He held his breath and waited for another wave of pain to pass as his ship hurtled toward the singularity. At least spaghettification would make for a more elegant end than the disease rapidly devouring his body, he thought.
“Two minutes to singularity,” the ship’s computer dutifully reported.
Ironically, it was the lifetime of exposure to Hawking radiation that’d done him in, studying cosmic behemoths like the one he’d soon become an eternal part of. The doctors had given him a week to live. Maybe two, but certainly no more than that, and his daughter Libby had been devastated by the news. For so long it’d just been the two of them against the universe, and she had grown sick with grief at the thought of losing him.
And so, without asking her or telling anyone, he’d stolen the little ship and sped off towards the supermassive black hole. An astrophysicist by training, he’d decided this would be his last gift to her. The intense gravitational distortion of spacetime meant that, to an external reference frame, time slowed exponentially the closer he got. From her perspective, he would draw infinitely close to the event horizon, yet never cross it. So in a final, limited way, he’d never really be gone, only red-shifted into eternity. Surely Libby would take some small comfort in that. Surely. A light signaling a communications hail blinked insistently on his control board. He ignored it like he’d ignored all the others before it.
“One minute to singularity.”
Only now did he wonder, briefly, if it was actually selfish, running away from everything to spare himself the grief and not Libby, taking solace in scientific rationalizations as he’d so often done. Stars warped and time dilated around the ship. The accretion disc burned brightly beneath him, and a momentary twinge of regret almost made him reach out at the last moment to send the engines screaming into reverse, to give up this reckless plan and spend his last agonizing days with her after all.
But no, it was too late. The instruments told him he’d already crossed the Schwarzschild radius. Thanks to the black hole’s size, he’d felt nothing, only a profound sense of finality. He plunged deeper, and when the first tidal surges of gravity hit him, Libby’s picture, taped to his forward screen, began to fade as the photons struggled to reach his eyes.
“Thirty seconds to singularity. Warning: structural failure imminent.”
Outside the ship’s rear window, infalling light showed the universe beyond the event horizon accelerate to time’s dark end, all the theories confirmed though he’d never be able to tell anyone. The sight suddenly struck him with an implication of his decision that, in his desperation, he hadn’t considered, and he wept when he remembered that the physics worked both ways. From his perspective, it was now his Libby who was dead and long gone, and there could be no reference frame that spared both of them the pain.
“Ten seconds to singu—”
This story first appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, 2019.
By day Eric Lewis is a research scientist weathering the latest rounds of mergers and layoffs and trying to remember how to be a person again after surviving grad school. His short fiction has been published in Nature, Cossmass Infinities, Electric Spec, Bards & Sages Quarterly, the anthologies Crash Code, Into Darkness Peering and Best Indie Speculative Fiction Vol. 1, the short story collection Tricks of the Blade as well as other venues detailed at ericlewis.ink. His debut novel The Heron Kings is available from Flame Tree Press.