Issue #32, Honorable Mention #2

Edoardo Albert’s new novel, Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army, has just been published by Endeavour Quill. Edoardo is online at http://www.edoardoalbert.com, on Facebook as EdoardoAlbert.writer, and Twitter @EdoardoAlbert.

 

The God Star

by Edoardo Albert

 

“Don’t die here.”

I stopped, the tube of champagne resting on my lips, and looked at the man drifting opposite me, silhouetted by the seething energies of the Ratnayeke Rift.

“Not quite the toast I expected.” I tried a smile. “Maybe, ‘Good luck’ or ‘Cheers’ or,” I remembered his name, “‘Salud’.”

But Monitor Higuain made no smile in return. He was playing with the champagne tube—cargoed at ridiculous expense through the nearest Abeysundera portal and then loaded aboard a Shingawa jump ship, with me, for the final journey to the Rift—and I felt an equally ridiculous urge to jam its contents between his thin lips and fire in the bubbles. I had only spent an hour aboard the station, but already I’d decided the outgoing Monitor desperately needed a joy infusion.

Monitor Higuain, keeping his back to the view platform, nevertheless jerked his hand to indicate what he meant. “Six months here and you’re not sure you can leave.”

I looked where he would not, into the Rift, and the Eye staring from it, the star shining where no star should shine.

“You’re not sure anything else is real.”

The briefing had said there was a tendency for Monitors to drift into the Star, losing themselves in its mysteries: be prepared, it had said, to call your predecessor back to sense.

“That goes against all the tenets of physics…” I began.

“Like the God Star,” he said.

I fell silent.

The Monitor smiled wryly. “I said that myself, to the Monitor I was replacing. Six months back, when I arrived on station.”

“Then you’ll remember that follow-up studies show Monitors normally regain their equilibrium between three and nine months after going off station.”

“Those that make it off station.” Monitor Higuain’s mouth twisted. He was making an effort to smile. “Looks like I’ll be one of them.” He looked past me, to the other viewport, thick with the clear light of sensible—in the strict sense of the word—stars. “When does it leave?” The Shingawa hung there, its tracery of beams—material, electromagnetic and potential—shifting slowly over the star fields.

“In six hours; it would have been sooner but the architecture suffered some damage in jump and the crew is making repairs.”

The Monitor nodded. “I see them.” And there was a note of longing in his voice I had not expected. Usually, Monitors at the end of shift shunned human company and had to be weaned slowly back into normal society. Some never made it all the way, but lived in permanent exile, attached to humanity but with their minds forever somewhere on the edges of the Rift.

I nodded to the champagne tube. “You still haven’t drunk it.”

The Monitor focused on the tube.

“Oh. Yes.” He raised it to his lips.

“Why did you tell me not to die here?”

The Monitor squeezed the tube and champagne pulsed along the spout and into his mouth. The gas came back out again and he grimaced. “Sorry. Belching in front of a lady. No manners.”

I shook my head. “Don’t worry.”

“Six months here, you forget about manners. You forget… everything.” He stared at me. “If you die here, your soul won’t ever find its way home.”

“That’s…” I began.

“Ridiculous. Yes, I know.” Monitor Higuain belched again. “But don’t. You know, die here.” He pinged the champagne tube towards a disposal port and watched as it was sucked into its maw. “Besides, if too many more Monitors don’t make it off station, they might close the program. I’m going to get my stuff for transfer.”

“What about debriefing me?”

“It’s all in order. I’ve kept the record; I’ve made the observations; I’ve watched; it’s waiting for you.”

“Still, you should…”

“I’m off this station in a few hours. Think I can tell you what I’ve seen these last six months in that time?”

“No. No, of course. Sorry.”

“You won’t be.” The Monitor nodded towards the center of the viewing platform dome. “There’s the chair. It’s yours now.”

I nodded, licking my lips, nervous.

“Why’d you come?” the Monitor asked, suddenly.

“I wanted to see the Star.”

“Me too.” He pointed to the chair.

“May I?”

“Yeah. Be its guest.”

I pushed off towards the chair, fixed in the center of the viewing dome. My first push had been true; I barely needed any corrections to grab the chair as I went past it. Then, it was the work of moments—in time and torque—to swing myself into the chair, to engage the restraints and—zing—the feeds connected with the implants at the base of my skull.

I was connected; my senses, my thoughts—in a general sense, there was still no way to specify precise thoughts in storage—and my emotions were now being fed into the data store for the God Star.

Now, I was ready. I looked up—although without gravity up was a notional concept—and saw the God Star…

*

“It’s quite something, isn’t it?”

My eyes, my senses, my thoughts, heart and desires, lost in the God Star, slowly returned to me, to me fixed in the chair beneath the dome, and the Monitor, above me, his form blocking my sight of the Star. I tried to see past him, pushing my head left and right, but he filled my view.

“Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to watch. I wanted to see if you could see it.”

“How could I not see it?” I waved my hand, past the blocking shape of Monitor Higuain, to where the God Star filled Rift and thought and heart and mind.

“Not everyone does. Even when they’ve been trained as Monitors, sometimes they get here and see nothing. Like with our instruments; they’re blind to the God Star.”

“B-but how?” Even as I said the words, in some corner of my mind, where I had been briefed, prepped and psyched for my role as Monitor, I knew this; yet, faced with the overwhelming presence of the God Star, I could not but ask. How could anyone remain insensible of it?

“It’s one of its mysteries. Its many mysteries. But you can see, so therefore you can Monitor. Very well.” The Monitor pulled himself closer to where I lay, embraced in the chair and offered up to the Star, and his face filled my gaze and I saw that he was weeping, but gave that no thought, for still I strove to see past him to the God Star.

The Monitor took my head in his hands and kissed me, on forehead, eyes and lips. His touch was cool.

“You are Monitor,” he said. “Watch well.” He pushed himself away—a man suddenly without a title—and, again, the God Star filled my sight and thought and heart.

“Watch for me,” he said as he drifted away, but I gave his words no mind for my thoughts were filled with the Star…

*

Darkness flowed over the dome, shutting out the light of the Star and the storms of the Rift, and in the chair I, Monitor of Station Epsilon, gasped back to myself, my throat as raw and dry as sandpaper and with a slight unaccountable dampness around my groin. Then, I remembered. The dome, on each station, was set to blank in sequence, that each Monitor might recover, eat, sleep, relieve themselves. It was not, I remembered, at all unusual for a Monitor at the start of their tour to wet themselves, so lost did they become in their observations. At least I had not soiled myself. I released the restraints, lifted my head to break the feeds, and was, again, myself: separate, alone, unconnected.

“Time.”

The answer appeared, ghost numbers in the air, and I knew there remained opportunity to speak to the previous Monitor before he left station. Now, I thought, I might know something of what to say and what to ask.

“Monitor Higuain. Location.”

The station answered, floating a schematic in front of me, with the Monitor’s location highlighted.

“What is he doing outside the station?”

“Unknown.”

“Raise him.”

There was a pause.

“Unable.”

“How come?”

“He is not responding.”

“Why?”

“There are no life signs.”

*

I went out into the raw, seething space of the Ratnayeke Rift, with every possible shield and baffle set to maximum and my helmet darked that I might not lose myself in the sight of the Star. But even darked, the light of it filled my eyes and I had to close them once I had set path for Monitor Higuain, and I filled my head with words, remembered poems, images, memories: these alone might hold some defense against the overwhelming light. Even so, path set, I oriented myself so that my back was to the Star and my face turned to the station and, beyond, the speckled black of normal space.

I drifted past Monitor Higuain, and had to stop my motion with impellor puffs, before setting myself to move, ever so gently, back to him. There was no need for urgency. I was not going to save his life.

In my time, I’ve seen a few hard space casualties. It’s not a good death: oxygen starvation meets instant freezing with a side order, in the Rift, of lethal radiation. The faces, and bodies, of the dead retain the pain and terror of this death. But, approaching the Monitor, I could see he was not like this. His arms were crossed across his chest and his face was set into a peaceful smile. There was no difficulty in seeing him. He had gone out into the Rift without a suit.

Taking hold of him—his body was stiff so it made maneuvering him easier—I headed back to the station. Beyond the tracery of the station’s radiation baffles and shields I could see the Shingawa, its feeder scoops sparking as it fed matter to the drives: it was powering up for departure. No reason to delay it. Its sole returning passenger was not taking his birth.

“Monitor Dellapina to Shingawa Dhoni, Monitor Higuain will not be returning with you. You are free to depart.”

There was silence for a while, then comms, crackly and faint, as it always was this close to the Rift. “Acknowledged.”

Comms flicked off again, and I thought there would be no further comment, but as I was nearing the station, a fresh comm came through, in a different voice.

“We don’t take too many back. I hope you’ll be one of them when we return for you, Monitor Dellapina.”

“I will be.”

Dhoni, out.”

I did not acknowledge. I was attempting to get Monitor Higuain’s body into the lock, while the saturation levels in my suit began to flash through to amber and, in some cases, critical levels. It is no easy matter to manipulate a rigid corpse into a lock while wearing a full-screen suit. In the end, I went into the lock first, then pulled him in after me, head first. If his features had not been frozen as hard as the rest of his body, I’d have said they turned to disappointment as I reeled him in, out of the light of the Star.

Strapped to a gurney—he was going to start defrosting pretty soon now he was back in the station—I nudged Monitor Higuain along to the cold store. Lashing him to a rack, I counted through the others: six, of the thirty-odd monitors to serve on the station. It was worse on some of the others. Station Gamma was pretty much a one-way trip.

We still did not know why.

I tagged Monitor Higuain, called his entry into the records, thought of going back to the dome then, for once, decided against. I needed to sleep.

*

I was not asleep when they came to me. I know this. They came, the Monitors of Station Epsilon, those that I had counted clipped to gurneys in the cold store, those who had gone home, they all came to me, presences I could not see but no less real. I was not scared, nor even surprised. Where else would they be? They waited with me, until sleep took me, and I was glad for their company.

*

What is the God Star? A light shining in the darkness, a presence where nothing can exist, a stitch in the Rift that is tearing the universe apart.

What is the God Star? A ghost, a mirage: a phantom of hope conjured from our collective fear in the face of the Rift.

What is the God Star? We don’t know. Invisible to every instrument, it shines only in sight, stitching the Rift together, holding it tight against the seething energy that boils beyond it.

There are universes and universes, and in the borning of some, others die. Beyond the Rift, a bubble universe waits to pop: its beginning and our ending synonymous.

What is the God Star? Every Monitor records it differently: in song, in poetry and pictures, in words and signs and silent contemplation.

I stare.

In my chair—and it is my chair now, alone until the next Monitor comes in six months time—I stare at the God Star, the thin tendrils of my feeds sufficient to hold me in place, although I am locked and strapped as well, trying to hold it all in memory, that it might burn into my mind’s eye when my physical eyes turn away from it. But I cannot hold it. Like a dream that seems more vivid than waking yet slips away, when I break the feeds and release the restraints and leave the dome to feed and sleep and defecate, it fades and I am, always, surprised anew when I next take shift in the chair and look upon the God Star.

What is the God Star? A stitch of light holding back the dark. A well so deep that we can never draw down its depths.

What is the God Star?

The question has haunted us since first we saw it, when Aravinda Ratnayeke, contemplating the Rift and seeing it through the equations, went mad with despair and cast himself into the Rift, only to find a light where no light should be, and hope where there was none.

He was the first Monitor. He still watches, blank eyes staring up at the star from beneath the dome of Station Alpha. Do the dead dream? I suspect that if they sleep in the God Star’s light, they might.

So, after a few weeks, I start moving the gurneys from the cold store out into the dome before my observation shift, keeping them there with me through my stint; silent witnesses: Higuain, Li Po, Sikander, Adesukibe, Ishimura, Drogba, the ones who stayed. And, while they remained body and soul upon the station, I slowly realized that all the other monitors had left some of themselves behind too. In the light, under the dome, I could feel them, their presence, watching… helping.

Helping?

What does the God Star do? It shines where no star should shine. It stitches the Rift together and holds our universe in being.

It lives. It lives as light and we, its watchers, its monitors, enter its light and lay our service upon it.

What do I see when I look upon the God Star?

I see a person holding together the rip in space and time that would tear us apart. I see its—his—agony; I see his resolve.

And I would help.

Slowly, they tell me. My predecessors. The Monitors before me; those still here whole and those in part. They show me how to help, as they helped too.

Of course, I am mad. I realize this. In my off-watches, sweating, shaking, curled up and naked, hidden deep within the station, I know I am mad. The feeds must tell the story, they must know, surely, the Watchers, they who monitor the Monitors. Curled, fetal, I believe they will send a replacement, take me away from this place.

But they say nothing. No one comes. And where, once, six months yawned as an unbridgeable chasm of loneliness, now it is almost crossed and the Shingawa will be heading towards my station, carrying the next Monitor, nervous, excited, expectant.

Of course, he, almost certainly a man this time, will at some level expect to be the one to solve the mystery of the God Star—I know, I did. But it is beyond me.

They don’t expect me to come back.

I know that.

The Watchers have read my reports. They have seen my feeds. They have watched me laboriously move the gurneys in and out of the cold store each day. From the scuff marks and scratches on them, I am not the first.

I don’t expect to come back.

But when the Shingawa docks with the station and hails me, I am waiting.

Beneath the light of the God Star, under the Rift, there is still what is right, what is appropriate.

*

“Don’t die here.”

The new Monitor, Naqib, looks at me with the same mixture of surprise and suspicion with which I must have surveyed Monitor Higuain. But, unlike me, he says nothing.

“Don’t stay here if you ever want to go home.”

Monitor Naqib nods. “Is that your briefing, Monitor?”

I turn away. My records—my notes, papers, poems—are ready. There is not much of them: little to show for six months on station. I am ready.

“The Shingawa is ready,” says Monitor Naqib.

I nod. A new protocol. Shortened handovers. No champagne. They need not have worried. I will leave aboard the Shingawa.

And as I step aboard the shuttle that will carry me to the Shingawa, I hear my soul whisper its goodbye. Of course, it is staying on station.

I go forth, a hollow thing, and I do not look back.

Later, when Monitor Naqib straps himself into the chair for the first time, my soul is there, with him, with the others.

 

Copyright 2018 by Edoardo Albert