Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

The Absence of Stars
    by Greg Siewert
The Absence of Stars: Part Two
Artwork by Anselmo Alliegro

Part Two   (Part one is in issue 10.)

The Destiny laboratory was silent except for the background noise of the machinery. The shuttle crew and ISS crew together numbered 10 people and all of them quietly read their copies of Edward's e-mail and tried to absorb its contents. Astronomers had named the object ISBH-147. The acronym stood for Inter Solar Black Hole. Gretchen gasped when she looked at the number that followed it and wondered if it could really mean what it seemed to mean -- that this was the one-hundred and forty-seventh black hole they'd found tearing through the Earth's solar system. Gretchen knew that if they'd cataloged hundreds of them then there could be hundreds more.

The e-mail explained that impact with Earth was a possibility in the range of about fifty percent. The accuracy of this estimate would increase as ISBH-147 drew nearer. After Trevor's conversation with Edward, Nikolai and Gretchen had called a meeting and told everyone about the approaching object. So rather than being a surprise to the emotionally devastated crew, this information was a horrifying confirmation of what they already knew. The rest of the e-mail however, was not what they were expecting. Edward went on to explain that the reason they were being held on the space station was so that NASA could evaluate the feasibility of evacuating them. To Mars.

Several other countries including Russia and China were also working on evacuation plans. Unlike the US, these countries enjoyed the advantage of having functional landers. The Chinese lander was designed for a moon mission, but they still thought a landing on Mars might be feasible. Deceleration in the stronger gravity of Mars would require a great deal more thrust, but unlike the mission for which it was designed, this one would be a one-way trip. It was conceivable that the extra thrust could be attained by jettisoning the lower stage after fuel exhaustion in re-entry. The lander could then fire its own engine and continue its deceleration using the booster that was designed to carry it back into orbit.

Russia was in slightly better shape with a lander designed specifically for Mars, though there were differing reports on whether the craft was finished.

The US had no lander. All of America's resources had been spent on the shuttle program and the space station. The plan, according to Edward's e-mail, was to re-fuel the Phoenix from a tank in a Russian-made Progress cargo rocket that was being launched from Kazakhstan. They could then burn half of the fuel in the main engine of the shuttle and push it into a five-month trajectory toward Mars. Approaching Mars' orbit, the shuttle was to burn the other half of its fuel to decelerate, enter Martian atmosphere, and land "conventionally."

It was this last part that caused the crew -- one by one -- to stop reading and look up at Trevor. Myrtle, whose normally ruddy face was close to white, broke the silence. "Trevor . . . you can't land a shuttle on Mars can you?"

Trevor struggled with what to tell the crew. Eventually, he decided that they deserved nothing less than honesty. "There's about a hundred reasons why this won't work," he said.

Trevor, wearing his headset, waited patiently while he listened to a series of clicks at the other end of the line. A burst of loud static made him yank the ear-piece away from his ear, but he replaced it when he heard Edward's voice coming from the black foam padding.

"So it's working?" asked Trevor.

"If you can hear me, then it's working," replied Edward. He'd tasked his engineers to set up an encoding system so that their conversations wouldn't be monitored the world over.

"Edward, you're an engineer. Why'd you send me this?"

"Look Trevor, I know it's a little radical, but under the circumstances I think it makes sense."

"Which part makes sense? The shuttle is not an interplanetary craft. There's not enough fuel, there's not enough food, there's not enough water, there's not enough radiation shielding. And those are just the problems getting there, never mind the landing."

"We're sending up a Soyuz capsule filled with fuel. It should be enough. We don't have the trajectory yet, but we'll get it. It's just going to be a very slow ride. Maybe more like six months."

"Which is why there isn't enough food and water."

"You can clean out the ISS. Take everything with you. All the vegetation experiments, everything."

"And water?"

"Drink your piss."

Edward's voice was starting to contain a metallic edge, but Trevor was too involved with his own thought process to be warned off by it. "Fine, I'll drink my piss. Now let's talk about landing and re-entry. I've done the math Edward. In Mars' atmosphere I'm looking at a stall speed of roughly six hundred miles per hour, which means I'll have to put my wheels down at about the speed of sound and do it in rocky terrain. After that I suppose I can just step out and re-invent agriculture on another planet."

"Shut up, Trevor! Just shut up!" yelled Edward. The sound of his voice was like a bucket of ice water in Trevor's face. "How dare you talk to me about logistics? You're not the only one floating in space anymore. Our whole planet is floating in space and in three days, me, my family, my friends, and the rest of mankind are going to be crushed into a particle. Do I think you're going to make it? No! Of course not! But damn it, you're going to wave to the cameras, get in that shuttle, hit the engines and pretend like you are. Because otherwise, a lot of us might start to feel like the last five billion years were just a big waste of time."

The words rocked Trevor. "I'm sorry," he said.

He wasn't just talking to Edward. He was ashamed because it suddenly occurred to him how little he'd thought of his family. Tears, born from genuine sorrow and the onset of a hateful sense of guilt, began to form in the corner of his eyes. "Look, Edward, I've got to talk to my wife."

There was no answer for a moment. "I know Trevor. Your family is on their way here. So are the families of some of the other astronauts. For the rest, we'll try to arrange a private phone link."

"Thanks, Edward. Really. Hey, there's still a fifty/fifty chance it won't hit us right?"

"No, actually it's down to about 1 in 5 that it misses."


"Trevor, will you do it? The evacuation I mean."

"Of course."

Melissa Kimberly was eight years old. Her hair was bleached a very light blonde from the Southern Florida sun and her face, appearing in high-resolution detail on her father's laptop, was a mask of confusion and fatigue. Contemplating this look of exhaustion, Trevor thought he knew its origin. She was tired from being lied to. In a world that was quite obviously falling apart, the best that Melissa (and most other eight-year-olds) could extract from their elders was thin reassurances and meaningless platitudes. She was too young to properly articulate her frustration, but if she were older, she might have explained that on a planet about to be ripped in half, there was very little purpose in sheltering people from the truth.

Trevor sensed her frustration as he told her how much he loved her and missed her. He asked her questions about life back at their house in Tallahassee. They talked about her friends at school and "Foo," the lop-eared bunny; mascot of the Kimberly family and Melissa's faithful companion. He could tell by her conversation -- distant and hollow -- that his daughter expected from him what she got from everybody else: a condescending evasion of reality.

"Daddy, are we gonna die?"

"Yes sweetheart."



"Even you?"


"Are you sure?"

"Pretty sure."

Rather than saddening her, she found the information somewhat thrilling, and even reassuring. Thrilling because she felt included as an equal in the cardinal event that was about to unfold, and reassuring because she now understood that she wouldn't have to suffer it alone.

"What happens after we die?"

"I don't know sweetheart. Nobody does. Some people think we'll all go to heaven. I don't know for sure, but I know that it'll be a great journey and me and your mom will be right there with you."

"I love you Dad."

"I love you too."

"Mom wants to talk now."

"Goodbye, love."


His wife's hair had been cropped short. He found this startling and then found it startling that -- under the circumstances -- he would find this startling. "You cut your hair!" he said, then, some moments later; "It looks good!"

Her face was deadpan. "Yes . . ." she said, "I cut my hair. Did you just tell Melissa that she was going to die?"

"She is going to die, Peggy. We all are."

"She's eight years old!"

"What difference does it make?"

"I can't believe you told her that."

"Peggy, she's one of us now. She's not a kid anymore, she's just one more human staring at the sky."

Peggy looked off-screen and Trevor knew she was examining her daughter. When she returned her gaze to the camera, her face had softened. "Maybe you're right," she said. "Anyway, now's not really a good time for a fight. Trevor, can you come down? I mean, is there any way?"

"No, Peggy, I'm sorry."

"But don't they have a Soyuz up there you could come down on?"

"Yeah, but they want me to go to Mars."

She put her hand involuntarily over her mouth. "Are you really going to go through with that?"

"For the good of all mankind."

"I thought Edward was putting me on. Do you think you can make it?"


"What? No? Damn it, Trevor, stop being so practical! We already know you're tough. Can't you just lie to me -- to us -- for a few days?"

"I'm not being practical. And believe me, I don't feel that tough. I just want you and Melissa to know that I'm going to the same place you are."

"Baby, I don't think we want you to come with us this time."

"Peggy, you don't know how badly it hurts being away from you and Melissa right now. I swear to God this wouldn't be so bad if I could just be with you. If the three of us could sit together on a hillside somewhere and watch the sky turn black, I really don't think I'd mind. If this is what the universe has planned, who am I to argue? But being up here, away from my family . . . it's a lot to take. It helps me to think we'll all be together after it's over."

"Okay, Trevor, I'll let you think that. But only if you let me think that you might just make it. That's what helps me."

"Fair enough."

"I love you, Trevor. I don't think I've ever loved you more than I do right now." She began to cry.

"I love you too, Peg. I miss you."

The two of them stared into their respective monitors, thousands of miles away from each other and looked into each other's eyes for the last time.

The best vantage point on Space Station Alpha from which to view ISBH-147 was the windowed cupola that connected the Destiny module to the control module. Gretchen and Nikolai huddled in it together. The black hole was not a terribly impressive sight. It wasn't really a sight at all. It was observable only by noticing that the star Adhara was missing from the constellation Canis Major, leaving Orion's faithful companion without a conspicuous point of his hindquarters.

"Maybe a galaxy exploded," said Nikolai.

Gretchen's mouth twisted into a pout, a mannerism she used when thinking deeply. She'd figured these black holes were some sort of debris thrown from the mother black hole that anchored the middle of Earth's own galaxy, the Milky Way. However, she couldn't explain why the objects were traveling in the wrong direction. The unthinkably dense mass at the center of the Milky Way rotated along with everything else and if it emitted a jet of black holes she would expect them to sneak up behind the planets they destroyed, rather than hitting them in the face. Nikolai's suggestion made sense. If an entire galaxy of rotating matter compressed itself into a hyper-massive sphere of energy, then blasted itself into particles, the black holes that had showered through Earth's solar system might be nothing more than minute shrapnel from an explosion that took place billions of years before the Earth had even formed. If these objects entered the wrong side of the Milky Way and were captured by its gravity, they would be the interstellar equivalent of a fleet of trucks headed the wrong way down a freeway.

"Does it matter?" asked Gretchen.

Nikolai shook his head slowly. "Did you talk to your husband?"

"Yeah," she answered. "It was weird. It was kind of awful actually. He just kept apologizing because he couldn't have kids. As if it mattered anymore. I was trying to tell him how much I missed him, but he was so pre-occupied that I don't feel like I really got the chance. What about you, did you speak with Ada?"

"Yes," Nikolai said and made a dismissive gesture, not because the conversation had been unimportant to him (his expression proved otherwise) but because in the face of so much personal tragedy, the Russian felt shy in discussing his own. Gretchen thought perhaps he wanted to avoid crying. She remembered the press event in Cape Canaveral where she'd met Ada and had been impressed by the casual way that she and her husband loved each other. They made it seem so easy and natural -- a simple question of feeling. As she saw the pain inside of Nikolai, it seemed to reflect back into her, and the feelings she had for her own husband became much sharper. Nikolai looked away and she was overtaken by a wave of sorrow that was much more intense than she'd felt when actually speaking with her husband. Water began to form at the corners of her eyes.

Trevor moved up behind them and looked over their shoulders. He said nothing.

Nikolai looked as if he were going to say something, then stopped.

"What?" asked Trevor.

"Nothing, it's just, well, there is one thing I've been thinking about." Gretchen looked over at Nikolai as she wiped at the tears in her eyes. "If we are all agreed that the shuttle mission offers no chance of survival . . . we are all agreed, right?" Gretchen and Trevor nodded. "Then, there is one other approach we could take to spread our seed -- so to speak -- across the galaxy. We wouldn't survive, but if we sent our DNA across the galaxy then maybe, somehow, remnants of humanity and of the planet Earth could begin anew somewhere else."

"You mean just jet ourselves off into the void?" asked Trevor.


"What good would that do? We'd be dead."

"Yes, but some people think that the seeds of life on Earth were of similarly extraterrestrial origin; primitive microbiology that hitchhiked on asteroids and comets. We might not live to have human children, but who knows what information is encoded into our DNA and the DNA of the plants we'll bring with us. Perhaps the genetic material that makes up our bodies could someday, another trillion years from now, grow itself a new Earth."

Trevor thought for a moment, then said: "I have to admit, I think I've gotten used to the idea of crashing into Mars. Starving to death on the shuttle doesn't sound quite as appealing."

"I don't think we'll live long enough to starve to death."

"Sure we will, with the little bit of fuel in the shuttle, we'll be long dead before we leave the solar system."

Nikolai paused, then said,"I was thinking we could travel in a different way. Much faster."


"Use the black hole."

Gretchen spoke up. "Anything that goes into a black hole is going to be destroyed. Whether or not something like 'wormholes' really exists is irrelevant. We'd be annihilated at the sub-atomic level before we found out."

"I couldn't agree more. I've always thought the idea of trying to travel the universe by entering a black hole was a bit like jumping off the Sears Tower and hoping to wind up in Seattle."

"Then what are you saying?" asked Trevor.

"We don't travel into it, we just let its gravity fling us across the galaxy." Nikolai leaned closer to Trevor and Gretchen. "If we boost the station's orbit just the right distance from the black hole's trajectory, we can reach a point where the gravity will pull on us enough to accelerate us tremendously, but not quite enough to catch up to the black hole which is traveling at close to the speed of light. NASA uses the gravity of other planets to slingshot their probes; the physics isn't really much different. I've done some quick math and I think we can achieve speeds of well over fifty percent of light speed."

"Oh," said Trevor. "So, we'd be killed instantly. I guess ultimately it's no different than hitting Mars at a thousand miles an hour. Maybe a bit quicker."

Nikolai nodded. "Probably."

Gretchen looked up in surprise. "Probably? Nikolai, we'd be accelerating to over 100,000 miles per second almost instantaneously. I think it's safe to say we wouldn't make it."

"Do you remember the vomit comet?" His two companions nodded that emphatically yes, they remembered the vomit comet. This KC135A jet obtained its name because it flew in a downward, parabolic trajectory that accelerated at the same speed as a falling object. This created a sense of weightlessness so that the astronaut trainees could feel what it was like to be in space. "How did you feel?" asked Nikolai.

Gretchen shrugged. "Sick?"

"Yeah," agreed Trevor, "we were calling you 'Retchin' for awhile."

Nikolai ignored the remark. "What else?"


"Exactly." When the airplane was moving downward at the same acceleration as gravity, we felt no force of acceleration on our bodies, even though we were accelerating at 9.9 meters per second, per second. Haven't you ever wondered about that? The reason we felt no acceleration is that even though we were accelerating in space, in space-time, we were not. Our energy was being conserved."

"So," began Trevor, "if we accelerated from an effect of gravity -- from the black hole -- we wouldn't feel any acceleration?"

"No, I don't think we would. Don't misunderstand me, the gravitational forces will be extreme and there's a high likelihood that the ship will be ripped to pieces, but I suppose it's all academic anyway. We won't live through the adventure one way or another. It would just be nice to see some of the galaxy before we got pulverized."

"Well," said Gretchen, "I can't say I'm convinced, but I don't really see how it hurts anything. Why don't we split up into two groups. Those who want to can take the shuttle to Mars, the rest of us will stay on the station to do the . . . 'catapult thing.'"

Nikolai nodded his assent. "That okay with you Trevor?"

Trevor nodded. "I'll fly the shuttle if Hector doesn't want to, otherwise I'd like to stay with Gretchen. Plus, as ridiculous as the shuttle mission is, I think we need to give it the best chance of success possible. We don't have much food and water, so we're doing them a favor by staying behind. If more than three or four people go, they won't live long enough to crash."

Gretchen gripped his hand. "I'd like to try the catapult thing, but only to prove to Nikolai that his theory is bullshit. I'll bet you five dollars we get squashed to pancakes."

"Alright, you're on."

The period of melancholy and sorrow that gripped the crew of the International Space Station was mercifully short-lived. Unlike their family and friends on Earth, they had a great deal to do. That none of their actions were likely to result in them actually surviving was not evidenced by their energetic preparations.

The first order of business was dividing up the crews. Nikolai's plan to use the black hole's tremendous gravitational pull to fling the station across the galaxy was not met with a great deal of enthusiasm. It was a ride that Gretchen, Nikolai and Trevor would take by themselves. The physics of it triggered a ferocious debate among the scientists. Nikolai was heavily outnumbered by those who felt they'd be crushed outright. Trevor finally called for an end to the debate so that they could all get back to work.

Hector's job was to pilot the shuttle and he was bringing three other crewmembers. By his attitude, he clearly didn't regard it as a suicide mission at all. He was very eager in his preparations and Trevor had the feeling that Hector actually thought he could land the shuttle on Mars. It was an impression that Trevor thought was clearly mistaken, but which he felt there was no reason to correct. The shuttle was stocked with all the food and supplies that would be required if the craft landed safely. Its crew had instructions to make their way to the landing sight that was being selected for the Russian and Chinese efforts.

The balance of the station's crew decided to return to Earth on the Soyuz. It was questionable whether or not they would have time to see their families, but even if they didn't, the three astronauts had the poetic notion that once the black hole came, they would "be together" with their families in a very literal sense. "Nothing says togetherness like being crushed into a singularity," said Myrtle, when those crewmembers weren't around.

However hard the Alpha Station crew worked, the men and women of mission control in Cape Canaveral worked even harder. That they were able to devise a plan for refueling the shuttle in space (something that had never been previously considered) and execute it in less than 72 hours was a feat of staggering ingenuity. Two plastic bladders were seamed into a cargo container in the Russian Progress cargo ship. Liquid hydrogen was pumped into one and liquid oxygen into the other. The container was then pressurized and cooled to preserve the fuel. A smaller container of hydrazine was also packed into the rocket to be used as fuel for the shuttle's orbital maneuvering system.

The procedure for transferring the liquefied gasses to the Phoenix was bewilderingly complex, and required Trevor and Hector to spend almost five hours in EVA. The Hydrazine and some of the liquid O2 were pumped into the tanks for the maneuvering system. The rest of the cargo container was then removed from the Progress and placed into the shuttle's cargo hold with a hose running through the open shuttle bay doors into the inlet on the bottom of the craft. Before the Phoenix could attempt its landing, the astronauts would have to jettison the container and shut the doors.

It was no less astonishing a feat of engineering when one of the NASA programmers produced a protocol for a modified landing telemetry that would take the shuttle in for an approach on the floor of the Cydonian Valley in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The navigation would key off of a beacon from a surveying probe that was close to the chosen landing location. The area was over 50 miles away from the sight chosen by the Russian and Chinese missions, but it offered a wide expanse of what appeared to be relatively level hardpan.

In the final day before the impact of ISBH-147, the space station crew was guilty of a minor fraud. Both the plan to fling the station into the void and the return of some of the crew members to Earth was concealed. Instead, it was reported that the entire crew was traveling to Mars on the shuttle. The crew went so far as to release video of them all cramming into the shuttle and Trevor confidently predicting the success of the mission.

The shuttle's bold endeavor may or may not have given hope to the mass of humanity on the planet beneath it, but the way that humans behaved in the final day before impact was a credit to the occasionally troubled history of mankind. The Earth was quiet. No looting, no rioting, no violence; and though many sought comfort from their gods, religious hysteria was missing from the mass candlelight ceremonies that grew spontaneously in the hearts of cities worldwide. Mostly people stayed with their families, taking euphoric pleasure in the simple comforts of life. Most unexpected was the sense of relief felt by so many. Every nonsensical aspect of human existence was rendered irrelevant. Jobs, difficult relationships, the daily stress of life. Suddenly, none of it mattered and much of the population found this heartening. Perhaps this is why the final days of Earth were remembered -- in the minds of very few -- as being strangely abundant in warmth and good cheer.

With a hiss of compressed air escaping from a relief valve, the shuttle separated from Space Station Alpha. The shuttle then fired a tiny double-burst from its maneuvering rockets and began to inch slowly away from the station. It was followed next by a less cautious burst and the shuttle began to accelerate, appearing to those who remained on the station as if it were falling away beneath them.

Hector wasted little time. A brilliant blast of orange light exploded from behind the shuttle, creating an oval of fire that fanned away from its engines. Never before had a shuttle fired so much thrust in the vacuum of space. For Trevor, Gretchen and Nikolai, it was a spectacular show, though one that was eerily silent. With their faces pressed to glass, they watched the shuttle grow tiny as it sped off into the darkness.

Knowing they had very little time, they pulled themselves from the windows and went quickly to work inside of the control module. They were already wearing their pressure suits, minus the gloves and helmets. Gretchen sat herself in front of the monitor for the station's on-board telescope. By tracking the disappearance of stars as they were blotted out by the edges of the black hole's event horizon, she could constantly calibrate and re-calibrate the object's position and trajectory. After every new measurement she shouted out a string of numbers that Nikolai punched into his laptop. The spreadsheet that Nikolai had created took these numbers, along with an estimation of ISBH-147's mass calculated by astronomers back on Earth, and combined them with the station's natural orbit. The result was a target altitude which Nikolai relayed immediately to Trevor who was operating the station's control rockets.

The hardest part of the whole operation was gauging the orbit of the station itself. As ISBH-147 approached, the space station was revolving continuously around the Earth. The black hole's tremendous speed made exact impact estimates tricky and Gretchen was constantly revising her figures. This was critical because the station's exact distance from the black hole depended on its revolutions around Earth.

The rumbling drone of the station's maneuvering rockets came to a sudden and unexpected halt. Nikolai looked over at Trevor in surprise, but Gretchen continued shouting out numbers at a frantic pace.

"Retchin!" interrupted Trevor. She looked up from her monitor, her face a pale, oily mask of sweat.

"Gretch, we're out of gas."

Her shoulders drooped and she looked over at Nikolai's downcast expression. "Are we far enough away?"

The Russian shrugged his shoulders. "We did leave a safety margin in our figuring."

"Well," said Trevor, "there's not much point in worrying about it. Let's strap ourselves in."

The two astronauts and the cosmonaut used nylon straps with carabineers to clip their pressure suits to the hull of the station. After cinching the straps tight, they donned their helmets and gloves and fastened them in place. They hoped the suits would protect them in case the control module depressurized.

"Nikolai, how much time do we have?" asked Trevor.

The Russian looked at his watch. "Couple of minutes," he said.

"Remember," said Gretchen, "if we get crushed, you owe me five bucks."

"Bet's off, I think we're too close."

The burn from the station's rockets had left it in a slow spin. The control module had only one small window and they watched as the Earth rotated past it -- giant, pale, blue. Moments after the planet left the small field of the window, they could see ISBH-147. Close now, its event horizon appeared almost as large as the moon and to the crew of Space Station Alpha it was visible only as a peculiar absence of stars.

The station had never been so quiet. Most of the electronics and machinery were powered off. The inside of the control module looked like a storage unit because any items that might be of use had been moved inside of it. The hatches at either end, as well as every other portal in the station, had been sealed. Nikolai was concerned that even if the maneuver was successful, the immense gravitational forces would rip the station to pieces. In close proximity to a black hole, the difference in gravitational pull between one side of the station and the other might be enough to tear it in half. For Gretchen and Trevor, the point was moot because they were both certain they were about to be crushed.

As they sat in the revolving, weightless quiet -- the only sound their breaths against their facemasks -- they momentarily forgot all about the black hole. Instead, their minds spun clips from a hundred film reels -- episodes of life with family and friends and lovers and places long forgotten. The station turned to the black hole one final time and now it filled most of the window. It was a solid black disk, but in their momentary glimpse the crew felt that somehow the interior of it was textured, as if it was squirming with the turmoil of a primal furnace, pitch black fire burning in a pitch black stove. Gretchen clenched her fists into a death grip. "I love you," said Trevor, referring to Gretchen, and his wife, and his family and his friends and his planet and everything else except the reckless indifference of the thing that hurtled toward them.

Trevor saw the edge of the earth come into view. He would never be sure if it was a thing real or imagined, but for the rest of his life he would have a memory of the Earth's surface beginning to deform in the very last instant. In his mind's eye, he would forever be able to see it bulging upward like a young child reaching for its mother.

When it happened, it happened with the anticlimactic, punctuated crunch of a car crash. The sound of tearing metal accompanied a bone-rattling jolt. Gretchen's poly-laminate face shield cracked open on the corner of an instrument console. Trevor's violent lunge ripped the buckle from one of his safety straps and Nikolai smashed open his laptop with the back of his helmet. During the event, the three of them all had a terrible sensation as if they were falling incredibly fast, yet they didn't feel as if they were moving in any particular direction. It was as if they were falling in place.

It lasted only an instant. Trevor unbuckled his straps, checked a pressure gauge on the wall, took off his helmet and fought his way to Gretchen through a field of floating clutter. When he reached her, he pulled off her helmet and pulled back the neoprene hood, revealing a sweaty mess of brunette hair. Her expression was one of utter shock and he bent over her, planting a single, solid kiss on her alabaster cheeks. The light seemed to come back to her eyes and she embraced him.

"I think it missed us," said Trevor, unsure of whether to be happy or disappointed. "Nikolai, I think you added wrong. I don't think we're moving, we must've been too far out."

The Russian removed his helmet and gloves and pushed them aside. He lifted his finger and pointed to the window. Trevor and Gretchen looked at it and they once again felt as if they were falling. Stars streaked past the window.

"We're, we're just spinning . . ." stammered Trevor.

"No," said Gretchen, "I don't think we are." She unbuckled herself and moved to the telemetry readouts. The trajectory information was completely nonsensical but she could see that most of the station had been torn away. She figured the rest of the space station had been flung into its own journey, or possibly even been sucked into the black hole. All that remained of their section was the control module, the small windowed cupola connected to it on one side, and the wreckage of half the Destiny laboratory on the other. A gauge next to the door showed her that the cupola was still pressurized so she opened the hatch and went in. Trevor and Nikolai pulled themselves in after her. Constellations of burning stars whipped past the windows like meteorites.

Soon, all three of them had their faces pressed to the glass like little kids looking out the window of a train. What they saw was a galaxy that was not merely black and white, but radiantly colorful. Gas clouds like giant blue pillars, nebulas that were reddish and purple -- shimmering with stars in frozen explosions that looked like burning magnesium. They passed through a field of sparsely scattered comets, many light years across, and watched in amazement as the tail of one of the smaller comets slipped past silently above them.

Twenty minutes went by as they tried their utmost to absorb what they were seeing. In the back of their minds, they may have been aware that their lives could be snuffed out at any second, but for three people who'd dreamt of exploring the galaxy for their entire lives, the concern seemed remote in the face of their silent rapture.

"I don't understand," Trevor said without removing his face from the glass. "How can we be moving so fast? Those black holes were traveling near light speed and they took hours to get across the solar system. We must be moving a thousand times faster than light right now."

"No," said Nikolai. "We're not moving faster than light, it just seems like it because time for us is flowing very slowly."

Trevor pulled his head from the window and looked at his hands, as if expecting them to move about in slow motion. Gretchen smiled and said: "Speak slowly, he's a pilot."

"Trevor," said Nikolai, "if you could somehow follow our progress from Earth . . ." Here, Nikolai stopped for a moment, then abruptly continued, "you would see us slowly inching our way across the galaxy. However, when things travel close to the speed of light, the flow of time slows down for them."

"Special relativity."

"Exactly. Since less time is elapsing for us, our velocity seems to be much higher than it would seem to a 'stationary' observer."

Trevor's interest in physics quickly waned, and he contented himself with looking out the window. That none of them were overly-upset about the destruction of their home planet was solely due to their assumption that they would soon be following suit.

At some point, they passed through the heart of a binary star system and came close enough to a planet to make out its outlines as an aqua-green disk, illuminated by its mother stars. It was the highlight of their voyage, but for Trevor it was also an unpleasant reminder that they were living on borrowed time. He found it amazing that they hadn't already been pulverized and wondered if their staggering speed was simply annihilating any debris in front of them with some sort of cosmic shock wave.

He put his arm around Gretchen's waist and pulled her to him. It surprised her at first, but she caught the look in his eye and understood. She squeezed him and put her head on his shoulder, still gazing out the window. There was no reasonable way for either of them to verbalize how upset they were that their homes and all of their loved ones were gone. It was an emotional maelstrom that threatened to drown them both, but they took comfort that their feelings were understood, and they also took comfort in knowing that soon it wouldn't matter.

All three flinched when a metallic bang sounded from the other side of the control module. Gretchen and Trevor knotted their fingers together.

"Something hit us," said Trevor. The other two were silent. "Should I check it out?"

"Why bother?" said Nikolai. "Let's just close the cupola's hatch in case the control module depressurizes. I want to enjoy this as long as possible.

They all agreed and Trevor shut the hatch. When a prolonged shriek indicated that the wreckage of the Destiny Laboratory was being ripped away, they did not flinch. Trevor and Gretchen's embrace, and their unceasing gaze out the window, was unbroken.

They didn't flinch at the rhythmic hammering that shook the hull of the ship. They didn't flinch when it sounded like titanium struts were being snapped like twigs or when it sounded like spikes were being fired into the side of the control module. However, at the unmistakable sound of the control module's aft hatchway being unlatched and opened, Gretchen's fingernails cut bloody marks into Trevor's hand. Trevor was unaware of the injury. He was aware only of the saturating sense of superstitious terror and awe that had gripped him. The three of them were seized with a hysterical paralysis that was broken only when movement became audible in the control module.

Trevor untangled himself from Gretchen and moved to the small square window in the hatchway. "There are people in there."

Trevor saw two, tall figures in tan suits with helmets and visors. The visors were tinted and he couldn't see what lay behind them. "Should I go in?"

Nikolai shrugged, trying to cope with a feeling that lay somewhere between inebriation and animal panic.

"Yes," said Gretchen quietly. She was shaking, but still managing to push Trevor in the back. "Go."

Trevor unlatched the door and pushed it open. The two figures were examining the debris as they floated through the control module. They froze like statues when Trevor opened the door. Their suits looked like plated ceramic and they fit close to the skin. Reaching their hands to the side of their helmets, the dark tinting of their visors turned clear, revealing two faces that were almost as astonished as Trevor's. One of the figures was a woman. She was unusually tall and thin but had fine, unmistakably human features. Her skin was as fair as porcelain and her golf ball-sized eyes had corneas of faded green. The other figure was a man. His skin was also pale and he looked at Trevor with something approaching reverence. "My lord," he said, "you're alive."

The woman stepped forward and spoke with an accent that was familiar and yet impossible to identify. "You are shuttle commander Trevor Kimberly," she said with the same note of awe that was so obvious in her companion's voice.

By this time, Gretchen and Nikolai had pulled themselves into the control module too. The woman continued, "Your companions are science officers Gretchen Whey and Nikolai Lokov."

"Who are you?" asked Gretchen.

"I am commander Ariana Aitelo," she said. Her last name was one new shock on top of many others, and when she indicated the nameplate over her breast it did indeed read AITELO. "I am a descendant of Hector Aitelo, the copilot of the space shuttle Phoenix." The crew looked at her with feelings of total disorientation.

"Descendant?" asked Trevor.

Ariana Aitelo looked at him seriously. "How long has it been for you since the impact of ISBH-147?"

Nikolai looked at his watch. "About an hour and a half."

Ariana exchanged a look with her partner before returning her gaze to the crew. "For us, it was 842 years ago."

With faces pressed to the glass, Gretchen and Trevor looked down on the surface of Mars as the rescue frigate Chaos Utopia decelerated into close orbit around the rusty planet. The voyage that had taken the three-person crew of Space Station Alpha an hour and a half took the Chaos Utopia a slightly lengthier eight days. However, the advantage of the way the Martian ship traveled was that it circumvented the time-distorting effects of relativity so that its crew could return to their families just weeks after they left, rather than a thousand years later.

Hector Aitelo had indeed survived the crash onto the Martian surface along with systems engineer Myrtle Lenard. When the Phoenix touched its wheels to the rocky Martian soil, it was traveling at over 600 miles per hour. In seconds, the landing gear was sheared off and the shuttle skidded on its belly for over a mile as it disintegrated into a tumbling cloud of debris. The only piece of wreckage of any substantial size was the reinforced cockpit, and from this smoking chamber, Hector and Myrtle emerged alive. The other two crew members of the Phoenix did not survive, but the landing still ranked as one of the legendary events in the colonization of Mars.

The Russian mission, one of China's two missions and a joint effort between France and Canada had also succeeded in sending crews to Mars giving the planet a total population of 26. For decades, these pioneers struggled on the verge of death by starvation and exposure, but once they adapted to the Martian way of life, there was no stopping them.

The original settlers soon depressurized to the Martian atmosphere, eliminating the need for pressurized structures and suits (though the reliance on manufactured oxygen was a habit they would never break). Nuclear generators powered machines that harvested CO2 from the air and converted it to methane. Massive drills pulled water from the subterranean ice sheets. Recipes for concrete and glass led to the first dwellings made from native materials. Eventually these dwellings became towns, then cities. Complexes of mammoth greenhouses stretched for miles. The dangers of inbreeding were avoided through in-vitro fertilization of eggs brought from Earth.

And, of course, with a population descended largely from astronauts and scientists, the cause of space exploration moved rapidly. Less than 200 years after the first settlers arrived, the first microchip was fabricated from Martian minerals. Less than100 years after that, a manned rocket was launched into Martian orbit. This kicked off an age of exploration that reached every corner of the solar system. Six hundred years after the end of Earth, Martian scientists entered the golden age of astrophysics. They found the keys that would unlock the door to the entire galaxy. It was only then that Hector Aitelo's dream of discovering the fate of his crewmates -- an idea passed down for over 700 years -- could be set in motion.

For the explorers of Mars, it was not rescuing the remains of Space Station Alpha that was difficult, it was finding it. It took over a hundred years to locate the hurtling speck of aluminum and titanium, but once it was found -- 842 years after the first human landed on Mars -- the rescue frigate Chaos Utopia was en route within weeks.

Gretchen and Trevor watched in awe as the highly populated Cydonian Valley came into view beneath them. The rear section of the frigate was being used as a pressurized quarantine zone. When the Martians entered, they had to wear suits to protect them from the pressures that seemed so natural to the Earthlings. The two astronauts were alone because Nikolai was shut into his private chamber. Upon rescue, the stoicism of the three crewmembers had evaporated and their grief at the loss of everything hit them like a train. Nikolai was inconsolable. He'd managed the loss of his beloved by reassuring himself that he'd shortly be joining her; but now that he was a survivor, the full weight of Ada's death seemed poised to crush him.

Gretchen and Trevor at least had each other. This caused its own pain -- an additional sense of guilt on top of the guilt of simply living -- but it helped them greatly to take comfort in one another. Also helpful was their sense of complete exhaustion. With her head on Trevor's shoulder, Gretchen said: "I'm too tired to hurt." The emotional agony was so great that sometimes it seemed remote.

She grabbed his neck and kissed him on the lips. They had not yet become lovers -- would not for quite some time -- but they had the patience of people who knew they eventually would.

An hour later, after another orbit had allowed the explorers to take in the barren splendor of their future home, the Chaos Utopia was tugged into a screaming glide as the sparse Martian atmosphere began to catch hold on its control surfaces. Safely suited and strapped into their seats, Gretchen, Trevor, and Nikolai held their breath as an expansive runway lifted its hand up to catch them, while the towering spires of the capitol city Cydonia loomed behind it. Then, and only then, did they fully understand that the verdant green planet they'd known all their lives had been dead for the better part of a millennia and that they would be the last beings to ever recall this homeland, not through recordings and museums, but through the uncorrupted recollections of their own misty eyes.

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