Jude and Immogen float in their ship’s sensorium, holding hands and viewing the Schwarzschild radius stamped on the star field before them. The ring of detoured light surrounds a profound blackness that whispers faintly with Hawking radiation. Jude has pondered this quantum flaw in relativity for a long time, as he has pondered death and love.
He and his wife are human again. They have been through countless modifications, but have returned to their baseline forms for this occasion. They are naked and youthful and imperfect, like they were when they accepted the Spectators into their bodies long ago. Jude quiets his mind and listens for some sign of his Spectator. It is quiet today. Sometimes he can feel Its presence, the strange harmonies of Its alien emotions, but not now.
“Mine sleeps too,” Immogen says. She knew what he was doing, of course. They read each other perfectly after all these millennia.
The Spectators are most noticeable during a suicide attempt, and Jude has not yet ordered the ship to dive. Now that he’s here, he knows an odd sense of finality: if this doesn’t work, nothing will, and he will be compressed by the weight of time into something new. He will become a slavish consumer of meaningless experience. He’ll have no choice. There’s a kind of comfort in that, though not the one he seeks.
“Hawking radiation,” he says.
“Yes,” Immogen replies, a note of husky excitement in her voice. She doesn’t need to say more. Her exhaustive studies have yielded a confident prediction: their attempt will fail. She has always been the scientist, the observer. Jude used to call her the ideal vessel for a Spectator, back when they were capable of lovers’ quarrels. He has long since accepted the strange appetite she built for herself.
A light moan escapes her lips. She’s aroused by the thought of defying death once again. She’s imagining her escape from Einstein’s prison, vacuum fluctuation by vacuum fluctuation. She is possessed of a certain faith in the Spectators, despite her scientific acumen. She believes They will save their hosts from anything the universe has to offer. It is because of this faith that she became what she is. Jude will never understand the universe like she does, but if they don’t die this time, he must come to accept compulsory immortality.
She gasps, her free hand straying toward her sex. The sensorium has picked out a dim red scar on the blackness: a red-shifted starship, apparently frozen in mid-dive. It is not unlike their own, a vessel constructed by immortals. In its own reference frame it will plunge through the event horizon at speed, but for the rest of the universe it must hang there, slowing and dimming.
Many Spectator-hosts have taken The Plunge and faded beyond the long radio wavelengths. None have been heard from again, but as Immogen loves explaining, that doesn’t mean they found repose.
Jude loves his wife, and hates her and fears her. He has watched her climax inside trillion-degree gamma ray bursts. She has enjoyed her beloved petite mort during many brushes with death. She has shaped herself into something that thrives under the Spectator Curse. With her preternatural submission to the Curse, she dominates It. At the same time, she’s gone further than anyone Jude knows in understanding the Spectators.
“We didn’t comprehend what They offered us,” she said once. She tried to describe the universe They came from, Their alternate physics. She and Jude were a thousand years old by then. They were living in an Oort habitat with a tribe of fellow immortals, preparing to leap star-ward. Jude and others were already tired of the universe. They were coming to understand the prison they’d agreed to.
Falling toward Proxima Centauri, the tribe learned that sleep akin to death would bring no relief from the Curse. Their Spectators filled their anesthetized brains with restless fever dreams. Jude hunted shifting labyrinths for his Spectator. He called out to It through the years and was ignored. The Spectators never spoke, even when They first came to human minds with Their Faustian offer.
Jude remembers that wordless proposition clearly.
Like everyone who accepted, he loved life too much to understand it.
“What are you waiting for?” Immogen says.
Jude contemplates the void. “I’m relishing the uncertainty.”
“It is uncertainty that will save us. Of that I’m certain.”
He doesn’t ask Immogen which one of them has embraced life, and which death. They exhausted that semantic game centuries ago.
“You’re going to be disappointed again,” she says. She would have him adapt, like she has. Sometimes Jude must remind himself that his wife is, in fact, operating on a long-term vision. She is more than a sensualist living thrill to thrill. She anticipates their Spectators saving them from heat death, when the time comes–saving them forever. She wants to share that never-ending orgasm with her husband.
Jude can’t commit to her religion just yet. Instead, he hugs her and savors the possibility of losing her.
She writhes against him. “Do it,” she breathes in his ear.
Jude orders the ship to dive, and immediately feels his Spectator react. It emotes a familiar harmonic of titillation and despair, but this time there’s something new: strains of yearning and panic, and something like laughter.
Jude can only hope it’s the omen he’s been waiting for, the raven he’s chased across light-years. He holds his shuddering wife and closes his eyes. One way or another he’s about to change–but for the rest of the universe, he’ll remain pinioned to this moment of ecstatic doubt, fading beyond long radio.
Andy Dudak’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Ray Gun Revival, and other venues. He is a published illustrator and aspiring translator living in Beijing.