Diamonds in the Sky

The Touch

by G. David Nordley

Sani moaned in a high pitch airy whistle and Modani rushed back to the screened-off alcove in the mud brick hut after showing a comforting fluff of featherfur to the children.  That was the way Sani wanted it; the young ones would have to deal with her final crisis soon enough.

“Apologies, my love,” Sani whispered. “For a moment the pain was too much, and I lost control.”

Modani made no sound, but with a fluff and a lay showed his deep concern.   Softly, with all three fingers of the left hand, he groomed his dying mate, a gesture that at one time might have led to ovulation, but now only recalled fond memories.  Though she had become thin, Sani looked no worse for the immobilizing cancer.  The small lump on her neck was hardly noticeable, but their local crest-pruner said it went down into her spine, and to cut it out would likely kill her immediately.

“I will get more painkiller from the chemist, my love.” Modani whistled and they touched beaks in a gentle reminder of their mating dance so many years ago.

A hundred thousand years before Sani’s cancer took hold, the great blue disk and ultraviolet arms of the majestic Whirlpool galaxy filled David Martin’s field of view.   He scanned for polarizations by strong, extensive, magnetic fields.   There! An evolved neutron star … not a lopsided pulsar with a bumpy field whipping around, but a near-classic dipole with an ion wind streaming out of its poles.  The field should, he determined, be well organized, with hundreds of Tesla out to megameters from the relatively tiny thirty-kilometer sphere at its center; a featherbed entry.

Orienting the superconducting loops in every nanocell of his body, he tacked against the faint plasma breeze of the galaxy’s central black hole, gradually bending his path toward his chosen decelerator.

His pattern recognition codes latched onto a memory of air pillow diving with Ellen from a hundred million years ago, and he reexperienced the undiminished thrill of defying his youthful fear of heights.  Ten thousand light-years out from the star he woke his wife, and suggested a reprise.

She gleefully concurred, so they willed their nanocells to take human form again, for the first time in ten million years.  Trillions of submicroscopic hexagonal toroids arranged themselves to emulate skin, hair, flesh and bone; optical data links carefully arranged themselves to simulate nerves and glands. Most of a billion years of experience was set carefully aside from conscious thought so that they could enjoy real-universe sensation again.

Ellen laughed joyfully, surrounding him with legs and arms, devouring him with kisses as they tumbled through the void, delighting to join one another as if they had not been one undifferentiated physical being just a few moments before.

For Modani, the trip to the village would not be the simple thing it had been as a youngster.  There were too many angry people out there, would-be tribal leaders whose superstitions and egos had been bypassed by the new, Ixoran-style civil service.  The desperate and the lazy had been known to waylay travelers.  I should not go alone, he thought.  If anything happens to me, it will be a far worse tragedy for the children than Sani’s pain.

He stuck his head out of the door, smelled the freshly mown reeds he kept around the border of his land and listened.  They lay on top of older dry reeds because this allowed air circulation which hastened drying.  But this also let the unwary think they could place a silent foot on the soft new reeds — and then the snap when the dry, brittle, reeds below broke would betray their approach.

He thought he heard such a snap,  then silence.

The silence continued.  An animal?

He almost turned back, but then thought of his poor mate’s agony.  Convincing himself that he would probably get away with it, he donned a leather greatcape and bid his oldest to care for Sani.  He resolved to buy as much medicine as he could to reduce the number of such trips alone.  Half their family’s savings were in his purse; he would have taken it all except for the threat of robbery.

Then Modani headed across his fields toward Omphan Village at several body lengths in a heartbeat, his four sleek thin legs still whipcord strong, galloping at the pace of urgency.  He felt guilty about his own good health.

The neutron star lay in a medium-age open cluster, still brilliant with new blue-white stars and set off by a garnet-tinted supergiant here and there, but already penetrated by the older stars of the arm and of the halo.  David and Ellen hit its magnetic pillow holding hands in a flat spin like a pair of skydivers, and bounced away at half of lightspeed, having raised the general temperature of the plasma around their impact point a femtokelvin or so.  They tingled as their nanocells repaired radiation damage as fast as it happened.

As they left the region, they reformed themselves into a thousand telescopes, which they spread into a globular constellation a hundred million kilometers across; a giant’s eye to examine their surroundings in detail, sending everything to the small remaining central coordinating sphere.  Their conscious time sense slowed; thoughts that used to take microseconds now took hours as their data links stretched over light minutes, but to them it was as if the galaxy around them had contracted and accelerated its motion.

The view exhilarated them; indeed, David reflected, by their self-chosen logical structure, it was one of those fuzzy patterns that defined exhilaration; the feeling of speed.

There!  A white and a yellow giant were distended into nearly touching eggs of light, spinning madly around each other, almost ready to coalesce.

There!  Orbiting a brand new white dwarf, they found a brown dwarf with glowing bands under a magnificent multihued ring system, all still encased in the nebula of the white dwarf’s final mass expulsion.  A secondary planetary system was forming.

There!  An old ruddy, overinflated windbag of a star circled a white dwarf grown heavy from the giant’s effluvia.  If it grew heavy enough, it would collapse and explode as a supernova.  Though such things were always hard to predict, they might be in time for the show.

And there!  Not a thousand astronomical units from the red and white pair was an older interloper, its spectrum tinged with orange.  Its passage was distant and gentle enough that its planetary system was undisturbed — and this planetary system included a rare, tiny blue and white marble not so different from far away Earth.

Ellen turned all their thousand eyes in that direction.  It was her initiative, but there was no conflict — such design problems had been well worked out even before they had moved out of the Mind of Mars to seek adventure in the real cosmos with nanocell bodies.  This blue green world they saw was teaming with life by virtue of the oxygen in its spectrum, but had it evolved intelligence?

Close enough to the orange star for heavy tides, it had a large moon locked in synchronous orbit of about a day and a half.  The star’s gravity tried to stretch the system, adding orbital energy which the tides in the planet’s ocean tried to take away, pounding on its continents — neither, David thought, would win their argument in the lifetime of the orange-tinted star.

Remarkable, Ellen, to chance upon such a world so soon in our exploration of the Whirlpool.

But, David, what a dangerous place indeed for it to be!

David agreed.  That incipient supernova should soon reset any biological evolutionary clocks in the area.  The white dwarf had already grown to an almost unstable 1.44 solar masses, and the giant’s atmosphere continued to slosh out of its Roche lobe, adding more and more mass.

Collapse was inevitable, but when?  The model was too sensitive to a myriad of conditions and the supernova might have already happened, or it might not happen for another hundred thousand years.

In one of her earliest memories, the ones you never throw away or store elsewhere, Ellen had been a ranger at Mt. Hood and rescued an orphaned bear cub.  Despite geological warnings that an eruption was about to occur, she had been told to return it to its environment.  After the eruption, she found its charred body with the beacon still operating.  What choice would it have made if it could have understood?  “Let nature take its course” was the rule then and wisdom now; but sadness still held her.

David, not snooping, but aware of her as always, prodded her to reduce the output multiplier of her emotive subroutines.  Silly, she thought,  she had left it on high from the lovemaking.   She imagined a strong cup of coffee, and that chased the blues away.  Contentment returned.

Long ago, unable to resolve the problem logically, they had simply decided that their place in things was to let the universe unfold its will and watch.  But since it was their rule, and they were a hundred million years away from any human critics, they could make exceptions.

Curious, David and Ellen reconfigured themselves into a great conducting loop and soared in the plasma currents of the cluster, gently bending their path in an arc many billions of kilometers in radius toward the golden sun of the little blue world.

The data they gathered confirmed early hopes and fears; the world was inhabited.   A  race of gracile, vaguely avian centauroids lived in a metastable system of low-technology tribal cultures which, from the ruins they could see, had lasted for thousands of years.  Cycles of conquest, decay, and rebirth would allow little progress toward the technology those beings would need to survive.

Reaching the star, they parachuted through its ionic wind, slowed to a planetary pace, and drank in the light of the star, giving trillions of trillions of tiny flywheels their fill.  They felt powerful.

Then they sailed to a chance comet and devoured it as it bulled its way through the starwind back to its cryogenic lair.  A year later, the comet was a shining sphere, composed almost entirely of their nanocell dopplegangers, and went off to convert some of its fellow comets to their purposes.

Thus, they built a great telescope system at the edge of the planetary system, to observe everything from gamma rays to quasistatic currents.  Soon, the vast storehouse of memory which had followed them as photons would be collected again, augmented by news of home and beyond.  And thirty million years from now, the great eyes and ears of the Milky Way would learn of their adventures and spread the word to the minds of a hundred billion worlds.

But that would have to wait.  The nuclear weather inside the nearby massive star was as chaotic and unpredictable as rainy days in the Minnesota Augusts of David’s childhood.  If there was to be any data from the blue green world, they’d best get it with what they had while it was still alive.

With a fountain of ions, their machine pushed them toward the golden sun, and they curved through its solar wind to reach the life-world.

Modani saw the ruffians before they saw him, and had a bolt on his bow in the flick of a crest.  Nonetheless, they continued to shadow him, racing along in the brush parallel to the road.  They could not keep that up and remain quiet, he thought, and he broke into a light trot.

An arrow whistled by him, with the black and red feather’s of Drua’s cult.  Superstitious mystics!  Fear tugged at him.  That group preached the strong should rule the weak, and resented the increasing influence of technicians.  Which meant they would resent Modani, if they knew him.

No, he thought, it was not so romantic when one who ground glass well stood equal with powerful warriors.  But most people were not warriors, and bit by bit, through the central council, the guilds had a crest-standing strength of their own.

Another arrow brought him back to reality; no guild help today!  Enough of philosophy; more likely these hoodlums merely thought they had a right to his purse if they could take it.  He’d been a racer in his youth and had kept up with it after a fashion on the odd rest day.  The young ruffians would be surprised to see an oldster pick up the pace so!

As he did, they broke cover and scrambled after him.  Indeed, they were mottle-crested young — but heavy with the indulgence of the undisciplined strong.  He increased his distance, gauging his own endurance carefully.   He could not, nor would he run forever, so he looked for opportunities.

After a bend in the road, he spotted a large Athota plant circle — one of the trunks was down, making a door, and there were gaps between the trunks for shooting arrows.  Excited by danger and angry with the degenerates, he dove into this natural blind before they rounded the bend and plotted his ambush.

They galloped along in clouds of dust, puffing with fatigue.  They wheeled and reared, confused at his absence.  Then they saw the Athota circle, but too late.  He put a bolt into the flank of one of them and the neck of the other.  Maybe they would respect that! he thought.  At least they fled squawking, in pain.

Still nervous, but urgent in his errand, Modani left the Athota plant circle and continued down the road for Omphan in the fastest cursorial trot that he could sustain.

“Look,” Ellen exclaimed.  In the form of a flock of local avian life, their eyes turned to a fertile valley just north of the south polar glaciers, between two dramatic mountain ranges, one folded, the other volcanic, and they wheeled in the sky as one, descending to spy on its villages and farms.  They drank in the smells and sights, the culture and language, the sounds and music.  David dipped into his memory and relived the wonder of one who had seen thousands of crystal blue lakes ringed by great white pines trees in his youth, and could spend hours in contemplation of yet another.

While their conscious minds wondered, their myriads of subroutines were busy with the data coming in.  Flying insects gave them the key to the biology of the land below, and samples of the blood of its dominant vertebrates.  They saw a great stone temple with handwritten scrolls, and learned the world was called Li and the people, Tha-Li.  They perched for days in the marketplace and the temple to learn its brand of wisdom.  Then the flock that was David and Ellen flew out along an uncrowded path to the countryside, took the form of the visitors from a different part of Li and began walking back to the village.

Preoccupied with Sani and his burden of painkilling medicine — which some of Drua’s cult might mistake for wealth to be plundered by the right of might — Modani had trotted well past a finely dressed Ixoran couple before he realized something was wrong.  After a moment of indecision, he quickly retraced a few strides back to them: a silvercrest and a gold, decked out in folly.  He would not have their blood on his conscience.

“Forgive me, Gentles, but you should not be seen out here like that.  There are those around who would kill you for it!”

The couple clicked their beaks in surprise.

“Our apologies for whatever offense we have given, Gentleone,”  the silvercrest intoned.  “We are new in this land, so please educate us to our danger, whoever you are.”

It was Modani’s turn to click in surprise at hearing such a natural Thocan accent from Ixorans.  “I am called Modani, Gentles.  But, the eastern cape you wear, with its high collar and cuts at each hip!  And you are weaponless!  Do not think your people’s conquests have been forgiven by the followers of Drua’s cult in these parts.”

“We heard little of this in the town,” the silvercrest said.   “We came to study your people and thought we would most easily fit in as eastern visitors, whose questions would not seem too ignorant.  This Drua is news to us.  Do you credit his views yourself, Gentleone?”

“No,” Modani replied softly, “I put my faith in chemists and in the school of experience.  I think the change you easterners brought was healthy, but I am quiet about such views in the Thocan countryside!  The livelihood of priests is threatened and their ambitions are not kept in check by fear of their own lies.”  He snorted in contempt.  “But take no greater comfort in the fanatics who actually believe their cant; for, if anything, they are even more dangerous.  Even I was pursued today, by bandits associated with Drua.  Please disguise yourselves or you, and I, may be killed!”

Their crests rose in mild surprise.  He blinked hard at such ignorance and flipped his own in condescension.  Despite the cold, the couple shed their cloaks immediately, revealing fine linen shifts and rich woven back blankets with elegantly restrained silver embroidery, still a rich attractive nuisance, but not so obviously foreign.  Something seemed to go between them as they momentarily touched hands, and this made Modani think poignantly of Sani.

He flicked his crest in an approving farewell and said,  “Now Gentles, you must excuse me.  I would talk, but my mate is deathly ill and I am bringing medicine,” then turned to resume his journey.

Though David and Ellen, with the wisdom of ages at their disposal, discussed billions of options through parallel optical channels at near lightspeed, the question was simple:

Would it bother the dance of the cosmos if we help? Ellen asked.  Modani has befriended us, with no interference on our part, for a perfectly moral and sentient reason. That makes it different;  a friend is not a specimen.  This matters to me!

But the supernova! David replied.  Why save someone now, only to have them die even more painfully of radiation poisoning?  Or do we try to stop a supernova, too and alter the evolution of an entire galaxy?

David, this galaxy will evolve  anyway.  Maybe not the same way, but so what?  Anyway, by the laws of chaos, even the littlest conscious thing we do might eventually change things more than a supernova.  Besides, delaying a supernova would be an interesting project.  I’m not sure even we could do that!

There might be another way to handle the Supernova, David replied, but Modani and his people would have to be mentally strong enough to learn, very quickly, that the universe is much different than it has always been to them.  We may have to destroy their culture to save their lives.

Perhaps not. The first step is Sani’s illness.  Let the new patterns form from there.

“Pardon us, Gentle Modani.  I am Daiffidi and my mate, Ellani,” the silvercrest gestured to his companion, “is a physician of some ability, and I know a thing or two as well.  Perhaps we could help you, who have been generous with your advice for us.”

The gold moved her hands and produced a seaflyer by some conjuror’s trick.   Modani thought momentarily that these people were just the type of charlatans that should be avoided at all costs.  But  then the seaflyer quietly and purposefully flew on toward the hut.  What conjuror could make it do that?  Despite his rational philosophy, he did not dismiss the gods entirely; he had only a lack of evidence.  But here might be evidence!  He pranced nervously.

The one called Ellani read this tension and sang the song of jest.  “Forgive my theatrics, Gentleone, but that bird was, well, part of me.  It will look in on Sani to see if we need to make haste.  Please don’t worry; it only looks like magic.  We have much to tell you, friend.”

They claimed no magic, but what art could do that!  “Much indeed!” he stammered, “But we should hurry.”

Ellani only fluffed comfortingly.  “Sani is asleep and does not suffer now.”

How could she know? Modani wondered.  But he led them at a normal pace.

Once at the hut, Daiffidi took up immediately with the young ones.  Modani and Ellani went behind the rude curtain, where the gull perched on the rim of the sleep basket in which Sani curled.  Ellani held out a hand.  “Your lessons begin now, Gentleone.”

Ellani displayed a posture of simplicity to him, and the bird flew to her hand.

It dissolved into a sphere of white and melted into her hand, which became empty as if the bird had never existed.  It was too much.

Modani fell upon the floor and wailed in the minor key of abjection, his mental universe crashing down around him as he uttered the formulas he had learned as a youth.  “Forgive my unbelief, I pray.  Forgive my lack of sacrifices.  It is my fault, not Sani’s; curse me, not the one who is faultless.”

But the presumed god, Ellani, fluffed in disappointment and frustration, crest down in despair at his obeisance.

“No, no,” she protested.  “We are just very ancient people who have learned a few wonderful tricks through the ages.”

Modani looked up, crest splayed in embarrassment.

Ellani smoothed it as a parent would a nestling’s.

A thousand astronomical units away in the heart of the distended red star, nuclei roared from collision to collision like lions caged in desperately little space.  The worst of these rattlings made their torturous way through dense stagnant plasma to the outer layers of the star.  Free of the compressed core, the eruption burst forth and roiled the great distended atmosphere. Gas slopped gas over its gravitational border and spiraled onto its dying white dwarf companion.

A lesser star might have gone nova and blown off the excess in a self-extinguishing spasm, but this white dwarf was heavy and drank deep from its companion; the infalling hydrogen and helium sustained a stellar atmosphere thick enough for a gently pulsing fusion reaction.  A few kilometers deeper, the helium ash of this fusion, fused into carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and neon.  Below that, the core of the white dwarf, already dangerously massive and degenerate, grew even heavier.

David and Ellen’s telescopes noted the flickering, and updated their model.  It could not be too long now — a billion seconds, perhaps.

Ellen saw Sani stir from her fog of pain.  A brief ripple of uncertainty went through Sani’s crest and Ellen took her hand from Modani’s crest.  “I’m afraid I’ve disturbed your mate.”

The Tha-Li woman made a gesture of unconcern.  “My pardon, Gentleone, but what did you do?”

Crest and featherfur rising in hopeful anticipation, Ellani produced and absorbed the seaflyer.

“Marvelous!” Sani even managed a chirp of delight.  “How did you do it?”

A volume of infrared communication passed between Ellen and David in a millisecond; it was review — they had already made their decision.

“First,” Ellen said, “we must be the greatest secret of your lives, because what we are and what we have would change the pattern of your race.  So please hold all this down the gut.  Understood?”

Modani nodded, but Sani’s crest rose a bit.

“Would that be so awful?  I knit, but while I dream of many patterns, only a few get finished.  The children need to eat,” she clicked apologetically.   “I think what our culture might become on its own is like some big pattern in the future, which we may or may not finish.  Is so abstract a thing worth the hunger of even one child?”

“It is a hard choice, Sani,” Ellani agreed.  “Yes, some pattern will develop regardless.  But think of the millions of lives that have been spent through your history to get you this far.  And look at your priests and kings; some are good men, no doubt, but would you trust most of their lot with the abilities we have?  Or would you have us reign like gods, picking, choosing, disciplining and inevitably remaking you into our image?”

Sani’s crest fell back.  After a long silence, she said.  “I understand.  But I ask you, whatever you are, to pity the children who may die.”

Ellani nodded gravely.  “We promised we would save Sani, and that means save your world as well.  It’s a somewhat bigger project than you can now understand, but, Modani, if you and your family will keep our secret, we will do it.”

Modani held still for several heartbeats to show contemplation, then flicked his crest in agreement.

Ellani’s featherfur suggested motherly understanding.  “And yes, Sani, we pity all those who suffer and die.  We were once flesh and blood, just as you are…”

Everyone watched the operation, magnified and displayed on a large flat screen grown by David, who narrated for the wide-eyed tall-crested young ones.

Ellen laid a finger on Sani’s tumor,  and sent some of her nanocells in through the pores under Sani’s featherfur.  Using ultrasound, she found the nerves and blood vessels that served the tumor.    At incredible speeds, her nanocell constructs severed and cauterized the vessels, starving the tumor.  She found where the tumor was pressing Sani’s spine, and busily ate it away, sending the debris into a limbic vein system.  Normal cells began dividing immediately to replace the tumor.

Something in their past evolution prepared the Tha-Li for massive cell replacement.  David noted.

Li is passing through a spiral arm and has drifted through young star clusters for millions of years, she replied.  More than one supernova may have helped select survivors.

Ellen made a special nanocell that included a diamond stylus to serve as her tool, and then, atom by atom, she charted the proteins of a cancer cell and found out how it was fooling Sani’s immune system.  She sent nanocells to the organ which ran Sani’s immunological defenses and made a few slight improvements.  With their chemical blindfolds removed, Sani’s own scavenger cells attacked the cancer cells with impressive efficiency.

Job done, Ellen’s nanocells rushed back to her finger, and her  host’s beaks clicked with surprise and happiness.

“What,” Sani inquired following all the congratulations, “is it like to have such powers?”

“It is,” David answered, “like having an almost infinite set of choices and trying to decide what to do, or not do with them.  You worry about the non-choices forever.”

Sani’s crest fell a bit.  “You don’t sound entirely happy,” she clucked.

Ellen gently stroked the featherfur on Sani’s forehead, and cooed.  “Don’t worry.  We can tell ourselves to be happy, or even tell ourselves to just not think about it.  Then everything is fine.”

A thousand astronomical units away, another David and Ellen reformed themselves in the cells of their communications base.  They shared anticipation.  The best part of splitting themselves this way would be the thrill of discovery when they rejoined the selves still on Li.  Being two places at once was nothing particularly new to them, but this would be a significant separation in distance.

They expanded the communications base’s thermonuclear powerplant and diverted work to an ultra-efficient microwave transmitter with the capacity of thousands of terawatts.  When it was done, David and Ellen formed themselves into netlike fabric, spread themselves in front of the beam and were thrown toward the incipient supernova by a blast of microwaves too big to pass through the tiny holes of their net.

The universe contracted all around, and the great angry red star, now blue-shifted into the x-ray spectrum, rushed toward them as their own tiny microscopic lasers twinkled, acting in unison to urge the odd atom or dust mote out of their way.

Even a hundred astronomical units out, David and Ellen saw that the space around the red giant was rich in matter.   Approaching from the white dwarf side, the accretion disk looked like a dark line against the surface of the reddish giant star, except where it was closest to the white dwarf and hottest.  To sensors shielded from the direct light of the stars, space was filled with the reddish glow of discarded atoms.

Many of these atoms were already ionized by the ultraviolet part of the white dwarf’s spectrum, so, to their magnetic field, it was like falling into another pillow, or diving into molasses.

It’s going to be very, very close, David.

Yes; there is perhaps already enough mass in the accretion disk.

But not on the star itself.  It’s still below Chandrasekhar’s limit.  If we were to ignite it now, in a nova, it would blow the disk and some of the companion’s atmosphere away.

And there’d be a little time even after it passes the limit?

Maybe, Ellen.  But the timing depends on things inside the white dwarf we cannot possibly know.  We’ll have to control things in real time.

Leave a relay?


I am not afraid, they told each other.

The fall through the giant’s hot sticky plasma breath toward their ticking cosmic time bomb would take years, but there was no help for that.  It was, in fact, enough time for even their long lives to pass before them in detail.

Modani’s crest stayed rigidly poised between up and down as Daiffidi explained the danger from the tiny red disk in the sky that did not move.  The telescope made it easier, but still, it was a stretch of comprehension.  What he grasped was that stars could explode in big ways and small ways, and that the tiny white speck next to the disk that did not move could explode in either way.  It was particularly hard to understand that that tiny point was heaver than the huge red egg.

But he had no basis for questioning his benefactors as Daiffidi told them how to build shelters that would protect them if the star exploded in the small way.  They would need to live underground as a separate sun scorched the land for a few weeks.

“We should survive that,”  Sani remarked, full of the confidence of restored health.  “Especially if we take seed stock into the shelters with us.”

Modani touched her bill with his.  “I think there is more.  Daiffidi, there is no guarantee, is there, that such preparations will be sufficient?  In the worst case, if the star explodes the large way, what will it be like?”

For one of the few times in the year Modani had known him, Daiffidi hesitated.  “There will be burning,” he finally said.  “The neutrinos themselves won’t quite kill you this far away, but some of the atoms throughout your world will become radioactive.  A gravitational wave will flex the planet.  The temperature of your planet’s mantle will increase a degree or so.  Magma will start moving.

“A few days later, a blast will reach you.  X-rays and Gamma rays will cascade into your upper atmosphere and it will appear to burn.  A blast of photons will scorch your planet’s surface.  But no one will be here. In the far reaches of your planetary system, we are preparing a fleet to take you to a new world before that happens.  You’ll have a badly shocked culture, but better that then none at all.”

But Modani resisted that thought.  “What would happen if we stay with our ancestors?”

Daiffidi showed discomfort.  “Things will seem to back off for a bit, but silent invisible and lethal particles will sweep through as the star dims to merely the brightness of another sun in your sky.  Within a week of that the star will become a visible hairy globe that will increase in brightness again until, for several weeks, it floods you with a million times your own sun’s brilliance.  The deep sea shelters will last the longest, but we think the oceans may boil away, eventually.  It will take years to dim; the planet’s surface will be cleansed of everything.”

So they would all become Daiffidi and Ellani’s foundlings, shorn of their world, their history rendered quaint and meaningless.  A great emptiness came over Modani.

“Don’t give up hope yet,” Ellani said.

David and Ellen fell on the moon of a subgiant planet in a delicate resonance orbit that skirted the edge of the red hot vacuum disk around the two stars. They began immediately to devour the moon.  In an hour, their two hundred kilograms of nanocells became four hundred.  In three days, they became as massive as a small moon themselves.   They spread themselves out in a great sheet of matter, balancing between gravity and photons, shielding the planet from the glare of the star, drinking in the wind from the disk and channeled it down to the planet, using the energy of its fall to the surface to run a vast refrigerator, pumping heat out the other side.

In a month, the planet had gained enough mass to affect its orbit.  In two months, the resonance was broken and it was on a trajectory which would take it first through the outer layers of the red giant and then onward toward the white dwarf.

On a crisp clear night, Modani watched the star and tried to imagine what was happening.  He felt a confusion of feelings.  Yes, he felt pride in the telescopes he had built which had shown exploding stars and discredited the cult of Drua, but that had been Daiffidi and Ellani’s knowledge.  And he felt pride in the shelters built in caves and in great tubes on the sea floor.  But he and Sani were too healthy and active for their age, something which had began to attract notice as their friends passed on.  Little by little, they had withdrawn and now kept to themselves and their small fields.   Thus it was a surprise to have folk approach from out of the night.  But caution turned to happiness when Daiffidi, Ellani, and Dosni identified themselves.

“The years treat you well, Gentleones,” he greeted them, touching beaks with all.

“Ah, years ignore us, but you have fought them well.  And Sani?”

“Still in the race, thanks to you.  But we both see the finish line.”

He brought them in, and helped Sani up off her blanket to let her touch beaks with neck unbent.

“We understand.  That is what we’ve come to talk to you about.  We think Dosni is well prepared to take over your duties.  And we have a promise to keep.”

“Ah, elders,” Dosni said, “To speak of promises reminds me of my mate at home.  But before I go, I have a request.  You have told us you were once flesh and blood, like us.  What did you look like?” Dosni’s eyes reflected the sunset from the hut’s single window, and so seemed to glow with curiosity.   Modani flicked his crest in amusement at his son’s insatiable thirst for the new.

“Do you promise not to be afraid?” Ellani replied — part in jest, Modani thought.

The young one’s featherfur ruffled down in embarrassed assent.

“You too, Modani?’ Ellani asked.  He nodded.  What had he to fear?

But, before his eyes, their perfect Li bodies melted into a hairless, fleshy lipped, biped half again his size, with a bulging skull and odd flesh protuberances.  He was prepared, intellectually, for the difference, the alienness.  But he had been thoroughly imprinted with the old fears of devils, monsters and jealous gods as a young Li, and his featherfur fluffed out involuntarily, embarrassing him.  In spite of himself, he backed away.

Dosni’s crest was relaxed, however, and his eyes were bright and curious.  He asked Daiffidi and Ellani many questions, which they answered without embarrassment, which Modani had always been too deferential to pose.  But Modani made no effort to stay his son.  His own reluctance to ask personal questions was the imprint of a more cautious time and a more stern upbringing.

“Father, I need to go back to my own house, now,” Dosni said at last, long toward midnight.  Modani nodded in assent.  Dosni lived with his young mate a short trot down the trail, not a dangerous journey even in these times, and there was work to be done tomorrow.

So, to Modani’s relief, Daiffidi and Ellani resumed their Li form and they all made farewells to Dosni.   Afterwards, the four remaining friends went into Modani’s house and settled down and pushed sucking needles through the skins of fermented tholfruit.

“What promise did you mean,” Modani finally asked, slightly less inhibited and still unclear as to what Daiffidi’s greeting statement had meant.

“We promised to save Sani’s life,” he answered, simply.

“But you did!”  Sani chirped.

“For the tissue-thin slice of a world line.  We can do much better than that, but there is a cost to an indefinite life span which is very hard to explain.  You must imagine yourselves going on without end, and ask yourselves if that is what you really want.”

“I think I understand,” Sani chirped in low, thoughtful tones, “that to live in such a manner is both its own blessing and its own curse.  I know the blessing, but what is the curse?”

“There is,” Ellen added softly, “some wisdom in your myth of a musician who wished for wings, and, having her wish granted, loved flying so much that she never used her hands again…”

“…and so became the mother of all flying things,” Modani added.  “I think I understand the dilemma.  In fact, by just making the offer you have put us in it, have you not?  For if we refuse now, our end becomes not simply an inevitability, but a form of suicide.”

“My mate!”  Sani interjected.  “That’s not fair to our friends.  Daiffidi, we have suspected for some time that you could do this for us,” her crest made an ironic half rise and settled, “or to us.  And we have not asked.  Someone could call that a form of suicide — being too polite to ask for our lives.  Well, I am curious and want to know more than I have life in which to learn.  How is it with you?  What is the problem?”

“We all exist,” Daiffidi said,  “as patterns of data and logic, systems of input and output which can include biological parts or not.  It doesn’t matter as long as the same sensory input leads to the same conscious image.  We can exist in any calculating machine that is large enough, and for Ellani and me, these assemblages of nanocells give us the greatest independent physical capability.

“We worry about why we keep going, whether our existence serves any significant purpose.  Can anything in an infinite cosmos claim to be significant?  We accumulate knowledge, but it all falls within known bounds — it is like numbering all the points on a line.  But however pointless existence is, there never seems sufficient reason to stop existing.”  He flipped his crest in a yes-and-no gesture.  “So we go on.”

“It’s a logical trap, really, but I doubt it is possible to appreciate the full complexity of it without having the logical resources we have.”

“We shouldn’t be too discouraging,” Ellani added.  “We don’t worry when we don’t want to worry, we don’t feel sad if it isn’t convenient, and we’ve had an awful lot of fun.  This living forever isn’t bad at all, but it is a decision you need to make, and, in our experience, it’s a decision that doesn’t get unmade.”

Sani closed her eyes completely, then opened them again.  “I’m not sure.”

Modani’s featherfur bristled again with memories of village stories about immortal ghouls that sucked life fluids from the living like juice from a tholfruit.  “Gentleones,” he said, “I am overcome.  Forgive me if I absent myself a moment for nature and to find the rightful place for my featherfur.”

Everyone nodded at him and he left the group to be alone in his garden for a few moments, fertilizing this and that.  He told himself over and over that this strange offer was from his dearest friends.  Sani and he could live forever.  But at a price — a price that would clearly mean giving up much of what he thought he knew about life.  Could he do that?  Could he embrace such a strange future?

The larger moon hung low in the east, a bright crescent the size of a child’s kicking ball held at arm’s length; they had stayed up late and the sun would soon rise.  Modani had no trouble in seeing the craters and mountains on the back side, nor the minuscule disks of the nearer wanderers; it was as if there was more light.  His hindquarters shifted involuntarily and his crest rose.

Slowly he looked up.  The tiny red disk which did not move was now a brilliant beacon, a searing point of light in the west that cast its own shadow.

Keeping himself as calm as he could, he turned toward the house and called out.

“Sani.  Gentleones,  it has started…”

A white dwarf is a small target.  Tides stretched the planet one way and squeezed in another.  Great magnetic fields formed and whipped up an uncontrollable magnetic storm.  Radiation from both sides lanced through David and Ellen faster than they could repair themselves.  Still they fought to keep it on course.

The dwarf flared and the planet broke, disrupted as billions of atmospheres of pressure blasted through its ends.  All became plasma, trapped in fields beyond any control.  There would be no escape.  To preserve themselves for a few more moments, they contracted to an essential core and used the mass and energy of their dying outer layers to cool the inner layers.

Have we succeeded, David?

I think so, but it all depends on how advanced the dwarf’s core is, and how much matter we will blow away from it.  Thoughts were harder now, as cells struggled to contain damage and redundant pathways were lost.

We are evaporating, Ellen observed.  It seems strange.  I wish we could send this experience to the other David and Ellen.

If we could, we would send ourselves.  Since we can’t, the logic is that we accept what must happen, and enjoy it.  I think they will understand and be happy for us.  Since we are them, we would understand in their place.  That is all they need to know; that it can be done. They will know that… that last logical barrier to will can be broken.

David, I’m losing memories.  I’ll hold onto you until the last.

And I will hold onto you.  So, after a hundred million years, to end.  I am at peace.  And free.  Free… Farewell.


Photons ran rampant inside the white dwarf, chipping off pieces of nuclei here and there, which were gobbled up by larger, more stable nuclei.  Here, a neon nucleus collided with a helium nucleus head on, and before they could disentangle themselves, a neutron stole away with their excess energy, and a magnesium nucleus was born.

An iron core started to form, the harbinger of catastrophe imminent.  Iron had no excess energy to give in support of the hungry masses pressing upon it. The star began to shrink, compress, and burn hotter.  Soon the remaining nuclear fuel would detonate.  Immediately.  Devastatingly.

But on the surface, triggered by the disintegrating planet with far more hydrogen and helium than the white dwarf could digest in its usual incremental manner, another explosion was already in progress, throwing matter out and away.  A glowing cloud, bright as a million suns, fled out from the white dwarf.  The influx stopped.  The star stopped growing poised on the brink of disaster.

On Tha-Li, four beings watched the sky.

“You should go to the shelters,” Daiffidi said.

Modani’s beak dipped to him in negation.  “We have agreed to leave the space for younger Tha-Li.  I feel, one way or another, we are done with this world.  Now, tell me.  The travels we have made with you, the gardens we have grown together, the troubles we have taken to fend off robbers without killing them,” Sani asked.   “If we became like you, would we remember all of this?”

“Yes, you will,” said Ellen, “and more, much more.”

They were silent for a long time, watching the new sun burn.  Then Sani’s crest raised slowly in a coy humor.  “Will I be able to mate again with my Modani?”

Ellen smiled.  “For eternity, if you want.”

Her crest rose high, her eyes went open and bright.  “Then, yes, take us with you.”


This story was first published in an anthology,  The Age of Reason, edited by Kurt Roth, at in 1999.  In addition to making supernova astrophysics an experimental science it touches on some of the “big issues,” like “what does it all mean?” and “where are we going?”

I was asked to briefly elaborate on some of the science in the story.  Hopefully the following will prove useful, or at least point people in the right direction.

A hundred thousand years before Sani’s cancer took hold, the great blue disk and ultraviolet arms of the majestic Whirlpool galaxy filled David Martin’s field of view.

The Whirlpool galaxy is about 23 million light years away, south of the tip of the Big Dipper’s handle. It is about half the mass of the Milky Way and 70% of its diameter.  Assuming David is traveling near the speed of light, he is only a little more distant from the galaxy than the visible spiral is wide.  Google “Whirlpool Galaxy.”

Orienting the superconducting loops in every nanocell of his body

David and Ellen’s personalities reside in a swarm of trillions of “nanocells.” These are conceived to be roughly the size of biological cells, but made of much sturdier stuff, and not permanently specialized.  Linked as a data processing system, they form a supercomputer.  As a physical system, the cells can join each other in almost any imaginable configuration.  Read Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, and project.

he tacked against the faint plasma breeze of the galaxy’s central black hole, gradually bending his path toward his chosen decelerator.

Curious, David and Ellen reconfigured themselves into a great conducting loop and soared in the plasma currents of the cluster…

When a charged particle (the “plasma breeze”) encounters a magnetic field, it is deflected one way, and, action equaling reaction, the object generating the field is pushed in the other. A current loop creates a magnetic field with a north and south pole, much like a bar magnet’s.

Most of a billion years of experience was set carefully aside from conscious thought so that they could enjoy real-universe sensation again.

Emulated emotions, such as boredom, can be turned off, when inconvenient.  In this case, the fun of experiencing something anew can be lived over and over.

As they left the region, they reformed themselves into a thousand telescopes, which they spread into a globular constellation a hundred million kilometers across; a giant’s eye…

David and Ellen can see Sani’s world by forming a large optical synthetic aperture telescope.  The wider the telescope, the smaller the objects it can see.  For the mathematically inclined, R ≈ 1.22 L/A where R is the resolution in radians.  L is the wavelength of light and A is the telescope aperture.  To get actual size, rather than the angular size, multiply by the distance to the object.  In visible light (a wavelength of 500 nm, or 5 E-7 m),  a one-meter-wide telescope would be able to resolve objects 5 E-7 radians apart.  A 100 million kilometer-wide telescope (1E11 m) might resolve 5 km sources at 100,000 light years.  That’s ideally — the source must provide enough photons for all the elements of the array to combine, which limits this trick to bright objects.

There!  An old ruddy, overinflated windbag of a star circled a white dwarf grown heavy from the giant’s effluvia.  If it grew heavy enough, it would explode as a supernov…

The white dwarf would become a “Type Ia” supernova.  Wikipedia has a good article.

More massive stars form ultra dense iron cores by fusion reactions of lighter elements.  The cores collapse when they become more massive than Chandrasekhar’s limit (Google “Chandrasekhar”), about 1.4 solar masses, starting a process that leads to the explosion we see and a neutron star remnant.

A Type Ia may not go that way.  A Type Ia supernova starts out as a white dwarf a little less than Chandrasekhar’s limit  which then gains mass — generally hydrogen and helium from a nearby companion star that is losing mass in its red giant stage.  This forms a layer on top of the carbon and oxygen “ash” from previous fusion reactions.  As the white dwarf gets close to Chandrasekhar’s limit, the picture gets unclear.  But the fusion reactions that create heavier elements may happen all at once in a thermonuclear explosion that “deflagrates” the star before it can collapse into a neutron star. Since this always happens at about the same mass, and produces supernovae of about the same brightness (about 5 billion times solar luminosity at peak), Type 1a supernovae can be used as “standard candles” to gauge the size of the universe.  Google “standard candles.”

…before they had moved out of the Mind of Mars to seek adventure in the real cosmos with nanocell bodies.

In this future history, the Mind of Mars is a supercomputer on the moon Phobos in which billions of human-descended Martians live as computer programs in virtual worlds of their own choosing.  They can go back and forth from biological, or other technological bodies, at will.  It’s mentioned in After the Vikings (

Close enough to the orange star for heavy tides, it had a large moon locked in synchronous orbit of about a day and a half.  The star’s gravity tried to stretch the system, adding orbital energy which the tides in the planet’s ocean tried to take away, pounding on its continents — neither, David thought, would win their argument in the lifetime of the orange-tinted star.

Imagine our moon in a geosynchronous orbit like communications satellites!  We wouldn’t have the twice daily lunar tides, but we would still have solar tides, which are about half as strong.  Modani’s world is closer to its dimmer, but not that much less massive, sun.  Its solar tides are about as strong as our combined lunar and solar tides.

Reaching the star, they parachuted through its ionic wind, slowed to a planetary pace, and drank in the light of the star, giving trillions of trillions of tiny flywheels their fill.

A nanoscale flywheel composed of a single molecule is very strong per unit weight and can store much more energy than any conceivable chemical battery.

We may have to destroy their culture to save their lives.

When nuclear scientist Enrico Fermi realized that both alien civilizations and interstellar travel were at least physically possible, if not easy, with sufficiently advanced technology, he asked “Where are they?” One possible answer is that they are or have been here, but are very careful to avoid disturbing our culture — the way a human scientist might not interfere with a colony of chimpanzees.  In “Star Trek” lore, this is called “the Prime Directive.”

Daiffidi told them how to build shelters that would protect them if the star exploded.  They would need to live underground as a separate sun scorched the land for a few weeks.

To prevent the supernova, David and Ellen must trigger an “ordinary” nova, burning away the hydrogen and helium accumulating on the surface of the white dwarf.  The result will be in the top range of ordinary nova luminosity, around a million Suns.

“…In the worst case, if the star explodes the large way, what will it be like? the first radiation to escape the star will be neutrinos… The temperature of your planet’s mantle will increase a degree or so, almost instantly.  Magma will start moving.


The nuclear reactions in the current model of a Type Ia supernova would still produce a lot of neutrinos, though maybe not as much as a core collapse.  I’ve gone a bit beyond what I can show quantitatively here, though we have to allow some new astronomical discoveries to the hundred million years or so between our time and the story’s!

“…seconds later, a blast of  photons will scorch your planet’s surface…”

There should be a gamma ray burst as the shock wave reaches the white dwarf’s surface.  The “star” rapidly expands and, over the next few weeks, a huge ball of vaporized and highly radioactive nickel and iron will provide most of the energy.  Big explosions take time.

But no one will be here. In the far reaches of your planetary system, we are preparing a fleet to take you to a new world before that happens.  You’ll have a badly shocked culture, but better that then none at all.”

Moving an entire planet’s population to somewhere in space is not an exercise for those afraid of big numbers.  But, when one does the math instead of arguing from personal incredulity, it isn’t impossible at all.  At this point, I’d like to recommend a couple of Arthur C. Clarke stories on this theme: Rescue Party and The Star.

I’ll end with a graph of the luminosity of a supernova versus an ordinary nova versus days since the explosion.  The left scale is in absolute magnitude — Google “absolute magnitude” for the Wikipedia article.  The right scale is a log scale of luminosity with the sun equal to one.

Copyright G. David Nordley