SHOOTING FOR THE STARS
It’s Friday, which means you’re sitting on the rooftop of your squat, boxy apartment building. It’s nighttime, so of course you’re joined by a silver stream of distant glittering stars and your also silvery, also glittering machine gun.
Nova puts every other so-called “machine gun” to shame, and even thinking about the disgraces you’d see in movies and the military causes your nose to wrinkle in distaste. All those dull grays and greens?
You click your tongue and run a gentle hand over Nova. Guns like these are meant to stand out, not blend into the dirt and dusty ground.
But you know better than to go raving to your friends about how beautiful Nova is, because oh right, Nova is a machine gun mounted to the roof of your apartment building. Best case scenario, you’d be met with some concerned looks and a recommendation to your buddy’s therapist. Worst case, you’d find yourself opening your front door to the police.
So save for Mr. Holmes, the elderly landlord, who, like you, has a small constellation tattoo just under his left collarbone, there weren’t that many people you could complain to.
He’d had his own Estelle after all. Every few weeks or so, you’d get together in the little back office with a bottle of cheap wine and rant (well, you’d rant, Holmes would listen) about how no one else could possibly understand.
You look back up at those pinpoints of light, so impossibly high up above, twinkling in brazen display. As if they had not a single worry in the world.
You shake your head. No prey on earth would prance about so bravely, but you’d always figured the celestial realm never got the memo.
You have a good feeling about tonight. Tonight, you’d show those stars that they should be worried.
You make certain to murmur extra praise to Nova, and in smooth, practiced motions, adjust her tripod so she points right up towards the darkened sky.
Once locked into position, Nova begins to wake up.
This was always your favorite part, because if Nova was stunning before, now she’s quite literally awe-inspiring. The first time you’d seen an astral armament in action, your aunt’s Cassiopeia, you had cried. Granted, you were eight years old then, and you aren’t crying now, but that wide-eyed wonder is still the same. The fizzy excitement in your veins, the lightness in your lungs, the smile that inevitably drifts onto your face.
The intricate, geometric patterns etched into Nova’s exterior start to fill with what you can only describe as a deep, abyssal sort of light, shifting navy, black, purple. Iridescence on a crow’s wing.
Then Nova expands, previously invisible seams on her metal body widening, silvery panels gliding apart and outwards with a gentle click, revealing a center of…
Well, even looking straight at it, you’re not exactly sure what the center is, but it reminds you of those NASA pictures, the ones with the giant pillars of gas that where old elements collapse into new stars. It’s beautiful, a storm cloud that flickers from within, pulsing with a dark radiance.
The metal panels settle into position, rotating mid-air to orbit gently around Nova’s core, Jupiter and all its moons.
Once a deep resonant humming fills the air, settles into your chest, you know Nova’s ready, and go to load it.
That’s the other thing.
Most machine guns spit metal bullets, rain down hellfire and shrapnel. But hellfire and shrapnel does little but splatter human flesh across the ground.
So tasteless. And moreover, so incredibly useless.
She does shoot (she’s an astral armament after all, and a damn good one at that) but instead of clicking a cartridge into her, you pull out a small box from your pocket, made out of the same bright and shimmering material.
You’d seen your aunt’s bullet case too, and before you had any idea what she did, you had long wondered why she kept a featureless block of metal sitting on her shelf. Every time she caught you staring at it, she’d laugh and give it to you, asking if you could open it for her.
Then she’d walk out of the room, and of course, you never could quite get the thing open. One summer day, over a year since she’d first put the case in your hands, you had run out onto the driveway, and with all the force in your tiny body, slammed it against the pavement.
Nothing. The thing wasn’t even scratched.
Perhaps you had then collapsed onto the ground in a fit of frustrated tears.
You’d later find out your aunt had been watching you from the ground floor window, doubled over in hysterical laughter.
The answer didn’t come until she went out to the driveway and took you, still sniffling, into the innocuous shed that sat in her backyard. There you were met with a bronze leviathan of a machine gun, polished until the surface shone like it was encased in diamond.
Say hello to Cassiopeia, she had said.
Years later, you take a step closer, a slightly different metal box in hand, and extend it towards Nova.
Immediately, the surface begins to change, those same geometric patterns that decorated Nova etching themselves into the case.
It had taken a bit of time to memorize, but now your hand moves automatically, tracing the designs. First the circles that represents Terra and Luna, then the arcs of the Kuiper belt, then Polaris, Sirius, and Rigel.
The top of the box separates, and with a ginger grip, you remove the newly formed lid. Even if someone else had managed to open the case, you’d always figured they’d be sorely disappointed by what they found inside. There were no gold ingots or cut rubies nested in the red velvet interior, only what appeared to be a bunch of glass beads.
But of course, most people didn’t have a Nova, Cassiopeia, or Estelle sitting nearby. Most people would never see how those glass beads would glow like miniature galaxies when fed into the swirling cores of an astral armament.
Finally, you’re ready.
You line your eye up through the sight, and take aim at a particularly bright star in the northeast quadrant of the sky.
You take a deep breath.
Squeeze the trigger.
The bead streaks into the night, trailing sparks and a black light like no other.
Then comes the kickback, slow and forceful, an emanating pressure wave. You grind your feet into the concrete in an attempt to stay upright but get bowled over anyways.
Though you must admit, as you lay there with your back flat on the ground, you have a brilliant vantage point of the single bullet that shoots into the ether above.
You watch, eyes sharp and hungry.
And then you see it.
Your pulse conveniently disappears for a moment, then returns with a vengeance, and for a couple seconds, you can’t quite figure out how to get air into your lungs. Maybe you shouldn’t be this surprised, but you’d never actual managed to hook an actual star before.
You’d reeled in plenty of comets, asteroids, and more meteorites than you could count, the typical hunks of rock, ice, and metal. Once, you’d gotten lucky with Saturn passing overhead and managed to take back a tiny chunk of its rings. That had sold for a very pretty price, likely to made into an inimitable piece of jewelry hanging around some big shot’s neck, one that would make the terrestrials gasp at its hypnotic sparkle and the empyreans glare in envy.
This is different. This is what every star hunter dreamed for at night.
This is a star.
In fact, you’re so wonderstruck that you forget that the star is falling very quickly, and falling very quickly towards you.
It isn’t until the star breaches the atmosphere in a flash of orange light that you realize that you’re about to be baked like a calzone if you don’t start moving right this instant. You scramble to your feet, dump down an entire box of light-absorbing mats, raise your heat shields into a very crooked ring, and thank the lord that Old Man Holmes had built a makeshift shelter for when he’d been right where you are, hunting stars himself.
You barely make it behind the layers of protection when the star collides into the roof.
Even with all of your defenses, even with your eyes closed, protective goggles on, your hands over your eyes, and your head turned in the opposite direction, the blinding brightness pierces right through it all. The heat comes a split second later, much like if you had opened the door to a preheated oven and that oven happened to be powered by the sun.
But as grand and intimidating the light and heat is, it lasts for only a fraction of a second before you’re left gasping in a cool, still, and overwhelmingly typical spring night.
However, as cool and still the air around you feels, there very clearly is another presence on the roof with you, one that emits an aura of incredible thrumming energy and power.
You’d never thought you’d be nervous to look at your catch, but you find yourself procrastinating on the corner of the roof, telling yourself that maybe you should wait another couple minutes, you know, to make sure the star is truly safe to approach.
But at some point, a few millennia or so later, you realize you can’t exactly leave a fallen star lying haplessly on top of a crappy apartment building forever.
That, and every book you’ve ever read on star hunting had said that this is not the time to be a wimp, because the quality (and more importantly to you, the asking price) of the material to be harvested plummets by the minute. Maybe the awe of shooting down a real life star made you momentarily forget that you‘re broke.
Using the fear of not making rent again to brace yourself, you clench your fists and peek around the shelter. While there’s a few scorch marks burnt across the rooftop, like someone had taken to scraping charcoal across the concrete, everything is relatively intact. You breathe a sigh of relief when Nova appears untouched. And though the star itself is definitely still glowing, light leaking out between slightly crispy heat shields, the brightness is more tolerable.
You shut your eyes and march over to the star before you can lose your nerve again, moving into the center of the ring. You’re not sure how long you stand there, blind and refusing to breathe out of fear, but it’s not until you’re about to asphyxiate that you decide to inhale.
You also crack open your eyelids the tiniest bit, but it doesn’t do much good; all you see is a golden blur. Oh, how your aunt would be giggling at you now, refusing to look at a star like an elementary-schooler spurning every classmate of the opposite sex.
So you finally open your eyes and lo and behold, it’s a blob. A very shimmery, luminous blob, sure, but still a blob.
Perhaps there are, uh, more elegant ways to describe a fallen star, but you start to think all those sonnets and romance novels have led you astray, because the thing at your feet very much does not resemble steadfast points of heavenly splendor that watch lovingly over the earth.
You shrug. Sure, this wasn’t quite what you were imagining, but this is definitely less intimidating than trying to harvest something so beautiful that its inspired humanity to wax poetic about it since the dawn of civilization.
You run back across the rooftop to grab your supplies, returning to kneel by the amorphous pile of light with a handful of specially made empyrean glass vials and what is definitely a super state-of-the-art star harvesting device and definitely not your only clean soup spoon.
You manage to top off two vials worth of stardust, and one and a quarter of starfire before the star begins to leak rays of light, beams poking out through the surface and streaming up into the air.
You throw your hands up over your face as the star explodes into the purest white light you’ve ever had the pleasure of unwittingly viewing, drowning the area in unadulterated illumination.
You don’t know how long it takes for you to blink the stars (the other kind) out of your eyes, but when you do, your heart again decides this is a good time to develop arrhythmia.
Because laying in the place of what had been a blob, is now what appears to be vaguely human form. Vaguely, because you’re pretty sure no human is quite this undeniably and unequivocally beautiful. The word angel feels more fitting; the face you’re looking at is so perfect that it’s alien in appearance, ethereal in quality. Molten sun-gold eyes, hair that dances with an internal glow, skin perfectly smooth and bright and youthful. Every line, curve, edge is one of grace and elegance, a piece of art in perfect harmony. And the warmth that radiates off the star is like no other, as if the early morning summer sunlight had taken you into a loving embrace.
You’re suddenly realizing that maybe those poems and novels were onto something, because no combination of words you could string together in normal conversation that would even come close to describing the star that laid in front of you. Adjectives like hot or pretty or handsome felt too crude, too…earthly. This was something more, a genderless, sexless beauty that just simply was.
The only flaw in the sublime being that you couldn’t stop staring at is the fact that is seems to be missing its lower left arm, the image of it flickering in and out like a projector with a dying bulb.
You look at your vials and are suddenly shot through with a deep shame. You clutch them in your hands sheepishly.
No wonder stardust and starfire was so incredibly valued. It wasn’t just that shooting down stars was rare, no. It was this, staring into those captivating, resplendent eyes, and having the audacity to continue chopping pieces off and cramming them into your vials.
You don’t know how long you and the star stare at each other, you increasingly flustered, the star calm, gentle, if a little disappointed in that you harvested one of its limbs.
And then you hear it.
Its mouth doesn’t move, its gaze doesn’t break. There is no voice that forms those words, only a gentle melody, a firm notion being pressed into your mind, a seashell into soft sand. It does not speak, but simple, clear request reverberates in your head all the same.
You feel like you’re going to pass out.
And then, making good on that feeling, you do, vision going dark, crumpling in at the edges. You flail backwards and end up in much the same position as you did when first caught the star: flat on your back, face up towards an expansive night sky.
Only this time, the glittering stars are not billions of miles away. Rather, there’s one right next to you, looking at you with just a hint of concern in its beautiful, golden eyes.
And though you’re about sixty percent sure you’ll wake up at some point, on the off chance that this is it, you figure there are worse things to see in the moments before eternal sleep.