“The Mobius Comet,” by Craig Ham, is the First Place winning story in the science fiction category for the Eighth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with Grand Prize winner Sandra Anthony and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. And click here for more information about entering the Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Craig’s winning entry.
The Mobius Comet
by Craig Ham
The girl and her father stood on the beach, searching the night sky. A cool ocean breeze carried the pungent smell of fish and salt. A short distance away, waves shimmered in the light of a crescent moon. The faint red orb of a distant plane winked slowly across the milky blackness and the girl felt suddenly lonely.
Her father reached down and gently took her hand, pulling her close to his side.
“What does the comet look like?”
“Like a fuzzy star with a cotton tail.”
She giggled as she imagined it. Moonlight sparkled in her father’s teeth as he smiled. “It’s right over there”. He knelt beside her and pointed as she followed his arm to a faint smudge of light near the crescent moon. She strained her neck, squinting.
“It will look much larger in the telescope.” He nodded at the nearby telescope, its’ tripod sunk into the sand.
“How come it looks fuzzy?”
“Because it’s a big rock covered with ice, and as it flies though space, the sun melts the ice into steam. The steam makes it look fuzzy.”
The girl imagined a huge snowball flying through space.
Her father knew a lot about stars. Sometimes he woke her up in the middle of the night and let her look through his telescope for hours. At least he used to. He didn’t go out much anymore. He was tired and slept a lot of the time. Her aunt, who was at the house every day lately, said her father was sick.
Walking back to the fire her father had prepared, they began warming their hands. Tiny sparks floated up into the dark sky and disappeared. Light flickered and danced across her father’s face.
“Do you remember what your teacher said about the big comet that killed the dinosaurs?” he asked.
Everyone in her science class had been assigned to do a report on a subject of their own choosing, and she had decided to write about comets. Her teacher had once talked about how the dinosaurs all died when a great comet hit the earth.
When she had announced her topic to her father at dinner he had told her that there was a comet in the sky at that very moment that he could show her.
“Are we going to die like the dinosaurs?” she had asked, starting to panic.
“No, Honey, the comet that’s passing by is not going to hit the earth. It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
The sky where they lived was too bright, too close to the lights of the city. When the weekend came, her father took her to the beach.
“Well”, he continued, “Not all dinosaurs died when that comet hit the earth. Some of them are still with us.”
“They are?” she lowered her voice and peered up at him.
“Yes, we call them birds.”
“Birds? Birds aren’t dinosaurs.”
“Over millions of years some of the dinosaurs that survived the comet changed into birds.” He continued before she could object. “The dinosaurs had babies, and those babies had babies. Every once in a while the babies were a little different. Slowly, over time, the differences were more and more noticeable. Their tails disappeared, their teeth changed into beaks, and after a while they became birds.”
She narrowed his eyes at him, thinking he might be teasing her, but his eyes weren’t smiling.
“They look different,” he continued, “but deep down, they’re still dinosaurs.”
She thought about this for a moment.
“I didn’t know animals could change like that, into other animals.”
“They can. Everything changes over time. That’s the way things work. Animals are born, they have babies, they die…but nothing ever really disappears. It only changes form. Over time, the ice on the comet becomes steam, dinosaurs become birds.” He paused to think for a moment. “The way they look changes, but everything that ever existed on earth is still with us. It’s just in a different form.”
The girl frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Look at this.” said her father. He kneeled down, searched the ground, and picked up a small sand crab from the edge of the fire pit.
The girl edged closer to where her father was kneeling and looked at the remains of the singed creature in her father’s hand.
“This crab still looks like a sand crab, like it did in life.” He turned it over with his other hand. “Yuck” said the girl. “After it lays here awhile it will slowly fall apart and mix back into the earth. That is what happens to things like crabs when they die.”
“That’s sad”, remarked the girl.
“Yes, it is, but the crab mixes with the earth and becomes part of something else, perhaps the grass. What was once a crab, becomes something else.”
“And,” he said, “even more importantly, it probably left some baby crabs behind; so the crab lives on through his babies, through his children.”
“Poor baby crabs.”
Her father looked sad and didn’t say anything for a few moments. Then he continued. “In other words, honey, life never really ends, it just continues as something else – something new. Life is always changing and rolling forward like a great wheel that never stops. They call it the ‘circle of life’.”
He stood up again. “Like our comet. It changes shape over time. It travels in a huge circle around our sun, once every 34 years.” He nodded in the direction of the comet. “They named the comet after a mathematician who thought about circles that never end.”
“I know, I know” interrupted the girl. “After I told my teacher we were going to look at the comet, she said it was called the ‘Mobius’ comet, and that this Mobius guy was famous because he figured out how an ant could walk on both sides of a strip of paper whose ends were glued together, and get back to where he started without crossing an edge. She said the comet moves in a weird way like that around the sun. She drew a picture of it on the board.”
Her eyes lit up. “Wait a minute.”
She bustled over to her backpack a few feet away. Rummaging around, she came back with a long strip of paper, twisted once, and joined end to end.
“See”, she said. Holding it with one hand, she traced her finger slowly over its surface with the other, hoping she was doing it just like the teacher.
Her father leaned down closer to watch as she continued. “No matter where you start…no matter which side…if you stay on the path…keep your finger on the paper - you can’t lift it up…you move over both sides of the paper and end up back where you started.”
She stopped and beamed a smile at him, her finger again at the “X”.
“And so you do,” he replied.
The firewood sputtered and shifted in the pit, sending up tiny embers that floated into the air like stars disappearing in the night sky.
Her father knelt down and put his arm around her. “I’m really glad we have this time together.”
“Me too” she said.
A few weeks later, the girl’s father died.
She missed him terribly. At first she kept thinking that it was all a bad dream and that she would wake up, but every morning the pain was there to greet her.
She didn’t want to leave the cemetery after the funeral. It was raining. It felt wrong to just leave her daddy in the wet ground and walk away. At the house later that evening, she snuck into her father’s closet and smelled his shirts.
The girl was sent to live with her aunt.
Many nights when she went to bed, she would look at the stars through her window and remember the trip to the beach. It was their last real time together. She still talked to him.
Her mother had died when she was too young to remember, and she had been used to not having a mother. Now, she thought often about how unfair it was that other children still had fathers.
Her aunt gave her back the Mobius strip she had given her father that night. She said she had found it carefully folded in his wallet.
Her heart ached for her father and she thought she could never be happy again. At times she was terrified because she couldn’t remember his face. Other times it seemed as if she had just seen him yesterday. She would wake up from dreams of her father and cry until she went to sleep again.
The passing years dulled the pain of the loss. She kept his memory in a special place in her heart, a warm and quiet place from which she drew strength and a feeling of importance.
She found solace in books and study. Her favorite part of the day was dusk, when the sky was a pale blue and the first stars were appearing. She felt something solemn and rejuvenating about the onset of night. The triviality of everyday life was cleared away, replaced by the clear and complex beauty of the stars. It afforded her a solemnity of mind that gave her life perspective.
She became an astronomer.
She married and had a son, named after her father.
When her son was still young, her husband left them. She raised the boy on her own, and tried to show him the kind of love and attention that she had been given. From time to time she saw her father’s expressions flicker across his face.
Eventually, the day came when he left home to live his own life. Her house was quiet and full of memories.
She continued to find sanctuary in books and study. She called her son every Sunday and continued to worry about him as mothers do.
She became a grandmother.
Thirty-four years after that night under the stars, she returned alone to the same shore. The lights from the city had moved closer to the water, and the beach was not deserted as it had been years ago. She carefully set up the small, dented telescope on its’ tripod and swung it across the sky, across millions of light years, until she found the fuzzy smudge of light. The comet had returned.
The black water shimmered and night clouds passed silently overhead. Around her feet were gathered multicolored stones from a thousand rivers, from ancient cliffs and growing canyons. Clumps of seaweed lay around her, harvested from the ocean’s garden. She stood in reverent contemplation, listening to the rhythmic sigh of the waves and the beat of her heart. She smiled as a sand crab scuttled across the sand near her feet. In her mind’s eye her father stood next to her and laughed with her. She remembered the gleam in his eyes from the fire, the way the wind gently whipped his hair. So long ago. She felt old and young at the same time.
She located the comet in the eyepiece and found herself talking to her father as if he was there. She picked up a spiraled shell in memory of the evening.
She continued her work at the observatory through long nights and lonely years. When she felt the cold in her soul, she wrapped herself in warm memories of her father, her son, her granddaughter; memories flooded in a remembered light that outshone the dim gray of the present.
The big questions, once so important in her life, remained for her unanswered. Life had delivered its finest gifts to her in the past, but with that she learned to be content.
Her son and granddaughter visited from time to time, and their presence comforted her.
She still visited her father’s grave once a year, left flowers, and talked with him about her life.
Each year passed more quickly than the last, and when she entered the final season of her life, her ability to recall the past began to wane. Eventually she found that she would awake as from a dream, without any memory of where she had been or what she had done. Her memories were reduced to a rapid succession of faces and events, a kaleidoscope of disjointed and confusing images. She swam in a psychic formaldehyde, surfacing at moments into a bright glare of awareness, then sinking back into a state of oblivion. Her thoughts and remembrances disappeared like morning dew, fresh with the promise of a new day, disappears before the rising sun.
During one of her lucid moments, when she returned to herself, she was sitting on a park bench, with hair the color of winter frost, listening to the distant sound of children’s play and the rustle of leaves among the weeds at her feet. It seemed to her at that moment that her life had passed away like a night vision, a blur of nebulous forms and images on the edge of wakefulness.
One day she sat in a wheelchair at the window of her room in the nursing home, gazing out at the grounds, the land and sky blending together into shadows of gray. On her bed sat a worn-out satchel. She sat patiently, looking at her own reflection in the window; a ghost image, insubstantial, tufts of her blue-gray hair jutting out at odd angles in a wispy halo. She was wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, waiting for someone to come, like a baby bird waits for its’ mother. Presently a large man came and took her away, out of the room, through the halls, and out the front doors to a car parked at the curb. A woman who looked vaguely familiar was standing by the car. She said it was cold for a summers’ evening. Then the woman smiled at her, kneeled down and carefully wrapped a scarf around her head, smoothing down her hair as she did so.
Then she was at a beach. The same young woman arranged a small telescope on a metal folding table. All of it seemed so familiar - the sound of surf, a glittering sky, a cool dampness against her face. She was wheeled forward. The young woman pointed to the eye of the telescope, supporting her as she instinctively strained forward and passed a few moments looking through the eyepiece.
A glimmer of recognition flickered on her face as she settled back into her chair. Like a wave slowly lapping against the shore, depositing a piece of driftwood, the image of her father emerged from a jumble of images floating on the periphery of her consciousness. A brief surge of memories flooded back with it, startling her like a bright light turned on after a nightmare. Her father stood silhouetted against a starry sky; his eyes gleaming, the wind gently whipping his hair as he ran his hand through it, pushing it back. She saw the crease in his pants, sensed the faint odor of sea-salt and firewood on a summers evening, and felt old and young at the same time.
Moonlight reflected on the surface of the waves, and, for a moment, she was a little girl again. The images receded away, like waves of a tide, and she settled back in her wheelchair.
Later that night, she awoke suddenly in her bed. Her mind was clearing again. She felt a slight dizziness, as if she was looking down from a great height, poised on the edge of a chasm. Then… something wonderful. Her entire life washed over her in a single moment: lying sleepily in her mother’s arms, her father’s smile above her against a starry sky, the searing caress of her husband in the dark, the newborn glow of her son as he nursed, her granddaughter’s parting wave as she drove off to her first day at school.
The wave passed. She let go. As her mind relaxed, she fell toward the brilliant light at the end of the tunnel.
She was buried next to her father.
The remains of the father had long since returned to the earth. Eventually, those of the daughter dissipated into the soil as well. Elements from both of them joined together and nourished a milkweed that grew between the stones. One cold night in December, the milkweed died, and the elements were released again into the soil.
Her son and granddaughter brought flowers to the graves on her birthday for years afterward, until they too passed on.
After a few generations, the lives of the father and daughter were forgotten by all who lived. All of their hopes and joys, deeds and loves, were compressed into a few names and dates in the public records.
The tombstones of the father and daughter were washed by the rains of a century, until the names disappeared. The cemetery itself was destroyed in a great earthquake shortly after the end of that century.
Elemental remains of the father and daughter were washed into a river. Swirling to the bottom some of the remains were buried in sand.
Centuries stretched into eons. Great upheavals rocked the earth. Plagues decimated the population. Great numbers of life forms disappeared from the earth. Mankind, however, survived, and from time to time, flourished. History rolled on in great cycles, a single symphony resounding over and over with the same notes, like waves lapping over each other on the shore. Nations rose and fell, grew and fractured like the light of the moon on a turbulent sea. The love of humanity waxed and waned but still humanity endured.
Robotic probes were sent as emissaries to distant regions. Space travel became a commonplace.
The human brain, its’ geometry of thought and consciousness were transferred with increasing success into more permanent systems, first silicon computers, then, organic creations of increasing sophistication. With virtual immortality, man left the earth and traveled out into the stars, taking other forms of life from their world to seed new planets.
The earth itself remained a shrine, a place of pilgrimage for its former inhabitants.
Over billions of years the earth’s sun began to shudder and pulse. Then, like a waterlogged corpse, it began to swell, engulfing the innermost planet Mercury in boiling red heat.
On the earth, the polar icecaps melted, flooding the coastal lands. After more time, the oceans became steaming cauldrons of mist and fog that enveloped the earth with a noxious shroud, streaming across the surface in great billowing waves, flashing great veins of lightning.
The sun continued its’ relentless, searing expansion, swallowing Venus.
Clouds raged impotently across the face of the earth, dissipating in withering heat. The red globe of the sun filled the sky. Nothing remained on the surface that was not parched and skeletal. No animals. No plants. No life.
A short distance from the planet a fleet of machines floated, each inhabited by plasma intelligence, recording and transmitting images of the death pangs of their mother world. The planet was the womb and cradle of their race, nourishing them in the infancy of their species, before they transcended their impermanence, seeded other worlds, and harnessed the ability to warp the fabric of space and time.
In one final paroxysm the sun exploded, hurling a red shroud out into space. The heat blast razed the surface of the earth, searing and scorching what remained, buckling metal and melting rock. Red-fringed magma exploded from its’ core and flowed across the land.
The beings that had once been humanity maintained their vigil, floating in ceremonious silence. The earth finally disintegrated, and the remains of its charred corpse were carried out into the cosmic ocean on the crest of a mighty solar wave.
The fleet, carrying the heritage of the world that had been, continued on it’s’ journey.
Great chunks of the earth floated and collided: pieces of the Appalachians, molecules of hydrogen and oxygen that had been the Ganges, organic molecules, the dust of kings and commoners, all returned to the fertile void from which they had originated. The ruins of Rome, the sands of Egypt, the verdant forests of Europe, the moon that had once hung over lovers, all that was art and beauty, vibrant and alive, careened outward, collapsing into chaos and washing out into the stellar sea, like grains of sand from a thousand rivers.
The sun, its life spent, receded into a shrunken vestige of its former self, a glowing ember flickering in the darkness.
The elements that had once been father and daughter were embedded in a small mountain of rock along with pieces that had been part of a Greek amphitheatre, a Mayan temple, crystallized rock from Antarctica, silicon from the Saharan desert, remains of the Sphinx, and the bones of a whale. That which had been all these things floated in the silence of eternal night.
More time passed. In the distance appeared a glowing hole, outlined in swirling red, a discontinuity of blackness against the background of stars. Over time, the rock was pulled slowly, inexorably, towards this dark whirlpool, into the orbit of a binary star system.
One large star spun in a cosmic dance with a massive, dark companion, pulsing as its gas and matter were stripped off by the black hole.
As the rock approached, ice vapor streamed off in a long flowing veil as it too joined in the deadly, spiraling dance.
After a short courtship, the rock pirouetted into the hole that had been a star, and in a single moment, space and time merged, length became time and time became distance. The swirling matter became a tunnel through which the rock careened, warped, lengthened, broke and fused again. It emerged from the wormhole in a blinding explosion of light and energy, in another part of the universe, in another time, far distant from where and when it had entered.
The rock containing the ancient matter that had been father and daughter was eventually drawn into another cosmic dance, the orbit of a distant single star, and a spherical halo of rock and ice formed around it. Time and again it smashed and splintered against other chunks of debris and rock. It circled around this new star for millions of years.
The time came, on one of its orbits, that the light from the comet intersected a small crystal blue planet, pierced the dark side of the planet’s atmosphere, and entered the eyes of a father and daughter standing under the night sky. The air was pungent with salt and smoke, and waves lapped gently at the shore.
“I’m really glad we have this time together,” the father said. He looked down at his daughter.
“Me too” she said.
They both stood in silence and looked down at the fire.
“I don’t understand forever.” The girl was saying.
“No one does, honey”, said her father.
“No matter how long of a time I imagine, I never, never get there”. The girl held the Mobius strip up to her face and followed it around and around, over and under, with her eyes.
She settled her head against her father’s shoulder and they both looked back out into the inky sky above them. The open void frightened the girl. It made her feel small. She moved closer to the warmth of her father’s body and felt better.
“I wish I could visit the stars,” said the girl wistfully. “I wish you could take me there daddy.”
Feeling a little tired, the girl leaned against her father and pushed the Mobius strip into a heart shape. She held it up and giggled.
“Maybe I will someday,” answered the father.
And he hugged his little girl under the expanse of eternity, as the warm ocean breeze carried the sparks from the fire into the night sky.