Here There Be Dragons
Science might say it’s impossible. One of those brainy types might say it’s all in my head. The space from my toes to my knees is too short for such gravitational differences. But I swear, when I sit dangling my feet off the station, I can feel the dark beast below and the gentle tug, almost like it’s nibbling at my toes. It pulls at me gently, the all-at-once absolute black yet brighter than a star singularity that they call NGC 8416. We call it home. I can feel it’s pull, it’s senses-overwhelming pull. In all of existence it is the ultimate predator, but it’s also the only chance we few have for a future.
I remember as a kid looking at star maps, the black holes were written in as if they were the monsters feared by ancient map makers- here there be dragons. There was every reason to avoid singularities and no good reason to get too close. Even now, after a year around this light-swallower, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I am a fly hovering next to the open maw of a toad, but not a normal toad. It is a super massive space toad and I am a normal-sized gnat- a fully aware gnat. I know my doom sits out there, always voracious. And it may eat me, not because I am of any consequence to it, but just because I strayed too close.
But such thoughts flit away as if they were the gnat. I’ve got more important things requiring my attention- like roses. A rose by any other name- but the sweetest roses are mine. There are no roses like them, grown in the light of an accretion disk with the tidal forces pulling their fibers from the moment they sprout.
I believe that my roses would be worth a fortune, if that were a thing I wanted, them being so beautiful and novel in all the universe. They grow tall and there is a dark pearlessence to their delicate petals that describes a beauty grown in an environment completely antithetical to life. But like I said, I don’t need more wealth. I grow them only for myself. My only design on the universe outside of our little eddy of time is that it should keep going, and perhaps one day make it possible for us to re-enter it.
None of us expect that to happen soon. And soon is a funny thing when time is so relative. All of us here are here because we were told we would die soon. That kind of news makes dancing with a black hole seem less of a terrible idea. Funny how we have the technical know-how to do that, but we haven’t mastered keeping ourselves alive forever- at least not as our true selves. But only blasphemers entertain transfers. So we are all terminal for one reason or another, and for all of us our expirations are sooner than we’d like. So we come here because ‘soon’ isn’t as soon here- depending on your temporal perspective that is.
As long as you stay out of the maw of the hungry beast, its spin and gravity warp and drag time like a child spinning while holding a bed sheet. In here, our own little fold of time, we continue to live our lives, taking medicines to keep us going, relaxing, meditating and keeping faith. Out there, the time we used to live in moves far faster. We all hope that it’s fast enough that they will find cures for our various incurable ailments. That’s the whole game. We are slowed down so that in one of our days a multitude of days pass out there. So will we survive in here long enough? Can medical science, thus relatively sped up, find cures in time? Or have we left everything behind for naught.
Some people, the absolutely desperate or those that can’t afford such posh accommodations, opt for cryo instead. We have a cryo room in the unlikely event that one of us loses our nerve, but we, the black hole riders, see cryo as death with the slim hope of resurrection. We would prefer to live, even in this secluded valley of spacetime- and gamble that our slowed down time is enough.
We are not gamblers by nature though. You might think we are, riding a fragile station around a star eater, but the truth is, we’re here only because the math says we’ll be safe- and safer here in our time bubble than out there. This aversion to risk means that we are adverse to most changes.
Aria is such a change. People don’t come here unless they plan to stay. We the wealthy terminal tend to have at least two things in common: we are old enough to have lived long enough that we are desperate to keep living, and we are affluent enough to afford to live like no one else.
As we gather to see this newcomer, Aria Ortona, dock with the station, many of us uncharacteristically gawk as she steps through the airlock. Even as she clears the airlock, her small deposit-pod is already falling towards the event horizon of NGC 8416 to wink out in some short and spectacular blast of energy. Like I said, people that come here expect to stay long term, and it’s too expensive to fly back out without a darn good reason. So we get shipped down in disposable craft, and dispose of them in the gods’ own garbage bin. Keeping them isn’t an option- we’re very careful about weight gain around here. Our orbit path is very particular.
Many of our residents give Aria the compulsory greeting, and then try to ignore her existence. She looks equally unimpressed with us. She is young. And though she is like us- stricken even at such a young age, and with money enough to be here- her youth reminds us too much of something that no amount of time dilation can give us- relativity can only slow time, not reverse it. I might have tried to bridge the age gap and made this young girl feel more at home, but my attention has lensed this close to the black hole. It has become myopic and all I care about are my roses.
Humanity is timelessly obsessed with miracle cures. It doesn’t matter how advanced medicine gets. Real medicine and brilliant doctors are readily available, but nothing captures our imaginations like a remedy that requires no effort and will fix all our woes. We’re too shrewd to believe in snake oil or chiropractors, but a good number of our residents swear by Tide Therapy. There is no science for it, there is actually very little science about humans near black holes, but that doesn’t stop people from believing anecdotes of time-shearing tides and the abundance of neutrinos and cosmic rays boosting the immune system and cleansing disease.
Doctor Eckhart Röm, is the most avid ‘diver’. He can often be found dangling far below the station, attached only by a specially constructed graphene wire, apparently soaking up neutrinos and rays and being pulled and stretched by the black beast waiting below. We all know his schedule, as we all know everyone’s schedules. It’s a small station with a small group of permanent residents. Of course the only one we don’t know is Aria. She is new and thus a mystery.
It is 20:00- yes we use the same universal standard clock as every other world, despite our time being so very different to everyone else’s. But honestly, this antiquated adherence to a cycle from a planet that no ones lives on anymore is ridiculous for everyone, not just us. Eckhart is just hitching up: safety check on his suit and the line, adjusting the oxygen so that it’s a little higher percentage oxygen than station standard for a good buzz, some warm-up yoga to keep the body limber for the strange strains of singularity surfing, and something uniquely Eckhart- his special ear-buds that convert the silent raging gravitational heartbeat of the beast into some terrible and intoxicating audio- at least that’s how he describes it.
20:15, Eckhart takes a slow dive from what we call the moon pool- the lowest deck of the station with a large docking platform. Most of the residents like to come here to relax. Some like me, to dangle our toes, others like Eckhart, to take the dive. I arrive at the deck at 20:20 for my usual nighttime contemplation and find the usually languid residents flocking on the edge- a dangerous game if you’re not anchored.
“What’s going on?” I ask on the common channel.
“There’s something wrong with Eck’s cable,” buzzes in Bowie. “It’s jumping around like a line with a fish, and Eck isn’t responding.”
“That’s no leap you want to take untethered,” I say as I usher the crowd of concerned residents away from the edge. I try myself to reach Eckhart, scanning through a few channels in case he’s off the main to avoid being disturbed. I wouldn’t put it past him in his fanatical attempts to be closer to the black maw. But like Bowie, I can’t find him.
I go to the winch control but Bowie stops me. “Don’t you think we tried that? It just made the line jump even more, so we stopped it.”
“Come on then, let’s pull him up.” I recruit some of the more hale bystanders to help pull and we start to heave. In normal space, pulling Eckhart’s weight would be trivial, but we are in a tug-a-war with a black hole, and we’re being gentle because now that I’m holding the line I can feel the jumping and jerking- and I have no idea why it’s doing it.
As we pull I can see something wrong with the cable. This is strong stuff, the kind of stuff that only a station of rich codgers could afford. But as we pull it up I can see that it has stretched, that some of the structure that makes it so impervious has somehow come undone. I don’t say anything because these tongues like to wag, but I know this is not the work of NGC 8416. Fortunately the cable is too good to have snapped under whatever malign treatment it received, but it has stretched an impossible amount. If Eckhart is even still down there, he went closer to the point of no return than anyone else ever has.
We pull and pull. My face plate display shows 21:10 when Bowie takes a peek over the edge and says, “We’ve got him! Easy now. Only a meter left.”
We adjust our pull to ease him over the edge. The last thing we want is to cause a puncture after hauling him all that way. But we’re not even sure he’s still alive. He’s given no sign of life. Many hands reach to pull him the rest of the way. We don’t even bother checking him there. We carry him to the airlock and even then we don’t unsuit him or ourselves. It’s protocol: suits stay on in this situation until we get an all clear that, as impossible as it may seem, nothing that could contaminate the station has compromised our suits. We are a cautious bunch.
Doctor Hoover meets us as we awkwardly shuffle down the hall to his clinic carrying the bulk of Eckhart in his suit. The Doc is also wearing a mask and protective gear. He’s one of the top docs across all the worlds, and it’s almost criminal that we’ve selfishly taken him for ourselves. But he agreed because he’s like us, not long for this life unless a cure can be found. Funny how the universe can deliver such gifts in disguise. We needed a top notch doc and the best of them just happened to contract a terminal disease… He was also intrigued by the prospect of studying the effects of the black hole on human physiology. Now he has Eckhart to study.
“I heard the chatter,” says the doc, “but can anyone tell me what happened? Has he shown any sign of life?”
“No,” starts Bowie, “he hasn’t moved since we pulled him up.”
“But,” I interject, “his oxygen is still going down and I haven’t seen any leaking, so it’s going somewhere- hopefully still to his lungs.”
We bustle into the clinic and to the isolation room. Our medical facilities are second-to-none. If Eckhart is alive in there he’s gonna get the best care. We leave him on a bed and shuffle out, leaving the doc to do what he does best. All of us do a quick pass through the scanner to make sure we’re not carrying anything dangerous. Then finally we can strip off our suits- a far harder task when you’re old and sweaty.
“So what the hell just happened?” Asks Bella. She’s almost as in to Tide Therapy as Eckhart, and I’m sure her concern is more about how this may impede her from her next dive.
“What happened is Eckhart’s dead,” says Bowie.
“Leave the diagnosis to the doc,” I say as I towel off. We’re usually a calm and reasonable group, but the specter of death hangs so closely over all of us. It’s the one thing we haven’t been able to defeat or buy out or run away from. Even orbiting a black hole at these astounding speeds we can’t out run it forever. We’re all fearing that Eckhart has lost the race against death before his time because that would prove how easily we too could be caught and dragged below death’s event horizon.
“Dead or not,” continues Bowie, “Eck and all of us know the risks. We’re all ghosts here, hoping that some gods-granted cure comes along before we fade away. Maybe Eck died happy, knowing that he’s done something that no one else has: the human to have come closest to a black hole.”
“We don’t even know that’s true,” says Wendell, a former reporter and stickler for the facts. “And what’s the use if he’s too dead to appreciate it? We can’t just pass off his death saying it was a good way to die. We have to figure out what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
“We don’t know that he’s dead,” I reiterate. “Let’s just wait for the doc-”
The doc himself interrupts me. He’s come all the way down to the locker room. His mask and protective gear are gone. He’s back in his usual sweater and khakis. At least that means no contamination of any kind.
“Mr. Röm is not dead,” he announces to our great relief, but that happy news just leads to another question, the more dangerous question- what exactly happened? “He is, however, unresponsive,” continues the doc. “I have a lot more tests to run and there is a lot of swelling around his brain, so we’re not out of the asteroid field yet, but I thought you’d want to know that Eckhart is still with us.”
The others are glad to hear that we haven’t suffered our first casualty- yet. But I noticed the subtext in the doc’s message. I follow him out of the lockers for a private word. “Doc, a minute please.” He turns with a knowing look- he knows my past, so he knows where my mind is right now. “Doc, you could have told us this over the coms. Heck, you could have announced it to the whole station. I’m sure everyone has heard by now that Eckhart went to your clinic. So, why the discretion?”
Doc chooses his words carefully. “I think you suspect the answer, and you’re right. Mr. Röm was in good health besides the obvious ills that we all live with. It is hard to know what effects such proximity to the event horizon might have with increased pull and exposure to radiation, but what Eckhart is exhibiting does not seem to be related to his deep dive. As I said, there are more tests to run, but at this point my assessment suggests this is-”
“Suspicious,” I finish for him. “The fault was in the cable, it started to weaken and stretch. The problem is, it is surpassingly stronger than our frail muscle and bone. Unless it was hit by some equally strong debris- well, I won’t bother calculating the probability of such debris even existing and in the vastness of space hitting this extremely narrow cable. As you know, the lack of other objects in nearby space was one of the criteria for selecting this black hole. Suspicious indeed.”
“But who would kill a dying man?” The doc has a good point. We’re all dying, with varying life expectancies, but whether it’s one year or two, who among us would want to speed that up?
“Tell no one else- for now.” The doc nods. I’m sure he understands as well as I do. Everyone on this station has a few things in common: we are old enough to have lived long enough that we are desperate to keep living, we are affluent enough to afford to live like no one else- and we have all done things, we all have black stains on our pasts that have led to our successes. This means we all have enemies, and that we all have the capacity to do sinful things. We are all suspects.