In this instance, both the prompter and the author wanted to remain anonymous and, while RULES STALIN will of course respect this, it’s a shame: this is a Dying Earth story in the truest sense, and is written with a sort of breathless, frantic invention that evokes early 20th Century pulp. It also opens with an absolute bruiser of a simile.
STORY NUMBER: 6
PROMPT PROVIDER: Anonymous
PROMPT: Sun dying, weird evolved humans have yet to discover how to travel effectively through space. We worry.
TITLE: Last Rites
The Earth orbited nervously around the old, red sun like a visitor at the bed of a dying relative.
A star takes a long time to die, and a human a relatively short time to live. For generations, humanity lived in the shadow of its own death. Scientists watched, measured, understood and were totally powerless to affect the entirely natural processes that diminished the light and heat from the sun, even as it swelled to encompass more of the sky. Days were dim and red, and even summer nights rimed with frost.
The news had not been released but it was thought that the first children had been born who would live to see the end of the world. Despite the official silence, everyone understood the clock was running down. Across the long night of the planet Earth, the decadent flourishing of the Last Human Empire enjoyed its final party.
In the long ages of future history, ‘human’ had come to cover a much wider multitude of sins than could previously be imagined, but anyone would recognise the fey, reckless mood of the last party. The human race stood on the brink of a cliff and chose to dance.
The bird-headed inhabitants of the South American tree cities sipped nectars blessed by their high, chymical priests and escaped into acid visions of an endless future.
The West Coast Network, an agglomeration of human and machine intelligence that was all the remained of a stillborn Singularity staggered, monumentally, a million souls falling down drunk on paradox and imaginary numbers.
Above the dreamsong cabarets of Europe, where chanteuses whispered enchanting visions directly into the minds of the patrons, was the mountain state of Castalia.
The only place on Earth that wasn’t drinking furiously into a hangover that would never come, Castalia’s legends said it was founded by a Philosopher King called Surn and it had a billion year history of science. Wonders born here had altered the entire planet, and no one was sure whether it was luck or design that prevented the inhabitants disappearing into a Singularity.
And in Castalia there was despair. It is a peculiar pain to understand something you cannot alter, or even touch, and the scientists had trained every telescope and sensor on the sun to better understand its death. In these final years, the scientists were as likely to share sad poetry as spectrographic analyses, and the nights were long and spent mostly in silent contemplation.
A game, long abandoned, was to work out what they could to save the Sun, if only it were possible. The most likely solution was to mine helium in the asteroid belt, and fire it directly into the heart of the dying sun. A sufficient mass would reignite its nuclear furnace to the bright yellow of the old recordings. But this effort would have to have started thousands of years ago, and would anyway require mankind to venture further than the surface of the moon. Space travel, even within the solar system, was a problem no one had ever solved.
However strange the descendants of humanity were, they were too much the ape to abandon the mother tree.
And so we watched and waited, marooned at the bottom of our gravity well. Plants began to die. The Network withered and retrenched as it’s solar collectors, vast as they were, could not supply its needs. These were the final days of planet Earth. And the astronomers and alchemists of Castalia could be forgiven for having such a tight focus that they didn’t have any telescopes looking out.
In an orbit beyond Earth’s, strange things were happening on Mars. If anyone was watching closely, they would have seen lights on its surface, a necklace strung around the supposedly dead world. It had been growing for a while, as points of light joined it from the outer reaches of the solar system. Quietly, after a long diaspora, the Martians were coming home, and they had brought something with them.
A few watchers might have noticed the streaks of light across the sky that night, but no one would have made the connection between that spectacle and the day, decades later, when the final party ended, and its attendees awoke to a dawn the grandfathers’ grandfathers would have found pitilessly light and bright.