This story is by James Adam and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
“This is day six hundred and thirty two.
We are approaching Dark Star.”
A pixellated effigy of somebody you know fills a screen throwing blue into the darkness of the room. His familiar voice breaches the darkness, hidden behind unfamiliar static.
“I’ve just woken up and my eyes feel like they’re going to turn into jelly. I think my heart might actually explode in a second. But I’m alive and that’s what counts!”
He chuckles. At least, you think he does. Over the distorted, twisted crackling of the transmission, it sounds more like a squeal. You grimace from it’s sudden shrillness.
“So! Twenty-six thousand light years from Earth and I’m still talking to you! I hope you didn’t miss me too much these last two years.
For real though, it’s amazing out here. You’d have to see it to believe it. Dark Star. Never thought you’d actually be able to, you know… see it. Guess the universe is full of surprises. I spent three years learning the math behind it and six months on the physical concepts and I still don’t understand it.”
He is silent for a moment, before he starts again.
“Hey, you wanna’ see? Let me see, I’ve just got to…”
The disjointed howling of the transmission returns. A monstrous hand obscures the face on the screen for a moment as your tiny virtual eye into his distant world rotates. The hand removes itself, and now you see through a shrunken porthole of a window. Through it, glows a faint orange light; the hue of rusted amber. In the distance is a single speck –no more than a pixel– burning brilliantly. It seems to have a gravity about it. A pull that is irresistible. You gaze at it for a moment. You purse your lips to speak, but nothing comes out. You stop yourself. You lean in closer to the screen as his face jumps back into frame.
“I have a whole bunch to do. I’ll contact you again in about twenty-four hours. I miss you. Hopefully by then the hypersleep effects will have worn off. I might be a little less loopy.”
He smiles. And then silence. Worse than the static. His face is now a blank screen. ‘End of Transmission’, it says, taunting you.
“This is day six hundred and thirty three. We are now closing in on our destination.
You’d be proud of me! I can actually wiggle my toes now! See? If anybody ever gives you the option of doing hypersleep for kicks, I’d have to give you some friendly advice and definitely turn them down. The shakes and vomiting probably aren’t worth it if you’re not coming all the way out here.”
You settle into your desk chair and let his voice wash over you. You wiggle your toes just to test them. You wiggle them in synch with his. In a way, it feels like you’re closer to him if you do it that way.
“But you’re not here to see me struggle with fine motor function. Do you want to see the Dark Star?”
“Yes,” you say. You nod recklessly.
“Ah,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to forget that I’m just recording. You’d hope that in this day and age, they could make it a two-way deal. Ain’t nothing like space exploration budgets.”
Once again, the hand swivels your view to the same window as before. The glow is more intense now. The shape of a line bulging in the centre now inhabits the space that once was taken by the glowing pixel. Swirls and ripples meander across the surface of the shape like snakes and rivers.
“Still can’t see the ‘Dark’ bit, can you? I can’t either,” he starts. “I’m told that it definitely is, in fact, there, though. Apparently if you can see it, you’ve gotten too close. What a way to go, though. Falling into a Black Hole? That’d be a hell of a epitaph,”
His face reappears, poking in from the side of a frame. The nuances of his smile hide behind a disrupted connection.
“So, listen,” he says. “We start the project tomorrow. It’s going to be a lot of work. I’ve got to set up the receivers; take down a lot of data. I’m going to try to find time to record you a message tomorrow. I’m sorry if I can’t get one through. You’ve just got to think positive! Imagine what we could learn!”
You gently nod in acceptance, and he vanishes behind the latent darkness of the monitor’s glass.
You sit at your desk for hours in the swelling darkness of the next night. It is lonely, but you assume it would be even lonelier out there. The dull blue of the screen, vacant of life, mars your face with exotic shadows. You stare blankly at it, expecting for it to click into life the next second. Any moment, you tell yourself. You toy with closing your eyes, hoping that when you open them again he will be there. As if you could summon him with nothing but desperate hope and thoughts. It would be as though he had never left.
The night stretches into morning. The stars above dissolve into golden light. Birds sing gleefully about the morning. You wipe at your wetted eyes, flick the screen into sleep, and settle in for a deep sleep yourself. You don’t recall having a dream tonight, you can only see the all consuming darkness behind your eyelids.
“This is day six hundred and thirty five. I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you yesterday. We’ve had a really long few hours. The calibration in the engines went way out of whack a little while back, and then we had a minor life support issue. It’s nothing to be concerned about though! We’ve just about gotten everything back up to standard. Gave mission control a bit of a heart attack though; serves them right for always being on our asses.”
He says this with a slight chuckle, but there is anxiety hiding in there somewhere. A minute falter in his voice. A break in his confidence. He wears his humour like armour. For some reason, your heart drops.
“I miss you. It’s beautiful out here because, lets be real, what geeky kid doesn’t dream of adventuring through space? But it’s real cold here. Real quiet. It seems like the Dark Star just sucks the life out of everything around it and never spits it back out.”
You bite down on your lip. You can feel a lump barrel up your throat and then recede again. If only you could respond. You lean to twist the volume control as silence floods the transmission, save for the monotone of static intruding at the edges of your hearing. Maybe this way you can hear every precious breath, recorded in meticulous mediocrity, from so far away.
“So, you want to hear some cool stuff we learned? You’ll be the third ever human to be in on this!”
A huge smile spreads across the face of his digital likeness. The camera turns to instruments and data spread across work desks and stands. A finger highlights one illegible passage, seemingly scrawled with haste onto a pad of paper.
“You see this? Black Holes have an internal structure. They don’t just end at the Event Horizon. They are more than indiscriminate points of infinite gravity. They’re more like…
I don’t actually know. But Einstein can suck it.
Anyway, do you want to see it? We’re pretty much as close as we’re going to get now.”
He knows you can’t reply. The camera swirls out of focus into swimming points of luminance. You see the familiar window constructed from the chaos of the transmission. The light from Dark Star floods through. The shape is entirely visible now. Strings of light swirl discordantly, flowing loosely around an unseen form. They pulse occasionally as they each dance inwards towards the centre of the gathering. The power is immense, even in transmission. It is enormous. It fills the window. Swathes of light scintillate through the thin light of monitors and controls.
The transmission quality peaks for a moment. The scene rebuilds in a higher definition. You can see the glare of Dark Star’s light bloom from the window frame. You can see in exquisite detail the disarray of scientific findings and instruments strewn across the deck. But you cannot take your eyes away from the Dark Star for more than a moment. You cannot forget what he had told you about the blackness at the heart of the Black Hole. If you can see it, you’ve gotten too close.
In the fleeting moment of high definition, you see a sphere of complete blackness peering through the light of its cosmic debris.
There is a trembling in his voice.
He sees it too.
The transmission cuts off.
“It’s been five days.
His eyes are red. They glisten in the light of his camera.
He wipes them down. All at once.
“This is the last time I’m going to get to speak to you I think.
I’m so sorry.
I’m not coming home,”
His voice crackles. It washes with static.
“The engine calibration was off. We were heading towards Dark Star faster than we had anticipated.
Nobody caught it. We got too close.
We’re trapped in it’s pull,”
The colours of his cabin changes violently and rapidly as if cruising through a firestorm. Flashes of light overexpose his camera periodically. Sounds too loud to record in detail cascade through your speakers. A cacophony of alarms ring out. Metal churns in the distance. You catch a glimpse of encroaching darkness in the corner of the frame. His sobbing is nearly inaudible now, but your mind is fixated on the growing patch of black purer than anything you have ever seen.
The lights in his cabin cut off. The sound fades.
“I just want you to know that– “
The transmission ends abruptly. You are alone in the darkness of your study.
‘End of Transmission’ flashes at you as though it were the end of just another night.
You check back nightly for any hint of a rogue signal. You have little hope.
One night turns to three. Then ten. You check in the morning, you check in the evening. You check again every hour of every night. The local and international news teams are all retelling the same story: the inevitable and fateful failure of the Dark Star research team. You run your eyes red and raw every time you force yourself to look at the ‘End of Transmission’ message painted unfeelingly across your screen.
Ten nights turns to thirty. And then to sixty. Funerals are held. Humorous epitaphs are written. Eulogies are told. Lost men are called brave souls and promptly forgotten by people who fondly recalled them as friends. Lives go on.
Yet, as months become years, you still find yourself checking back at that untouched computer screen which carried his voice across so many lightyears. You only do so from time to time. It’s a nostalgic reminder for you of the last moments you shared of his. You expect nothing less than the ‘End of Transmission’ message to comfort you. It gives you a sense of continuity. It helps you to remember.
What you do not expect, however, is the message to shut off one night. You certainly do not expect a thin light to form shapes on your screen. A message has been travelling from far further than before, through a stretching corridor of time and space between yourself and him.
And then, his voice flares into life as though there had been no interlude whatsoever.
“I just want you to know that I can see the structure of the Black Hole. It isn’t just a hole, it’s a tunnel. I can see the other side and it is beautiful. There is so much light.”