You can see them so clearly when it's cold outside, they're like tiny diamonds in navy blue velvet. I wonder if many people see them like this, as things that are infinitely beautiful, or if they just wander underneath them, going through the motions of life without stopping to look and see the beauty around them. It comforts me when I think that almost everyone, no matter how jaded, has noticed and been stunned by the beauty of the stars once in a while, whether walking alone or in the arms of another.

My friend brings out three lit sticks of incense and I lay down on the icy concrete in only my pajamas and socks. It's January and about three in the morning in a deserted suburban neighborhood. She's been smoking a cigarette and wants me to see how the smoke looks against the stars, but I don't smoke. The smoke from the incense and my icy breath in the air create a perfect transient veil for the stars. The cold ice against my back and the smell of incense and cigarette smoke enveloped me and...I didn't think that there could exist anything more perfect than this moment. Until the danger of frostbite became a real possibility, we stayed out there, staring at the ten thousand frozen, burning stars.

Ten thousand frozen, burning stars now grace
The ephemeral veneer that passes for your face;
Full long, till night and morn, have I looked at you
And found in passing miracles sparkling true –

A clash, a scream made silent by space
As gods and Titans war upon your face –
A heartbeat gone, and there remains
But dust, and spreading stains

Coloured blue, and red, and vermillion gold,
Ochre, and aquamarine, silver sevenfold,
Over shadowed darkness, made bright by suns;
Overwhelming beauty this, that moment by moment stuns -

Hercules there roars, and Orion clings -
A little bear there mewls, and a solitary maiden sings
Couplets suppressed by darkening swirls,
Over a backdrop of a million worlds.

And still not over, this procession, of star and star alike -
Aquarius and Delphinus, each a million miles alive;
Four years hence shall there but stride,
Alpha Centauri himself, whom light but struggles to hide.

So far, and far away, I sit,
And stare but hours long,
Watching gem and gem as they fit
And then, like glittering sparks, are gone

If I could, I would but trace a smile –
On lips, perhaps, spread over a billion miles;
A startling, glimmering flash of life
Alone itself would suffice;

Through glassy eyes I look, and find
Every beast of heaven, every monster kind
Angels born right of fire, God himself buried there:
In ash and dust and teeming swirls, hither and thither and there.

Too small a space I dwell, too tiny a world I love,
Beneath thy immaculate gaze, soft lit from above;
Would not I wish but touch – just once I wish –
But I cannot, and like mortal lover, must perish.

Cruel mistress, this dark vacuum of space
Full rife with gems, too many to face -
That blinded alone can one but ever last
Beneath the face of ten thousand frozen, burning stars.

They burn coldly out here, beyond the last light of civilization, far from the small dome that shudders in the sandstorms that come up every seven days. You mark time in the sweeping of grains against polycarbon, the slow erosion of the passing murmurs. Once, the clocks ran, but unsynced from the dying satellite high above, you only mark time in sevens. Seven Earth days to each sandstorm, seven months since the last of the team vanished off over the horizon to repair the transmit tower at Alpha Base.

You are the last human on this dying world that should have been a colony, the last of the Flying Dutchmen of the stars, the great generation ship left flying between the stars until the solar sails became too tattered to continue on and the last of the uranium has been eked away to nothing. You remember the brightly colored posters, the incentives to leave an overcrowded Earth, to leave the choked press of humanity and the squalor of the teeming masses.

Now, you are surrounded by nothing but space, and it echoes.

Out here, on the edge of the plateau, is a waste of the air in your tanks, and breathing in, you can see them high above, winking in the darkness. Science and learning have taught you that each star is hotter than anything born, the crucible of the universe. But centuries in the fragile shell of a dying ship have taught you better.

The stars are cold, and they are legion. At night, the seven year night of this ancient planet, you name them not in the constellations of the Greek lexicon, but the demons of the Christian mythos. Sometimes, their names are not so Satanic: sometimes they are the names of those who choked to death on faulty gas that kept them suspended in an eternal, frozen slumber.

The few scientists that survived, wizened and grey, to wake you, you who survived lone out of six remaining, tell you that the cheap labor who built the ship cut corners: simple carelessness left your family, your mother, your father, your sons and daughters and uncles and aunts, to remain. They tell you that they jettisoned them into a brighter pyre than any have known before: they are the fuel of the burning stars now, a Viking funeral beyond the straits and longships.

Sometimes, you see them floating away in their capsules to some unnamed star. Choronzon yawns wide to devour them. You are convinced that they are still frozen, still dreaming in the stasis tubes. Still asleep, burning with the cold.

And despite the light of the ten thousand manifold stars, despite the velvet darkness and the environmentals in your suit, you are cold here in the light of the heavens. The last human left, you gaze into the obsidian, wine-dark sky.

Hell is very cold this time of year.



With apologies to Charles Stross.

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