First Light From the Farthest Star
The universe is ending and if I don’t hurry, I’ll miss my chance to kill Aster.
The sky is filling in with stars, the way rust encrusts a sheet of iron. At the dock, I procure a speedboat, slicing its mooring ropes with my lanser. The owner is nowhere to be seen, his rental kiosk maglocked, like all the other stalls up and down the empty promenade. Spray-painted in red on the metal shutter, in incongruously elegant copperplate script, are the words ‘Closed Forever’. Next to it, a postcard-sized cardboard sign, the laminate peeling at the corners, reads ‘Back At:’; the sun-bleached plastic hands of the printed clockface below point at 5.40. Morning or evening? It doesn’t matter. The sun burned out on Thursday and, anyway, we’ve long stopped bothering to keep time – it just keeps running out.
I put the boat into drive and steer it out of the harbour. Up north, the ice covers all, but here at the edge of the equator the cold is still crisp, The Pore’s eternal summer finally falling into winter. A few snowflakes dance across my face, but as I get out to sea there’s nothing but the wind on my skin, salt skimming my lips. The water is choppy, the waves surging then collapsing just as their tips catch the starlight. There’s hardly any empty sky left. They say that when the end comes, the sky will be completely white. We will see the light from the farthest stars, from every single star that was ever born. Truly the event of a lifetime, an out-of-this-world experience, a sight to end all sights. I’ve heard all the apocalypse jokes by now.
The lights of the promenade are a faint glow on the horizon when I hear the music. It is frenzied yet fragile, the sound of ice cracking as it melts. I am convinced it comes from the stars. Then I see the seaship. Its approaching mass grows brighter and brighter as if, like the sky, it were being filled in with stars. The music clarifies itself as a waltz, played by a string ensemble. I see the couples with their shimmering clothing and glistening faces on the heated deck, swirling about each other in 3/4 time. I can almost smell the wine and the perfume. This must be one of the more expensive ‘last-night-of-the-world’ parties. It’s not like people have anything else to save up for.
The yacht passes me. My little boat rocks in its wake as I stare at the brilliant spot shrinking in the distance. My ears strain to hold on to the rumble of the cello, but all I can hear are the waves. I think about the unfathomable fathoms beneath that glittering surface that will never be bothered by starlight.
I’m heading for a lighthouse that doesn’t have a light. No matter: the stars are enough to steer by. The island Aster lives on is really a glorified rock, albeit a well-fortified one with, knowing Aster, all the creature comforts that money and modern technology can provide. Not a bad way to spend the rest of your days, though, if circumstances were otherwise, I wouldn’t choose to spend the rest of my days with Aster. Hell, I wouldn’t choose to spend any day with Aster.
It looms before me now. Satumu island is flat and squat like a manta ray. Its lighthouse is bone white and laced with cracks. In this instant, I can feel Aster’s presence so strongly, as if he were staring at me. Maybe he is staring at me, alone in his lighthouse. He is waiting for me in his lighthouse on his rock and I am in my boat in the sea, speeding towards him. And everyone else is on that ever-distant yacht, dancing their way to the end.
I reach the island. I hastily dock the speedboat. I don’t bother to secure it: I won’t be using it again. My skin is tingling and my heart is racing as I clamber onto the pier. Its weathered wood is pale gold in the starlight, but the jungle beyond is dark and, as the roar of the ocean falls away, peculiarly quiet. The lighthouse is on the other side of the island, the other side of that tangle, where the land falls sharply into the sea in a jumble of rocks and other broken pieces of itself. There is a concrete path snaking its way through the jungle’s primaeval gloom and I take it. The salt of the sea has worked its way into my nostrils, but its bracing scent is soon overpowered by the odour of vegetation, slimy and physical and constrictive.
I know it cannot be far, but I cannot see the lighthouse, only the veil of leaves above me. Something crunches as I step on it. In the scant starlight that makes its way through the canopy, I can see that the path is dotted with small, ovoid objects, like seed pods. Then I realise that they are crickets, the crickets whose screams are missing from the jungle. The insects are motionless, dead perhaps or just in cryogenic sleep. It is colder than it’s ever been, and it will only get colder still.
Maybe fifteen minutes, maybe fifty, then I begin once again to hear the pounding of the waves, though the jungle shows no sign of ending. Or maybe it’s just the roar of blood in my ears. My heart is hammering imperiously against my breastbone, beneath the pocket containing the book that is my passport to this island, which holds the text so important to Aster that he is finally allowing me to come close. I would say that I hope this decision is his hamartia, except of course I do not see him as the tragic hero of this story.
The lighthouse is suddenly before me, gleaming softly like pallid flesh. Up close, I see that what I had thought were cracks are actually vines, clinging to the curved stone with fat, translucent fingers. I think of castle towers in timeless tales, hiding imprisoned princesses in their crowns. But I face no dragons or witches’ spells, just a smooth metal door set seamlessly into the ancient wall. It emits a beep as I stand before it, but does not open. Then a muffled pop and, to the right of the doorway, a drawer drops slowly open. An illuminated sign inside the cavity in the shape of a lanser makes it clear what I have to surrender to gain admission. I place my weapon in the cavity and the door beeps again, scanning me once more. Then it slides open with a hiss.
Aster must know I’ve arrived. He must be thinking of me as I ascend the helix staircase, my feet thudding dully on the metal, the only light the feebly glowing strips set into the hypotenuse of each triangular step. He must be thinking, like me, of how to act when we finally meet again, soon, after all this time. He must be thinking of me thinking about him.
I cannot see my hands before me as I grope my way upwards. The interior wall is smooth as glass; it’s freezing and palpably sterile, and I imagine my fingers leaving warm smears of DNA, marking my passage even after the surface has once again cooled over. My breathing seems to echo about me, thrown back from the cavern above, the abyss below. I am counting, then I realise I’ve already lost track of the number of steps I’ve taken. I am sure Aster is counting, that he knows how many more steps I have to go.
I feel my irises clench as all at once I’m surrounded by light. Starlight is streaming in through the massive glass windows of the lantern room, filling the emptiness of the empty space. It swells up against the high domed ceiling; it turns the bare blank floor into a moonscape. I shut my eyes, open them again. I am dazzled, giddily elated by all that light. It is almost as an afterthought that I perceive the too-slight figure at the far side of the room.
Aster steps forward and the glare of the stars illuminates, unexpectedly, the face that I’ve most longed to see.