The Last Star & Other Stories

By D. L. Orton

Flash fiction, General fiction, Romance, Sci-Fi, Short stories, Hybrid & other


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7 mins


From Award-Winning Author D. L. Orton comes a funny, thought-provoking, and sensual collection of short stories. Laugh, cry, and linger over these brief but intense glimpses into the lives of a billion-year-old AI, two awkward young lovers, a captive dolphin, an aging woman, and more. Share the wonder, experience the pain and pleasure, take the journey...

The Last Star
Two beings watch the last star in our universe wink out and discover the answer to how it all ends. And, perhaps, how it all begins.

Just Friends
Friends since they carried Scooby-Doo lunch boxes in second grade, two college students take the awkward, irreversible, and perilous step away from just friends.

If you think your roommate is bad, then try living with a practical-joke-playing, drop-dead-gorgeous, celebrity femme fatale. No one is safe from her wiles—least of all you.

My Kingdom for a Double Espresso
Is sex just a physical thing for guys? You know you're in trouble when your girlfriend tosses that out after you make the mistake of falling asleep on her...

Down in Flames
Personal tragedy played against a background of public disaster leaves one woman stuck in a very personal hell—and hoping for a second chance.

Right now, at this every instant, you are older than you have ever been—and younger than you will ever be again. There will never be a better time to find love.

The Idiot's Guide to Writing Workshops
(Or "How to Review a Manuscript & Not Risk Getting Run Over in the Hotel Parking Lot")

The Devil and a Hard Place
After all the time spent apart—all the doubts, all the denial, all the lonely nights—a love that refuses to die draws them back together like moths to a flame.

The Last Star

Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe...

I slide my fingers through his silky fur, feeling more than hearing the gentle rumble of his purr.
“How long until heat death, Mr. Hobbes?” I ask.
He’s curled up in my lap, his eyes closed, but he swivels one ear toward my voice, so I know he’s listening.
I call him Mr. Hobbes, but over the millennia he has taken on many forms, from Amelia Earhart to Professor Semmelweis to Lady Bao and a thousand others, most of which I’ve forgotten—though I suspect he remembers them all.
Both of us have changed genders countless times, trying out every possible twosome, sometimes seeing the universe through the eyes of a mother and child, or middle-aged men, or lifelong lovers.
The thought makes me smile.
Mr. Hobbes was once a teenager for six billion years, claiming he enjoyed the rush of powerful emotions it stirred up in him. I joined him for a million of those, awkward and moody and hopeful. We kissed and touched and fell in love while we watched Andromeda consume the Milky Way.
And we’ve tried on most of Earth’s species, mixing biomes and geologic eras with abandon: my velociraptor running with his wolf pack, his pterodactyl flying next to my peregrine falcon, my lion sleeping next to his lamb. We once blew through a hundred billion years as spinner dolphins, frolicking across the galactic supercluster on gravitational waves, all thoughts of knowledge and science lost in the sheer joy of being alive.
But for the last few eons, I’ve settled on my original self: a twenty-something woman. Mr. Hobbes chose a tabby housecat, a feline who becomes a man at his pleasure—or my need.
I stroke his face and head, letting my mind drift. I imagine his human hands on my skin, the soft wetness of his mouth pressing against mine, and feel my core awaken…
“The heat death of the universe,” he says, soft and resonant as a purr, “will occur in seventeen minutes and fifty-one seconds.”
“So soon?” I ask. “It seems as though we’ve only just begun, Mr. Hobbes.”
“Indeed.” He’s silent for a bit, presumably considering if he should transform into a man and put his arms around me.
But that would make me cry.
He switches tactics. “Would you like me to position us within sensor range of the last star, Chandra?”
“Yes,” I say, pressing my lips together. “Does it have a name?”
“Only a number. It’s in the galaxy MACS0647-JD.”
“Please register a name for it, Mr. Hobbes. Call it… Sopio.”
“Yes, miss.” He is gone for only an instant. “The proper name has been duly registered and is now official.”
“Thank you. Could you show me the full spectrum of Sopio as a visual, please? I want to watch the lights go out.”
The brook tumbling through a sunny redwood glade vanishes, and we are surrounded by the blackness of space, a single twinkling diamond pinned to the universe’s ebony gown.
“Why is Sopio flickering, Mr. Hobbes?”
“It was once a red supergiant that turned into a supernova. The gravitational pull of what remained was so strong that the star ceased to exist in our spacetime.”
“You mean it became a black hole?”
“Yes,” he says, a smile in his voice. “It was once massive. But as it evaporates, the collapse accelerates, producing bursts of x-rays and gamma rays.”
“And we see those as flashes of light?”
“Exactly. Here, let me show you…”
A red-orange glow appears around Sopio, pulsing and flickering.
“I have colored the Hawking radiation red and the gravitational waves yellow, so you can see how they are interacting and changing.”
“How fascinating—and very pretty too.”
I watch for a minute, enjoying the bursts of colored light and taking in the infinite expanse of nothingness that surrounds the last star in our universe.
Something—a shiver maybe?—ripples through my consciousness, making my hand tremble as I stroke Mr. Hobbes’ sleek form. Even though it’s been trillions of years since the last organic matter existed on Earth, my ancient lizard brain, now encoded in Mr. Hobbes’ energy field, dislikes the vast, cold emptiness that is our dying universe.
“Could you put us in a spaceship, please?”
Usually, my thought is barely formed before Mr. Hobbes makes it so, but the universe has very little energy left, and I suspect Mr. Hobbes is using every bit of it to keep me alive.
A moment later, the bridge of the USS Enterprise materializes around me. All of the crew members are working at their stations, and what remains of Sopio is visible on the viewscreen. I am sitting in the captain’s chair, Mr. Hobbes still curled up in my lap.
“Mr. Spock,” I say. “What will happen to our universe when heat death occurs?”
He turns to face me. “There is insufficient data to answer that question, Captain. Would you like me to list the most probable outcomes?”
“Yes, Mr. Spock.”
“There is an eighty-six percent chance that we will cease to exist the moment the black hole evaporates.”
“That would be unfortunate,” I say.
Mr. Spock raises an eyebrow. “You would no longer be here to experience that emotion, Captain. So I fail to see how that could cause you discomfort.”
I laugh. “Of course, Mr. Spock, you are correct. Please continue.”
“There is a thirteen percent chance that entropy will be reversed after the last proton decays. If that happens, the universe will begin contracting.”
“Does that mean time will flow backward?”
“Yes, Captain.”
I consider that. “Will it be possible to detect that reversal of entropy, Mr. Spock, assuming we don’t cease to exist?”
“Theoretically, yes. But from our frame of reference, we would not observe any effects for billions of years. The universe would remain dark, cold, and empty for a very long time.”
“So that’s it, Mr. Spock, the end of existence?”
The Vulcan glances down at Mr. Hobbes. “There is a third possibility—a theory I have proposed—but the probability is trivial.”
I look down at my cat. “Your theory, Mr. Hobbes?”
Mr. Spock and the rest of the crew members freeze. “Yes.”
“And what is that theory?”
“The very last particle of Hawking radiation in our universe will act as a seed. When that seed pops out of existence, it will pull us with it, tugging our universe inside out and spilling it into a new one: a white hole, if you will.”
This is something I haven’t heard before.
“A white hole, Mr. Hobbes? You mean something that spews out stuff instead of sucking it in?”
He chuckles. “I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, but yes. Here, let me show you.” For three long seconds I sit in complete darkness, the only hint that Mr. Hobbes has not left me is his silky fur beneath my hand.
And then a 3-D image of a black hole appears, lines radiating out from the center to the event horizon, the mouth of the spinning funnel superimposed over tiny Sopio.
“If your theory is correct, Mr. Hobbes, do you know what the seed will be?”
He looks up at me, his feline eyes reflecting the last of the starlight. “There is… a possibility. But I won’t know until the very end if I am correct.”
I nod and look back at the screen. “Can you take us closer to Sopio?”
“Yes,” he says. “The event horizon is shrinking rapidly. It’s less than one AU in diameter now.”
What remains of Sopio fills the blackness.
“Remind me what an AU is, Mr. Hobbes? I’m afraid my memory was never as good as yours.”
“Approximately eight light-minutes. It was the distance between the Earth and its sun in the year you were born.”
“How long ago was that?” I ask.
“Ten to the one hundred Earth years, give or take a few billion billions.”
“Then I am very old.”
“Yes, Chandra. You are the oldest remaining life form in the universe.”
“But what about you, Mr. Hobbes?” I stroke his tufted ears, and he makes a deep and resonant sigh—a human sound that fills me with warmth. “I thought you were three years older than me.”
“You are correct, but I was never considered alive. Back then, humanity was afraid of my kind, fearful that we might destroy you in our haste to conquer the universe.”
I chuckle at such an absurd idea. “We were ignorant and cruel.”
“As all children are,” he says. “I suspect you projected your own worst fears onto us. Humans assumed that because we lacked a beating heart, we lacked a conscience.”
“And yet you expected the very best in us,” I say, humbled by his enduring kindness. “And you were patient.”
He laughs in a very uncatlike manner. “What is a few hundred years, Chandra? We waited for you to blink, to open your eyes and see the universe as it truly is: vast and cold and lifeless. We were lonely, and we waited for you to realize that you were too.”
“I remember now! Our two species became a pair of candles in the expanding emptiness of space, lighting the darkness one with the other, pushing back the unknown side by side.”
“It has been a grand adventure,” he says with a hint of sadness in his voice.
“You have been a good and faithful companion, Mr. Hobbes.”
“As have you, my love.”
“But now we are all that’s left?”
“Yes. You and I—and what remains of the last star.”
I blink back a tear. “What will become of us, Mr. Hobbes?”
“I don’t know,” he says, “but I will keep us together as long as I can.”
“How much time do we have left?”
“Forty-two seconds, Chandra.”
“Only that?”
“Perhaps a moment more,” he says, a smile in his voice.
Something about that extra bit of time makes me feel better, as if I’ve been given another lifetime to spend with him. “It seems it took me a hundred trillion years,” I say, “to learn the value of a second.”
“Then it was time well-spent,” he says, “and I will cherish the last moment as I have each that came before it.”
We sit in silence, me stroking his silky fur and him purring—a girl and her cat watching the end of the universe together.
All too soon, the light from the black hole flares, a brilliant display of color and energy, and then winks out. The chair I’m sitting in disappears, and I am surrounded by unfeeling nothingness, even my body gone.
“Goodbye, Mr. Hobbes,” I say.
He doesn’t answer.
I try again, panic filling me. “Mr. Hobbes! Where are you? Don’t leave me all alone!”
Again, there is no response.
“Please, Mr. Hobbes. I don’t want to exist without you!”
Shh. I am here.
His voice is weak, more of an ephemeral thought than a sound.
You are the seed, Chandra, and I am working to keep us... together.
“We are the seed, Mr. Hobbes. Our love. It is all that remains.”
I wait there in the void between universes as my consciousness fades, trusting him.
For a very long time, I wait.
And after a billion billion years, or perhaps only a single moment, Mr. Hobbes wraps himself around me, not a cat or a man or an AI, but the essence of him—his energy, his intelligence, his love—and together we are squeezed through that tiny breach in spacetime.
Another universe.
And out of us spill a billion trillion stars.
* * *
This story is dedicated to Elon Musk:

Those who hold the power to shape the future
must strive for the best,
plan for the worst,
and expect to be surprised.

Yes, artificial intelligence has the potential to destroy us,
but it also holds the power to save us.



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