Enjoy an excerpt from Jennifer Loring’s “Witness” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.
We’ve been hopping around for light-years, chasing whichever stars still burn. Proxima Centauri first as it shifted from red to blue, the closest star to our swollen Sun; then, once it began shrinking into a white dwarf, we moved on. I spend most of my time in stasis, of course, and each time I wake up, there are fewer of us, just as there are fewer stars.
The sky beyond the windows is whitish-red. The last remnants of our galactic civilizations huddle around a red dwarf, their spacecraft silhouettes against the star’s flaring orange surface. We have to orbit so closely to draw energy from it that one year equals just six Earth-days, but stellar winds constantly bombard us; only the craft’s magnetic shields protect the ship and everything on it. There isn’t much of a galaxy left, not after the Milky Way and Andromeda crashed together millions of years ago. By then, we had long since abandoned Earth and colonized other planets. Destroyed other planets, as we had the little, once-blue world that—before the Sun went red-giant and scorched its surface, driving human life underground—was a sad gray marble outside the departing ships’ windows.
This red dwarf can burn for trillions more years, but we’ll never again set foot on planetary soil. I still exercise each day, knowing my body is shedding bone mass and muscle despite how we’ve evolved to handle long-distance space travel both technologically and physically. My digestive tract still shuts down for days at a time, which isn’t such a bad thing; our aeroponics system is running out of people to maintain the atomizers and harvest the crops, though we transfer as much as we can to long-term storage.
I think about all the people we left behind. That I left behind.
We’ll find a safe place, we’d promised them. And we’ll come back for you.
We knew as we said it that it was a lie, that only the people deemed useful would be boarding the ships to ensure the survival of our species. Even as we knew that the universe was sliding into its long, cold death. But then, everything is dying, isn’t it? Right from the moment of its birth. Something as immense as the universe is not immune to eventual demise more than anything else is.
I wake up in the twenty-fifth cosmological decade to discover that more of the crew and our precious cargo, the best of our species, asked the team on duty while I slept to sabotage their life support systems. The sky is purest black, and I’m glad we can’t see into it, even with our strongest infrared telescopes. That sky is a vast graveyard of dead stars—one hundred billion of them orbiting each other, the largest having become monstrous black holes.
When I close my eyes, I see the black corpses of stars against a bloody swath of space. I see my husband’s face and remember that, billions of years ago, our star finally burned out, leaving him to freeze to death in darkness the way our far-distant ancestors had done in caves during the Ice Age. We were supposed to have conquered all that our progenitors had feared. No one should have died in cold and darkness. And yet.
On this ship, we still have an engineer who knows how to manipulate the area around the craft so that it imitates a tachyon. This allows us to travel no slower than the speed of light, and we are now, with a dwindling number of neighbors, desperate enough to orbit a white dwarf. Again, we take energy from it but through absorbing panels, since the surface gravity is too strong for a closer approach. It’s so dark that we have to generate our own light.
I spend most of my time in aeroponics, harvesting or performing routine maintenance. Sometimes, I peek into the med bay, but almost no one goes there anymore. They simply ask someone to put them out of their misery. Why haven’t I done the same? I’m staying alive for a universe in which we were never meant to live. I suppose it’s simply that I’m stubborn enough that I need to see it through. Or I need to punish myself for abandoning someone I loved—make his frozen, blue-white face staring at the night sky, always looking for me, stop haunting my nightmares. Someone has to learn the meaning of it all. I just hope there is one.
Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has been published widely, appearing in anthologies such as Nightscript IV, Not All Monsters, Would but Time Await: An Anthology of New England Folk Horror, and Arterial Bloom, as well as online in The Literary Hatchet and City. River. Tree., among many others. Longer work includes four novels and several novellas. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction with a concentration in horror fiction. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she and her husband are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.