A Star Eating Darkness

by Evelyn Freeling

From CHM #33 March 2023

Each time Gal closed her eyes, she heard in the bend of trees the creaking of a burdened noose, so she kept them open instead. She focused on the swaying night sky above her, the flitting tail of Scorpius, but out of habit her gaze drifted to the surrounding woods and the shadows which lurked beyond the first crooked, moss-drenched branches. Eating a palmful of magic mushrooms was a mistake, it turned the stark isolation of the cabin into a physical sensation, like a pair of cold fingers walking down her spine. But she was out here for her brother. Because he insisted they needed closure. Or, whatever.

“Can you sense Dad?” Kirk asked. He lay sprawled on the grass next to her, hands tucked under his head, eyes closed. “I think I feel him.”

Gal pursed her lips. Their dad would’ve clicked his tongue at Kirk and reminded him that humans were walking bags of decaying matter. Even if Dad had been wrong and humans did have souls, Gal doubted that Dad was the type to hang around. But they’d come because Kirk wanted closure, so she hummed, “Mmhmm. I think so.”

“Really?” Kirk examined her through a squint. She nodded and he sat up. “Do you think we should have, like, a seance or something?”

Gal laughed. “Why would we do that?”

“Because,” he said, voice softening. “Don’t you want to know what happened?”

She sighed. “Knowing won’t bring him back.”

“Yeah but…” He turned to her, his blue eyes wet. “Dad didn’t say anything to you?”

Gal turned away, sickened by how Kirk’s eyes matched Dad’s exactly, especially when he cried. “No. We’ve been over this.”

“Not so much as a letter,” he murmured, voice hitching. “I’ve never understood that.”

Gal ignored him and clambered to her feet, the world spinning around her. She swayed and silently cursed ever agreeing to this private memorial. She didn’t even like shrooms. “All he cared about was work.” And his stupid society, she thought, unable to bear mentioning it aloud. She craned her head at the sky to blink back the tears heating her vision. “Do you see that?”

He stood. “What?”

“There,” she said, pointing and shaking her head in confusion. It was a clear summer night, not a clot of cloud anywhere to be seen, but where Scorpius should’ve been, where it was moments ago, there was now only darkness. Silence rippled around them as they stared.

“It’s just the shrooms,” Gal said, scanning for the bow and arrow of Libra, but they too were gone, a hole where the five stars should’ve been.

The bright blue star of Virgo glowed nearby. Gal rubbed her eyes. She could’ve sworn the blue light was flickering, a bulb losing its juice. Then, exactly like that, the star plunged out. She gasped and gripped her brother’s arm. One by one, the stars of Virgo disappeared, as though some cosmic darkness had awakened with a gnawing hunger and was gorging itself upon the night sky. They watched as the constellations Dad had spent summers burning into their memories blotted away, not so much as a trace left behind.

Kirk sprinted to the cabin. It was a derelict thing with wood siding dilapidated by time and rain so that the planks looked perpetually wet even after a hot day like this. On top of its roof was a massive satellite Dad had built himself. Gal was amazed it hadn’t yet brought the place down to its foundations. It had to weigh a ton, at least.

“Where are you going?” she shouted after Kirk, but he disappeared inside without an explanation and, moments later, reappeared with Dad’s telescope.

Kirk propped the telescope on its three legs and aimed its black eye at the spot where Virgo should’ve been. She waited for him to say something, anything, and hugged herself as a cold breeze picked up. The dry grass and pine needle forest rustled. Movement in the shadows caught her eye, but she glanced away as quickly as she had looked.

“Gal,” Kirk called, voice hitching. “You have to see this.”

She didn’t want to, but her feet carried her anyway. She squinted into the eyepiece, fingers barely touching the focusing knob as though it might burn. Up there in the black sheet of sky was a mass, a darker shade of darkness, amorphous and ever-shifting.

When she pulled away, every constellation had disappeared. Only the moon grinned down at them. Gal shivered. All alone, that smile looked sinister, knowing. A cheshire god. She glanced at her brother, hoping he might say something comforting or funny. Kirk had turned twenty not long ago, but now with his brow bent and lips puckered in drug-fueled fear, he looked like a boy again.

Gal wrapped her arm around him. Before she could reassure him once more that they were simply having a bad trip, he shook his head. “Galaxy, shrooms don’t make stars disappear.”

“Yeah, well, stars don’t just disappear.”

“Why not?” he asked, unblinking, pupils the size of dimes. “All we’re seeing is light from billions of miles away. For all we know, they’re all dead and…” He swallowed. “We just witnessed their deaths.”

“You’re suggesting that all of the stars in the entire universe died at approximately the same time,” she pointed out. “All of them, except our sun?”

He glanced at the moon, still reflecting the sun’s light at them. “At least not yet.”

He spun and raced back into the cabin, leaving her to chase. Gal hesitated, glancing again at the perimeter of the forest where shadows seemed to take shape. Six figures in hoods emerged from the trees. The drugs, she reasoned with herself. It had to be the drugs. There was nobody out here. They were thirty minutes from the nearest gas station.

Gal swallowed dryly and raced after Kirk. She found him bent over their old boxy television with an antenna set on top, muttering something about the news. Their dad never liked them watching TV when they came. What’s the point of a cabin if all you do is park your butts in front of that thing? The television was thanks to Mom.

She spun back to the open field and gasped. The figures were still there, stalking towards the cabin, dark silhouettes. She was sure she was imagining it, but closed the door and spun the deadbolt anyway.

The television buzzed to life, but instead of static, Dad filled the screen. His skin was almost gray and draped down his jowls in folds, cheeks sunken. His hair hung in his eyes, coils of brown grease. His face was covered in months old growth, but it was his eyes that made Gal’s stomach drop. Hollow, haunted, a pair of bottomless lakes. The eyes of a man who thought he had nothing to live for. How had she not seen it before?

“Hey kids,” he said. Hearing his voice after all those months liquified her knees. She fell, numb to the shock of the hardwood floors against her bones. Numb to everything but that gruff, scratchy tenor. “If you’re watching this, I’m sorry. There’s so much I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know how. I’ve unleashed something that can’t be put back. All the destruction to unfold… It’s all my fault.” He sniffed, mouth trembling and tears streaming freely. “I want you to know I love you and if you want to understand, just remember: if you ever meet your antiself, don’t shake hands.”

The screen filled with static, the electric buzz loud and grating. A videotape ejected out of the player. Kirk turned the television off and for a long silence Gal watched him stare at his reflection in the darkened screen.

“Dad said that to me before. ‘I’ve unleashed something that can’t be put back.’ I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I always thought, if I had, that maybe—”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference,” Gal said, firmly. “He was sick. And you’re his kid. It wasn’t your job. It was his job to help himself, to get treatment. He failed us.”

Kirk’s chin fell to his chest. “What did he mean ‘if you ever meet your antiself?’”

She clicked her tongue, annoyed that she knew. “It’s a reference to Stephen Hawking’s book. A Brief History of Time.” Kirk stared at her, eyes blank. “Didn’t Dad make you read it? I read it every summer in high school.”

Gal stood and wandered past the taupe couch, its cushions stained and flattened, to the overflowing bookshelf Dad had collected over the years. All of the shelves were stacks of organized chaos, books piled atop each other so that it would take forever to find anything, except for one shelf with a neat row. It was there she found the title, its spine new and without the creases she was sure she had worn into it over the years.

She pulled, but it snagged. She pulled again and the entire wall came with it.

“Wicked,” Kirk said.

Whatever lay beyond hid in shadows. The door ajar—any door ajar—transported her back to the day she had come to the cabin, nudged his bedroom door fully open, and found his lifeless body swinging from a light fixture.

Kirk marched past her into the dark. All was quiet for a too-long second. An ocean murmured in the whirling of blood between her ears.

Urine-yellow light leaked from a bare bulb overhead. Gal staggered in and spun a slow circle. Dad had curated a science-fiction movie set. Black paneled computers were stacked floor-to-ceiling along one wall, together bearing thousands of small square cut outs behind which emeralds and rubies winked. Next to it, Gal blinked back at herself. Grass braided into her blonde hair. A mirror, she realized, and next to it a coat rack from which draped a long black robe embroidered with strange symbols—the letter P but with jagged points, a triangle made of three diamonds, a half-circle with lines jutting out from the edges.

A table sat against another wall topped by four monitors, some sort of frequency machine with the same strange symbols written around the dials, and a printer with a long needle similar to ones Gal had seen on lie detector tests in films. All of them were powered off.

“What is it?” Kirk asked as she picked up the scroll of paper that hung from the printer in a long, curling tongue. Gal scanned the jagged black lines.

“Weird,” she said, tracing a finger over the peaks and valleys. He looked over her shoulder as she scanned. “It’s a radio satellite. The printer recorded the signals, but see how even the spikes are? The quiet between, they’re all exactly spaced apart and the signals…” She shook her head. “It’s like it’s a message.”

Kirk fingered a button on one of the monitors and they all burst to life. The room filled with a groan that sounded as though a hundred different people—no, not people, things—were howling from somewhere out in the deep of space. The needle on the printer sprung into action, scratching over the white tongue of paper. No longer were the patterns constant, measured, like a message being repeated again and again. The needle burst up and down in erratic explosions.

“Shut it off,” Gal cried, sweat beading on her brow.

Kirk punched the monitors back off. His voice a whisper, he asked, “What does it mean?”

“I… I don’t know. But something’s happening.”

Something about all of this unsettled her, snaking her organs into knots. She noticed for the first time a strange leatherbound book resting on the chair tucked under the table. Someone had carved the leather on the cover to look like a face, its mouth contorted with pain.

She flipped through the pages, past brutal drawings of bizarre creatures that twisted on the page, the shrooms bringing them to life—twirling tendrils of what looked like a mutant octopus, a pair of battered wings mid-flight bleeding down the page.

“This is a bad trip,” Kirk whined.

Gal nodded at the printer’s readings while she flipped through the book. “Radio satellites pick up electromagnetic radiation in space and transform the radiation into signals that we can hear. The printer was recording the events by the gigahertz.”

He stared at her with five blank eyes. She had been the one who wanted to be a rocket scientist as a kid. Just like Daddy. Gal could practically hear her ten-year-old self saying it.

“Nuclear bombs emit almost two hundred and fifty megahertz of radiation when they detonate. I don’t know what’s happening, but whatever it is, it’s at least four times more powerful,” she explained.

“What could do something like that?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “A sun going supernova, maybe. Or annihilation.”

“Annihilation?”

“Antimatter and matter collisions.”

And as though he was reading her mind, he murmured, “If you ever meet your antiself, don’t shake hands. Do you think any of this has to do with Dad’s society?”

Gal flinched at the mention. The society had been the catalyst that destroyed their parents’ marriage. Dad had become obsessed, attending secret meetings and refusing to speak of them or what they did. At first, Mom thought he was cheating on her. That probably would’ve been an easier problem to solve. In truth, they still to this day didn’t understand what had happened, only that he threw his life away for the society—his career, his family, himself.

Mom had tried to reason with him, to get him help for what she thought was a descent into mental illness. At his funeral, it was just the three of them and a few of his old co-workers. Not one member of his “society” had bothered.

Gal stopped. At the very end of the book was an illustration—a charcoal cloud, smudged by fingers—and beneath the cloud in Dad’s handwriting, it read THE STAR EATER. The next pages were filled with tables of electromagnetic radiation readings, frequencies, measurements of photons, and strange symbols that looked sort of like runes, including the ones on the frequency machine. Dad had written a line of them—the triangle, the P, a circle with a dot in the center, the open circle with lines.

Gal set the book on the table and thumbed the frequency machine power button. She spun the dial in the same order that Dad had written the four symbols in and waited. Nothing seemed to happen. She stepped back and glanced at Kirk. He was still, staring at her. Too still, she realized.

She glanced up. Above the monitors was a clock. The second hand stuttered, fighting to tick forward. Something caught Gal’s eye, movement in the full length mirror that hung on the wall. It was her as a girl, thirteen or fourteen by the pink streaks in her blonde hair, two years before Dad had joined his society and recluded to this cabin to be seen by Gal and Kirk only a few weeks each summer.

Thirteen-year-old Gal stood bent over a tall glass of water. Now Gal glanced from the mirror to the table and there the glass was, where it wasn’t only a second ago, empty. Water pooled from the bottom, rose fast and furious then stopped just before spilling over. The surface rippled in reverse, moving inward and disappearing at the center. Dad’s voice echoed, in her head or in the room she couldn’t be certain.

“Time is in entropy,” he explained and she could still remember that day. “The big bang sent out matter, which formed and continues to form every possible variation of matter’s existence: suns, planets, and moons. Life. As time continues forward, the universe necessarily becomes more diverse. Every new variation has its own ripple effect. Diversity is chaos, it leads to greater unpredictability. That is the essence of entropy. Understand?”

Gal turned to her brother in search of a sign that he was hearing this too, but he was still frozen in place, eyes oozing down his face like a pair of undercooked eggs, skin dripping from his cheeks and splattering to the floor in waxy globs.

Dad’s voice slurred. The words no longer made any sense in the air but instead formed meaning inside her head. In an antimatter universe, time is in negentropy. Everything is moving from chaos towards order. Instead of a big bang, where matter is scattered across an infinite universe, sent out to form into the infinite variations that can possibly exist, matter collects at a singular point, forming into greater and greater homogeneity.

The second hand spun counterclockwise circles. Gal’s legs felt weak. Kirk’s melted skin defied gravity, flying up from its spots on the floor back to his face, eyes back into his sockets. He walked backwards, out the door they entered through. Faster and faster, the second hand spun. Gal’s head ached, she tried to clutch it, tried to collapse to her knees, but invisible forces pinned her in place.

That cosmic groaning filled her skull, reverberated in her bones, and she gasped. There was Dad sitting at his desk. Sweat beaded his gray skin and was reabsorbed by his pores. He fiddled the dials of the frequency machine with its strange shapes and symbols, the angular P, the triangle made of three diamonds. The needle of the printer scratched away, erasing the black ink as the paper re-furled. The black speakers trembled, words forming from the myriad howling voices, Star. Eater. Brings…

Something darted in the tail of her eye, but still Gal couldn’t move. She could only swivel her eyes, use her peripheries to see and, fuck, how she wished she hadn’t. Her thirteen-year-old self faced the mirror—eyes a pair of black canvases, tar running down her cheeks. Her mouth unhinged and black mist poured out until it swallowed her whole. A pink shock of electricity erupted from inside the cloud and disappeared, then a yellow, a green, each one bursting to life then dying. 

Or…der… The voices whispered in her head.

Gal fought against the gravity that glued her in place. Fire-hot pain licked up her muscles. She moved centimeter by centimeter, body screaming, reaching for the frequency machine for what felt like eons. Finally, she thumbed the machine off and time came slamming back. She fell to her knees. Sweat slicked her face, dripping from her chin fat as raindrops. Something squeezed her shoulder, shook.

“Galaxy,” Kirk’s voice said, sounding faraway, as if he was still tucked in some other dimension of space and time. “Galaxy.”

Her head was filled with helium. She held onto it so it wouldn’t float away. “Get… me out… of here,” she murmured, tongue heavy and coarse with sand.

Kirk draped her over his shoulder and grabbed the leatherbound book. “What happened? You were totally out of it.”

He set her on the couch, placed the book in her lap. The television lit up. Kirk played with the antennas as he flipped through the channels until one connected. A news anchor sat, skin turned to stone, the banner underneath a crimson alarm: ASTRONOMERS REPORT SUNS DISAPPEARING FROM THE UNIVERSE. MILKY WAY ALONE?

The possibility that they were the last solar system left in the universe made Gal’s throat ache. She remembered the night she lay in the grass field by their cabin, staring up at the constellations, and understood for the first time that the balls of gas she peered at were suns with planets rotating around them. And probably, she believed, somewhere on one of those planets was a little being, completely unlike her in every way except that they too were laying on the floor of their planet, looking at their sky, wondering if anyone was looking back.

Gal flipped to the last page. Swirling over the top was Dad’s handwriting. She squinted, trying to get it to stay in place. For every particle there is an antiparticle. For every big bang, there is a great vanishing. The Star Eater awakens.

And at the bottom: I’m so sorry.

Gal slammed the book shut. Dad was a scientist, an atheist. He believed humans were walking bags of decaying matter, that there were no gods or souls, only matter and energy.

“What?” Kirk asked.

Once or twice Dad had suggested that the universe would be better off without humanity, but never did that mean he would do something about it.

She swallowed and rose, fear filling her with new strength. The book fell to the floor with a clunk. Her knees wobbled as she moved to the window and pressed her face to it, cupping her eyes. The moon had disappeared.

“Some kind of antimatter lifeform sent those signals. And Dad sent signals back.”

“Like, he was talking with whatever’s out there?” Kirk asked. “That’s crazy. Dad wouldn’t kill himself and leave us to deal with this. He… No.”

Kirk trailed off, shaking his head.

“We wanted to know what happened.”

Knock knock knock.

Gal shuddered, gaze turning from the blank sky to the field where half a dozen hooded silhouettes stood. Two more loomed on the porch. “Don’t!” she shouted, too late.

Kirk threw the door open. “What do…”

He trailed off. Gal hurried to his side. The two figures before them had their heads bowed so the hoods of their robes—the same ones that hung in Dad’s lab—cast shadows over their faces. Together, they peeled their hoods away and lifted their chins, revealing a pair of too-big grins.

It was like looking into a mirror, the semblances were so exact, except the versions of Gal and Kirk that stood before them had black holes for eyes. They each reached out a hand, then the sky filled with a hot, blinding light.

End.

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Evelyn Freeling is an author of speculative fiction with short stories published and forthcoming from The Arcanist, Tales to Terrify, and Dark Void Magazine. She’s an associate editor for Haven Spec magazine and resides in Dubai with her husband and toddler. You can find her at www.evelynfreeling.com or through her Twitter handle @Evelyn_Freeling.

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