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Dust to Dust

Benjamin MacLean-Max is from Ottawa, Ontario and is a student at the University of Toronto. He has been writing stories for as long as he can remember, but "Dust to Dust" is his first professional publication. He's very excited to see it in Daily Science Fiction.
It sounded like rain, fire, frying onions. It filled my head, summoning memories of the heady scent of rain caught on pine needles, sinking into mossy loam; of embers sent, glittering, up into a starry night; the taste of onions caramelized in butter.
It was none of these things, of course. The sound was coolant vaporizing against the outer layer of the crystal viewport. Piped at high pressure through a spiderweb of tiny capillaries in the crystal itself, the faint blue liquid flitted across the window every few seconds. It cooled the crystal, which would otherwise crack under the heat of the swollen star beyond.
The star's moody, flickering surface filled my field of vision, its greedy flames seeming to reach dangerously close. In fact, it was still at least ten thousand kilometers away; even Ba'aran ships couldn't safely get any closer. I had been staring at the mesmerizing patterns in its red-orange plasma surface for hours. My job was done. I had little else to do while we waited for the end.
As if on cue, Kiera trundled in. I smiled at her, and she looked back, her eyes widening slightly in acknowledgment. She stepped closer to the window and pressed a green-black hand to the cool crystal. Her ponderous head turned, and, catching my eye, she jerked her hand back as if burned. I laughed, and her eyes crinkled slightly into her own approximation of the gesture. It was a joke she'd made several times in the weeks we'd been parked in orbit around the dying star.
The Ba'ara were, in my experience, a melancholy species. The ancient, telepathic race had no spoken language, no names, and no genders. They were a solitary folk, rarely found in groups larger than two or three. Most people struggled to work with them, finding the silence oppressive, the solitude depressing.
I, for one, had enjoyed my months with this particular Ba'arai, whom I'd named Kiera and gendered female--two small concessions to my unenlightened modes of thought she seemed not to mind. Behind her subtle, mouthless expressions, and the slow, lumbering precision of her short, round body, I found a person of childlike exuberance and idiosyncratic humor, a friend of endless compassion, and a mind of ancient, bone-deep sorrow. The Ba'ara were a contradictory people, but I fancied myself a contradictory person, too; we got along quite well.
Kiera, eyes still creased at her little joke, turned back to the window and stared pensively at the dark shape silhouetted against the fiery tempest. We called the planet Ba'ar; no one really knows what the Ba'ara call anything.
It was their ancestral home world. Their Earth. Three billion years ago, they lived among its verdant forests and along its shimmering coasts. I'd seen pictures: the planet had been beautiful. Now, uninhabited for an eon--its atmosphere burned away, its teeming seas vaporized, its forests scorched to dust--Ba'ar orbited patiently, waiting to be devoured in the death throes of the star which had sustained it for nine billion years.
I watched Kiera's round, still form, and tried to imagine what it would feel like to bear witness to the end of your home world. It was a far cry from the paradise it had once been, but upon those now barren shores, the first Ba'aran ships had been built, the first Ba'aran cities risen. Its moon, long lost, had been their first steppingstone into the cosmos.
The relics of the civilization which left its atmosphere were lost to dust a billion years before Kiera was born. I couldn't imagine how that would feel. I missed Earth--the pine forests and mountain rains of my childhood--with a dull ache. If Kiera felt something similar when she looked down on the charred planet below, I saw no sign of that pain.
We'd performed some final surveys, collected a few last samples, prepared to record for posterity the last moments of the planet's existence. When I'd finished the last calibration to Kiera's satisfaction, the blasphemous fact of my presence had crashed over me at once. The Ba'ara were a solitary people; only one had come to watch the death of their world.
But I was here, too. For whatever reason, Kiera had brought me, so I, too, would bear witness.
We stood in silence and waited. The end began on schedule. A flare of light, as the planet's crust began to melt under the heat of the star. A network of glowing cracks spread across the planet's surface as heat and gravity tore it apart. The star flared again, its atmosphere roiling where molten rock and metal fell towards its core. Kiera pressed a hand against the crystal, and almost instinctively, I did the same. As we watched in impotent silence, Ba'ar slipped into its sun and was gone from the universe forever.
The irrevocability of the moment took my breath away. Nine billion years the planet had endured, nurturing trillions of lives, birthing an ancient, space-faring people. It had existed for time beyond comprehension. And then, equally incomprehensibly, it was suddenly gone.
When I finally turned away, I realized I was crying. Almost shamefully, I met Kiera's deep, subtle gaze. Her earlier humor was gone; she stared up at me from hooded eyes, fingers still pressed to the windshield. She held my gaze for a long moment, watching tears drip from my eyelids and trace their way along my cheeks. Then, deliberately, she reached out a stubby finger, and pressed it lightly to my face. I stiffened, shocked by the unexpected intimacy.
Kiera withdrew her finger and studied the small orb of water which clung to her rough skin. She watched, silent and expressionless, until my tear dropped from her finger. Then she met my eyes and inclined her head towards me, in grateful acknowledgement of a pain shared.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 8th, 2019


I wrote this story after seeing an artist's rendition of the surface of planet Earth towards the very end of its life, when our sun will have swollen so big it will fill the whole sky. It made me wonder what it would be like for whatever Earthlings might still be around to watch that happen.

- Benjamin MacLean-Max
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