Published on 2013/06/09

Master Stargazer

Kristopher Mallory

Near the core of a spiral galaxy consisting of four hundred billion stars, a unique planet prepares for exodus...

Deep below the polar ice cap, the last great research station stands on high alert. Hundreds of the station's personnel fiercely do their part to manage the impending disaster. They practiced countless times, every worker drilled repeatedly until they were able to perform their duties with a cold robotic grace.

Now the time for drills is over; the culmination of the Stargazer's Thousand Cycle Plan is finally upon them. To the relief of all, the training held. There's no hesitation. Not a single worker deviates. They all know the consequence of failure is total destruction.

While the station's personnel fight to save the world's population, the forty-second Master Stargazer stands over his garden, watching drops of water bead across leaves. He gently touches the seed pouch of his favorite flower, and the realization that the time has come hits him with unimaginable force. Fully aware that his heart is beating dangerously fast for a man of his age, he repeats the familiar mantra:

I must calm down if I'm to see this through.

As the research station commander, the Master Stargazer must ensure all aspects of the Thousand Cycle Plan remain on schedule, and yet, he's the only one not where he's supposed to be. He belongs on the command deck, but grief overtook him, so he slipped into his office to give a final farewell to his beloved flora. For years, the plants reminded him life exists somewhere high above the ice cap. Even now, they remind him it needs to be preserved.

A portrait of Master Stargazer's family catches his attention, draining the little courage he has left. He slips into his chair and silent tears fall freely from his old eyes. Seeing his family saddens him, but it's the terrible secret he hides that pains him.

I wish I had not lied to you. I know there is no other way, but I should have told you the truth. Why does this duty fall on me?

Master Stargazer often wonders how his predecessors coped with the hopeless feelings that accompany the great burden. Not all of them had, he knows.

"Sir," a shadowy figure speaks from the doorway.

"How long have you been standing there?"

The figure steps into the light, revealing herself to be Beta, one of Master Stargazer's assistants. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Master Stargazer, sir," she says. "I only just arrived." She points to the picture displayed on the wall. "They are safe, sir. Their ship has made it to the outer ring with all the others."

"Assistant Beta, I forbid unannounced intrusions. Nor should I have to suffer your presumptions. Why must a woman of your position have to be told this?"

"My apologies, sir. I thought you should know the status of your family."

Beta, the youngest of the three Stargazer assistants, often displayed an excitability that irritated the old Master Stargazer, especially when she made simple mistakes like bursting into his private quarters. Despite this, she earned his respect. Not only has she been a valuable asset, she's also one of the few willing volunteers. Unlike the conscripts, she joined the academy knowing she would die at her post.

As Beta stands at attention, waiting for her reprimand to continue, Master Stargazer notices for the first time how young she actually is, and his anger subsides.

"Thank you, Beta," Master Stargazer sighs. "I'm happy to know they made it off the planet. What news of the other ships?"

"The final sequence of class-three's left the atmosphere. Smaller non-kingdom vessels are still evacuating. They're performing symbiotic grouping maneuvers, attaching themselves to the larger hulls," Beta says. "The official launch window is now closed and un-classed ships no longer have the capability to make it off planet."

"What percentage of the population made the evacuation?"

"Over ninety-seven percent. We did it, sir."

"Wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Accompany Alpha and Gamma to the control room. Authenticate launch stage completion immediately."

"Yes sir."

Beta performs an about-face and marches away.

Master Stargazer takes one final look at the portrait of his family. His wife, two daughters, and his young grandchildren are on one of the massive starships. They are somewhere in the void of space far from the doom about to befall their planet. This knowledge does little to comfort him.

I wish I could be with you.

No one else is capable of doing what needs to be done. Ensuring the continuation of life falls solely on him. Like his forefathers, he needs to overcome the challenges, or all will be lost.

Newfound resolve grants him the ability to act like the commander once more. He exits his quarters and exudes confidence for the benefit of every soul, both in the station and on the evacuation ships.

"Commander present," one of the workers shouts as Master Stargazer enters the control room. The deck crew snaps to attention.

"Hail," Master Stargazer says with a quick salute, letting the staff resume their duties. He walks across the command deck, stopping at each of the primary terminals to gauge the progress of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma; all three nearly finished with the authentication process. As for the rest in the room, he realizes, most only observe, sullen expressions on their faces.

"A great civilization is destroyed today," an attending historian says, "but our descendants will thrive in an even greater one. Words cannot describe ..."

Master Stargazer tunes out the sound of the historian's voice. There's still much to be done.

"Alpha, give me an update."

"Master Stargazer," Alpha says while plugging away at a terminal, "the computer has accepted our credentials. Every ship is monitored, and if needed can be directly controlled from your station."

"Gamma, report."

"Sensors show the southeastern sector of Sacred Star's repulsion shield failed. One of the flares hit a populated zone. Three-hundred-thousand dead. Other zones are begging for the evacuation ships to come back."

A wall replays images of Sacred Star's fiery arm stroking the planet's surface. Master Stargazer imagines the horrors those poor people must have suffered as the world melted around them.

They were warned. A thousand cycles they were warned this day would come, yet they still refused to abandon their faith in a star. What does it matter? Soon everyone on the surface will be lost -- turned to ash and dust. May the Creators lead them to peace.

"I don't care about the remaining surface population," Master Stargazer says. "They chose to stay. Everything else is within parameters I presume? Beta?"

"A message, sir," Beta says. "The last ship is directly above the ice cap as you ordered. The poles are melting fast but evacuation is still possible if we begin now. Orders?"

Master Stargazer raises his hand. The chatter in the room immediately vanishes. "You have done excellent work," he says. "History will remember you all as heroes. Non-essential personnel are released from service. Thank you for all you have done. Alpha, send the order to evacuate the station, then seal off the command center."

The workers cheer and congratulate each other. Like everything else, the evacuation procedure is deeply ingrained. Within minutes the station's command deck is empty of all personnel except Master Stargazer and his dedicated assistants.

"It was close," Beta says, "but the staff evacuation ship is safely leaving orbit, sir."

Master Stargazer approaches his control terminal. The panel powers up, revealing an array of dials, gauges, and sensors. He speaks a few words to the computer, the panel folds up, becoming flush against the wall, and a new board extends from the bulkhead. The sight of the replacement surface triggers a feeling of dread. He glides his fingers over the glossy black surface as he muses over the single illuminated button which glows a brighter shade of red than that of the dying star.

Behind him, Master Stargazer hears the surprised murmurs of his team.

"That button," Gamma says, "what purpose does it serve?"

Master Stargazer cares little for Gamma's tone. Yes, the button would have to be discussed soon, but for now Master Stargazer ignores the question. "Beta, what's the current status of Star?"

"Nearing critical mass. The repulsers will not last much longer, maybe ten minutes, sir."

"Alpha, open communications with all ships."

"Communications open."

"Fleet, this is Master Stargazer speaking to you from the northern research station. We knew this day would come. Because of our unity, dedication, and perseverance, we're ready to leave this dying planet to begin a new life on a far away world."

Master Stargazer pauses so the population can enjoy a moment of happiness and cheer.

"The colonists," he continues, "will be waiting for you. In a moment my team will initiate DSLD, and you will sleep soundly during the long journey. Thousands of cycles will pass, but to you, it will feel like mere seconds. I know some of you are frightened, but find comfort in knowing every precaution has been taken to ensure the survival of life. Be strong. Be proud. Be hopeful. Follow the Grand King's imperial flagship to glory ... end transmission."

"Transmission cut, sir," Alpha says.

"Connect me to the captains."

"One way channel open, sir."

"Captains, I'm now returning control back over to you. Finish preparations and have a safe journey."

"Communications channel closed," Alpha says.

"Have all the captains transmitted their ready report yet?" Master Stargazer asks.

"Yes, sir," Alpha says, "All kingdom ships are ready for Deep Sleep and Light Drive."

"Beta, proceed with the DSLD sequence."

"Yes, sir."

A holographic display in the center of the control room shows the position of every kingdom ship. Most are already on the outskirts of the asteroid belt, waiting for the Light Drive to propel them toward the new planet.

One by one, the red dots representing the ships turn green as the passengers and crew aboard are put into stasis.

The last changes color.

May the Creators help me.

An earsplitting alarm activates.

"Malfunction," Gamma shouts. "Running system diagnostics now."

"Deep Sleep system reporting one-hundred percent complete but Light Drive won't initiate," Beta says. "Wait, the ships are moving, sir. Alpha, are you seeing this?"

"They're heading for Sacred Star," Gamma shouts.

"Confirmed," Alpha says. "Light Drive's unresponsive, and the ships are traveling towards Star. What's happening?"

"Turn that siren off," Master Stargazer demands.

Alpha switches off the warning, then frantically types commands into his terminal, searching for a solution.

Master Stargazer watches their desperation and feels the sting of guilt for putting them though this—especially Alpha, who has been his loyal supporter and dearest friend since they were children in the Academy.

"The ships are slowing," Beta says, relieved. "They're arranging in an unusual formation just beyond our planet's orbit."

"Globular pattern," Alpha corrects. "The fleet's formation is a perfect sphere around Star. We need to wake the captains."

"I can't, sir," Beta says. "The whole system is unresponsive."

"This diagnostic report can't be right," Gamma says.

"What is it?" Alpha sees the grim look on Gamma's face. "What does it say?"

"It says we no longer have authorization to launch Light Drive."

"Revoked credentials?" Beta asks, confused. "Only the Grand King and Master Stargazer have that authority."

All eyes turn towards Master Stargazer.

"Assistants Alpha, Beta, Gamma," Master Stargazer speaks as softly as he can, trying to prevent his voice from shaking. "There are things I must explain to you before we can continue our mission."

"What is this outrage?" Gamma says. "We must launch now!"

"Please, Gamma, remain calm."

"Sir, Gamma is correct. The repulsers are giving way, the ice cap's gone, our oceans are boiling, and most of the landmass is covered in magma. We have to get our people to a safe distance."

"I know this will be hard to understand," Master Stargazer says, "but you must know."

Master Stargazer takes a deep breath. The air feels like fire in his lungs.

Tell them the brutal truth.

"There's no safe distance."

"We do not understand your meaning," Alpha says.

"Damn you, Stargazer," Gamma yells. "Give us the codes."

Master Stargazer pulls a blaster from his robe and aims it at the assistants. "I regret having to do this."

"Have you gone mad?" Alpha asks.

"To be honest, Alpha, old friend, I'm not sure. If I'd done what I was supposed to, all three of you would be dead right now and this conversation would not be happening."

"Stargazer," Gamma says, venom in his voice. "The Grand King won't stand for this. Put down the weapon."

"You know the Grand King holds no authority over me. Besides, he died thirty-three cycles ago, when the imperial flagship left for the colony."

"Lies!" Gamma runs toward Master Stargazer.

He pulls the trigger.

The wall behind Gamma smokes from the blast.

"A warning, Gamma. One more step and the next one will not miss. Now that I have your attention, listen to what I have to say. Beta, send all available power to the repulsers."

"Sir?"

"Life support, everything. Do it now."

"The surface is completely engulfed in Sacred Star's flares, sir. Without internal shielding we'll burn."

"I don't care. Do it. I need time to explain."

"How can you stand here and let billions of people burn to death?" Alpha's eyes are wet with grief. "Your family is up there. So is mine. Do not kill them, I beg you."

Beta transfers all remaining power to the Solar Repulsion System, a network of repulser satellites orbiting Sacred Star. Their creation was the first massive feat of global engineering done after the unification. If not for the repulsers, Sacred Star would have died cycles ago. Now that Sacred Star has entered the last stage of life and begun to fuse silicon to iron, the repulsers can no longer channel enough rogue energy to delay the inevitable. Minutes remain before they fail, and when they do, the repressed supernova will finally break through.

The computer voice activates: "REPULSERS AT MAXIMUM LEVEL. SYSTEM FAILING. SUPERNOVA IMMINENT."

"I gave them hope. That is all I could do. I put them in stasis out of love so they would have no idea what's going to happen. Now please listen closely," Master Stargazer says. "The history of the Stargazers as you know is a lie."

"A lie? There's no lie, only your delusion, old man. I should've seen it."

"Gamma," Alpha says. "We need to resolve this situation before it's too late. Let him have his say."

Choosing to ignore Gamma, Master Stargazer nods at Alpha, and he reveals the long held secret.

"From the beginning we hoped to prevent the death of Star. When the Dark Days ended the twelfth Stargazer unified the world under the Grand King. The thirteenth Stargazer developed the Thousand Cycle Plan, but a solution seemed impossible. Eventually the plan shifted focus from prevention to delay and departure. We had to find a new home.

“System wide space travel rapidly advanced from then on to the time of the thirtieth Stargazer. Cryogenics, Half-limit ships, and other technologies matured. By the time of the thirty-third Stargazer, the planet reached maximum output. Every person contributed in one way or another.

“But everything since the time of the thirty-ninth Stargazer has been a total fabrication. Our technology allowed us to scan the entire galaxy. We looked for a new home. Sadly, we found nothing. The thirty-ninth Stargazer's true discovery was the galaxy, and possibly the whole universe, is completely void of biological life. Except for our own planet, nothing else is out there. He lied to preserve hope.”

The temperature rises with each passing second. Sweat pours from all four of them.

"What you are telling us cannot be," Alpha says. "The Grand King will be waiting for his people when the fleet arrives."

"We found a home," Beta insists. "My parents are on a colonist ship, sir."

"A lie. Every Stargazer for the last hundred cycles looked over the data. Our planet is unique. There's no life anywhere else in the galaxy."

"No." Beta shakes her head in disbelief.

"I'm sorry. We're truly alone. The cosmological joke is we were given just enough time ... just enough time to advance to the point where we could save ourselves, only to discover there's no place to go."

"You have no proof," Gamma says. "Stop this madness and give us the codes before it's too late."

"Gamma, you small minded fool, the one great technological failure of our people is all the proof you need. We harnessed the power of an energy source that by all reasoning should not exist; we created ships that reach distant stars; we're able to manipulate time-space itself, and yet with all these great advancements, we were unable to find a single living system outside our own. Life came from a natural phenomenon, or from the Creators, I can't say, but the process hasn't been reproduced, and every means of transplantation failed."

"If half of what you say is truth, sir, then it's the Creators’ will for our existence to end," Beta says, distraught. "How can they let us come so far for nothing?"

"My father wondered the same thing," Master Stargazer replies. “It led to his death.”

"Then what of the colonists?" Gamma asks, "What of the Grand King? Where were they sent?"

"You may recall the twenty-ninth Stargazer invented an atomizer capable of breaking down all organic matter. No practical use could be found. Another lie. The fortieth Stargazer installed them on the on the class-one ships. They were quite useful."

Beta gasps. "Why?"

"You need to understand," Master Stargazer pauses, suddenly feeling as if he's standing in a furnace. He looks down at his sweat drenched uniform then rips open the collar, knowing it isn't going to help. Each breath is labored and stings his lungs. "With nowhere for the Grand King and colonists to go," he continues, "the fortieth Stargazer felt it would be a cruelty to allow the ship to end up in the vast emptiness between galaxies. He activated the atomizers once the crews entered stasis."

"Liar! The Grand King lives!" Gamma rushes forward.

Startled, Master Stargazer tries to speak but the rising heat dulls his senses. His words, once so carefully chosen and able to sway or inspire fail when he needs them most. He raises the weapon and aims at Gamma's chest. Just then, Alpha and Beta attack, each run at him. If he fires now, he'll win, but pulling the trigger on any of his friends isn't as easy as he hoped and the split second hesitation costs him his advantage.

"Get the blaster," Beta shouts. "Get it!"

Fools!

Master Stargazer sidesteps Gamma and turns toward the others. He fires. The shot strikes Beta in the head and a red cloud floats in the air as her body falls backward. Sweat pouring from his brow causes him to lose focus, and he's unable to hone in on his next target, Alpha.

There's a sudden flash of pain as Gamma tackles Master Stargazer from the right. Then Alpha lands a heavy blow to Master Stargazer's temple. The world dissolves into a white mesh of confusion and hatred. Gamma gets a hand on the blaster, but Master Stargazer manages to fire off two more shots.

Blood sprays Master Stargazer, and he sees the terror in his friend Alpha's eyes, as his life pours from the two gaping holes in his chest. His body collapses just as the alert system blares the dreaded message.

"SOLAR REPULSION SYSTEM FAILURE. SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. SHOCK WAVE IMMINENT. FOUR MINUTES TO PLANETARY IMPACT."

"Die!" Gamma screams.

Master Stargazer struggles to keep the weapon, but Gamma, half his age, is much stronger. He fires again. A searing pain erupts though his body.

Master Stargazer clutches at his wound. All the fight in him vanishes. Defeated, he lets the blaster fall to the ground. He stares at Gamma from the control room floor. His face is a bloody mess from the red gash that extends past his left ear.

"If only I fired that shot an inch to the left." Master Stargazer's laugh becomes a grunt of pain.

Gamma, not in the mood for jokes, places the barrel of the blaster to Master Stargazer's head. "Give me the codes, damn you.”

Blood pools around Master Stargazer. He applies more pressure to the wound, but it's no use.

How had this gone so wrong?

"For cycles I had this planned ... three shots and three dead friends."

So, so, simple, but I was too weak.

"We don't have time. Give me the codes," Gamma says.

"I failed. I'm sorry."

"SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. THREE MINUTES TO PLANETARY IMPACT."

"Give me the codes now!"

"Gamma, everything I told you is true."

"Even if I believed what you say, I won't accept defeat. I'll get them out of the blast radius. I'll send the command to wake them up. Stargazer, any chance is better than no chance at all."

"Torturous and futile ... only one way."

"Sacred Star is dead, and the planet is about to be destroyed. I'll leave them in stasis. Let me get them away from the blast. The Creators will save them. STARGAZER, THE CODES! PLEASE!"

"Dead starless abyss between galaxies ... The expanse." Master Stargazer bleeds out fast. "Fate worse than death ..." He coughed. More blood. "You wish that?"

Gamma says nothing.

"No way to save them ... every solution... every solution led to failure."

"SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. TWO MINUTES TO PLANETARY IMPACT."

Gamma drops the blaster and collapses next to Master Stargazer. "Then this is how it ends. You should have told us sooner."

"Our people would have... suffered ... despaired ... I couldn't."

"All is lost," Gamma says. "All is lost."

The conversation with Gamma fades from Master Stargazer's mind. The voice he hears becomes lighter than a soft breeze. Each time he closes his eyes, he imagines being with his family. Not deep beneath a dead world about to be obliterated by Star's shockwave, but in the fields of the Stargazer's estate. He jokes, and plays with the grandchildren. His wife and daughter tend to the garden. His son calls from the porch, informing them that lunch is ready. As he brushes dirt from his hands, he notices his favorite flower has grown a seed pouch.

The button!

Master Stargazer's eyes fly open. "Gamma," he croaks, "Gamma, the button. I need to press it ... only hope." His voice is barely a whisper.

"There's no hope here. Have you not caused enough pain? Be silent and die."

"One chance. Listen. Please."

Gamma glared at the bodies on the floor but said nothing.

"We tricked millions of colonists into death." Master Stargazer musters every last bit of strength. "Repulsers, scanners, ships, and thousands of advanced technologies at the right time. The last Star-worshipers claimed the Creators guided us. We reached the highest technological limits, and still we could not save ourselves. What did Stargazers do after that?"

"You kept going. Pretended. Lied!"

"Out of compassion, Gamma. Atomizers killed millions ... had to maintain the story. Had to ... compassion." He coughs, and nearly passes out, but keeps talking with his eyes closed. "Could've gone into the dark abyss, stuck in stasis for all of time. Horrifying. Atomizers ... best choice."

Gamma nods. "I would rather die than end up in the darkness, I'll grant you, but that changes nothing."

"SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. ONE MINUTES TO PLANETARY IMPACT."

Master Stargazer notices the puddle of his own blood boiling from the intense heat. "Ships, deep sleep, lies ... murders. The right thing to do, yes? Only thing to do?"

"Yes," Gamma nods, "If I had known, I would've acted as the Stargazers did."

"And of all things to kill with ... Not explosives, or poison gas?"

"Compassion; they died asleep, they died with hope, but the outcome is still the same."

"More than that," Master Stargazer coughed blood. "More than that ... died uniquely ... the button."

"It doesn't matter." Gamma says, as he helps the old man to his feet, and they slowly make their way across the room.

Once in front of the panel, Gamma reaches to press the button. Master Stargazer stops him.

"No, Gamma. This burden is mine."

"SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. SUPERNOVA. THIRTY SECONDS TO PLANETARY IMPACT."

With a final prayer to the Creators, Master Stargazer gently presses down, and eight-billion people are vaporized.

Master Stargazer and Gamma, the only two sentient beings in existence, sink to the floor, exhausted. They watch the computer simulation of the coming shockwave.

"The body of Sacred Star would have destroyed them just the same. What difference did it make?"

Master Stargazer shrugs, "Part of the plan."

"The Thousand Cycle Plan was meant to atomize our race?"

"No. Creators’ plan ... faith ... a funny thing." Master Stargazer says absently. "Never much use for it ... until now." He manages a small laugh. "What do atomizers do, Gamma?"

"Break down matter. They ..." Gamma's eyes widen, "Microscopic specks of organics."

"Exactly. We might not be the last."

"Planet bound organisms would never work," Gamma says quickly. "Not at those temperatures. In space, the parameters are different."

"Right technology ... right time ... enough life."

"Atomize it all near a Supernova and the building blocks can be blown clear across the galaxy."

"Like spores ... like spores."

Gamma squeezes the old man's hand. "New life," he says, tears in his eyes.

"If it works ..." Master Stargazer's voice fades and his head lowers to his chest, "If it works." He dies in the arms of his assistant, faith in his heart.

"It will, Master Stargazer. It has to."

Gamma's final, hopeful, words fall silent as the Supernova destroys the planet and spreads the Stargazer's seeds across the galaxy.


Kris Mallory is from Baltimore, Maryland. Writing has been a passion of his for a long time, and he finally decided that this is the year to take it seriously. His work has appeared on the "Tales to Terrify" podcast, and he has a novella in the top 50 stories on Reddit's NoSleep.