A STAR-STUDDED SKY
by Guy Hasson
"Five hundred thousand years ago there wasn't a star in the sky," the woman told the child. "And now look at it." The child looked up. In the center of the night sky hung an impenetrable disc of blackness, and around it countless stars were strewn. "A night full of stars ..." she whispered. "Beautiful."
The boy fixed his seven-year-old eyes on the woman and sighed the heavy sigh of the elderly. "Mother, that's not what I asked. Where's dad?"
The woman clasped the child's hand. She waited forever before finally saying, "Daddy went outside the Tunnel, little one."
"Daddy left the Tunnel?"
She bit her lips and nodded.
He looked at the upper edge of the Tunnel, only a few meters above them, the ground beyond invisible at night, and suddenly saw something he had never noticed before.
The Tunnel he knew well. It was a gigantic metal cylinder, half a kilometer in diameter that stretched downward for five kilometers. On a good day, you still couldn't see the bottom. Shelves, which clung to the vertical wall of the Tunnel and stretched four meters inward, ending with a fence, suspended at four-meter intervals above each other. Ladders that clung to the walls of the cylinder, reaching from the bottom, allowed people to travel from shelf to shelf. And now, seated as he was on the uppermost shelf, the child noticed for the first time that the ladder goes all the way up and OUT of the Tunnel!
The impossibility of the concept would not let it sink in.
But if you left the Tunnel, you died. It was the most basic fact of life. Nothing can live outside the Tunnel. Nothing.
"But isn't that dangerous?"
Again, she waited an eternity before she answered. "It's very dangerous," she said in a voice that was almost a whisper.
The child looked outside again. A few meters above him was the edge of the world. But the edge of the world did not have to be the end of the world, did it? You could climb the ladder, and ...
And if Daddy did it, maybe it was okay?
The child looked at the woman in sudden determination. "Daddy is strong. He's the strongest man there is."
"That's right. Daddy's very strong."
"He's very brave." And very stupid.
"He's coming back," he stated. "He's coming back."
"He's coming back," she tried to state it with conviction. For the child's benefit.
"WHEN is he coming back, then?"
"He said in a few hours, if everything goes well. In a few hours."
"He's coming back."
"He's coming back."
The child was deep in thought, his forehead wrinkled and twisted out of shape.
"Are there any monsters outside the Tunnel? Or animals that can eat him?"
"No," she shook her head, half amused. "There are no monsters outside the Tunnel. There are no animals at all. Nothing -- " She stopped herself before she completed her thought: Nothing survives outside the Tunnel. "Nothing."
Again, the boy fell into deep contemplation. Presently, he looked at his mother, and asked simply, "Why did he go?"
A tear formed in her eye. "I don't know, son. I don't know." Every so often, every few generations, another crazy man went outside the Tunnel, trying to prove something to himself, trying to win eternal fame, trying to find something the original explorers -- the scientists themselves! -- missed.
None ever returned. What could he find that hadn't been found in the last million years? Why was he doing it? Why was he abandoning his wife and child? What could be more important than what he has here? Does he want to die that badly? Another tear slid down her cheek. She turned her face away, and, in an attempt to justify that motion, once more turned
her gazed up at the star-studded sky and at the black disc in the center. It WAS beautiful. Someday the sky will be FULL of stars, and there will be no blackness left. And then ... then maybe the rest of humanity, if it still exists, will find a way to reach us. But not now. Certainly not because her stupid husband left the Tunnel.
"That's not true. You DO know. Why did he go?"
She smiled. He was smart, her son was. "Daddy went to find some information, little one. Maybe a way to signal other humans. Maybe get them to help us."
"I want to get them to help us. Maybe when I'm old, I'll leave the Tunnel, too?" The woman's heart missed a beat. But this was a bad time to preach to him that it was certain suicide -- not with them hoping for Daddy's safe return. Not now. She said nothing. "And maybe," the child went on. "If he doesn't come back, I'll find him and bring him back."
She looked away. She had nothing to say.
"Why do people die outside the Tunnel?"
She took a deep breath. And as she seemed to scratch an itch in her cheek, wiped her face of the tears. She looked down at her son, and said, "The Tunnel has to do with the stars in the sky, and why there weren't any stars before. It's a long story, it's the story of our ancestors. I think you're old enough to hear it now." It will pass the time. "Maybe you'll understand Daddy better." Because I sure don't! "Look up at the sky. See all those stars. Each one of those stars is like our sun and just as bright. Some are even brighter. But they're so far away that all we see is a tiny dot of light.
"Our ancestors, they came from another planet, which also had a bright sun. But that sun is so far away that we can't even see it as a tiny dot of light. And in their world, they also had a night. And their night also had stars. But it wasn't like what we're seeing now. Their sky was FULL of stars. There was no blackness like that," she pointed at the disc of nothingness. "You see, that ... that black thing ... is called a black hole. It's a very special and dangerous thing."
"More dangerous than being outside the Tunnel?"
"More dangerous than anything. When you're on a shelf and you jump up -- gravity pulls you back down. Gravity is pulling you all the time. The more mass something has and the tighter it pulls on you and the harder it is to pull away -- or to jump away -- from it. The planet has a lot of mass, enough to hold you down to a shelf, but not enough to stop you from climbing the ladders. But the black hole has so much mass inside and it's so tight together, that once you go in, you can't gather enough force ever to leave it. So if someone falls into the black hole, they can't come out. Not ever.
"Our ancestors came here to study it, but they always had to keep far enough away so they wouldn't fall into it."
"Wow ... You mean they came closer to it? Closer than we are?"
"Much, much closer. Also, what made it more dangerous and more amazing was the fact that the black hole was the size of something called a galasky."
"What's a gal- a gal- a galaksy?"
She chuckled. "Galasky, son. Galasky."
"Gala ... sky. What is that?"
"I don't know, little one. It's a scientific term. Our ancestors, they were all scientists. And they knew a lot of things we've forgotten. But I do know that a galasky is something that's very, very big and has thousands and thousands of stars in it."
"But that was the least of the reasons that our ancestors came here, to Neron Three. There was a more important reason than studying a black hole."
"What was it?"
* * *
Almost a million years before this mother-and-son talk, Captain Cassaday looked though the window in her cabin. "Dear god, that's huge," she whispered. "Not one star in the whole goddamn sky. You could just drown in it." She smiled wryly: Literally.
"Captain Cassaday?" A man's voice came out of her 'link, interrupting her thoughts.
"Yes, Mr. Hitch," she answered.
"We're receiving a transmission, Captain. It's for you."
"A transmission? From Neron Three?!" We're at the edge of their solar system, so maybe they spotted us. How could they possibly speak our language?
"Not from the planet, Captain. Back where we came from. It's from the Admiral. Admiral Cassaday." She frowned. The Admiral. Dear old dad. "It's orders," Hitch continued. "For your eyes only."
"But that would mean --"
"He sent them four years ago, Captain, that's right. At light speed. He did, after all, know we would be here."
So these are orders I'm supposed to get just as we're entering the aliens' solar system. Something he didn't have the guts to tell me before. Probably something bad.
"Well, let me hear it, Lieutenant."
The Admiral's familiar stern face appeared on the screen before Captain Cassaday. She almost saluted instinctively. She grimaced. Even after all these years alone in space ...
"Hello, Captain," he said in his usual gruff voice. "I trust you're well enough to receive this message. I would pause here for an answer, but I can't hear you, of course. Here are your orders." Captain Cassaday felt a tinge of pain. A message for my eyes only, and still all business. Damn him. "They remain the same, except for one thing. It has been decided by the Joint Chiefs that if you are attacked, or encounter any sort of hostile condition, even at the risk of your lives, you are not to use force. This is the best way to prove our peaceful intentions. I repeat. Under no circumstances are you to use any sort of force. We are willing to sacrifice you and your crew to prove our peaceful intentions. Especially to beings as technologically advanced as these. Remember, Captain. Under no circumstances! Admiral out." And the screen went black.
How typical! He used a form of communication that guaranteed no response from me. He knew I would want to argue. He knew I had arguments just as good as his to the Joint Chiefs. I could have told him to trust my judgment, a judgment that has proven itself time and time again. A judgment for which I was chosen for this mission. But, no. He never trusted my judgment, did he? And now, I have no option but to follow these orders.
Who's insane idea was this, anyway? Such a prophylactic order will probably do more harm than good. Why couldn't you have just said, 'Goodbye, daughter, die well'?
She straightened. Oh, shut up. Be a man. Be a soldier. Snap out of it.
She took a deep breath, and pushed back the pain.
But then a thought struck her, and the military mask cracked. I'm not important enough in his eyes. His career is more important. The mission, the army, everything -- except me. It's always been that way.
She fought the feelings that rose within her. Daddy wouldn't like tears. Daddy wouldn't approve. Daddy just sent you to death, darling, so to hell with him.
Again, she smiled wryly to herself: At least my death would spare him the next argument.
She needed something to do. Some petty officer to snap at. She began to head out, just as her 'link buzzed again.
"Captain!" It was Stowe, the Science Officer.
"What is it, Edith?"
"Ah -- We've just -- You'd better come up to the bridge. It's, uh, well, I think it's trouble."
Trouble. Goodie. Maybe we'll live, maybe we'll die. At least I won't think about the Admiral. "On my way, S.O." She put on her Captain's Face and hurried in quick strides to the Bridge.
Within minutes, she was there. "What is it, Edith?" The entire bridge was looking at the elderly Science Officer, who seemed anxious, but said nothing. "Science Officer?"
She made a face, then pointed at the screen. "There's this little thing that I noticed before, as Neron Three came into view from behind the fifth planet."
"What is it?"
"At the time it wasn't urgent enough, so I thought I'd gather more data before telling you --"
"What is it?"
"But now events seem to have escalated, and ..." She trailed off, embarrassed.
"Edith! What is it?!"
"Look at that." There was a dot on the screen, a tiny, blue dot.
"What am I looking at?"
"That's Neron Three, and these are the first pictures we took of it." Instantly, Cassaday recalled the basic data about Neron Three. Neron Three, the aliens' planet, was the third planet in a solar system that actually orbited a galaxy-sized black hole. It was a million-year orbit, but it was still an orbit. The physicists said that the solar system should keep this orbit for about four million years (plus or minus a hundred thousand, depending on the black hole's expansion rate), before the star system would break apart, and its sun and planets would eventually fall into the massive blackness.
"Okay," Captain Cassaday shrugged. "It looks like a dot."
"Look at that," she came to the screen and pointed at the dot.
"What? I still don't see it."
"There's a ring around the planet."
"A ring?" Captain Cassaday echoed.
"Like Saturn. A ring."
Step by slow step, Captain approached the screen and squinted at the blue dot. It still looked like a dot.
"Here's the digital amplification. On screen." The dot turned into an orb. A ring surrounded the planet. "Told you. Always trust these old eyes," she told the captain.
"Umm ... Correct me if my memory fails me, S.O., but I don't remember there being a ring around the planet in any of the pictures we've seen so far."
"You're absolutely right."
"Were the pictures not magnified enough?"
"Are you kidding? They had better magnification than this."
"So ... What? Could it be the wrong planet?"
"No." She was angry at the thought that she could make such an amateurish mistake. "That's it, all right. Right where it should be."
"So where did it come from?"
"Three options: They either built it, or --" she hesitated.
"Or the planet grew one," she shrugged.
"So they built it."
"Yup. Our latest pictures of Neron Three are from ten years ago. They built a ring around their planet in ten years."
"Hmm... Well, that's -- That's amazing. We already knew that these aliens can build star-sized constructs," said the Captain. "I mean, look at whatever they're building near the Epstein System: That goddamn square metal plate is already ten light-years in length and height, and it doesn't seem like they're anywhere close to finishing it. This is just one more thing they built, one more thing to study. What does this tell you?"
"It tells me that these aliens are busy people. They're building SOMETHING. Like that ten-light-year-long square plate. Like the ring. They're constructing something galactic in scale, and we're walking into the middle of it. Either we'll be no bother because they're so big and we're just flies, or they'll swat us. Which brings me to the third option."
"Well, yes ... The third option is actually the truth."
"What is it?"
"I missed it because I was not thinking on a galactic scale."
"What is it?"
"And I only realized that, you see, when I saw --"
"S.O. --!" Her voice was threatening.
"Look at this. This started twenty minutes ago."
The picture on the screen changed. The planet was the same planet. But the ring ... Captain Cassaday had to squint again. The ring ... It seemed to be... dissipating?!
"And this is the way it looked ten minutes ago."
There was less ring now, and more dots.
"The ring," the Science Officer said. "It's breaking up."
"But what can ... ? What ... ? How?"
"See all those dots-that-used-to-be-the-ring?" The Captain nodded.
"They're coming straight towards us. At breakneck acceleration."
"Breakneck is putting it mildly. They're going to be at half the speed of light within two minutes."
"WHAT?!" Her eyes went wide. "Explanation?"
"They're spaceships, Captain. That 'ring' was not a construct. It was made up of hundreds of thousands of ships. Perhaps even millions. There were so many of them, that when they orbited the planet together, they looked like a ring from this distance. Imagine how many ships, and what it takes to ... In any case, they're all coming at us."
"At ... Us?"
"At us." The S.O. nodded, and suddenly the Captain understood the glint in her eyes for what it truly was: Panic.
"Speculation," her tone became commanding. It was time to take charge. "What are they doing?"
"Since they're coming straight at us, I can only assume that they're going to swat some flies."
"Something more constructive, please."
The S.O. shook her head. Captain Cassaday looked around the bridge. Everyone looked at her wide-eyed.
Everyone's in panic. It's up to me. "All right, then," she said calmly, as she sat in her chair. "They obviously know we're here. Just means we're going to have to do this earlier rather than later. Hitch, send the prepared greeting messages. All frequencies."
The young Lieutenant turned around and began to work. Good.
"Done," he said.
"Good. Science Officer, how long till the signals reach them?"
"Keeping in mind that the images we see are already seven minutes old, and that their speed is a quarter the speed of light, five minutes. But since they're still accelerating, maybe less."
"Fine," the Captain leaned back. "Till then, we wait. Keep sending the message, Mr. Hitch. Give them time to decrypt our scientists' simple language codes."
"And, S.O., keep them on the viewer. Let's see if we can learn something, as they come closer."
Three minutes passed in tense silence, staring at the screen. The alien ships had achieved half the light of speed when they stopped accelerating.
"Dear god," the S.O. said. "That's a SWARM!"
"What, S.O.?!" Captain Cassaday turned to face her. "I didn't hear that."
"Sure sounded like nothing," the Captain muttered, and turned around.
There was silence for a few more seconds, when Mr. Hitch said, "Our message should have reached them by now."
"It's too early. Keep sending. Inform me of anything. How long till they reach us?"
"Have you thought that maybe they don't actually need to reach us?" Edith Stowe offered in pessimistic tones.
"What? Explain yourself."
"Well, if they have any weapons -- lasers, that sort of thing -- they might use them long before they reach us. If we see the lasers, it will already be too late. I think it's time to talk about defending ourselves. Preparing to fight back."
"No," Captain Cassaday said. "We give them time to analyze our message. Take no action that seems offensive. Keep us on course."
Another minute passed. The millions of ships that came toward them filled the screen, and blotted out everything behind them.
"Oh, my god. Oh, my god... " The S.O. was losing control, as on the screen each individual ship grew larger by the second.
"Edith, control yourself."
"We need to protect ourselves! We can't win, but we can't go down without making them bleed! We can't let them kill us without a fight!!"
Captain Cassaday's face twisted in rage. "We do NOTHING! Is that understood? NOTHING!!!"
"Thirty seconds to contact." Hitch informed the Captain. "They're not decelerating."
With a calmer voice, Captain Cassaday said, "Do nothing. We're here on a peaceful mission, and we're going to prove it. Do nothing."
"Okay. Do nothing, Lieutenant."
"That guy," the S.O. pointed at a certain ship on the screen. "He's going to impact us."
"Do nothing. We will not attack."
"We will NOT attack!"
Captain Cassaday wiped sweat from her forehead, and put on her Captain's Face. Here's to you, father. You wanted this.
"Stop counting, Lieutenant."
"One. Zerrrrrrrrrrr--" the young Lieutenant turned around, as he realized that he was still alive. "--rrrrro."
Captain Cassaday looked around in bewilderment. "S.O.! What just happened?"
"Um ... Wait ..." As the S.O. bent over her instruments, the screen continued to show the veritable swarm -- thousands of spaceships passing them from all directions. It was like being in the middle of a field of bees. "They're all passing us, obviously."
"The one who was going to impact us?"
"Veered off at the last second. Probably to avoid us. The force it takes at that speed to change direction --" The S.O. was shaking her head.
"Forget the technology. What does it mean?"
"That (a) they're aware of us; (b) they don't mean to kill us yet; and (c) we're not their destination, we're probably just in the way."
The Captain got off her chair and stood up. She was riding the death adrenaline. "So where ARE they heading?"
"Hold on ..." Again, she bent over instrumentation. "The black hole. They're heading toward the black hole!"
"Show me. On screen." The image changed, and now the swarm was seen to move away from them. "Well, let's assume they're not planning to go INTO it.
Is there anything special that coincides with their vector?"
"Actually, maybe they ARE going inside it. I mean, that won't necessarily be a suicide mission. One could certainly live inside that, you just can't leave and you can't communicate with the outside world. But in a black hole this big there may be entire solar systems fully intact and maybe even supporting life on the other side of the event horizon. As far as those left behind are concerned -- it's suicide. Hmm ... Look at that."
"Look at what?"
"There," the image changed and she pointed at a spot on the screen that was now entirely black.
"What am I looking at? There's nothing there."
"But there is. I would never have found them if I hadn't known where to look."
"S.O.! Found WHAT?!"
She pressed a button. "Look at this. Millions of ships. Already over there. They're coasting right outside the edge of the black hole's event horizon."
"Why? What are they doing?"
"Oh, my god. Full magnification. You're not going to believe this."
"They're dumping things into the black hole. Things as small as grain."
"Millions of ships dropping what seems to be dust into the black hole."
"Probably not dust. I don't know what it is, but I can tell you what it looks like. It looks like they're seeding the black hole!"
* * *
"The seeding of the black hole continued for tens of thousands of years," the mother said.
The child tugged at her shirt. He was getting restless. "What does all this have to do with Daddy?"
"Imagine," she continued, as if she had not heard him. "Millions of ships seeding a black hole for tens of thousands of years, every minute of every day without stop. Half of them seeding, as half of them replenished whatever they carried."
"Our ancestors came close, studied the phenomenon -- some even fell into the black hole by accident. But the seeding continued, and the aliens -- which we eventually called Nerons -- ignored us all the while."
"Mother, what does this --"
"The only times they did not ignore us were when, in a different sector of space, the human ships approached the massive square construction the aliens were building. Then the aliens made it clear that anyone approaching the construction will be killed. Our scientist ancestors could only observe it from afar, gather data, and watch giants construct an unknown machine."
"But mother --!"
"Eventually, our ancestors settled on Neron Three," she emphasized the last two words. The child bit his lip: the connection; at last. "And observed the Nerons as they went about their business.
"Slowly, they discovered that the aliens were seeding the black hole with something called 'charged particles'. And they thought they understood the aliens. Using charged particles, you can give a black hole something called a 'charge' and using that charge you can MOVE a black hole. But it turned out that that was not their plan.
"Because, after more than a hundred thousand years of seeding the black hole, the aliens simply vanished. All their people and all their animals were herded into massive ships, which flew out of and away from the galasky.
They stopped working on the construction, and they stopped seeding. They just vanished into the unknown depths of space."
"Where did they go?" The child was interested, despite himself.
"No one knows. We tried to chase them, but our ships were too slow, and we lost them. We were left alone, here, to examine undisturbed what remained of their planet. And then, one day, it happened."
"What happened, Mother?"
"We became alone in the universe."
* * *
His father had died when Charles Neesam was eight. The death of a hero. And here Charles was, also a member of the fleet, in charge of a weaponless barge, hauling food to Neron Three. Oh, yeah. Big hero.
Charles turned around on his bed, and looked into the starry sky through his cabin window. For the thousandth time, he bitterly thought that this was not what he had expected out of his life.
This was all his mother's fault. She doesn't get it. He was just as much a hero as his father. He was as brave, as strong, and as smart as his father ever was. But how could he prove it, with this job? After his father had died and received three posthumous medals, she had made Charles promise that he would not die on duty, that he wouldn't take anything dangerous. No space, no military, no flights -- nothing. Finally, they came to agreement. He wouldn't take anything dangerous. Besides, now that the Nerons were gone, and on the other side of the galaxy we had signed a peace treaty with the Zentals, we had no one to fight. The risk of military life had diminished into nothing.
God, he longed for some action. A battle. A chance to be a hero.
A massive creaking sound stirred his bed. It appeared to have come from beneath him. He sat up bolt upright. What the --?
He pressed a button on his wrist-com. "Mr. Lee, did something just hit the hull?"
"No, sir. Our field prevents any such -- Hold on." He was put on hold for a second. Then: "Sir, I'm getting similar questions from all over the ship."
"Is it a meteor shower?"
"No, sir. It isn't. Whatever it is -- we haven't been hit by anything. All sensors confirm. Sir, I think something's happening to the hull."
"Are we under attack?" An attack would be nice, if we had any weapons.
"I don't think so, Sir."
There it was again, a massive creaking sound and the floor seemed to move beneath him. But that couldn't be -- He looked down. The floor in the middle of the cabin was bent a few centimeters downward. Suddenly, his own room did not seem to be the place to be. "Lieutenant, something's happening to the floor in my room. I'm coming to the bridge. By the time I get there, you'd better tell me what's going on."
Captain Neesam ran out of his cabin, sealing the door behind him. Fear ran through him. Massive, paralyzing fear. He should be commanding, he should be leading, but all he seemed to feel was fear. It was probably because this wasn't a battle. There were no enemies to fight. What good is courage when your ship breaks apart in space?
He reached the bridge quickly. Mr. Lee was at the helm.
"What's the status, Lieutenant?"
"Sir. We're changing course."
"Changing course? I gave no orders. Why did you --"
"I didn't, sir. We're changing course, nonetheless." Captain Neesam looked over his shoulder. "My instruments are going crazy, Captain. We're not being pulled, we're not being pushed. Nothing is touching us."
"Give me your best guess, then."
"Look at the gauges here. It's something magnetic. I would guess we're inside a magnetic field of some kind. But it would have to be powerful on a scale I can't imagi -- Oh, my." A massive roar sounded through them, and the floor groaned.
"What?" He couldn't keep the fear from his voice.
"The intensity of the magnetic field just quadrupled. And -- Oh, dear lord ..." he whispered. "The food tanks just got ripped off our ship. If this goes on, the entire ship will be torn apart, Captain."
"Turn us around, full acceleration away from the magnetic field."
"Yes, Sir. Oh, damn!"
"The magnetic field just quadrupled again, Sir. It's growing exponentially. Our engines can't fight this."
"Well, then --"
"Sir, nothing in this ship is going to survive for very long with this kind of pressure. What do you want to do?"
What to do? He couldn't think. There were noises everywhere. It sounded like a haunted house. He felt his wristcom pull his hand toward the creaking hull. If this continued for a minute or two more, they would all die. What could he do? There was nothing to do except, except, except -- He couldn't come up with an idea. He needed time!.
"The magnetic force just quadrupled again, Sir."
"I -- I -- I -- " Suddenly everything inside his head began to swim. Perhaps the magnetic field was affecting that, too. "Get us --" But that was all he had to say before the ship was rent like foil into countless pieces, and the Captain and the crew were thrust into space.
His last thought was that he would get no medals for this.
Two hundred years later, the debris from his ship and what remained of the bodies of the crew, their speed now deceptively close to the speed of light, slammed against the mysterious, square alien construction and smashed to bits.
* * *
"The massive square object, the 'Wall', is a magnet," the woman told the child. "It is a gigantic magnet, fifty light-years across and fifty light-years in height. Ships couldn't come within light years of us, because they would be overtaken by the Wall's magnetic field. They would be crushed and carried toward the Wall until they died."
"Mother, what's a magnet?"
"A magnet is something that pulls on everything that's made of metal or iron and things like that. And ships are made of exactly that.
"But what happened to the ships in space was nothing compared to what happened here, on the surface of our planet when the Wall was activated. Suddenly, everything made out of any kind of metal flew against the ceiling or up the sky. Watches, computers, everything mechanical began to get a life of its own. A few people began to get dizzy. But there wasn't panic yet. Within minutes, as the magnetic field intensified, the objects which had until now rested against walls began to pierce their way through them.
"And that was just the beginning. Some of the people who wore metal objects around themselves began to fly into the sky as well. Some slammed into walls, and were trying to insinuate their way through the wall. It was gruesome.
"People began to lose all sense of balance and direction and were unable to move properly. People tried to hide everywhere. But there was no escape from this force. And as the minutes passed, the threat became bigger. Homes and facilities tore themselves away from the planet and disappeared in the clouds. Some people began to bleed inexplicably. Some died.
"Only one place was a sanctuary -- this place. The place that would later be called the Tunnel. But only four people had reached it. They saw that whatever was happening outside was not happening inside the Tunnel. They realized that if this went on for a few more minutes, all humans on Neron Three would die. And if only they remained, there could be no serious future for their descendants. There were simply not enough people to create a future.
"A man called Samuel Parker took matters into his own hands. In a brave and foolish attempt, he left the safety of the Tunnel and ran out into the streets, shouting at people that there is a sanctuary, and pointing where to run. Within minutes, a stream of people began to enter. Within a few more minutes, however, the stream slowed to a trickle, and the people who did come were dying. Some died during the next few hours. The unlucky ones died a couple of days later. Samuel Parker never returned. To his dying breath, he kept calling for people. He died on the street. But he had preserved our society. Two hundred people, a mere drop of the planet's inhabitants at the time, had come into the Tunnel thanks to him. Thanks to him they could create a society that had lasted to this very day."
"But mother, what was the Tunnel if it wasn't a Tunnel?"
"The Tunnel used to be a weapon. A huge cannon embedded within the ground that was meant to shoot energy toward the stars. It had been deactivated and obsolete long before the humans settled on this planet. But it was still here, and its core, whatever it was that created its energy, still vibrates at the bottom of the Tunnel, creating some heat. The heat is only a fraction of its normal strength, but it gives us the energy and warmth we need to survive."
"But why does the Tunnel protect us? Its walls are metal, aren't they?"
"Well, yes, the Scientists that first came here said that it IS made of metal, that that's what's keeping the magnetic field out. That and its cylindrical shape. I do not understand how this can be, but that is what they said. And they had much more knowledge than we do.
"That's why, nine hundred thousand years ago, we lost all contact with humankind. No one could come. No one could leave. And no one could communicate -- because the only form of communication that could work could not be activated inside the Tunnel. And outside ..."
"Outside people die," the child said, his face somber and reflective.
The woman took a deep breath, and looked up at the stars. "At first," she said, "the scientists were certain that the planet itself would leave its sun and eventually slam against the Wall -- because, beneath the lava, the core of the planet was made of iron. But this solar system never broke. At the time no one knew why."
"Why did the Nerons turn on the Wall? Why did they create it?"
"In the beginning, people thought it was meant to push the black hole toward it, to move it, perhaps so the solar system would have a better chance of surviving. But hundreds of thousands of years later -- even though the black hole had been seeded with charged particles -- the black hole hadn't moved a bit. None of our people here could understand it. Not then.
But then, five hundred thousand years ago, the Wall's intention was made clear."
"The impossible happened."
* * *
"Mother," the child whined. "That's not what I asked. Where did daddy go?"
"Daddy went outside the Tunnel, little one."
"Daddy went OUTSIDE the Tunnel?"
"Yes, he did."
"But that's dangerous!"
"But it's also important, and remember that daddy knows best. He's doing it for the rest of us. He hopes to prove something to the Freedom Cult. He hopes to find out whether humanity is signaling us from afar, using some of the old Scientists' machines.
"Meanwhile, I'll tell you about the sky. You know, this is almost the only place in ALL the universe that has a really dark night."
"Really? Don't they have a night?"
"Oh, they do. But where our ancestors come from -- the night sky isn't that dark at all. Stories say that they have small dots of light in the night sky -- and that each dot is a sun that's so amazingly far away that all you can see is just a small dot. At night, they see hundreds of stars in the sky."
"Then why don't we have any suns in the sky?"
"Because of the black hole," she pointed up. The sky was completely dark, as it always was. "The black hole is so big it blocks our entire view. No one can see through a black hole, so we can't see the stars behind it. That's why our sky is black."
He looked up, and suddenly, something seemed to flicker in and out of existence. "Mother, what's that?"
"What?" And she looked up. "I don't know." The two of them looked up for five minutes. Finally the light stabilized. And it remained there. A solitary light in the sky.
"I don't know. Maybe it's a satellite. Maybe our human ancestors are returning!"
"Look! There's another!" He pointed at the other side of the sky. Just at the corner, almost out of sight, another point of light seemed to sparkle into being. "And another!" In another corner at the edge of the night sky. "And another!"
"Oh," she said and her voice fell into a whisper. "I know what those things are! In the name of Parker ... They're stars! There are stars in the sky!" She held her child closely, pressing him against her bosom. "THERE ARE STARS IN THE SKY!!"
The two of them stared up at the three stars, open-mouthed.
"Did daddy bring those stars, mother?"
* * *
"The black hole was shrinking," the mother told the child. "And suddenly there were stars in the sky.
"There wasn't just one Wall. There had to be at least one other Wall on the other side of the black hole, a place never explored at the time by humanity. You see, there had to be another magnet pushing with equal strength in the opposite direction!" The cult of our scientists came up with a theory that explained what happened. If you could pull on a black hole using a magnetic field, they said, that meant that the magnetic field PENETRATED the black hole. Which meant the people on the outside could influence things inside.
"You see, everybody is usually so overwhelmed by the strength of the gravity of a black hole that they forget there's something more powerful. But the truth is that electromagnetic energy is billions of times MORE powerful than gravity! Which means you can counteract gravity using a big enough magnet -- and it doesn't even have to be as big as the black hole."
"The Seeding had made sure that everything within the black hole could be influenced by a magnet. And the Walls were pulling everything inside APART!
It probably can't pull on the center, because reality loses some of its rules that deep into a black hole. But reality exists outside the center, where, in a black hole that big, there are probably many stars and planets. And the Walls could pull them, and slowly increase the radius of the black hole.
"See, for a black hole, the radius is everything.
"A black hole means that the velocity required to leave it -- its ESCAPE velocity -- is greater than the speed of light, and nothing can go THAT fast, so nothing escapes. But the escape velocity is a function of not only the mass of the black hole, but also the radius! And if you make the radius of the inside of the black hole significantly bigger, drawing more mass apart, you make the black hole SMALLER! It took nearly four hundred thousand years for the first results to show. But ever since, a few stars kept appearing every ten or so years, stars that had been behind the black hole, and could never have been seen before. And we think that some of the stars are stars which had once been INSIDE the black hole!
"The two Walls are also why the solar system never broke up, and why Neron never smashed against the Wall. The Nerons positioned the Walls in such a way that this solar system was in the middle, and probably made sure that there would be small fluctuations, sometimes from this Wall, sometimes from the other one, that kept the planet in orbit. Our scientists do not know how they did it, but they claim that it had been done nonetheless."
"Hey, waiting for me?" A man's voice came out of nowhere.
The child saw the source of the voice first. "Daddy!" A man's face peered at them from the top of the Tunnel.
The woman yelled out a shriek of surprise. "You're alive!"
"Oh, I'm alive, all right." He stood atop the Tunnel edge, not making a move toward safety.
"Well, come into the Tunnel! Before something happens to you!"
"Nothing is going to happen to me."
"Come in! I can't believe you're alive! Come in!!!"
"You won't believe what I found," the man said, ignoring her. "Look at this," and he gestured to his side.
Another face appeared: a young man, a head shorter than him, all smiles.
The woman yelled in panic and took two steps back. She knew all the people in the Tunnel. He was not one of them! And he was wearing strange, green clothes. "What --! What --! How?"
"He's from Earth," her husband said. "Our ancestors are back, darling. They're back!"
"But the Wall --!"
"The magnet," the new person volunteered, "has stopped working a hundred years ago, ma'am."
"They just landed!" Daddy said excitingly. "The first humans in more than eight hundred thousand years! We can all come out of the Tunnel! It's not dangerous anymore!"
"What?" It was impossible.
"Look! They speak a different language now. This man, he has a special device. It translates everything we say into his language and everything he says into ours. I had to talk to him a lot before it did so -- but now it's just like he speaks our language!"
"The Wall isn't working?"
"No ma'am. And the Nerons, the aliens, they're back, too. They're massing at the edge of what remains of the black hole."
"They are," he smiled, a charming smile. "And we're glad to see some humans survived!"
"So what are they going to do? What's going to happen now?"
"Now? I guess we'll finally find out what was in the black hole," he pointed up at the star-studded sky, "that they wanted so badly."
Story copyright 2001 by Guy Hasson firstname.lastname@example.org
Ilustration copyright 2001 by Romeo Esparrago email@example.com
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