It may take time to find a starfish on Omnalik Beach. You’ve seen the holos of that halfway land between Mare Estrellas and the Unyielding Void, but they do not do justice to the glittering diamond dust of the shore, or capture the dullness of the creatures’ outer cover. They are living blind spots; they want to be ignored. Thousands have walked past them unawares. Your instinct will be to scramble, to dig mercilessly through the sand, but you must be calm despite your urgent grief. Walk slowly, then turn and seek one in the gaps in the starlight left by your glimmering footprints.
When you locate a starfish along the sands, you must modulate your steps to match the beating of your heart. Starfish have perfect hearing; they can sense any creature on that near-infinite expanse. You, Seeker, must trick it. If it realizes you’re coming for it, it will fling itself into the Void, and your journey will have been for naught. Take deep breaths; restrain your heart. You’ve come all this way . . . the starfish is but a few steps farther.
Kneel softly beside the starfish and take it into your hands. It will smell of lavender perfume, oatmeal cookies, and medical shampoo. Its skin will be coarse to the touch and slightly slick. It will have a certain heft to it, more than you expected—all the holos make this look so easy, but to live it is so much more difficult. Do not let the newness frighten you, nor the weight disrupt you, as your movements must be fluid and controlled. The holos also demonstrated what happens if you foul this up. And if there’s one thing Omnalik Beach does not need, it’s another psychic explosion; there are not enough starfish to mourn millions.
Pick two opposing arms of the starfish, it matters not which. Exhale through your nose, then snap the starfish in half. If your ear plugs are in, you will survive the resultant scream, though it will ring across the Beach loud enough to make your teeth ache and your sternum rattle. It will feel like the end. It is the sound your heart made when your mother died, and you will recognize it instantly. Do not cry out; the starfish has strength left in it, and gravity here is weak. If you are thrown into the Unyielding Void, your own body will never be found, and your loved ones cannot mourn you.
A miniature galaxy of light motes will spill from the cracked shell, upward through the air in a glittering cloud of nebulae and galaxies. Inhale deeply of it—through your mouth, not your nostrils. The worlds of the starfish taste of fire and, faintly, of shellfish. Do not be alarmed by the voices ringing in your ears; these are the starfish trying to break you in return. Instead, stand and make your way back. Hold your breath, even though a million stars scream in your ears for release. Do not forget to bring the husk with you.
Walk to the edge of Omnalik Beach, where the body of your mother lays in service, surrounded by friends and family. She once had whole worlds inside of her, but now her body is a dullish blind spot amidst the sands. She was one hundred and four rotations. You sat by her beside in the hospital as time took her; you know her last word was “don’t.” Her favorite color was solar orange. She smelled of lavender, and oatmeal cookies, and medical shampoo. Her corpse looks like a pile of old winter coats.When you kiss her on the forehead, an entire universe will flow through the skin and into her veins. It is not enough to restore her life—every starfish on the beach combined could not sustain her forever—but it is enough to say goodbye, unfettered by the pain of illness or the fog of medication or the blindfolds of fear or grief. Your family will thank you, after, even if you feel less than nothing. And why would you not? The light of the universe inside you has gone out.
The service will last several hours. The line of mourners, longer than the beach, moves past her to say goodbye, or hold her close, or ask her banal questions: anything to feel normal for a moment. She knows her time is over, and also short, but she tells your sister where she left the car keys. She waves weakly to everyone as they shuffle past.She finds you at the end of the line. You will kneel by her and weep a bit. She will hold you close and tell you to be brave, and you must promise to do your best. It won’t be easy; you both understand this.“Don’t what?” you will ask.
“Your last words. You started to say, ‘Don’t’. . .”
She thinks for a moment, then tells you: “Don’t ever leave a room without saying I love you.”
So you say it, because you do. And you will. You always will. Then she closes her eyes as her body falls back into her bed.
Hurl the husk back into the Mare Estrallas. On another day, it will fill with whole worlds and provide comfort and solace to some other broken soul. But now you must take your own shell from the beach and fill it anew with a universe of your own.
This story first appeared in in Syntax & Salt 01/01/2020.
Brian Hugenbruch lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their pets. By day, he writes information security programs to protect your data on (and from) the internet. By night, he writes speculative fiction and poetry. You can find him on @Brian Hugenbruch, The Lettersea, or at The Lettersea.
No, he’s not sure how to say his last name, either.