by Liam Hogan
The tired old star burns fat and hot and slow. Now, as the end approaches, as firestorms flicker and die and are born anew across its roiling surface, as, at its core, helium ashes are squeezed and the heat there builds and builds, stuttering with the idea of something new, we detach ourselves from the fields in which we have gambolled for countless aeons, where we have long feasted and bred, diving deep in our displays of courtship, kicking up great tendrils of supercharged plasma through which to leap and skip and dance, filtering out the heavier elements as we do. Now, we drift outwards, cooling rapidly in a vacuum that is thin and cold and hostile, hardening our hearts as we majestically unfurl our vast, fragile wings. Gossamer thin, we float past rocky planets, long stripped of their seas, their delicate atmospheres, whose once molten centres are hardened and still. There was life here, we are amused to note. Brief, faltering life, as ethereal as the waves from a solar flare, as short lived as our mating songs.
And on we riders go, to the next planet, the next rock. Life fled here when its cradle had grown too warm, too barren, too polluted. A brief respite only, a staging ground for the next tentative step. And on again we and the echoes of it drift, past the remnants from the solar system’s ancient creation to the next planet, to the moons that circle like clockwork around the gassy giant, itself too small to ignite, too cold to offer us any real sustenance. Though a few of us try anyway and are quickly swallowed by its dense, unpalatable clouds, wings ripped away and for a moment flaring bright, the imprint swiftly forgotten.
The giant, and its lesser neighbour, will feed the inferno that is yet to come. The shock-wave might perhaps briefly fire them into life, before stripping the clouds of gas, leaving them stunned and stunted in the dimming afterglow, finally exposing whatever those dense clouds conceal.
We wonder whether the life that is not our life ever attempted to go there, or escaped further still. There are no signs of it in the cold, outer fringes. Perhaps it went instead in search of new planets to taint, daring the void between the stars as we too are about to do. Perhaps we will catch up with it, beyond the point where the solar wind is snuffed out by the much softer, but more extensive, interstellar medium. Beyond the insubstantial border where you could truly be said to have shed the bounds of the star that even now is just a baleful, fat, reddened point. Perhaps. But there is no hurry.
Looking back, we watch as our brethren gather, our number too numerous to count. There is a sweet-spot, a place we all hope to be when the moment comes. Some will time it wrong, they always do. They will fill their bellies a little too full, rise a little too slow, too late, engorged and still soft and fragile, their wings only partially unfurled when the cataclysm comes.
Others have left too early. Billions of years too early, tired perhaps of waiting. They haven’t got very far and they will be cold and perhaps dead by now. Pushed only by the last beats of a burning heart, slumbering for an eternity, dreaming of what might have been.
This too is the way.
Only a few of us, a handful of the myriad, will fall upon more fertile ground, many millennia from now. But all of us will ride the death of the star we grew up on, and in, letting its final, dying light push us far out into the unexplored galaxy, looking for new homes, new stars, new life.
Rarer still, perhaps only once in a generation, one of us might find themselves not captured by another star but instead, surrounded by a veil of interstellar gases. With their wings stretched so thin it will be as though they’re not there, they will begin to turn, the steady rhythm creating eddies and gathering in more and more of the tantalising dust. Only one rider will sing the song of becoming as she slowly retracts her wings, cloaking herself within the thickening cloud, spinning faster and faster and faster until, the cosmos be willing, she gives birth to a brand new star.
Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk