Sam busted through the door of her advisor’s office. She nearly fumbled her bottle of cheap champagne, still wrapped in a black plastic bag marked in generic white text: University Discount Liquor.
Professor Leon covered the mouthpiece of his phone and held it away from his face. “Sam! I’m on a conference call!” he barely whispered.
She banged the bottle on the part of his desk not covered in papers and data chips.
“You’re gonna wanna hang that up!” she said and bounced out of the room.
“You have to excuse me, I’m needed in the lab immediately. Mm-hmm, I understand. I’ll get back to you within the hour. Yes, okay. Ciao.” Leon hit END CALL on his phone’s holographic projection. “You have my full attention, Sam. Now, what the heck is so damn important?” he yelled into the direction of the lab.
She returned quickly, holding two mismatched tumblers from the break room. The faded one read “Lab Retrea 2 3 !’ and the other one had a photograph of some long-gone lab member’s cat on it. The cat was wearing a cardigan.
She fought the champagne cork and with some prying popped the bottle open. A bit of frothy liquid escaped onto the floor.
“The Feds, groups eight, nine, and beta three confirmed it. Three is still re-checking their second pass, but said our data is more-than-likely correct,” she said.
Professor Leon tried not to smile, but he knew she wasn’t the type to disappoint.
“The sunspot data?”
“No! Ha! No, no, no. To hell with the sunspot project. Remember when I was having trouble with the other project a few months ago? Everyone laughed ’cause I couldn’t locate six of the twenty local stars, thereby failing in my courageous efforts to calibrate the beast?”
“Yeah, well, you wouldn’t be the first to mishandle that old machine. It’s a nightmare to work with. Had a couple students quit because of it, heh.”
“That’s fine and good, but the beast wasn’t lying. Those stars are dark because they’re no longer there,” she said.
“Uh. I’m not following…”
“I mean, they’ve expired. They’ve all gone dark. Six stars, vanished, poof! Nobody calibrates anymore, people have the standards pre-loaded into their stuff, so we’re the first to document it. Anyway, like I was saying, they’re black holes or neutron stars or something, now. I don’t know…”
“That’s impossible. They should be young, boringly average stars, if my memory serves — they shouldn’t supernova or… or anything else for billions of years,” he said, realizing this was the first time in a long time he had doubted Sam.
“We’ve got a completely unprecedented phenomenon on our hands, here. Either there are hitherto unappreciated steps to star life cycles or there’s a completely new process that puts out their lights!”
Sam poured the yeasty champagne into the cups, grabbed one and raised it for a toast. Leon went straight for the bottle.
“I still can’t believe what you’re telling me.” He paused, letting reality take hold of his mind. “Write it up,” he said softly, then, with resolve, “Write it up! Sam, your career is set! Did you call your partners? Call your parents, call the president, for gods’ sakes, call somebody!”
“Ha ha! I know. And the manuscript is written, already, I just need you to sign off on it. And maybe, you know, give a round or two of edits. Here’s to never having to worry about tenure! And to never having to drink ‘University Discount Liquor’ champagne out of plastic cups again!”
The two toasted and everyone else lived happily ever after for the remainder of their lives, though Sam was never able to pin down what exactly was behind the star’s darkness, in her short two hundred and thirty one years of life.
A bit earlier, elsewhere:
Districktor’s blind eyes reflexively blinked as algae-laden liquid crashed onto them from the end of an ancient stalactite. The cool drops covered his faces, and he licked the nutritious meal into his mouths in the black underground. It was stale, sweet and salty. Utterly addictive.
He squinted, anger welling up inside of himself, and spoke, “Query,” towards a button on his console computer. The sound bounced off of the key’s surface, which was grooved in such a way that it spoke back the reply he was looking for, “Send.”
He pressed the button with his smallest claw and instantly two electronic messages were transmitted from his arena, deep underground.
Above, the land and sea-surface dwellers received the first message:
Aeons ago, your cursed ancestors buried alive the prophets of the day, hating their warnings and hating their wisdom. You shunned our peoples from the light, dooming us to subterranean darkness. Today, we begin our purposeful journey to return the darkness to you, and to all of the universe.
Even further above, the second message reached weaponized satellites circling the planet, its moons, and other planets. This message however was not common language, but a cryptographic trigger. Once received, it initiated a technological program to accelerate the collapse of their star.
“It is begun!” Districktor yelled at the crowded amphitheater before him. The crusters will pay, he thought.
The audience celebrated with all of their might — vaulting cheers strong enough to initiate earthquakes.