#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.