Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Universe, Sung in Stars

The Universe, Sung in Stars; art by Reiko Murakami.


This story also appears in the anthology COSMIC POWERS, edited by John Joseph Adams. Available April 18, 2017 from Saga Press.

There is music in the stars. The stars, the planets, the asteroids, the galaxies. Everything that is flung, whirling in orbit through space and time. We dwell inside an enormous, ever-changing symphony, and each of the many universes sings a song of its own.

I replicate them. I make clockwork universes, astraria and orreries, planets and stars and galaxies made microcosm and set ticking in orbit. Gears of bronze and iron and titanium, planets of marble and stars of precious faceted stones, diamonds that twinkle in the light. Each orbit in perfect harmonic distance so that the piece performs the music of the spheres. It’s a different kind of beauty from that of the living universes, one artificial and made in miniature, but the songs are no less real for it, and the beauty no less true.

There’s a joy, too, in making things precise. The music of a universe, like the music of a symphony, will never be perfect. There will be dropped notes, missed rests, accidental sharps or flats. They are living things, and so they are flawed. Orreries are mechanical. If I do my work properly, there is no unexpected variance in their song.

I had just finished setting a rhodolite in the turning rose of a nebula when Carina walked into my workshop. She had a universe spinning around her as well — stars blinked in the darkness of her hair — but hers was living.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, picking up my loupe so I could examine it more closely. Pocket universes weren’t as rare as they used to be, but I had never seen one in resonance with a guardian before.

I walked an orbit around Carina. A comet flamed through the wildness of her curls, then flashed and died, bright echoes of its passing sparking like inverse shadows in the darkness.

“You should talk to them, Vera,” she said. “They’re always looking for qualified guardians, and you’ve kept that star going longer than anyone expected.”

My hand went to the nape of my neck, where a white dwarf cooled. I only wore it outside when I was working. Potential customers were fascinated by it.

“I don’t think it will last much longer.” It was becoming more and more atonal, which was usually an indication of imminent death.

“All the more reason to see if you can be approved for a universe.” A galaxy whirled like a halo at the back of Carina’s head, and I could hear its resonance. “I’ll put in a recommendation for you.”

“Thank you,” I said.

• • • •

I unwound the star from my hair when I got home that night, rolling it from palm to palm, watching the pattern of shadows made as its light shone through my skin. The discovery of the pocket universes had proved the Titius-Bode law — all orbital systems of the pocket universes had stable and self-correcting orbital resonances with each other. In those resonances was the music of the spheres, and in those resonances, my calling.

The discovery had been dismissed as ridiculous at first — singing universes were impossible to take seriously as proper science. But then the pocket universes started dying. In some cases, they would collapse in on themselves almost as soon as they were born.

So the pocket universes, and the salvageable pieces of the dying ones, were assigned guardians. Someone to ground the resonance until they were stable, or to help ease the passing of the dying stars. Someone to play them music until their own songs were known. That last was the key. Without music, the pocket universes could not survive on their own.

I had built a musical universe for my dying star. A rotating cylinder inside a clockwork box that plucked a series of steel teeth I had etched with constellations. I had, as much as I could, calculated backwards, based on the white dwarf. I had considered its probable orbit and origins, and designed the music box to play the song of the dying star’s universe. Hearing it, I hoped, would make the star less lonely in its passing.

The music box only played when I hung the star inside of it. I closed the mechanical universe around the solitary star, and listened as the quiet lullaby began.

• • • •

Approval, when it came to custody of a universe, didn’t mean paperwork and background checks. It meant being walked through a white room, full of universes being born. Tiny explosions of infinity becoming finite. It gave me vertigo.

“Don’t worry,” the tech said, her hand gentle on my elbow as she led me through the rows. “That happens to most people. The vertigo is actually an indication of who will make a good guardian. If you resonate at the right frequency for one of the universes, it stops.”

I nodded once, not trusting myself to speak through the dizziness without vomiting. But then the vertigo cleared. I could hear the beginnings of a song, bits and pieces of it, something that was almost familiar. I leaned closer, and stretched my hand out, and the universe in front of me expanded into it. The dying star in its musical cage next to my chest pulsed once, a bass thrum. The young universe wound itself around me, making me a fixed point in its spin.

The song grew louder.

• • • •

When a universe is being born, it hasn’t yet settled into itself. Much like a child learning to speak, there are mistakes. Babbles. So I didn’t pay any special attention to the shift in the music of my universe, the way the song changed from what I had originally heard. Not at first.

Carina’s universe had expanded enough that if I stood close to her, I could hear it sing. “I’d like to commission an orrery,” she said. “Something that has the same song. Ridiculous to get so attached, I know, but I’m afraid when it’s time for this one to leave me, I won’t be able to sleep without hearing it.”

“Of course.” I began taking the necessary measurements, recording orbits, and wavelength, and brightness.

“I’m sorry for the death of your star,” Carina said.

The new universe orbiting my head meant that I had stopped wearing the star when I worked. “It hasn’t died. I have it right here.” I unhung the star from its orrery, and held it in my hand.

Carina stepped back. “That can’t happen. You could contaminate your universe. You have to get rid of it.”

I wasn’t about to murder a dying star. “I had it when I went in to the birthing room, and I was wearing it when this universe chose me. The resonance was there, and the songs aren’t atonal with each other.”

“You’re supposed to stabilize your new universe as it’s being born, not change it.” Carina said.

“I don’t think I have.”

When she left, I sat down, and listened. To the expanding symphony of my borning universe, and the places that echoed the music I had created to make a star feel less alone in its dying. To the fluttering thrum of that star, ringing a counterpoint. It sounded, I thought, less hesitant than it had. Stronger. I removed it from its cage, and held it up.

There was a great ringing clang, as if every instrument in an orchestra was dropped mid note. The star lifted from my hand, and then pushed itself in to the universe’s orbit.

The song of the universe began again. Changed.

• • • •

It doesn’t happen often, but stars can escape their galaxies. The ones that do are called hypervelocity stars, some large and flung from the center of the galaxy. Some are much smaller, and their escape route remains unknown. All that is certain is that they are gone, crashing out elsewhere into the universe.

That is not their only name, these stars that are flung out of the galaxies they are born in. They are also called outcast stars.

Every so often, these outcast stars make new homes for themselves. They crash into other galaxies. In these explosions, new stars are born.

• • • •

My original star, the white dwarf, made itself at home in the young universe. I could hear its song getting stronger, and integrating itself into the resonances of the new system, and the song of that universe steadied and expanded. It incorporated parts of the dying star’s music into its own song, variations on a theme, movements in a minor key.

The new universe flung out stars in a kind of ecstasy of birth. They fell like rain, shedding themselves down my back, and into my workroom. They hung themselves in corners, cobweb galaxies, chiming like bells, ringing like cymbals.

Stars sparked from the ends of my fingers as I worked, formed constellations in my orreries, orbiting on wires next to planets made from glass. They added new choruses to older, established songs.

It seemed like chaos, but when I listened, they matched the existing songs in rhythm and tone. When I measured, they fit exactly in the orbits they were predicted to, resonating with the other pieces.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this happening before,” Carina said, as she examined the orrery she had come to pick up. The song of her universe was nearly complete — it would be ready to leave her soon.

“I’ve measured and checked. All of the new stars obey Titius-Bode. All of them sing in harmony with the music of the spheres.” It might not have been usual, but it was possible.

Stars tumbled down my arm, and Carina pulled into herself, her chair scraping backward on the floor. “You’ve changed things. That isn’t what a guardian is supposed to do. You are supposed to keep the new universe safe while it learns how to sing. That’s all.”

“What better to teach it how to sing than something that already knows?”

She shook her head. “But what happened changed the song.”

“Yes,” I said. “It did.”

• • • •

I had grown used to the feeling of a universe constructing itself around me, to hearing the music become more assured as the pieces of it settled into stability. But a pocket universe cannot stay anchored to its guardian, and it came time to let it go.

“It may not work, you know,” Carina said. Her own universe had been recently released, and she seemed curiously smaller without its singing orbit. “There is always the chance of collapse, and who knows how your superfluity of stars will affect things?”

The white dwarf star still orbited in the young universe, and other, smaller stars still fell like rain from my hair.

The escape of a universe from its guardian is much like the escape of an outcast star. One piece is flung out of resonance with the other. I found and sang a note that was atonal to the music of this universe. It pushed itself up and away from me until I was no longer a part of its orbit. It sang its own song, all of the pieces in harmony.

All of them. Even the dying star.

And then. Outcast once more, it plummeted from where the universe had been, falling to the ground, disintegrating and burning itself up as it fell. But even without that star, the music stayed the same. The song did not falter.

I heard the song still, even as the new universe disappeared from my sight, and from what should have been the range of my hearing. The music box orrery was playing. I opened the door. At its heart, spinning, a small white star.

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Kat Howard

Kat Howard. A red-haired white woman wearing blue jeans and a black sweater is sitting on a burgundy loveseat. She's leaning forward so that her elbows are on her knees and her chin is on her hands. There are windows in a concrete wall behind her.

Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in Minnesota. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was one of NPR’s best books of 2014, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot, was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians was named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and won a 2018 Alex Award. Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, collects work that has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed as part of Selected Shorts, and anthologized in Year’s Best and Best of volumes. She was the writer for the first 18 issues of The Books of Magic, part of DC Comics’ Sandman Universe. Her next novel, A Sleight of Shadows, the sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, is coming April 25, 2023. You can find her @KatwithSword on Twitter and on Instagram. She talks about books at Epigraph to Epilogue.