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art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

The Patient Stars

Ryan Simko splits his life between the rural cornfields of Ohio, USA and the modern metropolis of Hiroshima, Japan. He loses himself in fantasy more often than he likes to admit, and is always searching for another great story to read. His work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons.
"Just wait," she said. "This will be the best part."
A small bar in Cleveland, somewhere my memory only vaguely recalls after all this time. It wasn't the bar I was looking at. It was her smile, a smile like a supernova, spectacular, blinding, beautiful, and threatening to collapse my world into nothingness.
And it wasn't the gin and tonic I wanted to taste....
"I will run, and you will follow." She leaned in close, letting her breath run over my cheek. Electricity. Heart racing. "And we'll let fate decide the rest."
Everything about Earth feels so long ago. Cleveland may not even be a place any more, lost to time and change like so much I've seen. I don't need to remember much about Earth, though. All I need to remember is the feeling when she pulled me in and let our lips lock.
Then I knew I was a part of her game.
The next morning the note said only: Come and find me. I am waiting across the patient stars.
There were only three colonies back then. Luna, Mars, and Ganymede. I did not know where she had gone. I was left with no clue, no sign. So I took the only lead I had.
I went to the spaceport, and bought a ticket on the first ship leaving Earth.
Five million people across three worlds. She was somewhere there, waiting. All I had to do was find her.
But these worlds weren't static. They were ever morphing, changing, developing at a rate that would have left 21st century China jealous. The colonies were steel mazes running along the surface like varicose veins, growing day by day.
I started my search in the frozen halls of Ganymede, where heating was expensive, but synthetic alcohol was cheap. I gave her description a thousand times in a thousand places. Sleek, black hair. Eyes like polished jade. Skin like marble crafted by Bernini. I looked in the bars, in the winding residence halls that spiraled into the rock, and along the long glass surface corridors where a yellow sun was only a memory.
I did not find here there.
Next, I went to Mars, where the red dust seemed to seep through the walls and coat everything in a rusty haze. I worked in the terraforming teams, and spent every minute of my free time wandering. Every day a different bar, a different restaurant, a different biosphere park meant to resemble the distant Earth. All the while, forever wiping the fine dust from my eyes. I checked the colonist registries, I searched the net for signs of her, I spoke her name to every person I met.
Then I traveled to Luna, where many corridors were so tight that two people could not walk side by side. By then, the first commercial interstellar ships had begun to launch, spreading mankind across half a dozen stars.
Every time I turned I thought I caught a glimpse of her in the crowd, but then she vanished. I would catch a smile, a flash of ivory skin, and then nothing. I began to think she was only a dream my young mind had worked up. She was too beautiful, too perfect. And there was no chance to beat fate at its own game. This was all foolish.
But then I saw it. In a corner of the newspaper on Luna, in a plain white space in the classifieds so small I almost missed it.
Come and find me. I am waiting across the patient stars.
The next day I boarded a starship, leaving behind the sun's pull forever.
"Can't you imagine it?" She asked. "All these worlds, all these places, and we are just starting to reach them."
A hotel room in Cleveland, tucked beneath the covers. It was a private universe, composed only of us, of her scent, of her touch.
"We've only just discovered plant life on another planet. Imagine how many more worlds there are, how many places there are to see." Her enchanting smile again, and a mischievous glint in her eyes, barely discernible through the faint moonlight. "Who would want to spend their whole life here, when there are an infinite number of stars in the sky?"
I wanted to say something cheesy about the stars in her eyes, but her lips had already found mine again.
Forty million people across seven systems. Yet, it was not only the odds of population and distance I faced, but of time. It took me two months to reach Perelus, and twenty years passed for everyone else.
What if she had gone to another world? She may have landed ten years ago... or she could still be on a ship, watching worlds pass by, waiting to step out into a time when I was nothing but an old man driven mad by his quest.
Such was her game of fate.
Perelus was small, smaller even than Ganymede. Gray halls. Gray rocks. A population more optimistic than it had any right to be. I did not stay there long.
Thirty-two Earth years, a few months my time. Aagama. It was a world with a red sun that filled the sky, and an alien jungle untouched by intelligent life, ripe for mankind. Its population alone was fifty-two million when I landed. Mankind was expanding like a gas released from its solar container, spreading to fill every space available.
It was useless to give her description anymore. I simply watched, ever observant. I watched the advertisements on screens, the posters on walls, every picture in the news, searching. Would she make herself known? Would our meeting be a grand affair as I burst into her office after tracking her for weeks from a name in the paper? Would I simply email her after finding a familiar post on the net? Or would it be a moment of accidental eye contact in a crowded room, a brief pause of shock and held breath as we realized the odds we had overcome?
As time passed I realized I would not find the answer to my question on Aagama.
I stayed for a whole year before I left. It was a beautiful world, but I still had something more beautiful to find.
Six hundred million people across twenty-one worlds, not even counting Earth. A new inhabitable planet was discovered every few months. Ships could not leave the Sol system fast enough.
Eighteen Earth years for a trip to a world where rivers of molten metal flowed freely. People lived only along the twilight ring of a planet which never turned.
Forty-five years. A planet of snow with the most beautiful flowers I had seen in my life, and by then, I had seen a lot. The summers were warm enough to thaw the equator, but each season lasted only a single month.
As I traveled and searched, the universe grew around me. I never knew what to expect each time I stepped off the ship onto a new planet. I was also aware that my information about each world would be decades old by the time I arrived. I had no way to directly communicate over the vastness of interstellar space, no way to expand my search beyond each planet's own network.
Three billion people across thirty-six worlds. She could be anywhere, any time. Should I stay on one world? Would she? Would she stay close to Earth, or go as far as the universe would take her?
I already knew the answer to that.
Three hundred Earth years, one year my time. One hundred and eighty-seven billion people. One hundred and six worlds. And even that data was long-since outdated. Mankind had spread itself so far that it could not keep track of its distant cousins anymore.
I once heard a theorem to predict the chance of finding your soul mate on Earth. It was not promising, and it assumed a population of only six billion. What is the chance of meeting them twice with over thirty times as many people across five centuries?
It was no use to think about. I would find her again, despite all the odds of the universe.
I arrived on a desert planet in a binary star system. A man would die of heat stroke in less than thirty minutes on the surface, but the colonists built their tunnels underground, tapping into a the most beautiful ecosystem I had seen yet. It was a world of bioluminescent plants and fungus, where the walls glowed in an eternal twilight.
It was also the first world where I met someone who had never heard of Earth.
I wished I could meet her again here, in a surreal dream gently lit by moss, surrounded by a subterranean forest. She would love this world. I hoped she had already passed through, just to experience its beauty before the next hop of her voyage. The thought of being close to her, of sharing this experience, even if through different times, made me happy.
Two months my time, one-hundred and ten Earth years. Human engineering had begun to push ever closer to the limit, yet was still walled in by the demon of relativity.
I began to run into a problem. People could not understand me. During my jumps from world to world, human language and culture had continued to evolve, while my own speech didn't. I had to communicate through the use of a computer translator now.
The planet Briorion, a mountainous jungle world where people had begun to build floating cities. I could only glean a few familiar sounds in the spoken language. The letters on signs and screens only vaguely resembled the Latin alphabet.
Briorion reminded me of Aagama, but I no longer felt as though I belonged. In all my trips between the stars, this was the first world where I realized I was no longer the same. I was alone, a human from a planet that was part of mankind's history, not its future.
I began to leave messages on the net, files that would wait for her name to appear before contacting her. They would be patient, waiting decades, centuries, even millennia. Perhaps she would find my trail of breadcrumbs and know I was there, still searching. Yet even then I knew there would be no way for her to catch up to me. She would receive the message years too late. I would already be on another world, but she would at least still know I was there.
Somewhere.
Over ten trillion people. Over one thousand worlds.
Humans had begun to change. People were spread thousands of light years apart, and growing ever more distant. Memories of a city long in the past, on a planet where this all began, seemed distant. One thing was still clear in my mind, though. A kiss, a caress, and a promise to play a game across the stars.
I could not say I had a home. I could not say I even understood any of the worlds I stopped on. I spoke a language long since abandoned. I could only communicate through a computer tapped into archives of dead tongues.
Another jump. Another world.
I would stay long enough to see the people, to see the planet, and to leave a message. Then move on.
Another jump.
Each planet was a new wonder. A new culture. A version of humanity I had never seen.
Another jump.
Yet, I still realized I could only see a fraction of all the worlds. For every one I visited, another hundred were colonized. I wondered where she was. How many places she'd seen. I had dreams of telling her the wonders I'd witnessed, the people I'd met. Perhaps we'd never meet again, but we were together in spirit. We were both travelers, witnessing the growth of humanity into something grander, more wonderful.
Such was her game of fate.
Another jump, and I lost count.
Galactic population: unknown. Inhabited worlds: unknown.
I was on Infinity's End, eight parsecs from Earth. Infinity's End was barely more than a rock, a self-contained city established as a base on the Milky Way's edge. It was here they were building the first Voidship. Even relativity had been conquered, and now new paths lay open. The Milky Way was not enough anymore. Now mankind had its eyes set on the Large Magellanic Cloud, and so did I.
I sat in crowded pavilion, a bag filled with my belongings at my feet. The Voidship's journey began tomorrow. Twenty thousand people were ready to set off for a new galaxy. The Journey would be a long one. I would be very old before it finished, but I felt that the sight of a new galaxy with infinite possibilities would be a fitting journey's end.
I wondered about her, about where she was. I had not managed to find her, but I still feel as though I had won her game. It was not about the odds. It was about seeing the stars.
I got up for a moment and turned to a nearby food stall to purchase a meal. When I turned around, I found a small piece of paper placed atop my bag.
Confused, I picked it up. I pulled my small personal device from my pocket to prepare to scan and translate the text for me, when I realized I didn't need to. The note was handwritten in characters I had not seen another person use in many, many years.
The Voidship leaves tomorrow, my love. Let's travel together to the patient stars.
I spun, scanning the crowd. It couldn't be... could it? The odds were too impossible. Too... astronomical.
My heart raced as I carefully folded the note and put it in my pocket. The Voidship left tomorrow, and I would be on it. I wondered what the chances were of two specific people meeting on a ship of twenty thousand.
Pretty good, I'd say.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 22nd, 2013

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