“It’s okay, Ground Control. I know you did everything you could.”
Charles sat at his desk and stared at the blank screen. Nobody said a word. There was a slight hiss of static. He swallowed hard, an audible click in his throat. His mouth was dry. His heart thudded in his chest. Charles felt as if someone had fastened a belt around his torso and pulled it tighter and tighter.
After what seemed like an eternity, Stan broke the silence.
“Come in, Pete.”
The static hissed.
“Pete. Come in.”
“Come in, Pete.” Charles was aware that Stan cried as he spoke. Hot tears trickled down his own cheeks. His heart had lodged itself at the base of his throat. He could hardly breathe.
“Pete, come in.”
“Pete, please come in.”
Finally, Greg got up from his seat and laid a hand on Stan’s shoulder. “That’s enough, Stan. He’s gone.”
The last two syllables hit Charles like a two-tonne truck. The room spun around him as if a solid right hook had clocked him in the jaw. Charles gripped the polished dark wood of the desk, hands sweaty, so he didn’t lose his balance and fall. The table beneath his fingers was cold and indifferent. The sensation grounded him in the reality of the moment and made him feel as if he floated through a dream. Or a drunken stupor. This desk is really hard, he thought. That’s enough, Stan. The wood is very cold. He’s gone. Is wood always this cold? That’s enough, Stan. It’s very cold.
Somewhere behind him, a woman sobbed. Hell, they all sobbed. Gabrielle was just the most audible.
The words bounced around his skull: He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.
All at once, Charles felt hot. He perspired and trembled. He thought he might throw up, right then and there. He wouldn’t be able to make it to the bathroom in time; he’d have to spew his guts into the wastepaper basket next to his feet.
Like a man in a dream, Charles slid off his office chair with a thud. He landed on his knees and didn’t feel a thing. The chair rolled away behind him. It squeaked a little on the wheels he had meant to oil but had somehow never gotten around to. Charles reached for the metal bin. Thank God he’d remembered to put a plastic bag inside because the bin was a metal mesh. If I hadn’t remembered, my puke would have been filtered out the bottom quite nicely. Just like using a colander, Charles thought. Then he began to retch, in great, stomach-wrenching convulsions.
Somewhere nearby, someone asked if he was all right. But he wasn’t all right. Nothing was all right — nothing.
And the room was spinning, spinning, spinning, and the acidic vomit was racing up his throat, and the world was twisting around him, and everything felt too heavy, and the room wouldn’t stop spinning and—
Pete allowed himself to drift.
There was no use fighting it, as there was nothing he could do. It would be a waste of energy. And energy was all he had left. Well, that, and the precious oxygen in his tank.
In his ears, all he could hear was the whistle of white noise. For half a second, he thought he heard someone say, Come in, Pete. And maybe they did, but the words were fuzzy and soft; hard to isolate from the hiss. He started to respond, and then gave up. The last few seconds of communication had been hazy with interference as it was. Now he had floated further away, contact with Ground Control would be impossible. Besides, he had said his goodbyes. Pete didn’t want to prolong the pain of a tortured farewell.
Pete spun away from the asteroid and spiralled out, further and further. He knew he had between six and eight hours of oxygen in his tank, dependent on how well he controlled his breaths. He had been on the surface of the celestial body for one hour and 43 minutes before the small meteoroid struck.
First man on an asteroid, he thought as flew away from the point of impact, pieces of debris scattered around him. Was it worth it? He knew immediately he shouldn’t have posed the question.
It was miraculous that none of the wreckage and rubble had injured him. If you ignored the fact it had jettisoned him off the planetoid and propelled him beyond any hopes of rescue. Pete didn’t know how fast he travelled, but he knew it was too fast — and he was too small of an object — for his team to rescue him. He only hoped that his crew were safe from the fallout of the collision. Would they be able to avoid the hailstorm? And if not, would the fragments of rock penetrate their shuttle? Pete knew that he’d never know.
Pete spun and spun and spun. The rotations were not quite fast enough to cause him to blackout. He watched the views as he twisted through the void: stars, sun, planets, debris. Stars, sun, planets, debris. Stars, sun, planets, debris. Over and over and over. Spinning. Spinning. Spinning. Each time he caught the barest glimpse of Earth — a tiny droplet of blue in the vast nothingness — and then it was gone. His tiny home planet had never looked more beautiful, even though it was in his line of sight for a fraction of a moment.
He saw no fires or explosions as he spiralled. This was not a sign that his team were safe, but he clung to the hope, nonetheless. Maybe they were okay. Maybe they got away in time. Maybe the shuttle was able to withstand the barrage. Maybe. Maybe.
Pete fell into a cosmic trance. His glazed eyes stared out into the solar system. He spun and twisted and turned and conserved his breath.
The celestial dance hypnotised, like an interstellar mobile above the crib of humanity.
Something pulled him.
Pulled in one direction. The sensation startled Pete from his reverie. He spun and he twisted and rotated. Stars, sun, planets, debris. What tugged at him? He strained to see. Stars, sun, planets, debris. Was it his imagination? Stars, sun, planets, debris. No, Pete was sure of it. There was a definite sensation. Something reigned him in. But what? Stars, sun, planets, debris, stars, sun, planets, debris, stars—
And then he saw it. And for a moment, he couldn’t breathe. His lungs contracted and all the air escaped him as if the sight had punched him in the gut.
His thoughts were a mixed cocktail of fear, confusion, and fascination. How did we not see it? Pete’s feelings were distant. How did we miss it? It’s huge.
The black hole occupied half of his visual space.
If you were to only glance at it, you might miss it — most of the area around it was also black. But the absence of yellow-white stars gave away the hole that gaped in time and space. There was also the accretion disk, which spun around the maw in the fabric of reality. The giant clouds of gas spun and spun around the shadow of the hole. They twisted and rippled beyond recognition or cognition. It was smaller than the ones he’d studied, but now that he faced it, it’s lack of detection astounded him. After all, it was at the edge of their solar sys—
Pete didn’t recognise the stars. The thought hit him, and his brain dumped a load of adrenaline into his veins. As he spun towards his destination, his eyes traced the emptiness for the Earth. For any planets that he knew. Mars. Jupiter. Venus. Saturn. Completely gone. It was all alien to him. Even the sun was different; smaller and somehow less vibrant. Rather than a bright, white-hot yellow surface, this star burned a deep orange that bordered on red.
Where am I? Panic brimmed in his chest. He knew the impact had propelled him from his home system, but he never actually thought—
He was closer to the black hole now, he saw, as he turned once more. Another realisation hit him, with the low thud of an interplanetary bass drum.
Even if he had been in the shuttle, it would have already been too late to break away.
The thought should have terrified him, but it instead soothed him. The knowledge of the futility of a struggle allowed Pete to accept his fate. If he had a chance to escape, he would have fought — as panic flooded his thoughts — until his oxygen was all gone.
The black hole’s shadow consumed, with hunger, that which spun around it. But it was more than that. The objects of the accretion disk looked hungry — for their destruction. The collective disk rotated and fed into the hole. Each eager part allowed the time to flow in and disappear.
Pete flew towards the hole faster and faster now. It was no longer the gentle pull it had been — a minute ago? An hour ago? A second ago? It dawned on Pete that time had lost its rigidity.
The shadow guided Pete on a fast track through the disk of orbiting materials. He was, after all, the guest of honour at this party of extinction.
Pete looked down at his hands and saw the distortions of light — drained away, into the abyss. If someone were to observe the phenomenon, they would not see him, attired in his spacesuit of white. No light would escape the rounded clutches of the infinite shadow.
Event horizon, he thought, as the black hole sliced his brain into oblivion. A billion parts of his grey matter screamed in unison. Evnethrzion Enevthzorni Vneetzhirone Tvneeizoenrh Netvneorehizo Votenehroez—
Pete’s final coherent thought was of his wife and his daughter, back home on Earth.
And then Pete tore in two. Only that wasn’t right. He became two. But the two Petes shared different fates. He was both, and somehow, he was neither. It incinerated one Pete in an instant — torn apart and shredded into annihilation. He felt neither pain nor fear. One moment he was, the next he wasn’t. Pete was gone.
The other Pete was a different story.
He came out the other side.
But it wasn’t him. Not the same one that had gone in. But it wasn’t a different Pete, either. He felt like a drop of rainwater that had joined the ocean; still water — if you ignored the salt — but changed forever. Part of something bigger, indecipherable, integrated with everything else. Inseparable from the whole he had now joined.
The first thing he noticed was that he no longer had his old body. The second thing was he did have a body of sorts. His body was everything. It took him a moment to register this sensation, but once he clocked it, it all made sense, in a single step. First, there was confusion, then there was complete and utter understanding and acceptance. There was not an in-between.
Pete floated in nothing. Pete was also the nothingness. He was the vacuum in which he sailed. He was the darkness that surrounded him. The nothingness overwhelmed. He felt hollow at the emptiness inside. He felt stranded as he floated in the absence of everything.
The answers came to him via a drip-feed. The remedies came to him all at once, the roar of a waterfall.
Pete wanted light, and then there was a flare before his non-eyes. Sun, thought the thing that had once been human. The sun looked lonely, so the Pete-thing wanted planets to join it. Rocks appeared in the vacuum, scattered across the plain of darkness. Several collided with each other. Some exploded. Others floated off, for destinations that didn’t concern new-Pete. Bits and pieces, here and there, began to circle the throbbing star.
One of the worlds that spun around the burning ball of gas was thirsty, so the post-Pete-being gave it water. It sparkled, blue and shiny, as it twisted in the light. Like a marble, suspended in the ether. He also gave the other spheres some resources of their own, but these are secrets which I won’t spill.
Pete watched as things developed. He put in a hand, here and there, when he so wished. Never too often, never too seldom. The answers came to him both immediately and after an infinity. From external sources and from within. Now, said Everything. And then he acted — often with the instant arrival of the instructions.
The system thrived, and Pete tended to it like a gardener to their plot. He planted seeds, watered, pruned and harvested. He watched his creations bloom. He watched his creations wither and die. Not everything is destined for long life, and that is okay, thought Everything. Time unfolded in every direction.
After a while, the small creatures on the tiny blue speck began to send things outward. A few explosions, here and there. These small-scale sparks in the heavens told not-Pete that they were learning. He left them to it, for that was what he should do.
Eventually, they got it right.
After a time, they began to send themselves out, too.
Following an instant and an eternity, Pete was joined by another.
26th September 2019