Issue 01

Word Count: 2365

Emma Bider

Emma’s fiction has been published in Capsule Stories and PACE magazine. Her short story collection, We Animals, was published in December 2020.

For the first time in weeks, we have clear skies over L.A. Even in the hills outside the city, it’s been hard to see the anything of note. I was so excited when the city announced a lights-out curfew three months ago. It would have been a great opportunity to do some real stargazing. But then the fires came. I had to wait.

When the sun sets, I hurry to my observatory and open the dome above my telescope. It is a smaller version of the Hubble, or so I was told by the astronomer who helped me acquire it. He had agreed to help me out when I promised he could use it occasionally for his research but since I bought it, he hasn’t come by. It’s too bad. I could use the company. But I can’t wait to finally see the sky and my star.

My star used to be known as Kepler-62. When my ex, Martin, bought it for me, I thought it was just a kind, symbolic gesture and dumped him soon after. Usually, I prefer tangible gifts. But then I looked at the paperwork and it turns out I have the actual deed for Kepler-62, now renamed “Marina’s Star”. The deed means I can tax Marina’s energy emissions if I want to and it’s tempting: a few billionaires are trying to colonize some of her habitable planets. Marina’s Star is truly an investment in my future beyond the confines of Earth.

When I realized this, of course I tried to find Martin and thank him properly. Maybe even take him back. He wasn’t at his mansion in Hollywood or his beach house in Malibu, though I didn’t go in. There was a huge crowd of seagulls on the roof. I could see others had gotten into the house through a broken window. I tried calling him. No answer. Everyone seemed to be disappearing around me. I gave up and when I came home, I locked the driveway gate and asked Jeeves, my robot, to lay glass shards on top of the walls that surround the yard. I’ve read contemporary survival guides and stockpiled food and water a long time ago. You need to be prepared for when the rest of the world turns on you.

I have my telescope pointed right at Marina’s Star. It’s a relief to see her again after so long. I was starting to get worried she had disappeared too. There’s nothing else to do these days, but stare through the viewfinder, see her winking at me or look at her orbiting planets and wave at my fellow billionaires. Maybe they already have hilltop mansions and are sipping frozen margaritas, harvesting limes and lemons in their terraformed orchards. It seems so idyllic. But is it better than being here? Being able to see it all from my perfect vantage point? I’ve read that Kepler-62F is still stabilizing its atmosphere. I prefer it here for now.

I like to tell Marina’s Star about my day. I watch her and try to guess if she is reacting. A solar flare goes off when I tell her about the latest firestorms. I assume this is a show of solidarity for her sibling bursts of energy. When I have nothing left to tell, I turn the telescope to other solar systems, other arms of the Milky Way, sometimes other galaxies if I’m particularly bored. The colours are dazzling. Galactic tides swirl and swish around each other, in erratic greens and peaches. I’ve watched supernovas disintegrate into star dust and new stars form within the Orion, Lagoon and Carina Nebulae. I have examined the pink and red pillars of gas that birth these stars. I would like to visit these emitting stations close up one day. I am sure there is a way to effectively harness star production for profit once we know exactly how it works.

Time has taken on a new meaning since I began talking with Marina’s Star. I wake up most mornings to silence. There was a time when I could hear the dull roar of L.A. traffic. Not anymore.

I scan what useful news I can find—anything about space generally interests me—and then have a breakfast of pomegranate, cultivated by Jeeves in my garden, and some coffee, which is only getting more expensive.

After breakfast, I sit outside. Within minutes I am sweating; my skin is reddening. I stay as long as I can stand it before the heat is too much and the air is too thick. I do this to remind myself of why I have to leave. If I stayed inside the house all day, I could still believe our planet has a chance.

After this, I might watch TV or read the latest from The Astrophysical Journal, which is popping out daily reports now that they have some real intergalactic data to work with. There’s so much to know and so few humans in deep space. Some of the best astronomers remain stuck on Earth, looking through telescopes like mine.

When I’ve finished with the Journal, I’ll eat or sleep again, maybe check the weather, anything to stave off the boredom of being alone. Night comes slower than I’d like but when dusk does finally arrive, I will let myself go to the observatory. I stay there most nights until dawn. I like to imagine my conversations with Kepler-62F colonizers. I go through how I’d address them as the owner of Marina’s Star, their only source of power. I’ve never been a utilities owner before, so I want to get those first key interactions right. I talk and talk to Marina’s Star until sunlight peaks above the mountains and I head to bed.

I wake up the next afternoon after having the strangest dream. I go to the kitchen, where my coffee and pomegranate are waiting. I almost never dream. I used to dream about TV shows or movies I watched, sometimes people I used to know, and in the dream, they would be chasing me endlessly through the city. This is the first dream I’ve had in maybe a year.

In the dream, I was in front of something incredibly bright. So bright I couldn’t open my eyes. I was floating in front of the bright thing and it was like being in a warm bath, except I couldn’t sense any water. I just floated there, eyes closed, with nothing to do. At some point, I could hear a muttering sound. The sound felt hot. It was like a thousand soft explosions in my ears. At first, I couldn’t tell that there were even words to hear. The sound filled my brain and throat with magma. I tried to scream but just more of the same sound came out when I opened my mouth. At some point, I thought I could make out real words.

“You don’t own me,” the sound said.

And then I woke up to my usual perfect silence.

At first, I didn’t know where I was. As the blinds on my windows slowly lifted, I came back to Earth. California. Scraggly cactuses and desert. The sun was already setting and for a moment, I was once again wrapped in a stream of light.

I go the living room and consult a digital psychiatrist about my dream, taking small sips of coffee, savouring it. Dreams have all kinds of significance, the psych-robot says through my TV.

“A bright, blinding light suggests death. Do you know anyone who is ill? Are you suffering from an illness?” asks the tinny voice.

“I found some information. Is it possible you are about to come into some good fortune? Are you seeking fame? Or wealth?”

I turn off the screen.

In the observatory I sit at my telescope and try to find articles about dreams and stars because maybe I’ve been thinking about Marina’s Star too much and my brain manifested her this way. Apparently, stars in dreams represent goals you are seeking. I want to be up there with Marina’s Star. I suppose that might be it.

For some reason, my telescope is not pointed at the Kepler system and this annoys me. I tell Jeeves to do a security sweep in case someone has managed to get past the motion sensors and the steel doors and the bullet-proof windows. When I leave, which will be soon, I will leave every door open and every security protocol off. It can be someone else’s sanctuary. I have no intention of coming back.

When I’m finally able to locate Marina’s Star, I gasp.

“You’re so red,” I say, as if to a child who has gone and cut themselves.

Marina’s Star says nothing. She pulsates and shines like a giant maraschino cherry. Marina’s Star is a yellow dwarf, like the sun, which is part of the Kepler system’s appeal. Yet now she looks like a red giant, with a radius that could envelop all of the habitable planets in her system. I look away and go through the data my telescope accumulates while I am asleep. No changes. The shift only occurred as I was watching—which is impossible. When I look again, she is her normal colour and I sink back in my chair with relief. Sweat trickles down my neck.

“Marina’s Star, you scared me,” I admonish her, looking back into the viewfinder. I tell her about my dream. Does she brighten when I tell her that I dreamed about her? I would like to believe so.

I am doing my usual rounds, peering at each planet in the Kepler system for any additional signs of potential life when a massive solar flare goes off and I am momentarily blinded. I pull away from the viewfinder, black dots blurring my vision. After a few moments, I return to the telescope. Marina’s Star looks fine; she’s just as perfect as ever. I feel like I have something to apologize for. That I need to make her see how much I appreciate her luminosity, her absolute magnitude and mass that makes a solar system possible. But then I turn my view back towards Kepler-62F and my mouth falls open. I scream, short and sharp. Blood pounds in my ears.

Kepler-62F is gone. Large chunks of the planet float towards Marina’s Star and disintegrate in the heat.

“What did you do?” I yell, looking directly at her. “What did you do? All those people!”

Without a planet nearby to pay for her energy output, Marina’s Star is completely useless to me. Without Kepler-62F, I have nowhere to go. I’ll be at the back of other waiting lists for other solar systems. They won’t make exceptions for unfortunate, unexpected astronomical events. I try to remember if I insured my flight ticket.

I look back at Marina’s Star and by the frequency of her solar flares, it feels as if she is laughing. I can feel it. My star is laughing at me.

“You fucking bitch!” I scream.

I kick the telescope’s stand. It rocks forward and I cry out again, in horror at what I’ve done. Stupid idiot. My telescope teeters and I do my best to ease its fall and then assess for damage. Jeeves rights it and I try to get back to Marina’s Star’s coordinates. But for whatever reason, I can’t pinpoint her. Maybe there are clouds or the debris has made it harder to detect her.

“I’m not finished with you yet,” I snarl.

I’m crying angry, vicious tears. Tomorrow, I will go to the Galactic Voyage station and demand to be taken up there. Then I will destroy her, harm her, something. Something to make up for my losses.

I go to bed hours later, at noon when I can hear the ground sizzling in the heat. Earth’s own sweet star would never do what Marina’s Star did, I think. She needs to be taught. She is too powerful for her own good. I checked and I do have insurance on my ticket. I will be sent to Kepler-62G, another as yet un-colonized but habitable planet in the system. I will go and terraform the entire thing myself if it means being close to her and punishing her.

I’m thinking of how one can even harm a star when I fall asleep. Then I am back in the brightness, floating, and it’s so hot again. Hotter than the hottest dry sauna. Hotter than anything I can imagine. I try to scream but my throat is closed or choked. Then the sound again—it’s louder now and I put my hands over my ears, but it erupts through all of me. I could hear it even if I had no ears at all.

“You don’t own me.”

And it’s so hot I can’t focus enough to respond. Then the light is gone and I am back in bed, the maelstrom of sound still beating through my body. It’s still hot. I open my eyes to see my room on fire. I jump out of bed and call for Jeeves. Once outside in the garden, I can see the whole house burning. The sprinklers are working but they can’t do much. We watch, Jeeves and I, for hours in the vividness of daytime, until the fire finally dies out. My home is nothing now. A charred scar on the hill. Jeeves gets to cleaning. I go to the observatory. My telescope is destroyed beyond recognition. There is nothing else to do. I look through what used to be my room for any clothes or a pair of shoes that won’t melt on asphalt. Then I open the front gate and start walking in what I think is the general direction of Galactic Voyage headquarters. Maybe they will let me go up early. Or I could rent a room at their headquarters, offer my amateur astronomy talents as a form of payment. It will be difficult, perhaps, to explain it to them. But once I prove the fire was started by Marina’s Star, they will have to let me go. We can’t be slaves to the whims of stars, after all.