Novalight, Part Three
Greg Knauss

August 1998

It wasn't over.

A second nova appeared, not as bright and as powerful as the first, but as beautiful and terrible all over again. It had the same spectral progression as the other nova, the same radiation flares, and was in the same piece of the sky. No barrage of information had preceded this one--nobody tapping out a message before being consumed by fire.

Reporters flooded the group with phone calls, asking why they hadn't warned them about this.

They hadn't warned them because they hadn't known it was coming.

The astrophysicists gave press conferences re-explaining everything they had said four years ago, but this time they started hearing questions they couldn't answer. What were the odds of two novae occupying the same portion of space? Are they related? Will there be more?

One could start a panic, answering questions like that.

The group went over the second part of the message again and re-ran the models they'd built, expanding them beyond a single solar system. They input information about the nova's five nearest neighbors and coded them into the model.

Eventually, it happened in the computer, too.

The neighboring stars felt the effects of the nova, felt it and suffered for it. It was something beyond radiation or simple shock waves or even some hypothetical space-time compression. The simulation somehow duplicated it, but they didn't have a real theory as to how it happened.

There was a harmonic in the original nova that seemed incidental when they first ran the models, something that went on deep in the star's core. It started subtly, then built until the center of the star literally tore itself apart, allowing the surface to collapse inward. The sudden compression caused the nova.

In the model, that same harmonic showed up in the neighboring stars. It wasn't immediate, but it built over time. After being exposed to the original nova, the harmonic began in the new star, eventually causing it to collapse and explode as well.

Distance played a factor. The star closest to the first nova suffered the first collapse--almost exactly like the second nova that burned in the sky--while the furthest didn't show any significant change until it was showered by the remains of the second star.

Like dominos.

October 2041

The sky is on fire.

Novas have been blossoming across the horizon for months, the number increasing exponentially. Even our sun is showing signs of internal deterioration and collapse, following the cycle laid out in the second part of the message. The physicists say we have another century or so before it goes nova as well. By then, it will be a blessing. The radiation will have done enough damage.

We decoded the third part of the message, not that it makes much of a difference. Abstract concepts are the hardest things to express across cultures, much less across species, but the linguists are fairly sure of what they have. The group is divided about whether to announce what we found, because it all seems so sad.

The message we received from the aliens, almost fifty years ago now, isn't a greeting. We were naïve to think so. It's not a gift, either, or a warning.

Fluid, exaggerated movements mime an act of horror. A small group of aliens gracefully disassembles a sphere, carefully sliding out interlocking puzzle pieces, dropping each to the floor to shatter. Halfway through, the sphere can no longer support itself and it collapses, falling and splintering, shards sending dizzying reflections to play off the muted walls.

An alien stands a moment, staring at the shattered wreck at its feet, and drops to its knees to begin shifting among the pieces, hopelessly trying to fit them back together. The pieces large enough to pick up crumble to sand as it fumbles for them and the alien is eventually left moving long, slender fingers through a pile of dust.

Finally, it scoops up a handful of the dust and slowly lets it drain through its fingers.

The aliens didn't send us a greeting, or a gift, or a warning.

They sent us an apology.

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Greg Knauss.