“The stars are magic of a kind. So far, so small. So hot so strong. They stretch out to us from the deep black and whisper secrets of the past, across space, across time. Have you seen their twinkling eyes? And the hope they give… other peoples, other places? Other worlds like this?”
The audience clapped. It was a good speech. Steven slapped himself on the back. He’d nailed it. No sense gloating, he was above that, but give credit where it’s due, he’d break out the good scotch tonight. Martha met him at the edge of the stage with a kiss and a smile tinged with sadness.
She’d supported him through everything. Master’s thesis, Ph.D., unpaid internships and when he told her he’d taken them 100 grand into the red and wanted to go look for little green men, he thought for a second she might leave him. That was thirty years ago. He underestimated her. Next to a star her heart was the second strongest fire in the cosmos and sometimes he wasn’t quite convinced of that order.
He’d put everything he had into this new telescope array. And the software that powered it. Their new AI scanned the stars as fast and cheap as genome sequencing, it was only a matter of time.
It should have been the second happiest day of his life. Her hands were folded in her lap the whole car ride home. He gripped the wheel with both of his. His knuckles were white. He grinned to hold back the tears.
He whispered. “I’ll retire.”
She lifted her frail hand from the stack of papers the doctor had given her and placed it over his. “No, Steven.”
Her skin was like paper, and cold. He turned on the heater. It was only September, too early for this. It was much too early for all of this. He entwined her fingers in his.
They slowed to a stop on the side of the road. He went around and opened her door.
Her voice was quieter than usual. “What’s wrong?”
He pointed to the rolling hills. A river ran between. The leaves were gold and red.
“They’re already changing,” she murmured. “How beautiful.”
He kissed her creased forehead. They’d been married in the fall. Their anniversay was close, but seemed still so far.
She shivered. “I’m cold.”
“We can go.”
Her voice was thin and tired. “No, my hat.”
He grabbed it from the seat and slipped it over her smooth, bald head.
She cried. “Do you think I’m still beautiful?”
“More than the fall.”
She choked. “And the Spring?”
He pressed her close. “And the stars.”
“The thing that makes us human is our dream of knowing the mind of another. We find it in love, in children, in friendship, in each other. We learned to talk so we could be closer. It’s made us everything we are. And today we’ve touched another star and our world has grown that much larger.”
The audience clapped. He forced a smile. They’d found it. Everything would change, in some ways it already had. Not all of it was good. But it was different, and that’s just life, he’d come to realize.
No one waited at the edge of the stage to greet him. He drove home alone. He glanced out the window; the leaves had changed. He didn’t stop. He pulled into the drive way and groaned as he climbed out. He stared up at the stars and listened. The world was silent.
He lay down in the grass, stared up, and felt the stars pull. Martha. He knew why they’d learned to talk, and he knew the hottest fire of all, the one that never died, no matter how cold the universe grew.
Ian Florida writes in Missouri, USA.