Last Journey to a Star
The signal stirred Silvana suddenly into awareness in the dim interior of the ship. There was the red of the forward sensor, glowing faintly to the right of its portal. Angus tended it as usual, the throb of the glow bouncing off his angular cheekbones. Through the port, still far ahead down the endless dark corridor of night, a single point of reddish light shone dimly. Silvana rolled her facets and looked out the rear port. There was nothing back there now, maybe the faintest suggestion of light, but no, really nothing. The rear sensor was dead.
“It went? When did it go away? Why didn’t you activate me?”
Angus shrugged mentally, and she felt the electric signal, so familiar from him. He spoke, and his speech, like hers, consisted of electrical impulses. While he spoke, he continued to tend the energy sensor, opening and shutting circuits, all by electrical impulse, his face as fixed towards the machine as that was fixed towards the red dot that still lay far ahead of them. “Three cycles ago. It imploded, right on schedule. Arnhelm was on the rear sensor. He closed the port for the mass release. It hit, and we’re riding the momentum. Then he took the side sensors, your sensors, and steered. But he was beat and deactivated. You’ve been out for quite a while; time you got back on the helm. Take some fixes on the side stars and steer; we’re veering a little off-course.”
Silvana got on the side sensors. “Well, I would have liked to have seen it go. It was our star.” There was an almost wistful undertone to her current: she all but sighed.
She knew what he would pulse next, and he pulsed it: “Waste of energy.”
In the rear corner of the ship to the left, in the deeper shadows, Arnhelm lay still and silent. Silvana surveyed his angular form for a couple of moments, then sent Angus an inquiry.
“Last cycle. He’s all right, just done in. Let him lay, let him lay.” Angus relapsed into a sort of sing-song, his usually silent accompaniment to his lone vigil at the forward port. He was the forward sensor, and hadn’t deactivated since they’d started, how many cycles ago? “He may as well save energy. Rear sensor’s useless now, no more energy back there. I’ve reopened the port, but you can see for yourself it’s dark.”
Silvana wanted to say “I could spell you for a while,” but she knew it was useless. In a way, he was the forward sensor.
Angus seemed to have heard her thought. “He can spell you on the helm in a cycle or two.” Could he read her private circuit? She decided he couldn’t, he was just pulsing. Flushed with the reddish glow of the forward sensor, he pulsed to them all the time, pulsing silently to himself when they were out.
Silvana got her fixes on the side star and adjusted the side sensors to pick up minute packets of energy so they could steer, stay on course. The ship was polygonal forward and aft but cylindrical amidships, with two series of side sensors set on separate rolling tracks that circled the cylinder like calibration rings. These were useful in the days when there were a number of stars scattered here and there and the sensors needed to be flexibly repositioned to pick up their radiation. Now there was a red eye overhead and another below, down to the right. Silvana hadn’t revolved the sensor rings after the first few cycles of their journey, only making slight adjustments.
They grew silent, forward and side sensor mesmerized by the red dot in the forward distance. Arnhelm stayed out in his dark corner, an amber light flickering there to indicate he was receiving energy from the forward sensor. So strange to see him so silent, Silvana thought. Arnhelm was usually full of questions, but Angus always cut him short.
“Not enough energy for memory now,” Angus reproved him. “Time will tell. Wait till we get there.”
Angus didn’t have to indicate the star far ahead of them. They all knew what there meant: abundant energy again, reawakening long-term memory circuits too wasteful to use now. But Arnhelm switched them on from time to time, just for a moment here and there, and of course this multiplied his questions. Had they been with the old star long? Were there really more stars at one time? And as he asked, he kept looking at Silvana, as though she had the answer.
“No more questions,” said Angus. “Waste of energy.” Perhaps he alone remembered, sitting at the forward sensor for thirty or more cycles now, always with the greatest share of forward energy from there. But if he did, he wasn’t pulsing.
A few cycles passed this way, in the quiet dark, Arnhelm and Silvana trading shifts on the helm but pulsing little. Then, shortly after Arnhelm went out again and she was taking a fix on the overhead star, it suddenly changed. There was a short burst of reddish light – Silvana hastily closed the overhead sensors – and then it reversed and sucked itself into darkness. The ship veered a little below its course, but opening extra sensors towards the remaining eye – the one below and to the right – provided the necessary correction and in time put them back on course.
Only now, of course, they couldn’t steer, except in one direction. The side sensors were useless. Angus told her to shut them off and close the ports. There was one window now on the universe, and in its center was a red sun that was no longer a mere dot on blackness but beginning to swell to a pill. “It doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,” pulsed Angus. “We’re in its pull now. You can knock off if you want to.”
But Silvana didn’t want to. She wanted to pulse. “How do we brake, when we get there ?”
Angus did not mind practical questions. They saved energy in the long run. “We’ll use the side star for braking.”
“It would have been better to have two of them.”
“It would have.” Angus rarely sounded uncertain. Silvana realized the overhead star had burst too soon. The red light cracked around his cheekbones. “It will take some fancy tacking.”
“Then, we spin into orbit around the new star. As before.”
“As with the old star?” Keep pulsing to me, Angus, she thought. I want to remember.
“Yes. As with the old star.”
“Were there many more stars then?”
Angus rolled his facets towards her. Red light glanced off the angle of his cheekbones. “Yes, quite a sprinkling.”
“As many as seventeen? I remember counting them once.”
“Oh, forty or fifty.”
“Forty or fifty!”
Arnhelm stirred a little in his dark corner. He seemed to be listening.
“Were we with the old star a long time ?”
“Yes,” pulsed Angus. “For many many cycles.”
“And before that?”
Angus paused a while. Then he rolled his facets back to the forward sensor again, his triangle of eyes reacquiring their fanatic gleam. “Wait,” he pulsed. “Wait till we get there.”
There was not long to wait. Every cycle the reddish light grew, and presently became a discernible disk. In the bath of radiation Arnhelm finally stirred. Silvana rolled her facets towards him, and he pulsed:
And, as usual, she pulsed back:
This had no meaning, but they had always done it. Then Silvana let him access her recent memory, the pulsations with Angus, the loss of the overhead star.
“Why do we do that?” Arnhelm pulsed. Silvana was silent.
“So many things,” he went on, “I don’t understand anymore.”
“Wait,” she pulsed back. “Wait till we get there. There will be enough energy then for remembering.”
“Will there be enough?” he responded. “I have so many questions. Sometimes I remember things. Colors we don’t see anymore. I remember blue, and green. I remember there was a lot of green.”
“No, not stars. Some other place, like the ship. But open. Blue overhead, blue sky, not black. A yellow star. And green all around, but not stars. Something else, something different.”
Some tender current made Silvana pulse: “There will be energy. Energy enough to remember. Be patient, dear.”
“Dear?” Arnhelm grew silent again. He seemed to have deactivated, to have gone out again.
Silvana thought and wondered. Dear? What had she meant? She tried to remember, but it slipped away from her. Not enough energy.
Wait, she thought to herself. Wait till we get there. Then we will know what dear meant.
She had energy, but, like Arnhelm, she went out for a cycle.
Silent, his many-faceted head reflecting the reddish light of the forward star and its energy seeping from the forward sensor, Angus continued his agelong vigil, unaware that he was lonely.
A small polygonal vessel braked into orbit around an aging red dwarf star. Apart from one red dot, it was the last star in this part of the universe, perhaps in the universe as a whole. Inside the ship, three intelligent crystals stirred into electrical activation. If they could have stretched themselves, they would have done so, luxuriantly.
Arnhelm rolled his facets towards Silvana and pulsed: ‘‘?” And she answered him: “!”
“I remember now,” he pulsed to her. “I remember what dear meant.”
Silvana looked at him for a long time.