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Fiction

In-fall

The disc caved a hole in the starshine.

Smooth, graphene skin reflected nothing, blotting out the stars as it swung through the vacuum—black on black, the perfect absence of color.

It was both a ship and not a ship.

The disc lacked a propulsion system. It lacked navigation. Inside, two men awakened, first one and then the other.

In truth, the disc was a projectile—a dark bolus of life-support fired into distant orbit around another, stranger kind of darkness.

This second darkness is almost infinitely larger, massing several hundred thousand sols; and it didn’t blot out the stars behind it, but instead lensed them into a bright, shifting halo, bending light into a ring, deforming the fabric of spacetime itself.

From the perspective of the orbiting disc, the stars seemed to flow around an enormous, circular gap in the star field. It had many different names, this region of space. The astronomers who discovered it centuries earlier had called it Bhat 16. Later physicists would call it “the sink.” And finally, to those who came here, to those who dreamed of it, it was known simply as “the maw.”

A black hole like none ever found before.

By the disc’s third day in orbit, it had already traveled three hundred eighteen million miles, but this is only a tiny fraction of its complete trajectory. At the end of the disc’s seventy-second hour in orbit, a small lead weight, 100 kilograms, was fired toward the heart of the gravity well—connected to the ship by a wire so thin that even mathematicians called it a line.

The line spooled out, thousands of kilometers of unbreakable tetravalent filament stretching toward the darkness until finally pulling taut. The line held fast to its anchor point, sending a musical resonance vibrating through the disc’s carbon hull.

Inexorable gravity, a subtle shift.

Slowly at first, but gradually, on the fourth day, the ship that was not a ship changed course and began to fall.

#

The old man wiped blood from the young man’s face.

Ulii ul quisall,” the young man said. Don’t touch me.

The old man nodded. “You speak Thusi,” he said. “I speak this, too.”

The young man leaned close and spat blood at the old man. “It is an abomination to hear you speak it.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed.

He wiped the blood from his cheek. “An abomination,” he said. “Perhaps this is true.”

He held out his hand for the young man to see. In his hand was a scalpel. “Do you know why I’m here?” he asked.

Light gleamed off the scalpel’s edge. This time, it was the old man who leaned close. “I’m here to cut you.”

The old man placed the scalpel’s blade on the young man’s cheek, just beneath his left eye. The steel pressed a dimple into his pallid skin.

The young man’s expression didn’t change. He stared straight ahead, eyes like blue stone.

The old man considered him. “But it would be a kindness to cut you,” he continued. “I see that now.” He pulled the blade away and ran a thumb along the young man’s jaw, tracing the web of scar tissue. “You wouldn’t even feel it.”

The young man sat motionless in the chair, arms bound to the armrests by thick straps. He was probably still in his teens, the beginnings of a beard making patchy whorls on his cheek. He was little more than a boy, really.

He had probably once been beautiful, the old man judged. That explained the scars. The boy’s psychological profile must have shown a weakness for vanity.

Or perhaps the profiles didn’t matter anymore.

Perhaps they just scarred them all now.

The old man rubbed his eyes, feeling the anger slide out of him. He put the scalpel back on the tray with the other bright and gleaming instruments.

“Sleep,” he told the boy. “You will need it.”

#

And the universe ticked on.

“Where are we going?” the boy said, after several hours.

Whether he’d slept or not, the old man wasn’t sure, but at least he’d been silent.

The old man rose from his console on creaking knees. Acceleration accreted weight into the soles of his feet, allowing the simple pleasure of walking. He brought the boy water. “Drink,” he said, holding out the nozzle.

The boy eyed him suspiciously, but after a moment, took a long swallow.

“Where are we going?” he repeated.

The old man ignored him.

“They have already tried to interrogate me,” the boy said. “I told them nothing.”

“I know. If you told them what they wanted, you wouldn’t be here.”

“And so now they’re sending me someplace else? To try again?”

“Yes, someplace else, but not to try again.”

The boy was silent for a long moment. Then he said, “For that they have you.”

The old man smiled. “You are a smart one.”

Rage burned in the boy’s eyes, and pain beyond measuring. The earlier interrogations had been harsh. He pulled against his straps again, trying to jerk his arms free.

“Tell me where you are taking me!” he demanded.

The old man stared down at him. “You are scared,” he said. “I know what you are thinking. You want out of your restraints. You’re thinking that if you could get loose… oh, the things you would do to me.” The old man glanced toward the tray of gleaming steel. “You wish you could use that blade on me. You wish that you were in my shoes, that I was sitting where you are.

“But you don’t understand,” the old man said, then leaned forward again and whispered into the boy’s ear. “It is I who envy you.”

#

The ship hummed as it fell. Charged ions blasted carbon skin.

“Why won’t you tell me where we’re going?”

The boy repeated the question every few minutes.

Finally the old man walked to the console and pressed a button. The wall revealed a view screen, exposing deep space, the looming maw. “There,” the old man said. “We are going there.”

The black hole filled half the screen.

Abyss, if there ever was one.

The boy smiled. “You try to scare me with death? I don’t fear death.”

“I know,” the old man said.

“Death is my reward. In the afterlife, I will walk again with my father. I will tread the bones of my enemies. I will be seated at a place of honor with others who fell fighting for the side of God. Death will be a paradise for me.”

“You truly believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“That is why I envy you.”

#

The boy was a mass murderer. Or a freedom fighter.

Or maybe just unfortunate.

The old man looked at the boy’s scars, noting the creative flourish that had been lavished on his face during previous interviews. Yes, unfortunate, certainly. Perhaps that above all.

Life in deep space is fragile. And humans are as they have always been.

Bombs though, are different.

In space, bombs can be much, much more effective.

If placed just right, a simple three pound bomb can destroy an entire colony. Open it to the sterilizing vacuum of the endless night. And ten thousand people dead—a whole community wiped clean in a single explosive decompression.

He’d seen that once, a long time ago, when this war first began. Seen the bodies floating frozen inside a ruptured hab, the only survivors a lucky few who scrambled into pressure suits. A lucky few like him.

Because of a three-pound bomb.

Multiply it by a hundred colonies and a dozen years. Three airless worlds. A fight over territory, culture, religion. The things man has always fought over.

Humans are as they have always been. In space though, the cost of zealotry is higher.

A thousand years ago, nations bankrupted themselves to raise armies. It cost a soldier to kill a soldier. Then came gunpowder, technology, increased population densities—gradually leveraging the cost of death along a sliding scale of labor and raw materials, until finally three pounds of basic chemistry had the power to erase whole swaths of society. Ever more effortless murder, the final statistical flat-line in the falling price of destruction.

“What is your name?” the old man asked him.

The boy didn’t answer.

“We need the names of the others.”

“I will tell you nothing.”

“That’s all we need, just the names. Nothing more. We can do the rest.”

The boy stayed silent.

They watched the viewscreen. The black hole grew. The expanding darkness compressed the surrounding star field. The old man checked his instruments.

“We’re traveling at half the speed of light,” he said. “We have two hours, our time, until we approach the Schwarzschild radius.”

“If you were going to kill me, there are easier ways than this.”

“Easier ways, yes.”

“I’m worth nothing to you dead.”

“Nor alive.”

The silence drew out between them.

“Do you know what a black hole is?” The old man asked. “What it is, really?”

The young man’s face was stone.

“It is a side-effect. It is a byproduct of the laws of the universe. You can’t have the universe as we know it and not have black holes. Scientists predicted them before they ever found one.”

“You’re wasting your time.”

The old man gestured toward the screen. “This is not just a black hole though, not really. But they predicted this, too.”

“Do you think you can frighten me with this game?”

“I’m not trying to frighten you.”

“It makes no sense to kill me like this. You’d be killing yourself. You must have a family.”

“I did. Two daughters.”

“You intend to change course.”

“No.”

“This ship has value. Even your life must be worth something, if not to yourself then at least to those whose orders you follow. Why sacrifice both a ship and a man in order to kill one enemy?”

“I was a mathematician before your war made soldiers of mathematicians. There are variables here that you don’t understand.” The old man pointed at the screen again. His voice went soft. “It is beautiful, is it not?”

The boy ignored him. “Or perhaps this ship has an escape pod,” the boy continued. “Perhaps you will be saved while I die. But you’d still be wasting a ship.”

“I cannot escape. The line that pulls us can’t be broken. Even now, the gravity draws us in. By the time we approach the Schwarzschild radius, we’ll be traveling at nearly the speed of light. We will share the same fate, you and I.”

“I don’t believe you.”

The old man shrugged. “You don’t have to believe. You have merely to witness.”

“This doesn’t make sense.”

“You think it has to?”

“Shut up. I don’t want to hear more from a Godless tathuun.”

“Godless? Why do you assume I am Godless?”

“Because if you believed in God, you would not do this thing.”

“You are wrong,” the old man said. “I do believe in God.”

“Then you will receive judgment for your sins.”

“No,” he said. “I will not.”

#

Over the next several hours, the black hole swelled to fill the screen. The stars along its rim stretched and blurred, torturing the sky into a new configuration.

The boy sat in silence.

The old man checked his instruments. “We cross the Schwarzschild radius in six minutes.”

“Is that when we die?”

“Nothing so simple as that.”

“You talk in circles.”

The old mathematician picked up the scalpel. He touched his finger to the razor tip. “What happens after we cross that radius isn’t the opposite of existence, but its inverse.”

“What does that mean?”

“So now you ask the questions? Give me a name, and I’ll answer any question you like.”

“Why would I give you names? So they can find themselves in chairs like this?”

The old man shook his head. “You are stubborn, I can see that; so I will give you this for free. The Schwarzschild radius is the innermost orbit beyond which all things must fall inward—even communications signals. This is important to you for this reason: beyond the Schwarzschild radius, asking you questions will serve no purpose, because I will have no way to transmit the information. After that, you will be no use to me at all.”

“You’re saying we’ll still live once we pass it?”

“For most black holes, we’d be torn apart long before reaching it. But this is something special. Super-massive, and old as time. For something this size, the tidal forces are more dilute.”

The image on the screen shifted. The stars flowed in slow-motion as the circular patch of darkness spread. Blackness filled the entire lower portion of the screen.

“A black hole is a two dimensional object; there is no inside to enter, no line to cross, because nothing ever truly falls in. At the event horizon, the math of time and space trade positions.”

“What are you talking about?”

“To distant observers, infalling objects take an infinite period of time to cross the event horizon, simply becoming ever more redshifted as time passes.”

“More of your circles. Why are you doing this? Why not just kill me?”

“There are telescopes watching our descent. Recording the footage.”

“Why?”

“As warning.”

“Propaganda, you mean.”

“To show what will happen to others.”

“We aren’t afraid to die. Our reward is in the afterlife.”

The old man shook his head. “As our speed increases, time dilates. The cameras will show that we’ll never actually hit the black hole. We’ll never cross the threshold.”

The boy’s face showed confusion.

“You still don’t understand. The line isn’t where we die; it’s where time itself ceases to function—where the universe breaks, all matter and energy coming to a halt, frozen forever on that final mathematical boundary. You will never get your afterlife, not ever. Because you will never die.”

The boy’s face was blank for a moment, and then his eyes went wide.

“You don’t fear martyrdom,” the mathematician gestured to the viewscreen. “So perhaps this.”

#

The ship arced closer. Stars streamed around the looming wound in the starfield.

The old man put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He touched the scalpel to the boy’s throat. “If you tell me the names, I’ll end this quickly, while you still have time. I need the names before we reach the horizon.”

“So this is what you offer?”

The old man nodded. “Death.”

“What did you do to deserve this mission?”

“I volunteered.”

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“I’ve been too long at this war. My conscience grows heavy.”

“But you said you believe in God. You’ll be giving up your afterlife, too.”

The old man smiled a last smile. “My afterlife would not be so pleasant as yours.”

“How do you know this is all true? What you said about time. How do you know?”

“I’ve seen the telescopic images. Previous missions spread out like pearls across the face of the event, trapped in their final asymptotic approach. They are there still. They will always be there.”

“But how do you know? Maybe it’s just some new propaganda. A lie. Maybe it doesn’t really work that way.”

“What matters is that this ship will be there for all to see, forever. A warning. Long after both our civilizations have come and gone, we will still be visible. Falling forever.”

“It could still be false.”

“But we are good at taking things on faith, you and I. Give me the names.”

“I can’t.”

The old man thought of his daughters. One dark-eyed. The other blue. Gone. Because of boys like this boy. But not this boy, he reminded himself.

The old man looked down at the figure in the chair. He might have been that boy, if circumstances were different. If he’d been raised the way the boy was raised. If he’d seen what he’d seen. The boy was just a pawn in this game.

As was he.

“What is death to those who take their next breath in paradise?” the old man asked. “Where is the sacrifice? But this…” and the old man gestured to the dark maw growing on the screen. “This will be true martyrdom. When you blow up innocents who don’t believe what you believe, this is what you’re taking away from them. Everything.”

The boy broke into quiet sobs.

The horizon approached, a graphic on the screen. One minute remaining.

“You can still tell me,

—there is still time.

—perhaps they are your friends, perhaps your family.

—do you think they’d protect you?

—they wouldn’t.

—we just need names.

—a few names, and this will all be over. I’ll end it for you before it’s too late.”

The boy closed his eyes. “I won’t.”

His daughters. Because of boys like this boy.

“Why?” the old man asked, honestly confused. “It does not benefit you. You get no paradise.”

The boy stayed silent.

“I take your heaven from you,” the old man said. “You will receive nothing.”

Silence.

“Your loyalty is foolish. Tell me one name, and I will end this.”

“I will not,” the boy said. There were tears on his cheeks.

The old mathematician sighed. He’d never expected this.

“I believe you,” he said, then slashed the boy’s throat.

A single motion, severing the carotid.

The boy’s eyes flashed wide in momentary surprise, then an emotion more complicated. He slumped forward in his bonds.

It was over.

The old man ran a palm over the boy’s eyes, closing them. “May it be what you want it to be,” he said.

He sat down on the floor against the growing gravity.

He stared at the screen as the darkness approached.

The mathematician in him was pleased. A balancing of the equation. “A soldier for a soldier.”

He thought of his daughters, one brown-eyed, the other blue. He tried to hold their faces in his mind, the final thought that he would think forever.

Not the reverse of existence, but its inverse.

And he waited to be right or wrong.

To be judged for his sins or not.


Ted Kosmatka

Ted KosmatkaTed Kosmatka is the author of numerous short stories and novelettes.  His work has appeared in F&SF and Asimov’s, the anthology Seeds of Change, and has been reprinted in seven best-of-the-year anthologies, serialized over the radio, and translated into Hebrew, Russian, Polish, and Czech. He is a winner of the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His first novel, The Helix Game, is forthcoming from Del Rey. Ted worked for most of the last decade in laboratories in Indiana but now makes his home in the Pacific Northwest, where he writes science fiction video games for a living.

3 Responses »

  1. In fiction, it is about the language, the way a writer uses words, strings them together to form beautiful complicated stories. In science fiction, it’s all about the plot, the validity of the concept. Ted Kosmatka is a powerful writer who has mastered both the language and the concepts. I’m generally not a reader of science fiction, but when I read his stories, I become immersed in them. They are magnificent. Look at his use of language…”the disc caved a hole in the starshine.” How can one not keep reading? There is a reason for all of his nominations in his biography, and while all of these authors in your contest are quite good…none are in the same galaxy as Ted.

  2. A hard, sad story that rings true. A fine twist on martyrdom, using a black hole in a very creative way.

  3. Mr. Ted Kosmatka proves the old formula for great writing once again;
    If it’s not a tragedy – then it’s not a story.

    Johnny Tiggs
    Thank You.

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