checking the readings of the magnetic shields which plated every element of the station. He hummed under his breath as his eyes shifted from monitor to monitor. Steam rose from his coffee cup, untouched next to him. A faint whirring sound could be heard. Everything, including the traces of water in the vapour, would be recycled and reused. Cygnus Station was meant for the long-term guest.

“I already did the mag-checks, Grimes.”

“I can see that.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all. But I want to check anyway.”

“Then how the hell can it mean nothing?”

Grimes turned away from the monitor and looked at Lark. The big bald man looked back at him with watery eyes. Clearly the UV filters had worked about as well as Grimes had expected. “Look,” he replied, “I don’t mean anything by it. But word’s come down from the Imperium. One of the prisoners is due for Erasure. The Eraser will be arriving shortly to carry out the sentence.”

Unconsciously, Lark shivered. The Eraser had always given him the creeps. He’d only ever been present for one Erasure, and was eager to see another, but a part of him had often wished that he or Grimes would be allowed to carry out the sentence themselves. It would make things less boring. But rules were rules. 

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Grimes. “It would be a hell of a lot easier. But they don’t want us getting involved with the prisoners. Our job is life-support, that’s it. There’s a reason they don’t have names, you know.”

“So we’re just supposed to sit on our asses until the Eraser arrives.”

“That’s it. You’ve done this before, you know the drill. It’s frustrating and difficult and a waste of everyone’s time, but the Imperium does things this way for a reason.”

“Doesn’t mean I can’t complain about it.”

“Obviously.”

Lark wanted to say more, but it was clear that Grimes had had enough. He rolled his eyes and turned back to his panel. He initiated the morning blood test on the prisoners. Somewhere in the cell block, wall panels had opened up. Dextrous metallic arms had extended from within. They carried tiny blades. The newer prisoners still fought, but the longer-term tenants did not. The blades were invisible in the black of the cell; the only foreknowledge the prisoners had of their coming was the sound of the wall opening up. The blades slashed in the dark. The slow drip of blood. Staccato droplets became a pool, which was absorbed by the cell’s membranous floor. Reports began to flash on Lark’s screen. Lark resigned himself to another few hours in the chair.

When the call finally came, it pulled Lark out of a near-sleep. He spun in his chair with bleary eyes until he realized what the sound was; the communicator on the desk was beeping rapidly, high-pitched and insistent. Lark looked about, but there was no sign of Grimes. He swore softly, then pushed the button to accept the transmission.

A solemn voice, heavy with portent, spoke without asking: The Eraser will be there shortly. Please prepare for his arrival. The line closed.

Lark frowned. He pushed away the chill which seemed to be creeping into his bones.

“That was him?” Grimes had entered the room. He was closing up the belt on his pants. The man had chosen a remarkable time for a washroom break. 

“Yes,” said Lark. His mouth was dry.

“We better get ready then.”

Even as Grimes said this, something pinged on the monitor. A docking notification, along with full credentials. 

“Shit,” said Grimes. “I’ll approve the boarding, you run and get the gear. Quick!”

Lark nodded and raced through the station. Clean colour-coded lines led the way, but he already knew it. The drills played in his mind on repeat. Down the hall, past the mess. Past the door which led to the prison-wing airlock. Past the rec room. Through the galley. Into the cabin. He quickly stepped past the two occupied rooms, ignoring all of the empty ones. The station hadn’t been fully manned since Lark had worked there. He reached the far end of the cabin hall and laid his palm upon the reader. A soft chime told him that access was granted. The panel opened up, revealing the masks. He grabbed two, then closed the panel. He raced back through the ship again, but found the control bay empty. On to boarding, then. He took a left and swung round the corner, running his hands along the walls to keep balance. He was panting heavily when he reached Grimes, who waited just outside the door to the docking bay.

“Took long enough, didn’t you?”

Lark’s chest rose and fell. He hadn’t run like that in forever. “Fuck you.” Big inhale. Big exhale. “Take the mask.” He pressed the black bundle into Grimes’s chest. Then he rose. The mask went over his head, fitting to every pore on his face. The nanofibers around his eyes adapted to his face, allowing him to see out. The mask crept around his mouth, into his ears, his nostrils. It swallowed him. He inhaled deeply, and the mask’s oxygen-rich air flooded his lungs. It was cool and easy to breathe.

Across from him, Grimes had done the same. The other man looked back at him with the same death’s mask. His gaunt cheekbones seemed carved from the material.

“Seals tight?” Grimes asked. Lark gave him a thumbs up. Grimes nodded, then pressed the button to open the airlock. The men stepped inside. The airlock closed, and a faint humming could be heard. Lark was reminded of the noctorioles on Prosperity, who only sang at night. A vivid memory returned to him of their song outside his window as a boy, a balm to the oppressively humid nights in the fisheries. 

The opposite door opened, waking Lark from his reverie. Facing him in the docking bay was the Eraser and his retinue, one of the Judges. The Judge wore a mask of pure black, just as the station crew. It differed in one way: atop it was an ebony crest streaked with red, symbolizing the expansion of both the universe and the Imperium. The Eraser’s mask was not dissimilar from the station members, but the eyes were deeper. Lark swallowed nervously. The contours of the man’s skull could be easily seen. The man’s eyes had been removed.

Lark and Grimes snapped to attention.

You’re late. The Judge’s flat voice seemed to consider each of them in turn. The Eraser merely stood in place, the empty sockets boring into some point in the wall above them. The Eraser is getting anxious. Take us to the prisoners. Grimes nodded rapidly, wordlessly, then led them into the airlock. 

Even with the hssss that signalled they could proceed, the group did not take off their masks. It was all a part of the Erasure ritual. The crimes for which these people were held had been forgotten the moment they entered Cygnus Station and pushed into one of the Black Cells. All electronic signatures of their existence had been destroyed. Scanners had passed through their homes, their workplaces, removing any leftover fiber of their existence. The Erasure was a long and thorough process. Any family or friends or members of the public who sought to protest against it were reminded of their obligations to the Imperium and its laws. They soon forgot as well.

The small group passed to a final room. It bore no name, no placard to indicate its purpose. All members of Cygnus Station’s crew knew it already. This was their destination.

When they approached the door, the Judge raised his hand. The palm reader confirmed his identity, his authority. The Judge then made a sound in a malevolent octave. The Eraser raised his hand as well. Lark could see ancient scarring on the tips of the Eraser’s fingers. How did the machine know him? 

Lark never got an answer to his question. The door slid open. Inside, faint blue light coloured the room. The room was composed entirely of transparent panels, save for a single console. The Judge ushered the Eraser into the room, then gestured for the two crewmen to follow. The door shut behind them. The room was utterly quiet, a silence which seemed to ache with anticipation. Above them–or at least how “above” functioned in terms of the station’s orientation–the star continued to feed the abyss. Lark felt that, if he looked carefully, he might be able to see where space began to curve toward annihilation.

It is time. You. Bring up prisoner RF-09212032.

Lark felt sweat beading on his brow. The mask wasn’t able to wick it all away. He stepped up to the console and keyed in his entry code. He typed in the number provided by the Judge. It meant nothing to him. Each prisoner was assigned a number, to be changed every day. The person to whom this number applied had no idea that it was theirs. They had no idea that this was the last day of their existence.

Video of the Black Cell opened on the console. There was no light in the cell, of course. The cells were positioned to always face the black hole. They would orbit around it until the day of Erasure. For most, this alone was enough to drive them insane. The human mind cannot conceive of true nothingness. Even the darkest dark experienced is still simply the absence of light. Black holes are the annihilation of light. From what Grimes had told him, most prisoners didn’t last more than a week or two before they started raving. A few more weeks, and the anger turned to tears. After that, nothing; they were merely shells waiting for disposal.

Lark peered at the console when it opened. As there was no natural light, thermal radiation was used to track the prisoner. The person–male, perhaps–shifted. In doing so, Lark had a terrible realization. 

“That’s a child!” he blurted. “There’s a child in the Black Cells!”

LARK,” shouted Grimes, “Don’t–”

“What the hell did a kid do? No kid deserves this shit! It’s not right!” Spittle was starting to collect in the corners of his mask. Lark didn’t care. “What the hell did he do?! TELL ME!”

That will suffice. The Judge had turned toward Lark. Lark’s protests died in his mouth. Your empathy is human. But it has no place here. The records of this child’s crimes have been destroyed, as you well know. All memory of his existence is about to be Erased. In a moment, my . . . colleague will send him on his final voyage. Cygnus will claim him. His end will either be instant or eternal, depending on one’s understanding of relativity. In any event, it does not concern you, because this boy will never concern anyone again. The annihilation of matter is the final stage of the Erasure. He placed a surprisingly strong hand on Lark’s chest and pushed him back. Do not interfere. It will make no difference. He signalled for the Eraser to begin. The skull-faced man stepped forward and made a series of delicate motions on the console screen. A soft chime indicated success.

“I just wanna know what the kid did to deserve this,” whined Lark.

The Judge looked at him once more. Lark hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. The Judge turned to him. Behind him, one of the Black Cells was raised from the station, ejected toward the black hole. Lark’s eyes followed it until it disappeared against the black of space.

The Judge’s voice was almost sympathetic. Would knowing make a difference?

After that, the rest of the ceremony was carried out without incident. The Judge and the Eraser did not stay any longer than their duties demanded. When they had left and the masks were off, Grimes and Lark did not speak to one another. Grimes retreated to his cabin, while Lark returned to his regular spot in the control bay. He flipped on the viewscreen.

This time, he pointed it away from the abyss and to the stars.

The Last Gardener

[Begin log]

April 9th, 2437

I’m an endling. The endling, I suppose. 

An endling is the last living member of a species. 

It’s a word that wasn’t used much, but then it started cropping up a lot more. I think it came into common parlance around the turn of the century, when the storms got real bad. I was still young then, but I remember the way that the skies seemed to rage. Like a dam fit to burst. Sometimes it did, and rain and hail would streak down to whomever dared witness this final Godly wrath. 

That wasn’t what killed us, but it was a part of what brought us to the edge.

Now there’s just me. The endling of humanity.

It’s a dubious honour.

April 10th, 2437

I suppose I should properly introduce myself to anyone who might read this one day. Or hear it, considering I’m dictating some of it. I imagine even those faint waves are broadcasting to the universe. 

My name is Dr. Marvin Weyburn. Well, you can probably just call me Marvin. My speciality is biology, which matters only a little. My title matters even less. It stopped mattering a long time ago. Even names, I suppose, mean nothing now. 

Recording this wasn’t initially my plan. It was meant to be a log of daily tasks; checking the capsule doors to see if the seals still worked, preparing meals in advance, taking time on the treadmill to keep my bone mass stable. You know, in case I actually made landfall.

But then Exodus failed. Their last communication came in a burst of static and a streak of light some two hundred days ago. I thought I heard a scream, but maybe that was just me anthropomorphizing the shouts of a computer. 

I hope it was.

After that, I knew I was the last. And so I keep this log, in the hope that it all might matter one day.

April 12th, 2437

I considered abandoning my mission for a while, but there was nowhere else to go.

The Venusian colony was gone long before Earth, and even the icebreakers of Europa went dark about a year back. Not that I’d trust those guys to save me from extinction, especially once the ice melted.

When the funding for Genesis came, I don’t think they knew exactly where it would be sent. They just needed a curator. Someone to manage it. A gardener, if you will. 

It wasn’t supposed to be me. Lucy was supposed to do it. 

Ah. I suppose I haven’t mentioned Lucy before.

It’s. . . I can’t right now. It’s not the time. I’ll save it for when I need to say it.

Signing off.

April 19th, 2437

It would have been my cat’s birthday today.

I know, that’s a strange thought. After all that’s happened, why care about that? 

It’s a valid question. Another question might be: after all that’s happened, what else is there to care about? Equally valid, I think.

Anyway, my cat’s dead. I put her down before the atmosphere burst. The radiation would have done for her quick, and the UNSA didn’t seem interested in pouring funding into cat-sized radiation suits. 

I know, I know: What the hell other point was there in paying taxes?

Maybe after all that we’ve lost—all that I’ve lost—there isn’t much point in mourning a cat. 

But I loved her, dammit. So I mourn her with all the rest.

April 30th, 2437

There was an issue with one of the solar sails today. I can’t get out and do a spacewalk. Genesis has a door, but its airlock is fairly rudimentary and isn’t meant for space EVAs. 

I suppose I should go over what Genesis looks like, in case the schematics aren’t clear or salvageable when this is all over. 

Picture a long tube, like a cylinder. At either end are viewports, but they are also spotted throughout, like portholes in a submarine. 

Along the length of the tube, which is only about fifteen metres, are compartments with all the scientific equipment one could want for a voyage like this. It’s spread out for redundancy purposes; if something were to go wrong at any point—whether it be power-related or some other disaster—it’s good to have some distance. 

Outside, there are four solar sails, erupting from either end of the tube. They’re utterly massive, and they have to be; in order to carry Genesis away from the sun, they need to be large enough to collect the sun’s light and the pressure it emits. Yet, they also need to be light enough so as not to limit the speed of the vessel. I don’t know how they did it, but the UNSA managed to create graphene layers that were only millimetres thick, coating them with some sort of ultra-light alloy in order to protect them.

The good news is that the solar sail works. I’m currently shooting away from the sun at dozens of kilometres a second. Awfully handy when it comes to getting somewhere in a hurry, but space is still huge. It took a few hundred days to cross Mars’ orbit. That was years ago. Now, I’m somewhere in the outer planets, between Jupiter and Saturn. 

The bad news isn’t the speed. I’m in no rush. I’m just hoping for a chance. 

The bad news is that the material is incredibly fragile. Any loose space debris can puncture it. Provided it’s not anything obscenely large, the damage should be easily patchable. . . If I could get to it. But since I can’t, I just have to accept the reduction in speed, and hope that it doesn’t delay me too much. 

It could be worse, I suppose. It could have been a big rock. There are a few out here, but there’s little chance of running across those. Despite what the movies might tell you, asteroids don’t cluster together unless there’s some kind of gravitational anomaly. If you stood on an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, you might be lucky to see another one in your entire life. 

I know. Pretty neat. And it means that I should be fine.

Facts may be reassuring, but they’re awfully lonely, too.

May 7th, 2437

One thing they drill into you during training is that space travel is awfully boring. Travelling on roads is one thing; you have a frame of reference, as it it accedes or recedes into the distance, you know that you’re moving. You see the road, or trees, or landmarks or whatever as they whiz past. You don’t have that in space. When the distances are so impossibly large, it feels like you’re not moving at all. 

When your only frame of reference are bright white points in the sky that are so unfathomably far that our ancestors thought they were fixed in the roof of the cosmos, it makes for a pretty slow trip. 

The good engineers at UNSA thought of this, and loaded a culture’s worth of film, games, and other media onto Genesis. It was kind of them, but I don’t find myself that interested. Something about being alone for the rest of my life makes spending it watching movies saddening.

I think it’s the people. Movie-watching is social; people go in groups, even if they don’t speak. People go on first dates to dinner and a movie, and it’s not just so they can get handsy in the dark. They go because they want to share in something that moves them, that brings them joy, or that makes them feel safe. I don’t have anyone to share with, and so the screen stays off most days. I think it’s better that way.

There are a lot of stars to count.

May 9th, 2437

I thought about amending my previous entry, but considering that this is meant to be a record for whomever comes after, it might be worth preserving it as is. 

I made a mistake when I said that space travel is boring. 

I mean, it is undoubtedly boring. Once you’re past the first launch and you see the grey trail of the Earth’s moon disappearing behind you, it slows down real quick. There’s a shot of loneliness, but once that fades, you’re left with an emptiness, punctuated only by some of the grandest sights you’ll ever see. 

I didn’t pass by Mars on my journey. It was on the other side of the sun from me. I wouldn’t have liked it anyway; it was beginning to slowly roast by the time I crossed the Martian orbit. I heard it was beautiful, though. The carbon-ice caps at each of the poles, the ruddy-red of the soil. Even its great scar, Valles Marineris, spoke to the deep history of a tormented world. 

I could be wrong, though. Maybe it wasn’t beauty that humanity saw in Mars. Maybe it was like seeing an old neighbour on the last farewell drive around your neighbourhood. The first and last marker of home. 

 The only places to touch your feet to the ground beyond Mars are rocky moons and failed dwarf worlds. Leaving without saying goodbye was hard, especially because I knew what was in store for Mars.

4,000,000 people lived on the Martian colony. Most of them lived in Sojourner, but there were scattered colonies across the flat northern hemisphere. Great wind-breaking shields protected these cities from the rusty storms that raced across that world. Terraforming had helped settle them to some degree, but there were still tempests that could rage for months. 

It was a different storm that destroyed Mars. After the seeding of the atmosphere in the late 21st century, Mars had finally begun to stabilize. The paper-thin atmosphere of carbon-dioxide had been replaced with a heavier layer of nitrogen and other precious, life-giving gases. It wasn’t quite breathable, but soon it would be home. Or would have been, anyway; the cloud layer had peeled away like shed skin in the path of the cosmic storm. 

I think it happened quickly, at least. I hope it did. I knew some people who lived there. 

But they were dead now, and so was Mars. 

May 24th, 2437

I woke up this morning and felt very alone.

I sat there in the bed for a while, watching the cold grey ceiling of the pod above me. A distant whirring noise saved me from the terror of absolute silence. I don’t know how long I laid there for. I tried to slow my breathing, but that did me no good. I never had the patience for anything like that. I cracked my knuckles, a sound like split wood in the gloomy quiet of the Genesis capsule. Eventually I got up and checked all of the day’s numbers. This took me four minutes, tops. 

Then I stopped, wondering what came next.

Another day begun.

July 1st, 2437.

Haven’t written in a little while, I know. It’s been a hard month. I just haven’t known what to do with myself.

What did people used to do when they wanted to pass the time? I know some would watch movies, play games. They might work on a personal skill, something they’ve always wanted to accomplish. Some people may have been content to spend their post-work evenings waiting to die, but I never was very good at that. I always had to be working on something. This led to a lot of half-finished projects.

I could tell you the three most common chords on the guitar and how to play them. I could draw a near-perfect cube, maybe even shade it. I could even tell you my name in Spanish. 

I guess it turns out that spending my whole life trying to be good at something just led to me not being very good at anything. There’s a certain irony there, I suppose. 

For me, it doesn’t end there. What’s the point in learning a new skill if you’re not going to have the time to become a master, or if no one else will be around to witness it? What’s the point in learning a new skill when you know you’re going to die? When people found out they were going to die back home, they wouldn’t spend their remaining days watching movies. They would do. 

But I can’t. I just have to wait, watching these impassive stars keep on shining. 

This journal might be all I have. 

It’s the closest thing there is to talking to someone.

July 2nd, 2437

I’ve tried counting the stars again lately. 

It was something Lucy and I used to do. Even as the sun began to grow and the days became hotter and longer, we would find time to retreat to the field behind the observatory, where the night sky was clearest. We’d lie down, spreading a blanket. I still remember the way it felt beneath my hand as I threw it open. I remember the feeling of her taking my hand and then me holding her close as we watched those unblinking specks of light shine through a cold and black universe. 

Watching stars is a test of patience. It takes time for your eyes to adjust to the night and to the light above. Once it does, it appears as though the sky itself is heavy with the weight of so much brilliance. 

When those moments came, we started playing the game. We’d start counting the stars, seeing how many we could rack up. Trying not to count the same one twice. Invariably, there was an argument. There were only so many stars we could see, and we eventually became convinced the other person had double-counted. It didn’t matter to me, though, and not just because I always won.

It was a silly game, in truth. It’s amazing how weak the human eye really is. To try to quantify the number of stars requires the use of absurd, made-up sounding numbers like “sextillion.” We might be able to see ten thousand of those, a fraction of that total, one that requires more zeroes than I’m willing to write. All of those are located within the Milky Way. We can’t see anything outside our own universe with our naked eyes. 

It didn’t matter, though. There was enough to go around. A single galaxy might carry hundreds of billions of stars. An unimaginable number.

I’d count them all for her if I could.

July 4th, 2437

I checked the monitors today, for the first time in a while. I’ve found that it’s become easy to let things slide. One of the benefits of my position is not having a boss to tell you to get back to work. 

It seems as though I’m closer to Saturn than I realized.

Four years passes very quickly when you know you’re going to die at the end of them.

I’ve seen it through the viewports, of course. Gas giants like Saturn have the tendency to be awfully reflective. Having giant ice rings definitely increases its albedo too. 

Jupiter always keeps me up, but I try to block it out with the shading built into the viewports. They were made for the sun, but they helped with Jupiter, which has only gotten brighter after all of this.

 Saturn was always there, though. Like a beacon in the black. I hadn’t noticed it growing bigger before now, but it almost seems alarmingly close.

I’m still speaking in space-distance, of course. It’ll be another couple of months before I arrive. Another couple of months in Genesis

Don’t blame me if I’m not excited.

July 7th, 2437

Sometimes when I watch the stars, I think of Exodus, and of that last scream of static over the coms. 

I don’t know exactly what happened to it, of course. I have ideas. It could have been a cloud of particulate debris, just dense enough to tear through Exodus’ hull, shredding it in the process. Maybe there was a malfunction, some flaw in the design that led to its disintegration. In the early days of spaceflight, pieces of loose foam had led to catastrophe, a danger that is just as present even now. It could even have been a bomb, smuggled aboard by some religious fanatic. There were a lot of those in the final days, people who turned to their god or gods as the end approached. Maybe someone worked to hasten it, or maybe they just saw Exodus as defiant. 

In the end, they were right. Exodus had been envisioned as an ark, a vessel crafted to escape annihilation. It had been plan A. 

I was Plan B, and not a very good one at that. Even if I succeeded, no one would ever know. 

It’s a grim prospect. 

It’s also the only plan left.

July 17th, 2437

Another difficult set of days. Saturn grows ever closer, but I know it’s still a month and a bit away. There’s a long way to go yet. 

It’s my birthday today. I’ll be thirty-eight years old, and as old as I’ll ever be. The collective human life expectancy hasn’t been this low in millennia. I decided to celebrate with cake.

It took me a while to find it in the cooler. I had to move the vials out of the way, but it was still there. Lucy had made sure that there was enough to last me the trip. I pulled the bag out and dumped it all in the blender. Poured in some freeze-dried milk, and mixed it with water. I suppose even milk is about to run out. The blender whirred and it occurred to me, just for the briefest moment, how much of my final days were spent waiting. Waiting for the blender, waiting for the cooling cycles to run, waiting for the stars to come closer. Then I realized that maybe that wasn’t all that different from what had come before.

When the blender finished, I poured it all into a sippy cup. Subtle centripetal forces keep me and everything else locked to the floor, but I didn’t feel as though a proper glass was worth the risk. 

I took the sippy cup to the control console, and set it aside for a moment. I slid a pack of cigars out from underneath. They were old, but were almost as fresh as the day they were rolled. The brass at the UNSA would have thrown a fit if they knew, but they were all dead and I was soon to be, so I decided it was worth defying the regulations. I flipped off the smoke alarm on the console, then sat in the chair and watched the stars scroll imperceptibly by. 

I drank my milkshake. It tasted like birthday cake. I think there might even have been sprinkles in the mix, but the blender had got all of them. I puffed on the cigar. It was good.

July 18th, 2437.

With my destination nearing, it’s hard for me not to be bitter about how I ended up here. 

It’s one thing to anticipate death; to know that the world is ending and that you’ll end with it. It’s a far different trauma to watch the world end, to know that your end will come yet after. 

It wasn’t supposed to be me. It was supposed to be Lucy. 

We had agreed on it together. As funding was diverted to the Genesis project, the one-in-a-million failsafe to Exodus, we agreed that she would handle the loneliness better, the tedium. That she would be able to say good-bye better. 

We struggled for a long time, knowing that Genesis couldn’t accommodate the two of us. Solars sails work best when the vessel is as light as possible, and we were short on time. Doubling the crew meant doubling the payload. So we decided that she should go. 

She was smarter than me, knew more of the science than me. Was more cautious than me.

[Records indicate that writing ceased for approximately six minutes. Reason unknown.]

But then she got sick. She got sick and was told that she would not survive long enough to see out the voyage. So it fell to me, the last gardener. 

That was a hard night, when we decided. At first, I wanted to stay with her. I wanted to stay home and watch the world end together. I wanted to face oblivion with her, but she wouldn’t let me. She was level-headed where I was not. She knew that the mission was more important. 

I didn’t even try to argue that someone else could do it. We both knew that it wasn’t true. Biology and botany and xeno-metereology were just a few of the skills required for the mission, and they were in short supply. It had to be me. 

Exodus had launched three weeks prior. Episilon Eridani is a star system less than a dozen light years from here. Construction had started earlier, in space where gravity wouldn’t threaten the solar sails as it would planet-side. The crew was all very young. Ten and twelve years. They would grow up together as family. Each understood the burden they carried. It would still be the better part of fifty years before it made it to Epsilon Eridani. There was a planet there that we believed to be Earth-like. 

I know what we’ve done. It was the best chance we had, and I’d do it again if I had to.

You can’t know how desperate we were. 

[Another break. Records indicate that much was deleted.]

The day of the Genesis launch was stormy, with the skies roiling like wracked seawater, the stuff of sailor’s nightmares. I, a sailor of a different breed, was about to leave on his maiden voyage. 

She met me at the mountaintop that day. The techs gave us a minute, or maybe it was several. I just know that it wasn’t long enough. 

I still remember the way she embraced me. I can’t describe it, not truly. I’m not a poet or anything, and besides, I don’t know if they could describe it either. I believe that all of us know that feeling—the feeling of saying good-bye to someone we love, knowing that it is the last time. 

We held each other for a long time on that mountaintop. She spoke to me, and I her, but those words are for us alone.  

I love you, Lucy. Always will.

August 13th, 2437

I’ve reached Saturn. It fills the screen and seems to overpower my senses. Looking at it for too long leaves me tired. 

At the vector I’m approaching, it appears tipped on its side, the great rings arcing high around it. Having something to see after all of this time inspires me. Even though I know the end is close, it gives me the strength to carry on, to do what must be done.

I need to make a few revolutions of Saturn before I reach Titan. Luckily, Saturn’s largest moon lies well outside its rings, leaving me a great deal of space. I don’t want to mess up Genesis more than I already have. This ship is the last chance we’ve got.

August 15th, 2437

I went through the ship today, gathering everything I would need for the end. Even the vials.

I don’t know why I kept them. Maybe it’s just a mislaid sense of duty. They can’t be salvaged, I knew that from the moment I saw the broken seal on the cooler.

At least, I hope it was broken. I hope it was broken because that means that the extinction of the human race was not my fault. That it wasn’t carelessness that brought us to this end. 

I’ve replayed finding the door ajar every moment since. 

Remember the deepest, most abjectly horrific feeling you’ve ever encountered. The moment when your stomach seems to plummet, when your heart seems to stop. The feeling of wanting to go back. The hope, however futile, that it is, somehow, a dream. Maybe it’s the moment when you found out your partner has been having an affair. Maybe it’s the feeling of committing a crime by accident. 

I once read about a woman who accidentally killed a child. The child ran in front of her vehicle. There was no fault to her at all. But it reshapes your life, your psychology. You can’t carry on– not as the person you were before. 

That’s nothing compared to what I’ve done. 

I hold a vial in my hand now. We carried so much hope in them, and now they’re useless. I don’t know why I’m keeping them, opaque tubes that bear the seeds of humankind. All kinds of people, dead once more. 

Because of me. 

August 24st, 2437

Only a few days until Titan.

I’m scared, I’ll admit it. It’s one thing to go into the grave, another to know you’re turning the lights off on the way out. 

I don’t know what comes next. I was never the religious type. Most weren’t, at the end. The decline in religiosity that marked the new millennium carried on through the twenty-fifth century.  

Some turned back to it. I think I initially dismissed them as scared, as wanting to believe that they wouldn’t be travelling into some great dark. We spend all of our lives existing, so much so that the thought of not existing is inconceivable. 

I get it now. When faced with all of that, I understand the urge to pray. Not just for fear, but also for hope.

I pray out of hope that all of this matters one day.

August 26th, 2437

Titan.

It looks almost featureless from here. The only moon in the Solar System with an atmosphere, it represents our best hope. It was close enough that someone could make it in a light craft, and it bore the potential to carry us forward. To start over. 

The descent in the atmosphere might be rough. I can’t breathe it. It’s mostly nitrogen, too rich for the Earthborn. Even though I expect it’s warmed up some, it’ll still be quite cold on the surface. For now, anyway. 

I need to go. I need to buckle-up and get ready for entry. I’m trying not to think about what walking on the surface of a world will feel like after all of this time. 

It might just hurt. I took my supplements, did my exercises, and yet I know I’ve lost bone density. Gravity won’t be as strong as it would be back home, but it will still hurt.

I don’t care anymore.

August 27th, 2437.

[Final Log]

I landed on the surface of Titan. 

Entry went well, for the most part. The solar sails detached correctly, and what didn’t burn up in the atmosphere fell away from me as I descended. Genesis‘s chute almost didn’t deploy, which caused me no end of panic. I didn’t come all this way to die in a crash. 

In the end, it fired correctly, and carried me to a berth on the edge of a cliff. In the valley below is a dark lake, likely of methane. The surface is totally placid, undisturbed by any kind of life. Titan itself is mostly smooth, protected from debris by the atmosphere, and shaped by cryo-volcanoes of ice-methane. 

I look around the capsule one last time before I go. I knew this was a one-way trip, yet I still find myself reluctant to acknowledge that I’m here. That this is it.

This won’t be a long excursion, but it’s one I have to make. I don’t intend on coming back. I’ve suited up and pushed the button already. I’ve done what I can, what I’m supposed to do. 

Now I just get to die.

[The remaining record is in audio format, broadcasted back to the Genesis to be saved.]

I hope this all saves okay. I just gotta do a few things before the end, but I’ll be as descriptive as I can. Apparently the brains at the UNSA didn’t seem to think that video imaging was necessary on a EVA. 

I closed the door behind me to the capsule. I don’t know if it’ll last a long time or not. Usually the kind of preservation that you’d hope for requires a vacuum, and Titan is far from that. If I’ve done my job right, it’ll be getting farther each day. 

I’m walking down the hill now. Above me, I see the Sun. Far bigger in the sky than it used to be. 

Pre-red giant, Titan was too cold for any shot at life. Once the Sun put on a few solar masses, it warmed up quite a bit. Enough so that we figured it was worth a shot. 

It all seems like a ridiculous plan in hindsight: To preserve our genome, then terraform another world, hoping that somehow we might be restored by whatever species rose up next. They weren’t embryos. Those would never last long enough, and that ethical quagmire was deeper that it had been with Exodus. No, they were just inert strands of DNA, hopefully enough to one day revive humanity. It’s stupid enough that I wish all the credit was mine, but Lucy helped. I just wish I hadn’t screwed it up. 

Goddamn, this suit is heavy.

The hills are pretty smooth here. I don’t know exactly where I landed. We hadn’t mapped it out too well. Titan was too far to be of interest to us. Once Mars and the Galilean moons were settled, we didn’t think too hard about the rest of the Solar System. It was too remote. I think they were considering the logistics of interstellar travel near the end. Based on Exodus, I’m guessing we didn’t quite get there.

It’s not fully our fault, you know. Nobody ever figured out why the Sun started to die so quick. It’s one of those questions I wish I had an answer to. Not that it really matters.

God, that was a long walk. You’d think it’d be more relative after a few billion kilometres, but apparently not.

There’s the lake. It’s not too idyllic; I wish there was a palm tree or something. I saw a few oases like this on my way down, spots of blue-black amid the orange-yellow light of the surface. Here’s hoping that changes with the atmosphere, cause it’s a bit depressing to look at.

Shit. Here I am. This is the spot where I’m going to die. 

It’s not really one of those things you think about. Most people probably die in bed, right? Does anyone ever wonder if this is the last time they’re going to crawl into bed, or is that just too damn morbid? 

Can’t help it now, I guess.

Looking around, I see Genesis on the ridge. If I squint, I can see a faint mist leaking into the sky. It makes me happy. I may have killed my crops, but I can still save the field.

I take the bag off of my shoulder. I hear the vials jangling inside. I hope I didn’t break them. Everything inside is already dead, but I need to give humanity a proper burial.

[For some time, silence. Laboured breaths are the only audio of record.]

It’s not a very deep hole, but it’ll do. I don’t exactly have a shovel, after all. 

I’m laying out each vial, one by one. We got them from all over the world. We wanted them to represent every part of humanity. Lucy and I had to rebuff a few of the ultra-rich who demanded that a part of them be allowed to travel away from catastrophe.  There was no prioritization for race or class or anything else. None of that mattered, because we were all human. 

I’m really sorry I let you all down.

[Silence again, save for the sound of unknown droplets]

The burial is done. I’m sitting on the edge of this lake and I’m running my hands along the edge of my helmet. The lake is deep and dark. Part of me wants to throw a stone into it, but I decided not to. I’ve disturbed this world enough. 

I didn’t do a eulogy. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

I glance back towards Genesis. The mist still comes steadily out from the exhaust ports.

It’s for a good cause, right? Seed a dead world with the chance for life, and hope something comes of it? 

I hate that I’ll never know.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe I’m rambling because I’m scared to die. Lucy and I knew this would happen in the end. It was always a one-way trip. Aboard the ship, there’s a needle filled with enough morphine to let me sleep forever. 

I left it there. After all of this, I’m not going to die on that ship.

Which brings me back to the side of this lake, where I’m fiddling with the latch of my helmet. 

I guess I need to do this. 

What else is there to say? I’m thinking of so many things. I’m thinking of how afraid I am. Of how beautiful Saturn was. How beautiful you were. I’m thinking of all the stars that shone my way here, and I’m thinking of my odds of success. 

No, I need to focus. I can’t think of how humanity will die today. It’s not about us anymore. If life takes hold on Titan, maybe that’s enough. Maybe whatever it is will find Genesis, and maybe they’ll look at the stars themselves. Maybe they’ll wonder who we were, or maybe they won’t.

[A long pause, punctuated only by shallow breaths.]


My head is finally quiet. I’m not thinking of any of that shit anymore. I swear, I’m not.

You know why? You’d laugh if I told you. Since you’re not here to tell me no, I’ll just say it:

I bear on my shoulders the collective lives, dreams, and memories of two hundred billion people, and all I can do is think of you.

[End of log.]