It was just last month that I counted three-hundred and sixty-four stars. Now, as the purple chill of the evening air arrived, I began my count again. It doesn’t take nearly as long. 12…13…14.
I twisted my lips as I marked the number down in my notes. It seemed to really be accelerating towards the end. Over a dozen stars had vanished from the air space since last night. The black void of the nights sky was once littered with tiny speckles of white and yellow, but now it was merely blips, like dust on an LCD screen.
It was summer, although seasons didn’t really change anymore. Every day was boundless winter. Snow fell constantly, but it was unlike the snow Earth had known. It was harsh sheets of prickly ice that cut uncovered parts with frost if left exposed.
It was an uncomfortable place to exist to say the least.
Several loud crunches of snow signaled his return from surveying the snowscape around us.
“Large fire to the North, likely Marauders,” Kleetwood barked, frost shaking off his coat as he settled beside the fire and myself.
Kleetwood’s hair was an unmistakable saffron color. The roots of his knotted hair red streaked to ombre orange by his waist.
“I don’t much like, Marauders,” he spat, ungentlemanly like.
“They’re not Marauders,” she said, not looking up from her own spot beneath the ledges of the tent. Snow was still managing to hit Ainsley in the face, “They are just survivors like the three of us.”
Ainsley talked and acted like she should have Coke-bottle glasses and her hair combed flat against her head, but reality was often less cliché. Instead, she was unusually tall, broad shouldered and had aptly earned the nickname the ‘Linebacker Scientist’ from Kleetwood.
Kleetwood was four inches her junior but his bravado compensated as if it were four feet.
“O,” Ainsley said, abbreviating my name, “If my calculations are correct, this could be the last night any of the stars are visible from the planet,” Ainsley said, bumping Kleetwood’s ribs as she walked past him.
“Then your calculations can not be afforded more time,” I said, “We must initiate the protocol now.”
Ainsley’s left eye twitched. It always did when her super-powered brain tried to process what she spent her days scribbling on paper. Kleetwood laughed deeply, shaking his head as if the past few months we had all been together were a dream he would one day awaken from.
“You said even if the stars went out I could have up to a week for final preparations,” Ainsley pleaded.
“I was untruthful,” I retorted, matching her eye twitch with a cheeky wink.
Kleetwood clapped Ainsley on the back thunderously as he chuckled, “All the calculations in the world aren’t going to save her from burning to bits in the sky.”
“They literally could,” Ainsley said, turning her full attention to the fearless brute until their voices trailed from my mind and I could only hear my inner thoughts.
I was prepared. I was ready. I was being reborn.
Kleetwood had been right to be cautious of the fire in the North. It was large enough for 20-30 people to stay alive during the night. In these times, there were likely close to 50 survivors gathered by it.
I walked out from beneath the tent, leaving Kleetwood and Ainsley bickering behind me and immediately felt the fierce bite of the eternal wind that plagued this world. The sky almost seemed frostbitten. Black, dying, cold.
The Rhinoceros, however, emanated against the black. It was 18 feet, 6 inches in height, large enough to get the job done but small enough that no one else could see it from afar. Near its gold peak, a vicious looking dagger that served as the ships beacon jetted out with an ominous purple light at its point. It looked like a horn, so Kleetwood had named it the Rhinoceros.
“O,” Kleetwood’s voice whistled in as subtly as the wind. I hadn’t even noticed the bickering had stopped in the background.
“Yes,” I said.
There was a long silence between us.
Kleetwood spoke of Marauders and bandits and crime like we lived in the old west because to him that is what the world had become. I had already been with Ainsley many months before we met Kleetwood. He was among the criminal that roamed about this fallen Earth. He could have helped his brethren destroy us, but he did not. He helped. I never asked why. Ainsley did, but Kleetwood never answered.
“Ainsley keeps saying the Rhino isn’t ready,” he said.
“It is as ready as it needs to be.”
Kleetwood smirked before looking down at the snow-covered dirt. Emotion was so fleeting on the face of brute men.
The base of the Rhino was warm enough that even that fiercest ice did not tussle with it. I reached out quickly, practiced like I had been trained too and the purple light on the horn flicked gold then green then an ultra-maroon before whirring began.
“The stars have been going out for months,” I said, unsure of why I had begun speaking at all, “It is time I bring them back.”
Ainsley appeared now from outside the tent, halfway between there and the Rhino. She looked worried and excited simultaneously, like a kitten discovering a bug on a window.
“The Rhino will serve its purpose,” I said, so Ainsley could hear me, but not diverting my attention from the ship’s operating protocol.
I didn’t need Ainsley or Kleetwood for this. But I needed them there for it.
“O, if this burns up before you…” Ainsley said, voice trailing off.
A lot of work had gone into prepping the Rhino, to determining what to do to defeat the anomaly that was cascaded over Earth. It squirmed in the sky with its’ inky black tentacles, only glimmers of what it consumed.
A frozen star that replaced our sun. The black hole of our own creation.
The Rhino blinked red three times to signify the completion of ‘Turn On’ protocol. I moved swiftly to bypass the safety in order to begin the ‘Launch’ protocol with such precision I heard Ainsley gasp.
Kleetwood placed a hand on my shoulder, I was unsure of it was comfort or encouragement. The hum of the Rhino was the only sound I could hear. We stood, the three of us together, for a brief period before I realized why Kleetwood had tried to get my attention. The great fire in the North had sparked flames. Torches could be seen moving down the forest line towards us. We had been spotted.
The mechanical whirring of the Rhino must have been carried by the wind. Normally, we were quiet and careful but the testing procedures were never as loud as actually starting to launch this thing.
Before either Ainsley or Kleetwood could protest I jammed my finger into the safety switch and began flipping other knobs and modifications next. Ainsley knew there was no stopping the initiation and thus made her way to the keyboard to run programming.
Kleetwood nodded, momentarily closed his eyes in prayer and then walked melancholy to a wooden crate forty yards from the Rhino where he withdrew weaponry to defend us if needed.
“Once I start this, O, we will need twelve minutes before you can board, clear?” Ainsley asked, not expecting an answer.
I heard the thud, shuffle and groan from Kleetwood behind as he carried whatever he needed to fend off any intruders. Even if he bought us thirty seconds, I would be grateful.
I took one last long look at the nights sky. So much emptiness out there. So much nothing. It wasn’t my destiny to bring it all back. It was my purpose.
Ainsley worked diligently on the ships computer while I prepped myself by the cockpit. When ready, I would step in, be elevated to the midship by a platform and from there would be able to maintain the ship on its relatively short journey.
“Ay,” Kleetwood’s voice boomed.
I did not have to look to know that the others had progressed significantly toward us. The look on Ainsley’s face showed that she did not think we would have enough time before the others arrived.
Wind whipped rime and snow across the air like shredded paper, yet the hum of the ship was so heavy and guttural it overpowered nature.
The platform for the Rhino beeped twice before opening for me to step onto. I quickly obliged, looking back to see 12-15 torches of light now free from the forest and marching across the snowy landscape. A single, fairly tall, masculine shadowed figure stood between myself and them.
The confined space of the Rhino’s platform was quite comforting. Even as I looked out unto the chaotic wild of the snow and fire, it was the warmest I’d felt in a long time.
“O, we are good in two,” Ainsley’s voice crackled in through the ships short range radio.
“Copy,” I replied. I had always wanted to say that.
The door to the platform would not close until the final moment. I could see out in the frozen world as the fires from the others’ torches overtook Kleetwood’s body. Was he in combat? Was he trampled by the mob? Was he dying? I couldn’t know and maybe never would.
Uncomforting shakes trembled from the bones of the spaceship as it began to dust off the cobwebs it had collected and prepared for action. The Rhino was mostly recommissioned parts that Ainsley and I had gathered over the course of years traveling together. All to stop the stars from going out.
The fire danced closer. If the mob had so quickly swallowed Kleetwood, Ainsley would only have about twice as long if they got to her.
And so, I did. The platform door snapped shut with the mechanical crunch like a turnstile on a subway platform. I felt my back hit the wall as I stumbled and once the platform started moving it was hard to tell if the platform was going up or the ship was collapsing down. It felt like an earthquake was happening all around me as the platform grinded, really struggling to ascend.
“Jiminy Christmas,” Ainsley’s static voice said, “Hold on.”
The sound of metal scraping metal was ominous and haunting. It felt like the ship was being torn apart. How the hell was it going to get off the ground?
A transcendent boom like volcanic thunder jolted me until I was fully sideways on the platform. It was followed by a soft, mousy clink as the platform stabilized into the cockpit.
“O?” Ainsley called.
“Copy,” I said, “Shaken, but not stirred.”
The static crackled, three short bursts of interference and then nothing. Was Ainsley gone now too?
I lifted myself up and pressed my face against the window. It was the only non-essential feature that Ainsley would allow and it gave me brief access into the world outside the Rhino. The torches from the Marauders / survivors were no longer flames licking trees in the distance. They were tickling the bottom of the Rhino like it was a witch’s cauldron.
Would they try and come for me next? Would they rattle the Rhino off its docking station and ruin my entire purpose?
Shimmy, shimmy and a quarter turn from the engine mechanism and the Rhino began to spark fire in retaliation. The whole iron cage started to sing as the gallons of rocket fuel ignited and burst.
Suddenly, the fires from the pillagers were doused as they scattered backward, being led away by - my insides fluttered - an overly tall, science-y linebacker of a woman. My eyes scanned the ground as two dozen human beings scrambled away from the launching rocket.
The ombre red-orange hair of Kleetwood caught my eye easily. He was looking up at me with an insane laughing smile.
The Rhino popped off the docking mechanism and was now free-standing. The inertia of the launch now thrusting the rocket upwards. It felt like being inside of an elevator to hell.
The ship wobbled, floating up like a dizzied bumble bee for several seconds before I felt the roar of its true power. Suddenly I was flying. The snow, the fires, the people became smaller but they were all safely away from the docking station now, looking up at me.
Ainsley was right. They were not Marauders. They were just humans. Survivors.
“O,” Ainsley’s voice crackled through, one last time, “Just…I…”
The static was continuous as Ainsley held her call open for several seconds without saying a word.
“I feel the same way.”
The radio shrieked and died as the atmospheric interference became to much and my contact with the ground and my friends was terminated. I would now be reliant on the very basics of tools, similar to the ones during Earth’s original Apollo missions.
The space race was a spectacle of mankind. A race of evolved primates saw a ball of light in the sky and decided to shoot themselves at it. It took endless attempts for humanity to perfect the similar short galactic flight I was undertaking.
But I am not human.
‘O.’S. Operating System.
I plugged the port of my right index finger into the ships A.I. tap field and could extrapolate the data from there. I was way off trajectory, but it was within my means of correction. The data of the Rhino felt warm to me, like blood would to a fleshling.
Simple fixes and the Rhino was on course for the frozen star as Ainsley and I had mapped.
The Rhino was forced to operate on such basic tech because the payload it was carrying needed too many resources to safeguard. There was only one way to bring the stars back to Earth and that was to destroy the black hole that we had formed.
The heat of Earth’s atmosphere turned the visual world around me hot orange but my mind was cool and collected in the digital world. All indicators on the motherboard were nominal. Well, nominal enough.
Hawk-like screeching signified the atmosphere ripping off one of the protective shields on the outside of the Rhino. Whatever, I didn’t need them much longer.
Gravity ping-ponged around, shifting my balance and spinning the Rhino in a corkscrew as it exited the atmosphere. The G-force felt sickening in my body, as I understood it.
Then nothing. Absolute freedom. The Earth below becoming a singularity and the people on it so fantastically small in comparison. The Rhino rushed, payload and all, towards the frozen star, known to humanity as a black hole.
Forty minutes and the Rhino would collide with the heart of the gravitational giant.
As the rattling cage calmed for space-flight, I internally began the countdown. It would be my last forty minutes alive. I remembered when Ainsley first activated me in her lab. I remembered when she transferred me into this bipedal body. I remember when she realized that I had experienced true artificial intelligence. My first emotion was joy.
Thirty minutes and the payload of hard-scavenged nuclear payload would collapse the black hole and myself inside of it. I remembered how Kleetwood had mentioned he had a son once. Most people got really quiet when they talked about a child they had lost. Kleetwood spoke of his son with only admiration and pride. A memory that he did not let fade, but instead cherished.
Twenty minutes and I already could feel the Rhino’s short shelf life feeling its wear and tear. It had not been smooth nor had it been clean, but the Rhino would maintain its stabilization for another two hours and I did not need it for that long.
Ten minutes and I saw a fifteenth star. One more than I had counted on the beginning of this evening. They were still out there after all. The black hole had grown so vast across Earth’s horizon it had obscured them. Hidden gems the survivors below would feast on with all the hope and determination a human could. See a light in the sky, fire some people at it.
One second and time stopped. There was a brief, brief moment, not long enough for a human mind to process, but I could. It was beautiful. There were so many stars. They shone so bright against the black sea of space. Billions, trillions of stars across the universe. Too many to count.
For one second, I could see them all. So many more than you could see from Earth. Every star that ever was, for me to gaze upon as the world around me splintered.
Ainsley, thank you.