The Dying Sun
The red-gold glow of a dying star burns through the reinforced glass into the ballroom, filtered just enough to ensure both the safety and comfort of every passenger. The gently swaying crystals of the chandelier cast delicate rainbows of light over a wall of bottles. Waiters dressed in black, engineered to blend into the background as if part of the machinery of the ship itself, move in carefully calculated silence, a dance of their own as the band plays a slow, melancholic song of love and loss.
In the centre of the room, a couple dances. A woman in an embellished copper dress and a man in a black tuxedo with tails sway to the rhythm of the music. Around the woman’s neck, a padparadscha sapphire shines like its own miniature sun, worth more than the world below. Others orbit around her, basking in her light, but she is all anyone really sees.
The song ends and the couple separate. He is enamoured, his eyes fixed on her as if she might disappear any moment. Something behind her eyes suggests she already has.
It’s almost a shame she has to die, Kit thinks. Almost.
Everyone onboard Zephyros IV knows Katherine Fontaine. Every surviving member of the human race knows Katherine Fontaine, at least by name if nothing else, as the woman who owns the sun.
There is a vaguely perverse pleasure in seeing her watch it die. Her legacy, her inheritance, her most prized possession becoming nothing more than scattered atoms which no amount of money can reassemble. Not that she wouldn’t try, of course.
Kit makes her way through the crowd with practised, fluid ease, a glass of champagne in hand. Most people ignore her and she prefers it that way. Her eyes stay fixed on Fontaine. Most people’s are.
A man in a blue jacket touches her waist as she tries to squeeze past, stepping into her space with the kind of entitlement only a vain and wealthy man who has never been told ‘no’ can display, his body against hers. Kit’s skin crawls, but she pushes down the discomfort and masks it with a wide-eyed smile. “May I help you?”
“Is that so hard?”
“Looking at me.”
Yes, she thinks. She can smell his breath, can see the way he looks at her as though she were something to be devoured, and it takes all her resolve not to punch him squarely in the face, and only the inevitable attention it would draw prevents her from doing so.
“Dance with me,” he says. It isn’t a question.
“I’m married,” she says. It isn’t true, but no one on this ship cares much for truth.
“You’re too beautiful to be unavailable.”
“And yet I am.”
He lets go of her and she can breathe freely again, even as he mutters something to himself that sounds awfully like “uppity bitch”.
When Kit turns her back to the man in the blue jacket, Fontaine is gone. And so is the sapphire. She takes off, but despite her racing heart, she does not hurry. She knows better than that.
The corridors of the ship are mercifully empty, enough for Kit to discard her drink and consider her options. There are few places Fontaine could go and unless she possesses some hidden intellect hitherto unrecognised, she will still have the sapphire.
Thirty million dollars for the sapphire, forty for Fontaine’s life. Kit repeats the terms like a mantra, an incantation that will save her from this pitiful excuse for existence. To steal is nothing new. To kill… Well. If anyone deserves it, a Fontaine does.
They’ll say the death of the sun destroyed most of the human race. They’ll omit the fact that it had been destroyed long ago, the moment Andrew Fontaine decided he could buy the sun. And perhaps they’ll say the murder of Katherine Fontaine destroyed Kathleen ‘Kit’ Buckley, and omit the fact that she too had been destroyed long before.
The light was brighter than anything Kit had ever seen before. How could anyone go back to the HelioLights® underground after seeing something so beautiful, so bright, so intense? Even after everything, she hadn’t realised just how different it would be. Her mother had saved and saved for this, cutting down on every expense, even skipping some of her vitamin supplements to make a pack last longer, so that Kit could see the sun before her tenth birthday. Even when she was sick with deficiency, she had reassured Kit that it would all be worth it. But that still hadn’t prepared her for what she saw.
Her skin burned wonderfully as though she were immersed in a hot bath, the air filling her lungs almost too fresh, too pure. There were plants everywhere, not contained to HelioLights® Growth Pods. People were even standing on them, careless to an extreme Kit had never seen before. Her mother would have smacked her on the back of the head if she had found some way to stand on a plant, but no one here seemed to mind.
There were children in strange clothes playing on a dusting of plants, green shoots barely an inch high being trampled under their feet as if they didn’t matter. Their skin was brown, but not brown like Akilah from school or Mrs Chowdhury in the apartment two doors down. They were warm, glowing as if they were lit from inside. Kit stared at them, at the way the light seemed to move in the air around them, dancing and waving as if it too was playing.
She kept staring until a young girl made of gold caught her eye and gave her a look of brazen disgust. The golden-haired, golden-skinned girl motioned to another, similarly glowing child to come closer and whispered in her ear. Despite the distance, she could still hear their laughter.
She didn’t belong there.
She doesn’t belong here, but she knows how to hide it. A deep red dress, a purse that could cost more than most people make in a month, her hair styled just right, some artfully applied cosmetics, and a few alterations to the way she walks and talks are all it takes to deceive every sun-blinded fool with more money than sense and the confidence in their own security that it takes to fully relax. She knows what she is doing, she isn’t a child anymore. She stopped being a child the moment her mother died and she was left to fend for herself, to work for the only people who would take her.
It’s almost too predictable. Fontaine didn’t even lock the door – but Kit does. She doesn’t want to be interrupted. The cabin is quiet, filled only with the soft sobs of a woman too distracted by her own grief to hear the hydraulic hiss of a door sliding open or the muffled steps of high heels on carpet. She faces the window and Kit can see both of their reflections in the glass, but with her head in her hands, Fontaine sees neither. Everyone may know her, may feel her presence in every part of life, but she has never been so close to the real Fontaine. She smells of drink and perfume and money. Hatred burns in Kit like the dying sun burns the near-empty planet, steadily incinerating the surface. She can only hope that those remaining on-world are deep enough underground and protected enough to survive. Somehow she doubts it.
She reaches into her purse and takes hold of a small cylinder, vaguely reminiscent of a lighter. She doesn’t need to see it to flick the switch. It makes no sound, but Kit knows that any cameras nearby will have frozen, their files corrupted. This part, at least, is not new to her.
Fontaine still hasn’t noticed her. People like Fontaine never notice people like Kit, that’s how they sleep at night. But then again, people like Fontaine never notice anyone but themselves. It’s perfect. It should be so easy.
Why isn’t it easy?
She could kill Fontaine there and then. She has prepared for every eventuality, a gun in her purse, a vial of poison in her locket, a knife strapped to her thigh, and a hundred alibis and strategies in her mind. She is already a thief and a criminal, is it really much more to become a killer?
Before Kit can find any kind of answer, Fontaine turns. Her eyes are filled with tears but she doesn’t wipe them away. “I thought you were…” She trails off and shakes her head, looking back out into space.
Her voice is lower than Kit had expected. For all the pictures of her face and mentions of her name, Kit doesn’t think she’s ever heard Fontaine speak. She half expects Fontaine to charge her for the privilege.
“It’s naive, isn’t it?” she asks with a sigh, her eyes still fixed on the interminable darkness beyond. “To think he’d come?”
Naivety is just another word for foolishness, used by those looking to maintain a warped sense of intellectual superiority, Kit thinks. She does not say this. “Men are unpredictable,” she says instead.
Fontaine laughs and a single tear falls down her bronzed cheek. “He never apologised. He knew what he was doing, he must have.”
Kit doesn’t know who ‘he’ is, but it doesn’t matter. She touches the sheath on her thigh hidden under her dress and steadies herself. It has to be done.
Harden your heart, girl. If the rich don’t have morals, they don’t deserve to benefit from ours. She can hear Captain Parr’s voice in her mind, raspy, low and firm. He knows she can do this, believes in her unquestionably. He might be the only one who does, but that would hardly be new. From the moment she had approached the Solari, he had been the sole member to trust her rage, to understand her desperation, to see her potential.
Fontaine looks back around. Someone new to this would have jerked their hand back, but Kit does not. She simply looks out at the stars with an expression of quiet contemplation. The one thing they can’t buy is your mind. Don’t give it to them. They won’t be suspicious unless you give them a reason to be.
“What did yours do?” Fontaine asks, wiping her eyes delicately on the back of her hand. Her make-up barely smudges.
“Mine?” Kit asks with a frown.
“Your unpredictable man.”
“He might not even be mine.”
She affects the air of someone disillusioned with the world, yet secure enough that any suffering becomes inconsequential. If only the trivialities of an uncertain relationship were all that concerned her.
Fontaine makes a faint sound of melancholic recognition. Her disillusionment is no affectation – Kit is sure of it. Does she regret it all? Or is is solely the loss of status that hurts her? Her legacy is gone, yes, but so is the surface of the planet she called home and the mystery man whose name Kit doesn’t care to learn.
Harden your heart, girl.
Would it be so wrong to find some way to take the sapphire and leave Fontaine alive? Would their client still pay if the full terms of the agreement hadn’t been reached? Could she face them and admit her failure, her weakness?
“So much loss…” Fontaine murmurs, more to herself than to Kit.
“They might survive.”
But Fontaine doesn’t seem to be listening. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t- I’m not sure I caught your name?”
“Woods. From Vitalair? We met at the new HelioLights pod launch.” The lies are almost second nature now. She has rehearsed her story a hundred times, although Captain Parr had told her not to bother. You should be a shadow, Kit. If you’re noticed enough to need to play make-believe, you’re already failing. But she speaks with such confidence that Fontaine feigns recognition, as though such a meeting must have occurred.
“Lena, of course. My apologies.”
Is she really sorry for the damage she’s done? Is she sorry for the death toll of her greed and her carelessness? Or is she simply sorry that she might have forgotten a fellow wealthy woman’s name? She can’t find it in herself to trust Fontaine, even if she seems so bizarrely normal. Would she still care if she knew who Kit was?
The sapphire around her neck glitters as the light catches it. Fontaine touches it absently, as if she had forgotten it was there, then pulls it from her neck in one swift motion. Despite her racing heart, Kit’s face remains an impassive mask of casual interest, barely reflected in the near-invisible reinforced glass. It’s all that separates them both from death and it suddenly seems entirely too little.
She should find a way to take it and leave. Thirty million might not be seventy, but it’s something. Captain Parr would still be proud of her, surely. But she doesn’t move.
“Are you alright?” she asks. It seems like the right thing to do. She knows Parr would disagree.
Fontaine laughs, but there’s no humour to it. “Alright? How can I be alright? They’re out there celebrating.” Her disgust radiates like a stench, but Kit welcomes it.
“It’s awful,” she agrees.
“And they expect me to join them! Everything is ending, everything is gone, and they want me to dance!”
“The people underground might survive.” Hope is all they have, down there. Kit knows that much all too well.
Fontaine laughs again, hysterical in her grief. It seems indecent to watch. “Survive? Of course, they won’t survive.”
She had suspected it might be true, but to hear it so blatantly, so carelessly? Kit’s heart aches. She doesn’t want to think about how much it will hurt. It’s all she can think about. A few short years ago, she would have cried. She likes to think she is stronger now, but she still has to fight back tears. “They could,” she murmurs, desperate to cling onto a single shred of hope.
“Has no one told you, Woods? Those chambers are nothing. As if I’d waste what little I had left on saving those who didn’t bother to get off-world,” Fontaine spits. “They can’t bring the sun back! They can’t make Devan love me! They can’t even afford to keep me happy! What do they matter? Let them die!”
Kit can hear her pulse thrumming in her head, drowning out all other sounds. If death doesn’t matter to Fontaine, what’s one more life – her life?
She will not remember stepping forward. She will not remember drawing her knife and slicing Fontaine’s throat. She will not remember the shock on Fontaine’s face and the attempt to turn, not quick enough to cry out or run.
Fontaine falls forward onto the floor, a pool of red spreading out beneath her, blossoming outwards and staining everything it touches. She is not elegant in death. If anything, the expensive dress and neatly styled hair make the whole scene so much more perversely horrific. Her life drains from her quicker than her blood until she is frighteningly empty. Kit is glad she can’t see her eyes.
There is the tiniest amount of blood on Kit’s dress. It’s dark enough that it shouldn’t show too clearly, not unless one were to look closely. No one will look closely. It is the end of the world and in a few hours, they will discover that the woman of the hour is lying dead on the floor of her private viewing deck. And by then, Kit will be gone.
She feels as though she is already gone.
She watches herself as she places the dagger in Fontaine’s limp hand. Now she has nothing, will anyone care about her enough to question the scene? A woman who had lost everything with a knife in her hand and a slit throat, it surely must be suicide. She was distraught, after all. It made sense. It had to make sense.
She watches herself as she picks up the necklace from the floor. It too has been infected with the traces of death, damp with blood. She knows it won’t be stained forever. She can’t guarantee the same for herself.
She watches herself leave, relocking the door behind her. She knows better than to run. So she walks, affecting an air of vague boredom as she vanishes into the perpetual night of a solar system without a sun.
Tristan Oscar Smith (he/him/his) is an entity that currently resides in a cursed attic in West Yorkshire, emerging primarily when he needs to acquire more cups of tea. As a lover of all things spooky and strange, his life’s goal is to one day own a Sphynx cat.