Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Starfall

Starfall, by Saundra Mitchell; illustrated by Reiko Murakami.

KV-62 went supernova today.

Well, according to the news, it went supernova on March 14, 1592, but we’re just now finding out about it. Other things that happened on this day in history: Eli Whitney got a patent for the cotton gin, Charles I granted a royal charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and I was fished out of a trash can in the Union Square subway station.

That’s not in order, not chronologically, or in order of importance. They’re just facts, presented for your amusement and edification.

Like my arrival into this world, KV-62’s demise is a surprise. It wasn’t on the Wikipedia list of stars about to shit themselves. It was, until this morning anyway, a lonely little nobody star, sort of in the middle of nowhere. Now it’s in the middle of nothing; actually, it has been for four hundred twenty-two years.

This fact, I’m thinking, is going to be repeated frequently as the day goes on. Speed of light, light years away, Star Wars jokes, when you wish upon a . . . oops, never mind.

Hair wrapped, lunch packed, I step into the morning. I look at the sky, but it’s a waste of motion. The only stars in the city are the ones sitting in puffy coats, cordoned off from the masses, backing up traffic in every direction while they shoot the five thousandth episode of Law and Order: Epic Crimes Division.

So for me, the supernova isn’t real yet, even though it’s ubiquitous. It’s the top story on my news feed, the TV, the radio. Print papers are pissed as hell, I bet, but who reads print papers anymore, anyway? There’s already a Google doodle for it. Hazy pictures crowd my Twitter timeline, shots of the sky with a bright point fixed in the middle.

The story’s big enough, or weird enough, or something enough, that strangers on the bus look up when I get on. A general buzz of conversation fades, and a black man with an iPad leans toward me, interested.

“Did you hear about the star?” he asks.

This feels like a movie. A stage play. The opening act of a web series or something. Looping my messenger bag over my neck, I slide into the space beside him. “Yeah, weird, huh?”

A little blonde I’ve seen a million times and never spoken to cranes into the aisle. “If you get out of the city, you can see it. Like, in the daytime, even.”

“That’s what I heard,” another woman says. She balances a basket of oranges and mandarins on her knees. The fruit’s ripe, nipping scent perfumes the air. It’s a nice switch up from the usual BO, motor oil, and general-city-life smell. “They didn’t even see it coming!”

The man with the iPad turns the screen to her. “Just like that meteor in Russia. Came out of nowhere, and bam!”

“Makes you wonder what else they don’t know,” Fruit Basket says. Suspiciously, like there might be a conspiracy theory. Astronomy versus the world. Rogue planets lying in wait. Celestial ambushes.

“What’s that URL?” the blonde asks. Cell phone whipped out, she watches iPad expectantly. “Because I can tell right now, my daughter’s going to end up doing fifty million supernova projects at school. I may as well start collecting citations.”

The passengers buzz around me, and I fade into my own quiet. Listening, but not listening, I press the tip of one index finger to the other. A tingle runs between them, like the skin fell asleep. But just there, just on the tip of one finger.

I can’t tell if this supernova thing is really important or if it’s just a slow news day. So I fixate on my finger, numb but not numb. It’s real and it’s mine, and basically, that’s how people are, right? If it’s about you, it’s the center of the universe, no matter what.

• • • •

This is my job: I check out a sequentially numbered binder from the archive. I carry it to my desk; I open it. Then I log onto my computer, and search the server until I find the database that matches the binder. Open. Start on page one. Type.

See, when Vital Statistics started going digital, technology still sucked. In the beginning, there were some seriously screwed up methods in play. Photographs of documents—actual photos, the kind you have to develop. Then someone scanned them.

Into what format? Well. Some of the databases are full of giant, ancient bitmap files. Some of them are slightly less blurry PDFs and JPGs.

Occasionally, I hit a goldmine—a binder that got scanned after the advent of OCR, which means I only have to manually correct every entry on the birth certificate instead of typing it all in fresh.

People want to search Vital Statistics. They want to do it from their phone, from their home; they want to pull the sudden wild hair up their ass at 2:30 A.M., was Great-Great Grandma Sookie’s maiden name Manolis or Marinos?

So that’s my job. I’m the retronaut. I’m the one who creates digital records of birth certificates for people born before 1912. That way, every eager genealogist comes back from our website warm and happy. Their heuristic Boolean searches kick out text copies of GGGSookie’s birth certificate as well as an image, where available. You’re welcome.

Picking up where I stopped the day before, I frown. I search for my place; I tap my numb finger on the desk. Currently, I’m working through 1889 and I know I stopped on Cleolinda Pickering Navel because what kind of name is Cleolinda Pickering Navel? But I turn the plastic-sheathed pages and there’s only an aged, blank certificate where the printed one used to be.

Evie, my supervisor, appears at my desk. She’s psychic. No. She’s chatty. Moving my mug from the corner of the desk, she hitches herself to sit in a tiny triangle of bare wood. “Did you hear about the supernova?”

“The whole bus was talking about it,” I say.

“Some woman on the street walked up to me this morning and was like, well how about that!? We were totally simpatico; I knew exactly what she meant!”

The numb tingle slips up my finger. I scratch my cheek, just to see if I can feel it. Verdict? Unsure. Evie doesn’t move, so I tell her, “People were trading links back and forth. Never seen anything like it.”

“Seriously! I was talking to Johnnie in Deaths, and she’s thinking about renting a van to go up to the Adirondacks this weekend to see it. You want in?”

Squinting at her, I ask, “Will there be anything to see?”

“There should be! In the daytime, for a couple weeks at least. And at night, maybe for a couple months. Metafilter said that the last time a star went out like this, you could see it for two whole years.”

My head churns that fact, trying to turn it into something solid. The time traveling light was already messing with me. Not sure I’ll ever figure out how an explosion can last for a couple of years. This isn’t something I’m going to admit to my supervisor, so I say wow, because she expects me to. Then I turn my binder to her.

“Sorry, do you know what happened here? There was a completed record in here yesterday, but it’s gone now.”

With a hummed sigh, she takes the binder. Flicking through the pages back and forth, she shakes her head. Sliding to her feet, she closes the binder. “Let me check with Rohan.” Padding toward the front office, she turns back suddenly. Like she’s just remembered something. Perhaps my birthday.

“If there’s enough of us,” she says, “It’ll probably only cost us twenty bucks each to get that van. Let me know, okay?”

Pressing my lips together, I nod.

• • • •

In high school, I had a friend who said that if people forgot your birthday, it was your fault.

This is probably true. I don’t have parents to remember it; telling my co-workers is out of the question. After graduation, all my best friends forever caught currents and drifted away—Seattle, Las Vegas, Kuala Lumpur. I don’t wish them happy birthday, either.

Evie didn’t solve the case of the missing birth record. The digital version is gone, too. I know, know, know that I typed it in yesterday. Who forgets a name like that? It’s easier to remember than a birthday. It’s easier to remember than KV-62, the explosion formerly known as a star.

I feel like I’m unraveling a little. A very little. There’s one loose thread that started in my index finger. It winds around and around; now I’m numb to my wrist. On the bus home, I try to search for my condition online. I don’t know why; the rule is, if you search for it online, it’s probably cancer. I could save myself a lot of time by spinning a wheel of metastases to pick the location and lethality.

Except my phone has decided to shun me. When I touch the screen, nothing happens. I slide and pinch and nothing. Annoyed, I search my pockets for a stylus I know I lost months ago. Suddenly, getting online is very, very important. Not only do I have to find out what kind of cancer I have, I need to find out how late Butterfly Bakery is open.

There’s nothing wrong with buying your own cake. The rulebook plainly states: cake on birthdays, one wish per customer, with sufficient lung capacity. Nowhere does it stipulate that someone else has to buy you the cake. Or the candle.

This isn’t sad. It seems like it should be, but I’ve been alone most of my life. Bouncing from foster home to short-term placement, I met a lot of people. And I learned not to get attached to any of them. Including social workers; I had seventeen in eighteen years. It’s my understanding that this is a fairly standard turnover rate.

Maybe I’m a liar. Maybe I always have been. Right now, I don’t care because I sweep my fingers across the face of my phone and nothing happens. Again. I shake it. Close to my ear—maybe something is loose. In front of me, perhaps a broken bit will fall out. Breathing hot breath on my fingers, I try again.

Nothing.

Since the morning bus ride was nothing but camaraderie, I take a chance. The woman next to me has a tablet open. She’s drawing a bright, primary flowerpot for a stranger, somewhere, far-away and anonymous.

Waiting for her to submit her drawing, I say, “I’m sorry, my phone’s not working. Could you look something up for me real quick?”

She does, but she doesn’t like it.

Neither do I.

• • • •

In my bed, I stare at the ceiling. I stare through the ceiling. I fill in the night sky with images culled from movies and pictures and books. There’s a rich, blue-black velvet expanse, millions of stars twinkling against it. I see the Milky Way, cutting things in half long ways. My mental sky is inaccurate. Too perfect. Too bright.

It’s missing KV-62. I don’t have a science fiction-pop culture-old masters-new digital well to draw from on a supernova. While I ate dark chocolate truffle cake, I watched the news, but those pictures are too new. Too clinical. Everybody tries to focus on it, and the light blurs out of existence.

Poor star. Barely noticed in life, overlooked in death. Though astronomers are excited. That particular star is dead, they agree. But it’s not gone, they enthuse. It’s the law of mass conservation. Matter never disappears, it simply converts. Once, online, I read a eulogy or an essay (both?) about why you want a physicist to speak at your funeral.

It made me cry, because I don’t know a physicist. I don’t know who will speak at my funeral. I don’t know that his words, meant to be comforting, could apply to me. Something about all my light and heat still being in the universe, and all my particles starting out as stardust, and becoming new stars or maybe I made that part up.

What I remember is what the scientist on TV tonight keeps repeating: Nothing goes away. According to Angie, the guy who refills the pop machine in the basement cafeteria, everybody lives forever in pi, too.

At first, I thought he meant pie—which didn’t make sense in context, to be fair. But neither did a little circumferential number make me feel eternal.

“Mara,” he said, because people can’t deal with an extra vowel at the beginning of a name. Amara becomes Mara, time and again. I don’t correct them. “Okay. Look. What’s your social security number?”

I didn’t stop smoothing my dollar bill, but I did shoot him a look. “Yeah, right.”

“No, don’t tell me. But I’m telling you—it’s somewhere in pi. Pi is infinite! It contains every possible combination of numbers. Ever. Forever. No matter what.”

“So what?”

Tossing me a bag of free Cheetos, he grinned. It was a nice smile, his cuspids slightly sharp, his front teeth slightly flat. Maybe it was more the way that it transformed his face, a fairly ordinary face, into something beautiful. “So, everything about you, you can break it into a number.

“For example, your DNA sequence, all those abba-gaba-babas, if you convert those into binary, those become numbers. And those numbers are coded somewhere into pi! There’s a recipe for making you in there; you live forever.”

I shook my head. “That’s not me, though.”

“But it is!” He shoved a whole row of cheese puffs into place, then turned to me. “Everything you ever said is in there, in code. Every book you ever read. Every birthday present you ever got. Your birthday is in pi. They have it calculated out, like, into the trillions. We could search it right now and find your birthday, I bet.”

I stepped back. I was younger then. Nineteen. Easily impressed by a crooked smile; easily triggered, easily broken. My pieces shifted around, a broken glass in a sealed box. Schrodinger’s orphan: I had a birthday but I didn’t have a birthday.

All my records list the day a commuter found me stuffed in a Macy’s bag as my birthday, but I was already alive by then. No umbilical stump, so a couple weeks alive by then. Hardy enough to survive a chilly March morning, blanketed by Egg McMuffin wrappers.

But when Angie offered to find my birthday, my forever in pi, I realized something. If I ever invited someone new into my life, I’d have to explain all of that. No, I was not wanted. No, the flurry of news stories at the time failed to find me a permanent home. No, I don’t know my real name, or my birthday, or if my father had a green freckle in his left eye, too.

At least in foster care, I came with a folder. A dossier, I’ll call it a dossier, it’s more romantic and mysterious and meaningful. I wish I’d taken it with me when I hit eighteen and they kicked me out on my ass. Here, I could say to prospective friends and paramours, here’s my dossier. Read up. If I don’t hear from you by twenty-two hundred hours, I’ll know you’re gone.

Instead, what I said to Angie was, “That’s cool.”

Then I made sure to avoid the basement on Thursdays, because that’s when he came to refill the machine. Forever. I don’t eat Cheetos or Doritos or even sunflower seeds on Thursdays. Angie lives forever in pi, but I don’t. I live in an efficiency with a hot plate, because I don’t need more. No one sits on my couch-bed but me. Nobody’s head falls on the pillow beside mine.

My hand slips through the mattress. Through it. I would wrap my fingers around the springs, but I can’t feel them anymore.

• • • •

“In more troubling news,” the CNN anchor says, her face converting from comedy to tragedy in the blink of a teleprompter, “Police in major cities are reporting an unprecedented number of missing persons reports filed in the last four days.”

“That is troubling,” I tell the TV.

I use my left hand to spread jam on my toast, because the right one is gone completely. I see it. Other people must see it too, because nobody runs screaming. Evie at work came by to shake twenty bucks out of me for van rental and didn’t clap a hand on the back of her neck and yell, “What the hell happened?!”

Which is good. I don’t know what happened. The thread that started unraveling at the tip of my finger has wound all the way up my arm now. I don’t know if my atoms are getting looser, or if I’m enjoying a particularly vivid hallucination (brain tumors, the Internet says, can do that). All I know is that everything is not all right for Amara Moore. It’s all left. Ha ha, all left, oh Jesus, if I had a dad, he’d tell jokes like that ALL DAY LONG.

So I brush with my left hand, and make toast with my left hand, and it’s surprising how much typing I can get done at work with just one hand. Or maybe not surprising. I guess all those jokes about guys, porn, and unilateral touch-type proficiency have some basis in fact.

“Mental health professionals,” the anchor goes on, interrupting my train of thought, “are suggesting that some of these missing people might have left their homes voluntarily for astronomical reasons. One scientist is calling it Starfall Syndrome.”

Cue the interview with a scientist from some-college-I-missed-it. She’s dark brown, from hair to skin to clothes. A silver chain glints around her neck, thin and subtle. It catches my eye—that’s what I watch as I listen to her explain that some people, perhaps people who were in full control of their faculties just last week are suffering from mini-delusions and psychoses due to the unexpected trauma of the supernova.

She sweeps hair behind one ear. “It’s similar to Jerusalem Syndrome. Normal, healthy people arrive in Israel and are suddenly overwhelmed by the religious history of the region and start to believe they are figures from the Bible.

“We’ve never seen a supernova in our lifetime, but think of all the movies that feature stars exploding, black holes . . . The realization of an unexpected and overwhelming phenomena such as the supernova of KV-62 might have driven otherwise sane individuals temporarily out of their homes and their minds.”

I try to brush crumbs from my lap with the hand that doesn’t exist anymore. I wave non-existent fingers at the scientist. At the reporter. “Have you considered brain tumors, Dr. Ndebele? I think it could be brain tumors.”

She doesn’t answer. She’s a recording, or live, but anyway, not in my living room except in an existential way. Leaning toward the microphone she smiles and says, “The good news is, as soon as you remove the stimulus, that is, as soon as the patient leaves Jerusalem, or in this case, the supernova fades, so too will the delusions.”

That is good news. I wonder what she would think if I told her that I’m unraveling. Or if I told her that birth records are disappearing from my binders, too. Evie never found Cleolinda. More and more documents are turning up blank. Maybe once or twice somebody would have spaced it and put a blank record in a plastic sheath.

But every other one? I have no idea what Dr. Ndebele would say if I told her this, but I suspect it would end with me on Thorazine and fitted for a nice, new jacket. But there’s hope! There’s hope she says. I just have to wait for KV-62 to flicker its very last.

According to the latest push-notifications, that will be in a short fifteen days. I think I should have given Evie that twenty bucks.

• • • •

This happened before, in 1604.

Back then, Vital Statistics weren’t as full-bodied and rich as they are now, so if thousands of people started disappearing when Kepler’s Star did, we have no way of knowing it. When my shoulder unraveled, I sat on a park bench and tried to rub it. So chilly, I pretended to be cold, brr brr. That way, if people failed to notice my missing arm, they wouldn’t call the cops because some deranged woman was slapping her right side repeatedly in public. There’s gotta be a law for that.

In California, police are blaming Starfall Syndrome for a rash of suicides. It’s always a rash of suicides, isn’t it? A flock of sheep, a murder of crows, a rash of suicides. Depending on the news station, the supernova may well be a sign of the impending end times. That’s why twelve hundred people gassed themselves to death in an abandoned warehouse outside Pasadena last night. They thought the world was ending.

Now the scientists get strident. When they appear on the screen, they shake. This is a natural, normal event. This happens all the time; we simply don’t see it. There’s literally no way that anything on Earth is being affected by the destruction of KV-62.

“But what about this arm?” I want to ask them.

They would frown quizzically. “What arm?”

“My point exactly.” I’d nod. Possibly, I’d pull off serene. “Until the supernova, I had one.”

Imaginary scientists throw up their hands (both of them) and take their leave. My curiosity isn’t the right kind of curiosity. Shame on them, though. If you clap, Tinkerbell lives. I know that, even if they don’t. Although I think that being a big reader isn’t the same as being smart. I’ve never been smart, just average.

Slapping my side again, I watch the pigeons congregate. To them, I say, “I’m right here.”

They nod. They’re very agreeable.

• • • •

I found that eulogy again. And it is a eulogy, and you can listen to it on NPR. Don’t—his voice isn’t as sonorous and rich and moving as it might be in your head. Reading it is better; I read it again.

“You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral” by Aaron Freeman.

There’s nothing in there about stardust; I was wrong about that. I must have gotten that from somewhere else. No, what he said was: “Not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”

I’m less orderly.

When the weekend comes, I decide to head up to the Adirondacks by myself. Knowing that the supernova is out there but invisible to me—it makes me itch.

This morning, I lost most of my right shoulder, half of my right breast, and my hip is starting to fade. At work, it’s easy to skip out early. No one notices. Not one look turns my way. Not even one, but do I want one? I do not.

What’s frustrating is that I can’t get a cab. There are plenty. They sweep past me, I wave. I whistle. Finally, I step into the street, adrenaline coursing through me. The cab careens past, oblivious. This city has a bad reputation when it comes to cabs, but this is ridiculous.

Fine, I can walk and I do. The sidewalks aren’t too crowded, no tourists anchor themselves in the middle of the pavement. Thirty blocks is no big deal. I’m not even winded when I reach the train station. Neither is anyone else; it’s a beehive. An anthill. All the people who weren’t in my way before have congregated here.

Reading the signboards, I slip into place. The line for the Adirondacks is ridiculous. Stupid. Chaos enough that police patrol with dogs, and I’m pretty sure a handful of those would-be vacationers are air marshals on the ground. Voices ring out, Starfall, Starfall. This is what people have started to call KV-62.

After a couple of days, you have to address your guest by name. KV-62 is a code number for robots. We’re people, damn it, we’re having a moment. That thing in the sky that went supernova four hundred twenty two years ago, that’s Starfall now. Somebody ahead of me calls the ticket line the Starfall Express. We’re all heading north, out of the light. Into the dark. That’s backwards, but we need to see it. The itch is universal.

It’s my turn. I step up to the window, and the clerk looks past me. Bored, slash frazzled, slash exhausted. “Next?”

“Yes, I’d like a round trip ticket please,” I say.

“Next!”

Looking over my shoulder, I notice a man gesturing wildly and talking to the air. Or the Bluetooth in his ear, probably that. People behind him agitate and shift. Their weight thrums on the waxed floor; they’re restless cattle on the edge of the prairie.

With a frown, I turn my attention to the clerk again. “Yes, I’d like a round trip ticket please; if I could put it on my credit card . . .”

“Sir,” the clerk bellows. She doesn’t have time for this shit. She can’t say that out loud, but I hear the thought very clearly. “Sir, if you need more time to make your call, step aside.”

“I’m right here,” I say.

I am. I’m right there. I slap both hands on the counter, but they go right through. Disorderly panic tightens in my chest. A winter storm, cold and lighting at once, plays on my skin. The logical explanation is that she can’t see me. That’s the logical explanation.

How can that be?

Swinging my arms, I try to touch her. I grab at her stapler, not a Red Swingline, not a nice stapler at all. It remains in place, ungrabbed. I throw my head back and scream. The sound plucks my ribs and rends my throat. Nobody looks. Nobody cares.

Bluetooth finishes his very important call and steps right through me.

• • • •

That asshole has the gall to say, “That was important.”

No shit, Sherlock, the clerk thinks. Somehow, she forces a vaguely unpleasant smile and says, “Can I help you?”

Yes, yes she can. Him, not me. I punch straight through his head; he doesn’t care. He doesn’t notice.

Bewildered, I walk home and walk right through my front door. The numb touches me everywhere now. I’m one long thread, stretched out forever instead of one woman, fixed in place. I sit on my couch and stare out the window. I ponder the kinds of things most people ponder in college, when they’re high, when they want to feel deep in a shallow world.

If I can walk through a door, then how does my messenger bag stay on? Why don’t I sink through this couch? If nobody can hear me scream, did I scream?

Crying does me no good, because I question every tear. I name them, like pulling petals off a daisy, this tear is a brain tumor, this tear is a psychotic break, this tear is a coma, this tear is a dream and I just need to wake up.

I can’t. I try.

On Monday morning, the phone rings. It’s Evie; I don’t need to answer to know that. She’s pissed because she thinks I’m a no-call, no-show. Technically, I am. I neither called. Nor will I show. What pisses me off, I’m orderly enough to be pissed off, is that she wants to rip into me.

As if I haven’t been early to work every single day for five years. As if I haven’t done everything asked of me, dutifully. Quietly. I made no mark there at all. My binders are neat and properly catalogued. No one ever had to spend money on a get well card for me; they don’t know my birthday.

I don’t know my birthday, but fuck them. I deserve a day off. I deserve all the days off. Maybe I should have smiled back at Angie. Maybe I should have taken out an ad in the paper when I turned eighteen, ARE YOU MY MOTHER? Maybe I should have made one new friend. Maybe.

KV-62 didn’t.

KV-62 barely existed until she turned herself inside out one unsuspecting March morning in 1592. No one said goodbye at the time. At the time, no one saw her leave.

But she did, all the same.

• • • •

As far as human beings go, we don’t really exist. Not long enough to matter; not when we measure our lives against the lives of the stars.

They filled the heavens for billions of years before we had brains enough to call the expanse of space the heavens. They’ll go on when we blink out. After the last light turns off.

We’re all made of stardust. We live forever in pi. We’re immortal, you and me. Every one of us; what we’re made of cannot be destroyed. There are rules. Laws. Immutable physics, which sometimes complements dime-store philosophy.

Astronomers say that Starfall’s shock waves will ripple and expand and become new stars one day. Maybe I will, too. Next time, my parents will keep me. Next time, they won’t. I’ll be a movie star and a monster. I’ll make a friend; I’ll break forty-two hearts. I’ll leave a mark, however temporary.

As the world melts away, I have one last coherent thought. One final flicker of the light and the heat that make up my particular signature in the universe. I think I’m literally made of stardust, of the pieces that made up KV-62. Whatever cosmic storm bore her carried me, too. Everyone who went missing, they’re Starfall’s children, too.

When she starts over, we start over with her.

How many hundreds of thousands of planets and minds and places and worlds were contained in her, I wonder. If my binders are correct, there are hundreds of us in the five boroughs alone. Multiply exponentially—I’m sure the answer is somewhere in pi.

Will we all come together when we finally fall completely apart? I can’t wait. I can’t wait to find out.

I don’t have to anymore.

Saundra Mitchell

Saundra MitchellSaundra Mitchell has been a phone psychic, a car salesperson, a denture-deliverer and a layout waxer. She’s dodged trains, endured basic training, and hitchhiked from Montana to California. She teaches herself languages, raises children, and makes paper for fun. The author of seven young adult novels including her most recent, MISTWALKER, she was nominated for an Edgar for her debut novel and for a Pushcart Prize in short fiction. She always picks truth; dare is too easy.