And They Did Live by Watchfires, by Evan Dicken

I had a dream that was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space.
– Lord George Gordon Byron, Darkness

Art by Dominic Black: http://webtentacle.blogspot.com/ – click to enlarge

Art by Dominic Black:
http://webtentacle.blogspot.com/ – click to enlarge

The secondary hatches cycled shut, sealing the two astronauts into their tiny tomb. The low thrum of the reality furnace provided an unwavering bass accompaniment to the measured beep and whir of the machines that drained the fluid from Petra’s lungs. Grant checked the straps that bound his wife into bed one last time before engaging the jump sequence.

Petra lifted waxy fingers to touch Grant’s cheek as he adjusted the blue hospital blanket that had fallen askew during the loading routine. He knew the chill in her hand was the result of her body shunting blood away from the extremities to keep the core functioning, but it didn’t make the caress any less jarring.

He held her hand tightly, as if to will warmth into the dying flesh. Petra grimaced at the strength of Grant’s grip, stirring in the invisible cocoon the morphine drip wove around her frail body. He looked to the rear viewport, and watched the blue grey eye of Earth wink out as the reality furnace engaged. Their destination was preprogrammed, far away, but not too far. Earth didn’t want to lose contact with them, like it had with all the others.

Humanity’s brilliance had been a beacon. Outgrowing its cradle, mankind reached for the stars, spreading to nearby systems with the vicious arrogance of youth. Great minds stared into infinity, searching for answers, and finding only more questions. Just as the human race began to believe it was truly alone, a message came from afar.

It was old beyond belief, having crawled across the vastness of space at sub-light speeds. Ships traced the signal to its source, but found only fields of stone and bone, desiccated planets hanging in the starless void, cities without even the echo of life, the corpses of sprawling civilizations, their first and last message to us, which, when deciphered, was found to be only three words, repeated over and over.

Do not move.

Then, one by one, the stars went dark. Increasingly panicked communications to colony worlds met with no response. Earth focused powerful orbital telescopes on its lost children, and the observatory crews went mad, immolating the facilities and themselves in a pyre of superheated fuel plasma. Those who ventured into space were lost, the night swallowing them up as if they had never existed at all. At last, mankind could do nothing but watch as darkness flowed towards earth, drowning the stars.

Then Petra was diagnosed with lung cancer.

At first the cancer seemed dreamlike when weighed against the creeping dread of inexplicable desolation, but as weeks bled into months Petra’s agony became more real to Grant than the terrified babble of video pundits. Both she and he were among the scientists begged to examine the phenomenon, but where Grant couldn’t seem to focus on the rising tide of dark energy, Petra thought of nothing else. Even as her health failed, her dedication grew, but she’d always been zealous in the pursuit of answers, and Grant content to be carried along in her wake.

They were at Cozumel when Petra made her final request. Grant had taken her to the beach in the hopes that they could spend time away from the lab, together.

He wheeled Petra up onto the low pier at Chankanaab Beach where they first met. The ocean was deep and blue, just as he remembered it. If the laughter of the nearby sunbathers had a manic quality and the college kids playing volleyball on the white sand never looked at the sky, Grant tried not to notice.

The weather was warm, but he didn’t want to take the blanket off Petra’s legs. They ordered a bucket of Coronas–knowing they couldn’t finish it–and sat side-by-side in the wooden recliners, just as they’d done all those years ago. Grant took Petra’s hand, imagining its chill was from a recent swim in the ocean, and not the failure of her circulatory system. The crash of the ocean drowned out the hiss of the oxygen tank, and for one selfish moment Grant could pretend it had all been a dream.

“I’m not afraid to die.” Petra’s croak extinguished his waning flame of nostalgia. “I’m afraid to die senselessly.”

Grant let his Corona fall to the sand, turning to regard his wife with a pained frown. He knew what was coming, somehow from the moment Petra first spoke.

She took a while to gather her strength, and even longer to broach the topic. This was one of the things Grant loved about her. How such an intense and vigorous woman could be at times so timid with those who were close to her.

“I want to die in space.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“Yes, I am.” Petra regarded her bare feet for a moment before looking up at the sky.

Grant felt sweat prickle on his skin as a blush of angry warmth crept into his cheeks. It wasn’t fair. AIDS, Ebola, Byōji–the epidemics of the past century were but bad memories, and yet for all their victories, doctors were still helpless before cancer. It could be driven back, excised, contained, survived, but never truly beaten.

“I have a few months of pain, maybe a year of crippling weakness if I’m lucky.” Petra’s tone was curt, dismissive.

“Is it so bad? A few more months here.” Grant gestured at the beach, at the palm trees. “A few more months with me.”

“I won’t die in darkness.” Her voice was almost a whisper.

“The projections show it’ll be decades before the darkness reaches us. You can’t give up!” Grant felt horrible shouting at a dying woman, and even worse when no one stared or came over to inquire as to what was wrong. Such outbursts had become common as the dire knowledge of Earth’s impending demise took its toll.

Petra was silent for a long while. At first Grant thought she was too angry to speak, but after a moment he realized she was just fighting to breathe.

“I’m not giving up,” she said at last. “Dark energy–it composes over seventy-five percent of the universe, pulls galaxies apart, and yet it is invisible. Why is it gathering? Why here, why now? We can only observe its effects, on the stars, on the planets, on me.”

“What do you mean?” He put an arm around her, the bones of her shoulders like twigs pressing through a plastic bag.

“I can feel it. I can hear it, in here.” She brought a hand to her forehead, then lifted it to the sky. “Out there.”

“There’s nothing out there.”

“There is, I know it. You have to trust me, please.” Her words ended in a fit of weak coughing.

Grant bowed his head and waited for the Petra to stop. When he looked up her lips were bright with blood. No one who left Earth came back, but without Petra there would be nothing for him here.

It really wasn’t a choice.

He ran a hand through her wispy hair. “Alright, we’ll go, but give me this one day.”

Petra’s smile was brighter than the doomed sun.

It hadn’t been hard to get Earth’s reeling government to supply a shuttle. Thousands sat unused in the spaceports. Few wanted to leave the planet for fear of what waited for them in the deepening sky. A flurry of desperate planetary officials fell over one another to claim responsibility for another “voyage of discovery,” while other, more somber politicians stood back and let them. Neither science nor religion had provided even the barest glimmer of an answer, and there was no reason to believe this expedition would end any differently.

They didn’t ask anyone to accompany them–no doubt to the secret relief of their colleagues. When Petra took a turn for the worse, the mission date was moved to accommodate her dwindling timeline. This was somewhat of a reprieve for Grant, as it freed him from many tearful farewells with friends and family. He tried recording a message for his sister and a couple of his closest friends, but couldn’t seem to find the right words. How could the dead bid the dying farewell?

The ship jolted as the furnace began its deceleration cycle. They were beyond the Kuiper Belt, the sun a distant, flickering buoy in an ocean of endless night. Petra gasped beneath the synthox mask, body fighting for life in defiance of her will. Grant was tempted to let the machines run, to allow time for her to come out of the morphine haze and snatch one last moment from death’s grasping hands. It was a selfish thought, born of fear and loneliness.

They’d promised not to say goodbye.

Grant unhooked the machines, taking no small pleasure in silencing the rhythmic noise that had counted the tempo of his life for the past year. At last only Petra remained; one wracking, gurgling breath and she too fell silent. Grant grasped her arm, feeling for the thready pulse. Her heart grew sluggish, irregular, and then stopped.

Grant stood, fighting back tears, his eyes on the monitors. They reported no change. Petra’s body simply lay there, residual warmth bleeding into the cabin atmosphere.

He pounded a hand against the instrument console, his chest tight with loss and anger. She had been so calm, so sure that he’d almost started to believe her. What had he expected? That the cancer would just disappear, that the stars would come back and everything would be like it was?

Petra’s body jerked, straining against the heavy straps, then lay still. Grant gaped as Petra’s atrophied muscles clenched tight and the harness creaked. He couldn’t believe her frame still possessed even this marginal strength.

A series of muffled crunches startled him back a step, unsure if Petra’s brittle bones had snapped under the stress. The corpse’s head lolled back, mouth opening wide to release a flood of blood, spit, and shattered teeth. Its eyes rolled in their sockets, and came to rest on Grant. He pressed against the instrument panel, raising his hands as if to ward off her gaze.

Petra’s tongue crawled across the broken battlement of its jaw as she drew in a slow rasping breath.

“Grant, faithful even to a corpse.” The words hissed from between pale lips, expelled along with a trickle of dark fluid.

Grant moaned, eyes darting to the airlock behind the bed, searching for a way out even as his rational mind told him there was no escape.

The corpse’s visage twisted, a mix of expressions flowing across the emaciated planes of its face–confusion, fear, anger, sorrow, and finally, joy.

“Are you Petra, or something else?” His voice broke like a teenager’s.

“Both.” The corpse’s head dropped to its chest, then snapped upright.

“What’s happened to you?” he asked.

“I was changing, now I have become what I was meant to be.”

“Am I going to die out here? Are you going to kill me?”

Petra made no response.

“What’s happening to the stars? Our ships? Our colonies?”

Her broken, blood-smeared mouth opened and closed several times. “Some things can neither be understood nor explained.”

Grant frowned. “I can’t accept that. Why does life exist at all if only to be snuffed out?”

“Meaning is no prerequisite for life.” Petra’s head swayed back and forth. “Why did you come out here with me?”

“I love you,” he said without thinking. He’d used the words so many times before, as thoughtlessly as he would an angry curse after banging his hip on the countertop. Here however, circumstance imbued them with personal meaning far beyond their etymological significance.

“My discoveries, my inventions, my awards, all dust. They wouldn’t follow me, even if I asked them.” Petra stood, the torn restraints trailing behind her like silk streamers. “I see that now. There is only you, Grant.”

The blanket fell away.

Before they left Earth, they’d dressed Petra in the gown she’d worn when their molecular augur won the John Scott Award. It had been their proudest day. Striding up to the podium, arm-in-arm, giving the acceptance speech they had penned against the wild dream they would actually win.

Grant remembered looking into his wife’s eyes, seeing pride and gratitude, and knowing that even with all her genius Petra could never have done it without him.

Now, the dark fabric hung loosely on her withered frame, marred by splotches of blood that seeped through the blouse, but the look in her eyes was the same as that day.

“I won’t ask you to come with me.” Petra raised a twitching hand.

“I’ve never needed you to.” He took a hesitant step forward.

Her touch wasn’t as cold as he’d had expected, perhaps because his own hands were numb. She led him to one of the viewports, arm snaking around his shoulders to draw him close. They gazed into the roiling blackness together.

“You’re trembling,” Petra murmured into his ear.

“I’m afraid.”

“Only upon waking can we truly be sure that it was all a dream.”

“What about Earth? What about life?”

Petra drew a hand along Grant’s cheek. He could feel its chill now, but didn’t mind. “That wasn’t life. This is life.”

Grant peered into the darkness for the first time. Strange shapes stirred in the fathomless black, beings older than time, than reason.

The implications were unbelievable. Dark energy, dark matter, quintessence–many different names for the same well-worn stumbling block. For centuries theoretical physicists had struggled to explain the phenomenon, never imagining the mysterious forces that drove the universe defied mathematical quantification for the same reason as did the human mind.

They were alive.

“Where did they come from?” Grant’s mouth was dry, his tongue thick and cold.

“They were always here. We are the newcomers.”

“Why now?”

“We called to them. The wake of our passing spread ripples in the dark, like flies struggling on the surface of a still pond.”

The things shifted and turned. Bodies formed from impossible angles, their contours stretching outside of time and space.

His sanity didn’t shatter so much as drift away, like leaves carried on an autumn gale. Grant’s mind stood still, the tranquility of its silent depths unbroken by even the merest swell of thought, only the calm certainty that, at last, he and Petra were enough for each other.

The communicator beeped. A message from Earth, no doubt dispatched moments after they’d departed, only just now reaching them. Grant looked to the view screen, but the words were meaningless. He turned to answer, more out of habit than actual intent, but Petra tightened her grip on his shoulders.

“Darkness has no need of aid from you,” she said. “It is the universe.”

Grant closed his eyes, listening to the idling reality furnace. The rhythmic rumble soothed him even as darkness lapped at the outside of the ship. A gentle breeze stirred the air as the airlock cycled, ruffling their hair and wafting the salt-tang of spilled blood through the cabin.

Grant and Petra waded into the night. Tendrils of cool shadow wound around their vanishing forms. Tongueless voices rose in eldritch cadence, bidding them welcome in a chorus of wet gurgles and keening wails. Neither looked back.

The communicator beeped again, more urgently this time, but there was no one left to hear it.

Evan Dicken By day, Evan Dicken fights economic entropy for the Ohio Department of Commerce, by night he writes. His work has most recently appeared in: Daily Science Fiction, Innsmouth Magazine, and Stupefying Stories, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Chaosium, Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, and Tales of the Unanticipated. Feel free to drop by and visit him at: www.evandicken.com.

If you enjoyed this story, let Evan know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Dominic Black.

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11 responses to “And They Did Live by Watchfires, by Evan Dicken

  1. A beautifully rendered tale, which brings to mind the dark fiction of Richard Paul Russo (I’m thinking here of “Ship of Fools”). While the tropes are familiar, you’ve made them fresh and new, and I love the fact that you started it all off with the Byron poem! Brilliant in all regards, sir.

  2. Interesting concept of mysteries of the universe, and mans ignorance of warning. Dark energy/ matter that surrounds us actually takes up more space than the physical universe that we can observe.
    Interesting concepts explored, asking more questions as we learn more answers.

  3. I know some might consider it unprofessional for writers to respond to reader comments. But I can’t help myself. I just wanted to say that I appreciate your insights, and I’m very glad you enjoyed the story. Thank you all so much. As Mike said, your comments do mean a great deal to me and the other eZine authors. Thanks again!

  4. Well done. Was impossible to do anything but let the story draw me in. Touching and emotional.

  5. I enjoyed the story very much. It reminds me of the classic story by Isaac Asimov, with the central idea flipped. In that piece, the population of a planet is driven insane by the sudden appearance of the stars, and in yours, people go mad as they witness the stars going dark. I find your concept much more satisfying, and chilling.

    • I neglected, in my post, to add the name of Asimov’s story: “Nightfall.” As I recall, astronomers lock themselves in the observatory as the maddened townspeople try to batter the door down. Your having the scientists going mad and destroying their own observatories is so much better.

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