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Winner of the 2009 WSFA Small Press Award

The Absence of Stars
    by Greg Siewert

The Absence of Stars: Part One
Artwork by Anselmo Alliegro

Part One   (Part two is in issue 11.)

A hand gripped commander Trevor Kimberly's shoulder and shook him violently awake. "Pluto is gone."

"What?" Trevor asked as he removed his eyeshades and squinted in the blazing sunlight that shone through the canopy of the shuttle's cockpit.

"Pluto is gone," the voice repeated. It was Gretchen. Still holding his shoulder, she spoke in a slow, deliberate, and forceful manner. "Pluto is gone!"

"I didn't take it," he replied.

Gretchen's face registered no awareness of the joke. She appeared drawn and her eyebrows were deeply furrowed.

"Okay, what's Pluto?"

"Pluto, the ex-planet."

"Where'd it go?"

"No idea."

With that, Gretchen vanished from the cockpit. Trevor's scheduled sleep period had been delayed because the protocol written for his space walk was wrong, causing him to spend an extra hour and a half replacing the optics package for the station's on-board observatory. He was only an hour into his sleep and his fatigue amplified his bewilderment.

Reluctantly, he unclipped his sleeping bag from the commander's chair. He had his choice of bunks on the space station, but he preferred to sleep in the shuttle. Following Gretchen's path, he made his way through the weightless atmosphere of the shuttle and into the International Space Station, where he'd been living and working for about 48 hours.

Most of the rest of the crew was crowded around a video monitor in the service module. The screen showed a field of stars. Gretchen pointed at it: "That's the Webb telescope's view of Pluto.

"Where am I looking?" asked Trevor.

Myrtle, a systems engineer, used her forefinger to trace a small circle of empty black space on the screen. "Here."

"I don't see anything."

Nikolai rolled his eyes. "Keen observation. We will make an astronomer of you yet!" Nikolai was the chief science officer and a close friend of Trevor and Gretchen.

"Okay seriously, what the hell is going on?" The crew wasn't above the occasional prank, but the looks on their faces made that seem unlikely.

Nikolai and Gretchen merely shrugged, but Myrtle spoke in her usual, slightly-bored monotone. "Yesterday morning at 13:25 GMT, students at the Lowell observatory in Flagstaff were going to calculate Pluto's rotation by observing fluctuations in its light intensity. Unfortunately, it was missing."


"Just missing."

He made his way for the phone. "Who's on CAPCOM?"


He picked up the phone and held down the send button. "Houston, this is Space Station Alpha, Commander Kimberly speaking."

"This is Edward at Houston center. How are you this evening, Commander Kimberly."

"Good, just fine, Edward, thanks. Look, have you guys heard anything about Pluto being uh . . ." he stole a glance at the crew to check for smirks and finding none he continued, ". . . missing."

"That's affirmative Trevor. Pluto is whereabouts unknown."


"Yes sir. It's gone."

"Anybody know where it went?"

"No. In fact, we're all a bit perplexed. The only working theory so far is that an unknown object blew past it and was big enough to pull it from its orbit and we just haven't found it yet."



"Alright, thanks. Let me know if any other orbiting bodies vanish."

"Will do, Alpha. You have a good evening."

"Good night Edward." He turned back to the crew and shrugged.

"I talked with Rosaviakosmos," offered Nikolai. "They said pretty much the same thing. Pluto's on the very outer reaches of our solar system. There could be another large orbiting body we haven't discovered yet. Maybe they came close enough to send each other spinning off track."

Aside from Nikolai, Gretchen was the only trained astronomer. Trevor turned to her. "This sound plausible to you?"

"They taught me in grade school that we have nine planets. Of course, they changed their minds about Pluto, but regardless, one of them just vanished without a whisper. None of this sounds very plausible."

"But could it have happened?"

"I guess. But it's hard to imagine why we haven't found it yet. Every telescope on Earth is looking for it."

"Yes," objected Nikolai, "but Pluto is extremely faint. Only world-class observatories would stand a reasonable chance of finding it. It wasn't even discovered until 1930."

"True, but there's quite a few world-class observatories nowadays."

"Well," said Trevor, still exhausted, "I never planned on visiting Pluto anyway. I'm going back to bed." With the sound of intense conversation fading away behind him, he pulled his way back to the shuttle's cockpit, climbed into his sleeping bag and clipped it to the seat. But he did not sleep.

After forty-five minutes of blinding sunlight, the orbit of the station created a rapid-tempo sunset, as if the universe had recorded the event and was playing it back on fast-forward. The windows of the shuttle framed the action and Trevor watched as the disappearing sun became a field of stars. He removed his eyeshades and stared into the heavens. Ever since he had been a child, this black and white panorama had served as an invitation to explore the universe. He tried to assure himself that the disappearance of Pluto was nothing more than an astronomical oddity that would soon be fully explained. As he looked into the night sky, though, he suddenly felt that the stars around him were filled with hidden danger.

Breakfast brought a brief period of normality. Trevor and Gretchen ate together at the fold-down table in the service module. Each had their own tray and silverware. Everything was Velcro'd and they stuck their trays to the table and indulged in their breakfast routine.

Gretchen looked beat. The crew of the space shuttle Phoenix had several missions: repair of the station's observatory, installation of the auxiliary capture hatch, and delivery of the port and starboard diagonal support trusses. These were essentially expensive poles that connected the sprawling photovoltaic arrays to the Russian-built control module in order to give rigidity to the station. One of the Phoenix's other missions was to rotate the space station crew. Gretchen had been in space for over seven months and was due to return to Earth.

There was a small stainless steel tube plumbed into the wall that dispensed hot water. Trevor pumped some into each of two plastic pouches and watched as his dehydrated eggs and sausage soaked up their moisture while he opened the package of tortillas that he'd warmed. Bread was off limits on the station because of the troublesome nature of crumbs in zero gravity.

Gretchen had a banana and strawberry smoothie in the form of a frozen, plastic pouch. She micro-waved it briefly to thaw it, than methodically smashed her fist against it to give it the right texture. She swore they were delicious, and that she would continue to eat them when she was home.

They talked of Pluto, but only lightly, as if it were a funny story about someone misplacing their car keys. Missing planets seemed like a small concern and as he watched Gretchen suck her smoothie pouch into a flat envelope, his mind began to organize itself for the day's EVA. The trusses had been successfully installed and his final task before departing was to install the auxiliary capture hatch which would allow two shuttles to dock at the station at the same time, along with the Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft. This would eliminate the need to carefully juggle the schedules of the various countries that contributed launches to the station.

Before Trevor had finished his sausage, Nikolai pulled his way into the service module. He directed his speech to Gretchen, surmising (correctly) that Trevor wouldn't understand what he was talking about. "There's word from Cambridge. They found a high-radiation event. It was described as massive."

"Where?" asked Gretchen.

"Leaving our solar system at close to the speed of light."

"Oh my god," she whispered.

"What?" asked Trevor, in a state of annoyance because he believed this sort of "insider banter" was designed specifically to exclude him.

Gretchen looked shocked. "Pluto got eaten by a black hole."

It was obvious to Trevor from the faces of the two astronomers that this was a possibility they'd already discussed. "Black hole? Where? In our own solar system?"

Nikolai nodded.

"You're kidding."

"No," said Gretchen. "It was the only reasonable explanation."

"God damn it," said Trevor, "That's not reasonable! There's a black hole in our own solar system?"

"Not any more," said Nikolai, "it was just passing through."

"It was moving? Black holes can move?"

Gretchen set her empty smoothie pouch on the table and it floated slowly upward as she spoke. "A black hole is just a dense sphere of matter, it moves and orbits like any other object."

Nikolai nodded in agreement. "This black hole appeared to be counter-rotating against the galaxy." He noticed Trevor's incomprehension and elaborated. "In the Milky Way, all of the stars and planets rotate together in the same direction. This black hole was going the other way, against the flow. We don't really know why." According to Cambridge, the object was traveling at close to the speed of light. It traversed our entire solar system in about an hour and a half. It's long gone by now."

Trevor felt bombarded by this information. "What the hell does Cambridge have to do with this?"

"They monitor the Chandra X-Ray observatory," said Gretchen.

This, Trevor understood. He remembered the deployment of the X-Ray telescope.

Gretchen continued: "There's a sphere around a black hole where no matter or energy can escape -- and they call that the event horizon -- but outside of that sphere, the intense electrical charges of incoming matter cause jets of radiation. This is how we observe black holes."

"And one of these things ate Pluto? It must have been huge."

"Maybe the size of a basketball," said Nikolai.

"Yeah, right."

"He's not joking," said Gretchen.

"What? You're putting me on."

"No," said Gretchen. "Black holes can be as small as a molecule. For something to eat Pluto it would have to be bigger, but not by much. Nick is right, it might have been about the size of a basketball. Of course, the event horizon that surrounds it would have been much larger."

"Maybe the size of the moon," agreed Nikolai.

"And if this thing had hit the Earth?"

"Same as Pluto," said Nikolai.

"Same as the sun," said Gretchen. "which is a much larger target. As far as humanity is concerned, the net result would be the same. If it had hit the sun, it would have either devoured it or caused it to supernova. Either way, it's the end of all life in our solar system. Of course, that's incredibly unlikely. Our solar system is almost completely empty space. The odds of a passing object hitting the Earth or the sun is infinitesimal."

"But it hit Pluto," said Trevor.

"Yeah," said Gretchen. "That was unlucky. But it missed us."

"It's long gone," added Nikolai.

"So no more missing planets?" asked Trevor.

"No more," agreed Nikolai.

Trevor watched through his face shield as the bulky form of the auxiliary capture hatch emerged from the shuttle's cargo bay on the end of the Canadian-made robotic arm. "Looking good," he said, to Myrtle who was responsible for operating it. Once freed of the cargo bay, the arm -- clutching the capture hatch -- began to crawl toward him along the gantry that NASA referred to as the mobile base system. Trevor monitored the progress of the hatch while Hector -- the flight engineer and co-pilot -- floated near the pressurized mating adapter holding an assortment of conduit out of the way so that the hatch could be installed cleanly.

Myrtle operated the controls from inside the station and viewed the progress from a camera floating ten meters from the station. They called it the "football" because it resembled what the American members of the crew would have termed a soccer ball, but which the rest of the crew knew for its more international name. With a gentle burst of compressed air, the football propelled itself slowly over the rig so that Myrtle could maintain her view of the arm's progress along the gantry. The ball, covered in white padding and blinking with yellow LED's, was connected to the station by a thin, white tether that snaked to the station like an alien tapeworm. As the capture hatch neared its destination, Trevor grabbed the hull of the station and pulled himself toward Hector so that he could assist with maneuvering the 1.5 ton object into position.

"Trevor, you've been doing this for awhile . . ." said Hector. "What exactly is that?"

Trevor glanced briefly at the arm to see that it was still progressing cleanly, then turned his gaze to try and see where Hector was pointing. At first he saw nothing, but then after a few seconds he had the impression of movement -- though he couldn't figure out what he was seeing. A few seconds later, he caught it. A star had winked out. Seconds later, it popped back to its former brilliance. As Trevor stared in fascination, the star next to it disappeared, then after a few moments, reappeared.

As the meaning became clear, a chill ran through Trevor as if his EVA suit had sprung a leak and the frigid environment surrounding him was seeping into his bones. "Myrtle, hold the arm for a minute. Get Gretchen and Nikolai to the windows quick. They've gotta see this."

"What Trevor? What happened? Is the hatch alright?"

"Yeah, it's fine Myrtle, but I think I see something out there. I think it's another black hole." Though he spoke with detachment, he was feeling increasingly nauseous as he stared toward the unseen object as it blotted out first one star, then another, allowing them to reappear once the object had passed in front of them. The black hole was easy to track as it made its way across the night sky. In areas with dense concentrations of stars, Trevor thought he could even envision the diameter of its event horizon as a solid, spherical object. He understood now that the black hole was really a tiny, but fantastically massive ball at the heart of that sphere. The sight had him fairly hypnotized, but soon the orbit of the station caused it to vanish behind the mass of the Earth.

Trevor was shaking mildly inside his suit, but, as pilots are trained to do in emergencies, he focused on his mission "Well Hector, we can't do anything about that. Let's get back to work." He was still learning about black holes, but he knew exactly what it cost per minute to have two astronauts in EVA.

Back inside the station, the hatch installed successfully, Trevor spoke to Gretchen with great irritation as she assisted him in the complex task of removing his suit. "So what the hell? There's another one?" He caught her eyes briefly and they looked like they were made of glass. She said nothing. "In the history of our solar system, this has never happened. Now suddenly there's two of them?" His helmet was off and he wrestled with his gloves.

"I don't think so." Gretchen said quietly.

"You don't think so what?"

"I don't think there's two."

"That wasn't another black hole?"

"It was."

"What are you saying?"

Gretchen stopped fighting with his suit and looked at him. "Observatories all over the world have been reporting anomalous radiation readings for several weeks. The first one was almost a month and a half ago." She paused. "We had no idea what they were."

"You mean there's more than two?" Gretchen nodded. "How many more?" She shrugged. "You mean like, three or four?"

"Maybe three or four hundred."

He dropped his glove to the floor. "Three or four hundred?"

"Trevor we just don't know. But if all of the radiation readings we've been seeing were black holes, then it's like our entire solar system is getting showered with them. It's like a hailstorm."

All communications between astronauts and Space Station Alpha (what the NASA astronaut corp once called the International Space Station) are monitored not only by support crews in Houston and Cape Canaveral, but also by thousands of amateur space buffs across the globe. On radios, cable TV and the internet, these hobbyists eagerly follow the words and actions of the men and women who do their jobs 250 miles above the ground.

It was for this reason that shuttle commander Trevor Kimberly was credited with being the first person to widely disseminate the information that the Earth's solar system was being invaded by black holes.

-"Yeah, it's fine Myrtle, but I think I see something out there. I think it's another black hole."-

For the politicians and scientists who struggled with the weighty decision of what to tell the public, or whether they should be told anything at all, the question became moot. A high quality digital video was re-broadcast on every TV station in the world. It started with astronaut Hector Aitelo at the edge of the screen asking "what exactly is that?" and pointing off-screen. The dialogue between Trevor and Myrtle was then clearly audible and the football, which was shooting the footage, began to rotate slowly. At the end of the video, a world watched in silence at the sequence of stars winking out, and then re-kindling moments later.

The speculations and rumors -- largely confined to the scientific and political elite -- were replaced by vocal assessments from anyone even remotely qualified to comment. Thousands of objects capable of destroying the Earth rotate through its solar system all the time, but in the minds of humankind, this was different. This wasn't just an asteroid, it was a black hole.

Furthermore, the way it streaked through the solar system was chilling. Barely affected by the sun's gravity, its trajectory was like a rifle bullet whizzing by the planets. A collection of debris called the Ort cloud circled the solar system and normally protected it from incoming objects, but the black holes had apparently barreled through them like a cement truck driving through the rain. No footage existed of the Pluto impact, but there was no shortage of imaginative pundits describing the massive planet collapsing instantly into the passing mass. One astronomer described it as a mouse opening its mouth and swallowing the Sears tower as he ran past it at 275,000 kilometers per second.

When the public was told that the black hole they'd seen was separate from the one that destroyed Pluto they realized with horror that there had been two of them. And if there were two of them, the public wondered, might there be more?

Trevor made his way carefully into the cylindrical Destiny laboratory. Ever since astronaut Susan Helms had decided to sleep there on her first mission, the laboratory had become the de facto women's dormitory on the space station. Trevor moved silently through the darkness. As one of the larger structures on the space station, the Destiny lab was comparatively more spacious than some of the other sleeping locations. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could make out Gretchen's purple bag clipped to the floor and saw that she was alone. Myrtle slept on a bunk in the service module and the other two female crewmembers were either on shift or staring out a window somewhere.

He felt like a thief as he approached her. Often when he talked to Gretchen he felt a latent sense of guilt, and he believed that she felt it too. Though they'd never had a physical relationship, the attraction they felt for each other was so plain that it still felt to both of them like cheating. It was difficult for Trevor's wife -- who worked as a lawyer -- and Gretchen's husband -- who engineered electronic components -- to compete for attention with two people who had one extraordinary thing in common with each other: that they occasionally climbed aboard rockets and blasted into orbit.

Gretchen was lit only by the lights from the buttons and gauges on the equipment that surrounded her. Trevor thought her face was pretty despite how hollow her cheeks looked. Even prior to the stress of the astronomical situation, seven months of weightlessness had caused a substantial decrease in her muscle mass. She'd lost nearly fifteen pounds and it gave her form the appearance of child-like frailty.

"You awake?"

"Of course," she replied, "what's up?"

The question caught him off guard. He realized that as he'd made his way across the station toward her, he'd meant to think up an excuse to talk with her but never had. He never talked to her without a reason. It was one of the ways they coped with how they felt about each other. All business. Now, he felt stupid as he sat in the darkness with nothing to say. His embarrassment made it doubly difficult to think of a relevant question or statement and the silence between them was replaced by their awareness of the hum of machinery.

"I miss my family," he blurted out, "I mean, I just think this is a bad time to be up here -- away from them."

She didn't say anything and for a moment he regretted the words, but then he felt her arms wrap around him and pull him against her. He hugged her and her body felt insubstantial inside the sleeping bag. They held each other in the darkness with their cheeks pressed together and though he couldn't hear anything, Trevor thought she might be crying. Ten minutes later, he realized she was sleeping.

The next day, when Trevor found Gretchen and Nikolai in the cockpit of the shuttle, they had forlorn expressions on their faces. Given the current state of affairs, Trevor didn't think anything of it and wasn't dissuaded from telling his news.

"I talked to Houston. They're keeping us up here."

"What?" asked Gretchen. "For how long?"

"They couldn't say. Until more information came in."

"What information? Are they keeping us up here because of the objects?"

"They wouldn't tell me. I assume so."

Nikolai threw his arms up in the air. It was a gesture meant to imply annoyance, but Trevor could sense a deeper and more serious agitation. Nikolai, like Gretchen, was scheduled to return to Earth. "What difference does it make if we are up here or down there?" asked Nikolai. "Fools."

"Don't shoot the messenger, I'm just telling you what they told me. What are you guys doing in the cockpit anyway?"

Nikolai pointed to the canopy. "Looking out the window."

"Oh great," said Trevor, "what now, another one?"

Nikolai just shrugged and looked out the window. Gretchen didn't say anything at first, but then replied; "We think a star might be missing . . . we're not sure yet."

"We're missing a star now? Good lord. One of those things ate a whole star? Well, as long as it's not our star I guess it can have it."

"If we're right and the star is missing," said Nikolai, "then we don't think it was destroyed, merely that our view of it is blocked."

"By another black hole?"

"Yes, maybe."

"Okay, so there's another one. We knew there were."

"Yes, but the same star has been missing for over a day."

"Well, so what, that just . . ." Trevor trailed off as his mind grappled with this information. Every pilot knew what it meant when an approaching object had no apparent relative motion. It meant they were on a collision course. The back of his neck burst into a soft tingle of chills that raced down his back. He looked at Gretchen's face. She was gazing out the window with an expression that disturbed him deeply. It was a dreamy look, but her eyes betrayed an undercurrent of horror and sadness.

"Gretchen, is it gonna hit us?"

She didn't reply, she merely bit her lip and continued staring out the window. Nikolai shrugged again. "The chances are very small. Even if it does seem like it's heading toward us, the distances in space are so vast that even the tiniest of deviations could keep the object at a safe distance." Nikolai's voice sounded mechanical and rehearsed. Trevor began to feel, and sensed that they too could feel, a shadow of inevitable doom closing in upon them. "Have you talked to the ground about it?"

"No," said Gretchen. "It's either gonna hit us or it's not. I don't want to be responsible for being the one to tell the public. I'm sure other astronomers have seen this. If someone else wants to tell the world then that's their business."

"Can't we . . ." stammered Trevor. "I mean, if it is coming for us, isn't there some way we could deflect it, if we caught it far enough out?"

Nikolai's gaze remained fixed on the stars. "Like shoot a missile? Trevor, one of those things ate Pluto."

Trevor felt rage building in his stomach -- a profound sense of unfairness. He yanked himself out of the cockpit with furious motions, his weightless body banging the walls as he pulled himself through the narrow corridors. He made his way to the radio and called Houston. His hands were trembling as he put on the headset and he fought to control his voice when Edward replied on the other end.

"Commander Kimberly, what can I do for you today?" Edward's voice sounded casual. Trevor thought that maybe it sounded a little too casual. He wondered what the man knew.

"Well Edward, we were just wondering if you had any updates on the situation with the objects." The term "black hole" had replaced all other slurs as the ultimate profanity and people at NASA were going to great lengths not to utter it.

Trevor thought the pause at the other end lasted an instant too long. "Uh . . . no Trevor, the situation is unchanged."


"Affirmative Alpha. The situation is unchanged."

"Okay Edward, thanks." He reached to turn off the radio but stopped. "Say listen, before I go, tell me something. Have you noticed anything funny about Canis Major?"

Now there was silence again on the other end of the line, not just a pause, but a long, silent, empty space.

"Alpha, that is affirmative," said Edward at last. His voice sounded near cracking. "We are currently monitoring that situation as well. Tell you what, why don't I drop you an email. It might make it a little easier to brief you."

"Okay Edward, I'll be looking for it. Thanks."

"You have a good day now Trevor."

"You too Edward." Trevor slowly pushed the button on the radio and listened to it click to silence. On a wall above him, he found his laptop Velcro'd to the ceiling and tilted up the lid. He floated in front of it until minutes later an electronic toot let him know that new mail had come in. With methodical clicks on his track ball, he pulled up his e-mail program, clicked on Edward's e-mail and read the first sentence.

Trevor, it read, It's coming right for us.

. . . to be continued in issue 11 . . .

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