The world looks peaceful from up here, the irregular polygons of the old fields and forest divisions looking like they’ve been cut by a toddler with a pair of stolen scissors: straight lines, weird angles. But this is the exclusion zone and the people have gone and left their straight lines behind them. And if I fail in my mission, all of them, every road and boundary line, are doomed to be a circle in the end.
“How far out are we?” I ask the pilot through the headset.
“We’ll have visual contact any moment now,” she says. The plane shakes and I look at her questioningly.
She sees the anxiety on my face, shakes her head, smiles. “Just normal turbulence. We wouldn’t feel anything this far out.”
Of course. I know that, but I’ve spooked myself. I look out and there it is like a brown smear on the horizon, the outer edge of the accretion disk.
Over the next few minutes, the edge of the circle gets larger until I can see individual objects in the whirling maelstrom. They look like grains of sand from here but I know they’re probably rocks the size of cars, houses, maybe even the size of battleships.
“My grandparents had a record player,” the pilot says. “We used to put gummy bears on the records and bet how long they’d stay on. Every time I fly out here, that’s what it reminds me of.”
“Yeah, except when you were done, the record player didn’t eat the gummy bears,” I say. She smiles.
“You don’t seem scared.”
She shrugs. “I was in the Marines.”
“Yeah, but this is a black hole we’re talking about. It seems a bit more, I don’t know, existential.”
“Slipping in the bathtub can be pretty existential for the individual.” She brings the plane up higher and the black eye of the accretion disk comes into view: the event horizon.
“They say it’s slowed its expansion,” the pilot says conversationally, as if talking about the economy. “Down to a few feet a day.”
I think of the single missile we carry in a special mounting under the right wing, wonder if this one—this particular hair-brained idea of some engineer in some windowless lab will finally save the world.
“You said you’d been out here before,” I say.
She nods. “Ten times.”
“I heard, you know, that some planes got trapped by it.”
“That’s classified.” Then, “four of them. I knew the pilots.”
“Do you have any hope that any of these will work? To stop it, I mean?”
“I have to,” she says. “We all do. I feel like we’re those gummy bears. We just have to hang on, hang on to the spinning record with all our might until somebody stops it.”
“What if no one can?” I ask. She doesn’t reply.
We are approaching the edge of the accretion disk and I ready the missile that will take this latest Hail Mary gadget into the heart of the black hole: science desperately trying to fix what science has wrought. I have no idea what the device does, just how to deploy it.
I glance over at the pilot. I wish I knew her name. It seems like if you might die with someone, you should at least know their name, but it seems awkward to ask now.
The screen in front of me starts to blink with a digital countdown. Ten seconds to go. I ready my hand, praying an indistinct prayer for success. The computer buzzes and I press the button. The missile streaks away, a fiery arrow headed towards that terrible bullseye.
The pilot banks and we’re away, speeding back towards civilization.
“Aren’t you going to wait and see if it works?” I ask.
“What’s the point? If it does, we’ll know soon enough and if not, it’s a waste of fuel.”
I strain my neck to look back. “Wait! Something’s happening.”
She banks hard and the black hole comes back into view. It is shrinking now, the accretion disk flailing and collapsing back to earth. Dust rises like burnt offering prayers.
The black hole evaporates. The pilot flies us over what is now a massive crater. At the bottom, a mega-volcanic column of ash is rising as magma touches air for the first time.
“Go ahead,” she says. “Do the honors. Radio back that you saved the world.”
“We all did.” I pick up the radio, then hesitate. “My name’s Tod.”
We shake hands, grinning, then Emmy turns the plane and we head back to hope.