That Last Thin Shout
By Lina Rather
Iodia’s family had been watchers for generations, sentinels at the gateway to the only real hell in the universe. Her post required constant vigilance. She had taken up the red cloak at eighteen and had not left this ship since. There could be no rest—she had given herself over to the silent priests for modification so that she no longer slept and no longer blinked. Sometimes pilgrims came to stand with her, but more often she was alone.
Not today. The ship jolted as her great-niece’s shuttle docked.
As was traditional, Kekeda wore blue, the color of planets and water and the life she would leave behind if she took up Iodia’s post.
Kekeda closed the airlock, then bowed low and presented Iodia with the gift of salt and honey.
“Thank you.” Iodia took both, dipped a finger in the honey and then the salt, and pressed it to her tongue. Dry, then sweet. “Tell me why you are here.”
“I have always been quiet and steadfast as the watcher must be.” There was a choreography to this. Iodia could reject the girl and send her back down to gravity. “I have dreams of the Great Maw and the messages. I have read all the great scholars and the theoretician priests and I know the words by heart.”
“And you know there has not been more?” Iodia asked. “I have been watching since I was as young as you, and now my hair is grey and my hands cold and stiff, and I have never seen another sign. The watcher before me saw one, when she was very young. It has been five generations since any watcher saw more than that. You may not be rewarded for your service. You may go to your death having seen nothing but the darkness of the Great Maw.”
“It will still be a good death,” Kekeda said. Her voice held real awe.
Iodia pointed out the viewing port. Kekeda’s breath fogged the transparent radiation-shielding. She couldn’t see it, of course. The Great Maw was an absence. All that was visible without Iodia’s modifications was a bare crescent of warping radiation. Iodia waved her hand at the screen to the right, which drew the boundaries of the Maw in infrared, so that the novice could tell it from the softer darkness of the rest of space.
Kekeda’s breath caught. Iodia had been alone so long that the sound was like shattering glass. “That’s him, isn’t it? The messenger.”
“Yes.” Iodia did not turn. She never turned. She knew what Kekeda saw, though—the messenger a thin white line on the display, being stretched ever thinner by the gravity well inside the event horizon. “Tell me the story, if you wish to take my place.”
In the reflection on the viewing port, Iodia saw Kekeda close her eyes. “Many years ago, before the world was seeded, two explorers came from beyond this star. Lo, they found our world with its sweet water and black earth, its heat-giving geothermal vents and favorable nitrogen content. But they also found the Great Maw, which warps the very fabric of the universe, and consumes all that come close. One explorer knew to fear it, and stayed away. The other, curious, wished to feel its density. He thought he knew how close to come and still return.”
“But he reached too far,” Iodia finished. “And now he sends a message out, for his time travels differently than ours, and we wait to read his wisdom.”
The broken message was written into the wall of Iodia’s ship, in the original strange alphabet. As the Great Maw consumed the messenger, it stretched his words ever further, and his signals became further and further apart on light frequencies only Iodia’s eyes could see.
“What do you think it says?” Kekeda asked. A child’s question, but one Iodia had asked herself those many years ago when she stood beside her predecessor.
“Their language was strange, their alphabet small. Scholars cannot even agree on a meaning for some of the words, you know.” Iodia held great-niece’s hand. Her skin tingled at the connection. “Perhaps he sees the end of all things. Perhaps he has learned something fundamental about ourselves. Perhaps—”
But she stopped short for there, on the very bottom of the spectrum of radiation visible to her, was a light.
Eric had gone too far. One second he had been at the very edge of the black hole’s gravitational well, his head full of nothing but scientific possibility. The next he heard the alarm and Tamryn’s warning shout, cut off as he toppled over the edge. He ran to the porthole for all the good that would do. He ran for the thrusters and fired them even all the physics he had memorized told him it was useless.
There was no time to waste. He’d trashed so many precious seconds panicking. The longer he waited the farther apart time in here and time out there would get. Later he could think about the planet below—their planet, that they had meant to seed with their children, starting with the one in her belly now—and let the despair crash down upon him.
The radio wouldn’t work. Neither would a datastream. He ran for the lights on the front of the shuttle and switched them on and off, on and off, hoping she had waited long enough to see. T-A-M-R-Y-N, he wrote in Morse, the word stretching out hours and then days for those over the horizon. I LOVE YOU. I’M SORRY. REMEMBER ME WHEN YOU SEE THE OCEAN. Across the great divide a town rose and then a city, the earth was tilled and grew beans and a pink alien squash. Ships got faster, and humans stranger as they learned to tinker with their genes to live under strange new skies. And generation after generation, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and generations on watched for his words.