Venn missed the stars most of all.
The moon burned brightly against the blackness, but beyond the crimson haze, there was nothing. The molten cores and constellations had flung their fires into whorling supernovae, until even the scintillations of dust and gas had blown thin across the darkness. Venn remembered the old skies, silhouettes undulating between vast archipelagos of stars, helixes of luminous gas spiraling high above the earth. Venn remembered points of light like diamonds studded in velvet. And every light was a distant sun, and some of those suns surveilled systems of living worlds; each one filled with people who looked to the sky as Venn did and considered the immensity of time and space. And when they raised their hands, they eclipsed the firmament and held the light between their fingertips. But the eclipses forgot to ebb and fade away as the universe swung between its perigees and apogees, and the people died, allowing the adjacent silence to grow long and cold, to drown the stars, until there were few bright things left in the universe.
But there was one – a signal flare burning at the end of all things. The world, the city, this final place, was called Äshfal. Äshfal was so named because its moon was on fire. As the light flickered and the universe died, gravitational tides between accreting galactic debris and dying stars fractured the moon's surface, pulled the skin apart. The crust split into livid black scars and magma seeped between the cracks, lava running like tears along the contours of chitinous gray rock. A volcanic cinder hung at the zenith of Äshfal’s starless sky. And so the soot and dirt and detritus fell from the burning moon, and the world at the end of the universe became Äshfal. Venn believed the tale because he believed all names for all things were the denouements of stories that had once, in another time and place, been true. So long as Venn remembered the stories, he kindled a small mote of immortality even after all other lights had been burnt and gutted.
Everyone made their pilgrimage to Äshfal in the end. They came to the final place or they died. At the end of everything, decisions hinged on a primordial, desperate impulse to survive. Venn was no different. The fires of Äshfal’s moon had burned even brighter amidst the darkness bleeding from the edges of the world, until the only thing Venn could see was the light, leading him out from under the shadow.
Äshfal was a city and Äshfal was an entire world. The labyrinthine streets crisscrossed the planet like lines of latitude and longitude. Buildings rose like mountains and brushed against the darkness. As the moon burned, cinders rained from the sky, dotting the earth in smoking calderas. The trees were petrified minarets, caked in ash. Water bubbled from wellsprings deep underground; the taste was gray and bitter and gritty, like most other things in Äshfal. Sunlight had faded out of all memory, even Venn's. He could not remember summer days trapped under cloudless skies, the smell of snow blowing clear and sharp from the mountains, a life not lived buried under ash, crawling across the cracked and burning earth, reflected in a thousand tired eyes of a thousand old souls.
But Venn had his stories, and he had his memories of the stars. And sometimes, that was enough.
“What’s it, then?” said the Repairman in the Bodega, long after Venn arrived on Äshfal, not so long after Venn realized he had a problem with his starcraft.
“Grit in the turbocompressor blades, scratched cockpit windows, engine flameout.” And when Venn forgot the smell of rain he trailed his fingers through the ash, drawing currents in the grime. "Damaged avionics.”
“You're not going nowhere. Carve out her guts and live in her, that’s what an äsher do.”
“I don’t want to live in my 'craft.”
“It’s not like you got someplace else to go. Not like there’s much use for ‘craft here anyhows. Ash’ll choke her right up.”
“How you move about, then?”
“Äshers walk. Äshers run. We got a tram. Sundry times it even works.”
Everything had been buried under the ash, even those small, quiet thoughts in the back of his head. Venn wanted to fly but the emptiness beyond Äshfal was a roof arching over the sky. “I ain’t leaving here.”
“Sure as grit is grit and this whole world’ll drift into the Forevertime. No place else to go, even if a ‘craft’ll swallow the ash.” The Repairman frowned. “Last station, Äshfal. You get?”
“Yeah, I get.” Venn felt the dust in his throat and under his fingernails and stinging his eyes, as bloodshot as the moon. “Just leveled I’d have a ‘craft here, is all.”
“No place to go, I get. But Äshfal’s a whole world. Take a Forevertime to till it. Would’ve been mite quicker with a ‘craft.”
“What you tilling, äsher?”
“Not an äsher.”
“You an äsher nowtimes. What you tilling, then?”
Venn wondered how long the Repairman had lived on Äshfal. He wondered if the Repairman remembered the numbers. “Tilling for the Braneworld.”
The Repairman nodded. “Samer. And yeah, would’ve been more’n a mite quicker with a ‘craft.”
“You till the Braneworld?”
“All of Äshfal tills the Braneworld. All we got, nowtimes. The thought. The idea.”
Venn took a sip of gray water and it tasted like dust. “The Braneworld is somewhere else, goes deep under the skin of the world, so this life won’t be it for us, you get? Braneworld'll lead us out of the long dark.”
“We all get, friend. But äshers’s been tilling the world over since the time a mite before the long dark, and ain’t no one's tilled the Braneworld.”
Äshfal was a bad place. A labyrinthian exoskeleton cast in ash, a city of bones. Empty rooms and empty streets encased in marrow. Everyone was going to die and everyone was already dead, and Äshfal was there to cremate the bodies. Gray shrouds. Buildings arrayed by height like headstones.
“Going to till until there ain’t earth to till no more,” said Venn. “Braneworld’s the way out. Way I level it, it’s a mite better than waiting for the long dark… and after the nowtime, the Forevertime.”
So Venn left the Bodega and the Repairman and the glass of gray water. Äshfal stretched to the sky in jagged abrasions that marred the horizon. And time seemed to slow, until the moments froze in glowing fractals like the lightning cracking across the liminal space between the world and the moon. The whorling clouds of ash telescoped into a corridor of spherical lenses, a collimation of light, the walls a mosaic of stone and cinder and broken glass. Each shard was a window, and the windows were cracking. Through the splinters, a spectrum of worlds scintillated against the darkness.
Venn believed the stories, of Äshfal, of the burning moon, of the Braneworld, because memory did not demarcate myth from truth. And Venn remembered the stars to steer his course, which had to count for something in the city that slept forever under the fiery and starless sky.
Kaitlin Moore is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Creative Writing and Philosophy of Science. Once an astrophysics major, Kaitlin likes to write stories that experiment with time, space, and superpositive cats that are both alive and dead. Kaitlin is the author of two novels and several short stories and essays. Her work has appeared in 3Elements Review, Filament, Tinge Magazine, and Blue Door Quarterly.