Friday, August 24, 2007

Story: After Hours at the Black Hole

This story was published in the Summer 2006 issue of OnSpec.

The first story I posted on this site, "The Coin", is a serious fantastic story about a street kid in Haiti.

"After Hours at the Black Hole" is more sardonic. You need not worry that anything like this will ever happen. Certainly not to you.

After Hours at the Black Hole
C. June Wolf

The thing about a black hole, Jude thought, was that once you threw something in there, that was it. No more coming back on you, no more problems, no more complications. It was good and tidy that way. Of course, there was always the chance, though he'd never known it to happen—that not everything that slipped across the event horizon remained uneventful for the rest of time—or timelessness, whatever.

And that was just what he was worrying about.

Working at all this crap for so long, Jude was nearly unfazeable. He had tugged so much across this vicinity of space he couldn't count the lightness of the years anymore, and had no idea how much of what he'd volleyed in that time he might at one, more ethical period of his life, have had regrets about. Business was business, after all, and a black hole trasher had work to do like anybody else. Never mind the delicacies of ethics or right. He would have thrown away his own mother (he liked to joke) if she hadn't thrown him away first, for a price, of course, and a handsome one. He had towed space dirt of every kind, from the rubble of abandoned colonies to the floating jetsam of war—living or very, very dead—to the entrails of planets that had somehow gotten tangled up in somebody's personal space. Any old thing you'd pay him for—he didn't mind. But today's cargo was a whole nother thing, and it worried him.

So, okay. Maybe those trusty black holes had swallowed everything so far without a burp. But he thought he'd spotted some energy shimmering where it ought not to last time he was circling Old Guzzler here, not just harmless vacuum fluctuations, but something else. It was nothing he could pin down instrumentally and he let it go and puttered back for his next "desperately urgent" something that needed to be lugged away.

Now here he was, moving in slowly, a handful of lightyears from Old G, with a long trailer of ruinous lives in his wake, and he was getting nervous.

He hadn't meant to ask the fellow what it was. But the guy was all white suit and glowing smile and intruded his philosophy into everything, so it was no surprise that he took Jude's grunt to mean, "Tell me in exhaustive detail what it is I am hauling out to wing down into Old Guzzler because I am just so interested in everything you think and do." Which the guy proceeded to do, to the increasing discomfort of one long-haul space trucker with no taste for the unliving, or the unlived or badly lived or—whatever.

"It's a procedure," the guy said all Prince of Lightness-y, spinning slowly in his chair with one white-clad leg propped regally across the other, "known as Soul-Stripping. Ha, ha, ha!"—his laugh sounded rehearsed—"We don't strip out the souls, of course, but strip off all the clutter and junk that makes them, and the lives they live, so untasteful and wicked and dull." That too-bright smile again. Bring down the eye-shades.

"People's lives, you see, are made up of a series of infinitely tiny and infinitely large decisions, endlessly made and yet barely attended to in the person's mind, and each has consequences in not only the outward but the inward parts of that individual's life. Eventually, the whole is so clogged up it isn't possible to make a single clear decision—because we are so mucked up with the crud of the years that we are no longer basing anything at all on the moment at hand, but all of it on the sticky goo that is now leading, if not in any way living, our lives.

"It's really very yukky—" that laugh again, like a soft solar drill, thutting against Jude's head. "You can see what I mean." Jude tried real hard not to seem to be listening. That was enough for Glow-Boy. He lunged on. "So we strip it off. Strip off the crud accrued one gungey layer at a time and fling it—thip! Thip! Thwap! into a thing we call the Black Hole."

Now this got Jude's attention. Eh?

Glowy smiled again. "Of course it isn't really a black hole. Our clients see this iccky substance stripped off of their thoughts, their memories, their impulses, their loves, and it is an incredible liberation. They lighten immeasurably. They straighten out strangled muscles, strangled lives. It is a wonderful thing to see, every time. But the goo is still in there, in the Black Hole, and there is nothing we have found to do with it, or to it, that either turns it into something useful, or gets it utterly and permanently beyond their reach.

"You see," he uncrossed his legs and leaned forward intensely, elbows digging into smooth knees, "there is a connection, a strand of energy so infinitesimally small that no one but us has even discovered it yet, that links each person to each bit of yik that we pull out of them. As long as the scrubbings are in the Black Hole, there is no real problem. There may be barely detectable tremours along the strands sometimes but no customer has felt it yet. They are able to go on and live their lives in wondrous new ways. But we are concerned. What would happen if one day--!poof!—one of those strands got strong enough that it smuckked its attendant yik back out from the Black Hole and splatted it right up against the poor unsuspecting customer again—maybe in the middle of a critical business deal, or in the process of making love? The consequences could be disastrous. We could be sued."

He sat back, looking vaguely real for the first time. This guy was really worried. Maybe he oughtta have a soul-stripping. But, he recovered. The smile: "And that is why, my friend, we have come to you. To put a truly toxic, galaxy-grade weapon out of commission for all time—our customers' combined millenia of bad and stupid living—and keep our company safely afloat and at the top of our wondrous game."

A creep. But in this limited sphere of criminalia, an honest one. Because of course, trucking anything at all—even energy, even bad decisions—that could logically be argued to be part of a living human being, was no, no, no on the black hole blacklist, and that was simply that.

Ugh. What a freak show. And here he was hauling it right up to the gaping mouth of Old Guzzler itself. Never mind Glowy, and never mind the planetloads of customers. What would happen to him if any of that spewed back out and caught him in the backside out in space? Better hope Old Guzzler doesn't take a leak on Jude today.

Here he goes then. Jude is circling in to the vicinity of Old Guzzler, tucked deep in the island universe, el Tetratis. The wash of stars in soft bright spirals spanned out unimaginably vast as he hurtled toward them, all but motionless in sensation, yet gaining on the galaxy at stunning speed. Clusters of young blue stars, reddish gatherings of stars in the making, and a vast density of white light in the centre, Tetratis was a beauty that even Jude could still appreciate. For a moment, the apprehension about his cargo took a backseat to that familiar feeling of wow. She sure was a stunner.

Somewhere in her centre, fuelling all that wonderful star production, was a supermassive black hole. No black hole trasher with the slightest grey matter still in the hold would ever try trucking into one of those. But over there, off to one side of the densest region of stars in Tetratis, was a nice little "binary twin" black hole he had shimmied up to more than once in his lifetime. And now, his first shipment of crappy lives was about to strike Old Guzzler right in the b.h. kisser.

Once he flung a cargo close enough Old G did the rest, sucking it in with all the power of the collapsed star it was. Jude snorted to himself at the old joke. They seem all-powerful when they're dazzling their audience as stars, but watch 'em collapse on themselves and they turn all sucky and whiney till the day they die. No matter how hard they suck, ain't nobody's gonna fawn over them anymore. But don't worry. Ignore them for a few billion years and eventually they'll go away.

And there it was. Jude slowed The Tug slightly as Old Guzzler came square into view. In amongst the spilled jewels of stars, next to its buddy star (Bootleg Pete) was a modest-size shiny black orb just hovering in nothing, and he was sailing right for it. Cargo forgotten, he threw himself into the routine. Couplers were set ready for detachment, target selected, The Tug's stabilizers and cargo placement rockets simultaneously fired. Like a harpoon destined for a blubbery side, the container was set in motion, gathering more speed as rockets continued to fire, sailing toward the black hole in fluid precision. Soon, the fuel would all be gone. But it wouldn't matter anymore. Crap and container, it would coast on until Old Guzzler was licking its shiny lips and giving a nice polite smile of thanks. Not that he would actually see that. The stuff would just kind of fade away, long after he'd left for the next run. But it was fun to imagine.

Jude's shoulders perceptibly relaxed. The crap of lives trailing behind him was gone.

He got ready to buzz away. He triple-checked the shot. Trajectory and velocity were good; he'd nailed it, right on course. Still, he couldn't shake the feeling that this wasn't a place he really wanted to be anymore. He turned tail and got the hell out of there.

Jude was just flickering back into regular space when he felt the tug on The Tug. Everything in him set to tingling in alarm. It was just a gentle tug but he knew without a doubt where it had come from. He looked down at his controls, and if God had been in existence just then He would have been mighty surprised to see Jude pray.

Back at el Tetratis, things were getting pretty weird. In the vicinity of Guzzler and Bootleg Pete, they were even weirder than normal around the old event horizon. A container of foolish and freaky, angry and lost, desperate and astonishing, inspired and blessed, amazed and horrified, impulsive and long over-thought decisions was being stretched and splintered and set free, yet frozen on the horizon above Old Guzzler's mighty maw, and a billion dark strands of unbreakable filaments of energy were vibrating faster and faster even as everything else held heart-stoppingly still. Unbelievably, had anyone been there to watch and believe or not, they reached far across space through nonexistent wormholes, bisected garlands of strings, pierced planets and plunged through suns of monstrous size, unharmed, unaltered, unalterable. Old Guzzler was getting a massive ache in the gut.

Jude felt The Tug slowing frighteningly, felt the thrill of a billion cold wires of questing energy find their way into him, curling tight around each peptide and grain of self, anchoring in every breath and crackling synapse. Tighter and tighter to him they wrapped themselves, hitch-hikers, hijackers, little German children left to wander and die in the wicked woods by evil parents, clutching at the only thing that connects them still to the lives they left behind, and through Jude they shot forward, strangling him from the inside out, shot through space with unheard of urgency and plunged toward the earth, the colonies, the satellites, the stars, everywhere in the hundred light year radius that was Soul Strip territory. And plunged on through to the ones who'd tried to rid themselves of them.

Old Guzzler heaved. The sucker who wouldn't exhale, the drinker who never puked, the swallower of all heaved hell-bent for mercy and out they spewed. Everything it had ever gulped came, too. Radiation, planets, ships, time. Blowing out like a firehose on speed, splattering the island universe, and through it, and beyond. With them went everything that Guzzler was, radiating off every quantum of its mass, till the one who had once dramatically collapsed now fizzled suddenly out, and Old Pete had no one left to slurp up all his booty.
But Old Pete beamed numbly on, and el Tetratis continued, unimpressed, in its making and extinguishing of stars.

Glowy Boy looked up from his desk, a strange sensation entering his consciousness. It was the pop of a billion accounts, he was sure. He frowned terribly, jerking his head around, jumping up to react but having nowhere, nowhere to go. Inside, he felt the downward slide into confusion, the bliss-less collision of a million furious thoughts, discarded on the road in a dirty little cardboard box, come back home after all this travelling, not run over, not dead, not going away, no how. And mightily pissed off.

He slumped into his chair again, and sobbed.


copyright 2006

No comments: