“It’s okay, Ground Control. I know you did everything you could.”
Charles sat at his desk, staring at the blank screen. Nobody said a word. There was a slight hissing of static. He swallowed hard, and there was an audible click in his throat. His mouth was dry. His heart was thudding intensely in his chest. Charles felt as if someone had fastened a belt around his torso and was gradually pulling 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 dimly aware that Stan was crying as he spoke. He could feel the hot tears trickling down his own cheeks. It felt as if his heart was lodged 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. He felt the room spin around him, as if he’d just been clocked in the jaw by a solid right hook. Charles placed his sweaty hands on the polished dark wood of the desk, palms down, just to make sure he didn’t lose his balance and go sliding off his chair onto the floor. The table beneath his fingers felt cold and indifferent; the feeling simultaneously grounded him in the reality of the moment and made him feel as if he were dreaming or in a drunken stupor. This desk is really hard, he thought, madly. 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 was sobbing. Hell, they were all sobbing. 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 incredibly hot. 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, landing on his knees, not feeling a thing. The chair rolled away behind him, squeaking a little on the wheels he had been meaning to oil but had somehow never gotten around to. Sweating and shaking, he reached for the metal bin. Thank God he’d remembered to put a plastic bag inside, because the bin was made from 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 was asking if he was all right, but he wasn’t all right, he wasn’t, nothing was all right, nothing, and the room was spinning, spinning, spinning, and Charles could feel the acidic vomit 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 whistling white noise. For half a second, he thought that 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 that he had floated further away, he knew 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, spiraling out, further and further. He knew that he had approximately between six and eight hours of oxygen in his tank, depending on how well he controlled his breathing and how much physical exertion he subjected himself to. He had been on the surface of the celestial body for one hour and forty-three minutes, before the small meteoroid struck.
First man on an asteroid, he thought as flew away from the point of impact, pieces of debris scattering around him. Was it worth it? he asked himself. He knew immediately he shouldn’t have posed the question.
It was miraculous that none of the wreckage and rubble had injured him. Miraculous, if you ignored the fact that he had been jettisoned off the tiny planetoid and propelled far away from any hopes of rescue. Pete didn’t know how fast he was traveling, but he knew that it was too fast — and he was too small of an object — for any chances of being saved. He only hoped that his crew was safe from the fallout of the collision; would they be able to avoid the incoming 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, rotating not quite fast enough to cause him to blackout. He watched the changing views as he twisted through the void: stars, the sun, planets, debris, stars, the sun, planets, debris, stars, the 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. Pete thought that his tiny home planet had never looked more beautiful, even though it was only in his line of sight for a fraction of a moment.
He saw no fires or explosions as he spiraled. Pete knew that this was not a sign that his team was 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.
He spun and twisted and turned and conserved his breath. Slowly, Pete fell into a cosmic trance, glazed eyes staring out into the solar system. The celestial dance was hypnotic, like an interstellar mobile above the crib of humanity.
He was being pulled. Pulled in one direction. The sensation startled him from his reverie.
He spun and he twisted and rotated. Stars, the sun, planets, debris. What was tugging at him? He strained his eyes. Stars, the sun, planets, debris. Was he imagining it? Stars, the sun, planets, debris. No, he was not, Pete was sure of it. There was a definite sensation of being reigned in. But by what? Stars, the sun, planets, debris, stars, the 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 he’d just been punched in the gut.
His thoughts were a mixed cocktail of fear, confusion, and fascination. How did we not see it? thought Pete, only distantly aware of his own feelings. 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 just miss it — after all, most of the area surrounding it is also black. But the absence of the small yellow-white specs of distant stars gave away the gaping hole in time and space. There was also the accretion disk spinning around the gaping maw in the fabric of reality. The giant clouds of gas spun and spun around the shadow of the hole, twisting and rippling beyond recognition or cognition. It was smaller than the ones he’d studied, but now that he was facing it, Pete was astounded that it had not been observed earlier. After all, it was at the edge of their solar sys—
Pete didn’t recognize 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 planets — any 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? he thought, panic brimming in his chest. He knew that he had been propelled away 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 realization 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 get away. The thought should have terrified him, but it instead soothed him. The idea that fighting was futile allowed Pete to accept his fate; had he a chance to escape, he would have fought — as panic flooded his thoughts — until he wasted his oxygen supply and starved himself of air.
The black hole’s shadow was hungrily consuming that which span around it. But it was more than that — the objects making up the accretion disk looked hungry to be eaten. The collective rotating disk slowly fed into the hole eagerly, each portion being allowed the time to flow in and disappear.
Pete was flying 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 was beginning to lose its rigidity.
The astronaut allowed himself to be guided on a fast track through the shadow’s surrounding disk of orbiting materials; he was the guest of honor at this party of extinction. He looked down at his hands and saw the light being distorted and drained away, into the abyss. Pete knew that if someone were observing the phenomenon, they would not see him, attired in his spacesuit of white. No light would be escaping the rounded clutches of the infinite shadow.
Event horizon, he thought, as his brain was sliced 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 felt himself being torn in two. But that wasn’t entirely right. He was becoming two. Simultaneously. He felt it. But the two Petes shared different fates. He was both, and somehow, he was neither. One Pete was incinerated instantaneously — torn apart and shredded into annihilation. It happened so quickly that 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 an entirely different Pete, either. He felt like a drop of rainwater that had finally joined the ocean; still water, essentially — if you ignored the salt — but ultimately 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 he noticed was that 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 was floating in nothing. Pete was also the nothingness. He was the vacuum in which he sailed. He was the darkness that surrounded him. The nothingness was overwhelming. 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, like a roaring 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 new-Pete was unconcerned with. Bits and pieces, here and there, began circling the throbbing star.
One of the worlds spinning around the burning ball of gas was thirsty, so the post-Pete-being gave it water. It looked blue and sparkling, 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 closely guarded secrets which I will not spill.
Pete watched as things developed, occasionally putting in a hand here and there when he so wished. Never acting too often, never interfering too infrequently. The answers came to him both immediately and after an infinity, equally from external sources and from within. Now, Pete thought and was told, and then he acted accordingly — often simultaneously with the arrival of the instructions.
Pete tended to the thriving system like a gardener to their plot — planting seeds, watering, pruning, and harvesting. He watched his creations bloom. He watched his creations wither and die. Not everything is destined for a long life, and that is okay, thought Everything, as time unfolded in every direction.
After a time, the small creatures on the tiny blue speck began sending 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 was meant to do.
Eventually, they got it right.
After a time, they began sending themselves out, too.
Following an instant and an eternity, Pete was joined by another.