MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THE BLUE AFTERNOON THAT LASTED FOREVER
Daniel H. Wilson
Science fiction is so intriguing because it can examine the cosmic and the infinitesimal, the future and the past, the human and the immeasurable.
Daniel H. Wilson's story does all that, in less than four thousand words.
"It's late at night, my darling. And the stars are in the sky. That means it is time for me to give you a kiss. And an Eskimo kiss. And now I will lay you down and tuck you in, nice and tight, so you stay warm all night."
This is our mantra. I think of it like the computer code I use to control deep space simulations in the laboratory. You recite the incantation and the desired program executes.
I call this one "bedtime."
Marie holds her stuffed rabbit close, in a chokehold. In the dim light, a garden of blond hair grows over her pillow. She is three years old and smiling and she smells like baby soap. Her eyes are already closed.
"I love you, honey," I say.
As a physicist, it bothers me that I find this acute feeling of love hard to quantify. I am a man who routinely deals in singularities and asymptotes. It seems like I should have the mathematical vocabulary to express these things.
Reaching for her covers, I try to tuck Marie in. I stop when I feel her warm hands close on mine. Her brown eyes are black in the shadows.
"No," she says, "I do it."
I smile until it becomes a wince.
This version of the bedtime routine is buckling around the edges, disintegrating like a heat shield on reentry. I have grown to love tucking the covers up to my daughter's chin. Feeling her cool damp hair and the reassuring lump of her body, safe in her big-girl bed. Our routine in its current incarnation has lasted one year two months. Now it must change. Again.
I hate change.
"OK," I murmur. "You're a big girl. You can do it."
Clumsily and with both hands, she yanks the covers toward her face. She looks determined. Proud to take over this task and exert her independence. Her behavior is consistent with normal child development according to the books I checked out from the library. Yet I cannot help but notice that this independence is a harbinger of constant unsettling, saddening change.
My baby is growing up.
In the last year, her body weight has increased sixteen percent. Her average sentence length has increased from seven to ten words. She has memorized the planets, the primary constellations, and the colors of the visible spectrum. Red orange yellow green blue indigo violet. These small achievements indicate that my daughter is advanced for her age, but she isn't out of the record books or into child genius territory. She's just a pretty smart kid, which doesn't surprise me. Intelligence is highly heritable.
"I saw a shooting star," she says.
"Really? What's it made of?" I ask.
"Rocks," she says.
"That's right. Make a wish, lucky girl," I reply, walking to the door.
I pause as long as I can. In the semidarkness, a stuffed bear is looking at me from a shelf. It is a papa teddy bear hugging its baby. His arms are stitched around the baby's shoulders. He will never have to let go.
"Sweet dreams," I say.
"Good night, Daddy," she says and I close the door.
The stars really are in Marie's bedroom.
Two years ago I purchased the most complex and accurate home planetarium system available. There were no American models. This one came from a Japanese company and it had to be shipped here to Austin, Texas, by special order. I also purchased an international power adapter plug, a Japanese-to-English translation book, and a guide to the major constellations.
I had a plan.
Soon after the planetarium arrived, I installed it in my bedroom. Translating the Japanese instruction booklet as best I could, I calibrated the dedicated shooting star laser, inserted the disc that held a pattern for the Northern Hemisphere, and updated the current time and season. When I was finished, I went into the living room and tapped my then-wife on the shoulder.
My goal was to create a scenario in which we could gaze at the stars together every night before we went to sleep. I am interested in astrophysics. She was interested in romantic gestures. It was my hypothesis that sleeping under the faux stars would satisfy both constraints.
Unfortunately, I failed to recall that I wear glasses and that my then-wife wore contact lenses. For the next week, we spent our evenings blinking up at a fuzzy Gaussian shotgun-spray of the Milky Way on our bedroom ceiling. Then she found the receipt for the purchase and became angry. I was ordered to return the planetarium and told that she would rather have had a new car.
That didn't seem romantic to me, but then again I'm not a domain expert.
My thin translation book did not grant me the verbal fluency necessary to negotiate a return of the product to Japan. In response, my then-wife told me to sell it on the Internet or whatever. I chose to invoke the "whatever" clause. I wrapped the planetarium carefully in its original packaging and put it into the trunk of my car. After that, I stored it in the equipment room of my laboratory at work.
Three months later, my then-wife informed me that she was leaving. She had found a job in Dallas and would try to visit Marie on the weekends but no promises. I immediately realized that this news would require massive life recalibrations. This was upsetting. I told her as such and my then-wife said that I had the emotional capacity of a robot. I decided that the observation was not a compliment. However, I did not question how my being a robot might affect my ability to parent a one-and-a-half-year-old. Contrary to her accusation, my cheeks were stinging with a sudden cold fear at the thought of losing my daughter. My then-wife must have seen the question in the surface tension of my face, because she answered it anyway.
She said that what I lacked in emotion, I made up for in structure. She said that I was a terrible husband, but a good father.
Then-wife kissed Marie on the head and left me standing in the driveway with my daughter in my arms. Marie did not cry when her mother left because she lacked the cognitive capacity to comprehend what had happened. If she had known, I think she would have been upset. Instead, my baby only grinned as her mother drove away. And because Marie was in such good spirits, I slid her into her car seat and drove us both to my laboratory. Against all regulations, I brought her into my work space. I dug through the equipment stores until I found the forbidden item.
That night, I gave my daughter the stars.
* * *
The cafeteria where I work plays the news during lunch. The television is muted but I watch it anyway. My plastic fork is halfway to my mouth when I see the eyewitness video accompanying the latest breaking news story. After that, I am not very aware of what is happening except that I am running.
I don't do that very much. Run.
In some professions, you can be called into action in an emergency. A vacationing doctor treats the victim of an accident. An off-duty pilot heads up to the cockpit to land the plane. I am not in one of those professions. I spend my days crafting supercomputer simulations so that we can understand astronomical phenomena that happened billions of years ago. That's why I am running alone. There are perhaps a dozen people in the world who could comprehend the images I have just seen on the television—my colleagues, fellow astrophysicists at research institutions scattered around the globe.
I hope they find their families in time.
The television caption said that an unexplained astronomical event has occurred. I know better than that. I am running hard because of it, my voice making a whimpering sound in the back of my throat. I scramble into my car and grip the hot steering wheel and press the accelerator to the floor. The rest of the city is still behaving normally as I weave through traffic. That won't last for long, but I'm thankful to have these few moments to slip away home.
My daughter will need me.
There is a nanny who watches Marie during the day. The nanny has brown hair and she is five feet four inches tall. She does not have a scientific mind-set but she is an artist in her spare time. When Marie was ten months old and had memorized all of her body parts (including the phalanges), I became excited about the possibilities. I gave the nanny a sheet of facts that I had compiled about the states of matter for Marie to memorize. I intentionally left off the quark-gluon plasma state and Bose-Einstein condensate and neutron-degenerate matter because I wanted to save the fun stuff for later. After three days I found the sheet of paper in the recycling bin.
I was a little upset.
Perez in the cubicle next to me said that the nanny had done me a favor. He said Marie has plenty of time to learn about those things. She needs to dream and imagine and, I don't know, finger paint. It is probably sound advice. Then again, Perez's son is five years old and at the department picnic the boy could not tell me how many miles it is to the troposphere. And he says he wants to be an astronaut. Good luck, kid.
Oh, yes. Running.
My brain required four hundred milliseconds to process the visual information coming from the cafeteria television. Eighty milliseconds for my nervous system to respond to the command to move. It is a two-minute sprint to the parking lot. Then an eight-minute drive to reach home. Whatever happens will occur in the next thirty minutes and so there is no use in warning the others.
Here is what happened.
An hour and thirty-eight minutes ago, the sky blushed red as an anomaly streaked over the Gulf of Mexico. Bystanders described it as a smear of sky and clouds, a kind of glowing reddish blur. NASA reported that it perturbed the orbital paths of all artificial satellites, including the International Space Station. It triggered tsunamis along the equator and dragged a plume of atmosphere a thousand miles into the vacuum of space. The air dispersed in low pressure but trace amounts of water vapor froze into ice droplets. On the southern horizon, I can now see a fading river of diamonds stretching into space. I don't see the moon in the sky but that doesn't mean it isn't there. Necessarily.
All of this happened within the space of thirty seconds.
This is not an unexplained astronomical event. The anomaly had no dust trail, was not radar-detectable, and it caused a tsunami.
Oh, and it turned the sky red.
Light does funny things in extreme gravity situations. When a high-mass object approaches, every photon of light that reaches our eyes must claw its way out of a powerful gravity well. Light travels at a constant speed, so instead of slowing down, the photon sacrifices energy. Its wavelength drops down the visible spectrum: violet indigo blue green yellow orange red.
I am running because only one thing could redshift our sky that much and leave us alive to wonder why our mobile phones don't work. What passed by has to have been a previously theoretical class of black hole with a relatively small planet-sized mass—compressed into a singularity potentially as small as a pinprick. Some postulate that these entities are starving black holes that have crossed intergalactic space and shrunk over the billions of years with nothing to feed on. Another theory, possibly complementary, is that they are random crumbs tossed away during the violence of the big bang.
Perez in the next cubicle said I should call them "black marbles," which is inaccurate on several fronts. In my papers, I chose instead to call them pinprick-size black holes. Although Perez and I disagreed on the issue of nomenclature, our research efforts brought consensus on one calculation: that the phenomenon would always travel in clusters.
Where there is one, more will follow.
* * *
Tornado sirens begin to wail as I careen through my suburban neighborhood. The woman on the radio just frantically reported that something has happened to Mars. The planet's crust is shattered. Astronomers are describing a large part of the planet's mass as simply missing. What's left behind is a cloud of expanding dirt and rapidly cooling magma, slowly drifting out of orbit and spreading into an elliptical arc.
She doesn't say it out loud, but it's dawning on her: we are next.
People are standing in their yards now, on the sidewalks and grass, eyes aimed upward. The sky is darkening. The wind outside the car window is whispering to itself as it gathers occasionally into a thin, reedy scream. A tidal pull of extreme gravity must be doing odd things to our weather patterns. If I had a pen and paper, I could probably work it out.
I slam on the brakes in my driveway to avoid hitting the nanny.
She is standing barefoot, holding a half-empty sippy cup of milk. Chin pointed at the sky. Stepping out of the car, I see my first pinprick-size black hole. It is a reddish dot about half the intensity of the sun, wrapped in a halo of glowing, superheated air. It isn't visibly moving so I can't estimate its trajectory. On the southern horizon, the crystallized plume of atmosphere caused by the near-miss still dissipates.
It really is beautiful.
"What is it?" asks the nanny.
"Physics," I say, going around the car and opening my trunk. "You should go home immediately."
I pull out a pair of old jumper cables and stride across the driveway. Marie is standing just inside the house, her face a pale flash behind the glass storm door. Inside, I lift my daughter off the ground. She wraps her legs around my hip and now I am running again, toys crunching under my feet, my daughter's long hair tickling my forearm. The nanny has put it into a braid. I never learned how to do that. Depending on the trajectory of the incoming mass, I may not ever have the chance.
"What did you do today?" I ask Marie.
"Played," she says.
Trying not to pant, I crack open a few windows in the house. Air pressure fluctuations are a certainty. I hope that we only have to worry about broken glass. There is no basement to hide in here, just a cookie-cutter house built on a flat slab of concrete. But the sewer main is embedded deep into the foundation. In the worst case, it will be the last thing to go.
I head to the bathroom.
"Wait here for just a second," I say, setting Marie down in the hallway. Stepping into the small bathroom, I wind up and violently kick the wall behind the toilet until the drywall collapses. Dropping to my knees, I claw out chunks of the drywall until I have exposed the main sewer line that runs behind the toilet. It is a solid steel pipe maybe six inches in diameter. With shaking hands, I shove the jumper cable around it. Then I wedge myself between the toilet and the outside wall and I sit down on the cold tile floor, the jumper cables under my armpits anchoring me to the ground. This is the safest place that I can find.
If the black hole falling toward us misses the planet, even by a few thousand miles, we may survive. If it's a direct hit, we'll share the fate of Mars. At the sonic horizon, sound won't be able to escape from it. At the event horizon, neither will light. Before that can happen we will reach a Lagrange point as the anomaly cancels out Earth's gravity. We will fall into the sky and be swallowed by that dark star.
The anomaly was never detected, so it must have come from intergalactic space. The Oort cloud is around a light year out, mostly made of comets. The Kuiper-Edgeworth belt is on the edge of the Solar System. Neither region had enough density to make the black hole visible. I wonder what we were doing when it entered our Solar System. Was I teaching Marie the names of dead planets?
"Daddy?" asks Marie.
She is standing in the bathroom doorway, eyes wide. Outside, a car engine revs as someone speeds past our house. A distant, untended door slams idiotically in the breeze. Marie's flowery dress shivers and flutters over her scratched knees in the restless calm.
"Come here, honey," I say in my most reassuring voice. "Come sit on my lap."
Hesitantly, she walks over to me. The half-open window above us is a glowing red rectangle. It whistles quietly as air is pulled through the house. I tie the greasy jumper cable cord in a painfully tight knot around my chest. I can't risk crushing her lungs, so I wrap my arms around Marie. Her arms fall naturally around my neck, hugging tight. Her breath is warm against my neck.
"Hold on to your daddy very tight," I say. "Do you understand?"
"But why?" she asks.
"Because I don't want to lose you, baby," I say and my sudden swallowed tears are salty in the back of my throat.
Whips are cracking in the distance now. I hear a scream. Screams.
A gust of wind shatters the bathroom window. I cradle Marie closer as the shards of glass are sucked out of the window frame. A last straggler rattles in place like a loose tooth. The whip cracks are emanating from loose objects that have accelerated upward past the speed of sound. The crack-crack-crack sound is thousands of sonic booms. They almost drown out the frightened cries of people who are falling into the sky. Millions must be dying this way. Billions.
"What is that?" asks Marie, voice wavering.
"It's nothing, honey. It's all right," I say, holding her to me. Her arms are rubber bands tight around my neck. The roof shingles are rustling gently, leaping into the sky like a flock of pigeons. I can't see them but it occurs to me that the direction they travel will be along the thing's incoming trajectory. I watch that rattling piece of glass that's been left behind in the window frame, my lips pressed together. It jitters and finally takes flight straight up.
A fatal trajectory. A through-and-through.
"What's happening?" Marie asks, through tears.
"It's the stars, honey," I say. "The stars are falling."
It's the most accurate explanation I can offer.
"Why?" she asks.
"Look at Daddy," I say. I feel a sudden lightness, a gentle tug pulling us upward. I lean against the cables to make sure they are still tight. "Please look at your daddy. It will be OK. Hold on tight."
Nails screech as a part of the roof frame curls away and disappears. Marie is biting her lips to keep her mouth closed and nodding as tears course over her cheeks. I have not consulted the child development books but I think she is very brave for three years old. Only three trips around the sun and now the sun is going to end. Sol will be teased apart in hundred-thousand-mile licks of flame.
"My darling," I say. "Can you tell me the name of the planet that we live on?"
"And what is the planet with a ring around it?"
"What are the rings made of?"
"Mountains of ice."
Maybe a sense of wonder is also a heritable trait.
"Are the stars—"
Something big crashes outside. The wind is shrieking now in a new way. The upper atmosphere has formed into a vortex of supersonic air molecules.
"Daddy?" screams Marie. Her lips are bright and bitten, tear ducts polishing those familiar brown eyes with saline. A quivering frown is dimpling her chin and all I can think of is how small she is compared to all this.
"Honey, it's OK. I've got you. Are the stars very big or very small?"
"Very big," she says, crying outright now. I rock her as we speak, holding her to my chest. The cables are tightening and the sewer main is a hard knuckle against my spine. Marie's static-charged hair is lifting in the fitful wind.
"You're right again. They look small, but they're very big. The stars are so very, very big."
A subsonic groan rumbles through the frame of the house. Through the missing roof I can see that trees and telephone poles and cars are tumbling silently into the red eye overhead. Their sound isn't fast enough to escape. The air in here is chilling as it thins but I can feel heat radiating down from that hungry orb.
Minutes now. Maybe seconds.
"Daddy?" Marie asks.
Her lips and eyes are tinged blue as her light passes me. I'm trying to smile for her but my lips have gone spastic. Tears are leaking out of my eyes, crawling over my temples, and dripping up into the sky. The broken walls of the house are dancing. A strange light is flowing in the quiet.
The world is made of change. People arrive and people leave. But my love for her is constant. It is a feeling that cannot be quantified because it is not a number. Love is a pattern in the chaos.
"It is very late, my darling," I say. "And the stars are in the sky."
They are so very big.
"And that means it's time for me to give you a kiss. And an Eskimo kiss."
She leans up for the kiss by habit. Her tiny nose mushing into mine.
I can't do this.
"And now I will lay you down…"
Swallow your fear. You are a good father. Have courage.
"And tuck you in, nice and tight, so you stay warm all night."
The house has gone away from us and I did not notice. The sun is a sapphire eye on the horizon. It lays gentle blue shadows over a scoured wasteland.
And a red star still falls.
"Good night, my darling."
I hold her tight as we rise together into the blackness. The view around us expands impossibly and the world outside speeds up in a trick of relativity. A chaotic mass of dust hurtles past and disappears. In our last moment together, we face a silent black curtain of space studded with infinite unwavering pinpricks of light.
We will always have the stars.
Copyright © 2014 by Ben Bova and Eric Choi