The Ironstar Epiphany
Summary: During a routine flight, assistant pilot Arathi Ironstar receives a message from the end of the universe.
Arathi Ironstar was not always known as such. The solborn swashbuckler was once known as Arathi Arenhone, assistant pilot on the bulk hauler Aphelion. He sat in a chair connected to a holographic display, as the craft's thrust provided a reasonable facsimile to gravity. The artificial intelligence handled most of the actual piloting, but his role was to sometimes provide minor course corrections and blast any debris that made it past the automated point defenses.
Arathi saw himself in the polished mirror sheen of the console above him. He was tall and stocky, with light brown skin and unruly black hair. He wore the black and purple jumpsuit of the crew, a color selection based on the flag of the long-collapsed country that built the ship centuries back. Since that time, the vessel maintained its route, cycling between the system's primary inhabited world and rimward settlements.
Arathi often talked to himself, imagining conversations with forgotten friends from flight academy and his childhood creche. Their faces faded into blobs of memory, and he sometimes searched social websites to see where they'd all ended up. Some were married, some were scholarchs of note, some were military officers, government officials, business executives, and people of note. All he had was his lonely, solitary route on the ship, and a contract to service it for four decades. At least, he reasoned, the senolytics treatments and virtual vacations were complementary.
Arathi chatted to himself during one such sojourn into the void, observing the readouts on the craft's radiation shields and reactor output. He wondered, for a moment, how long the craft would continue its route. Its self-repair systems and high-efficiency engine could theoretically work for millions of years, perhaps longer if given raw materials for its nanite recyclers. He mused on macabre matters, from the end of the universe to his own mortality. He hoped he'd stay alive longer than the others he grew up with, no matter what form he took. Suddenly, he saw the void move.
Arathi saw it contrasted against the vacuum for a fraction of a second, but the ship's sensors caught it for longer. It barely stood out against the cosmic background radiation, having the shape and color of an obsidian dagger. It broadcast something at the ship, overriding its normal security protocols. He pushed the manual reset button, but it was too late. The vessel downloaded something through his brain-computer interface, overriding his senses with alien thoughts.
Arathi felt cold. Not merely the absence of heat on his flesh. Not merely the chill from a faulty section of the ship. But true cold. The abject chill of the ambient temperature being only a percentage of a percentage of a degree above absolute zero. The void, the space outside the craft, was darker than he ever recalled it. The stars had perished eons upon eons before, leaving only black holes, Boltzmann brains, and stranger things in the terrifying vastness of deep time.
Arathi looked before him, and he saw himself. He saw a star of iron itself, formed by cold fusion of carbon molecules across impossible eons. Surrounding that cool, frigid sphere was a lattice of machines the size of continents. The glaciers of a terrestrial world moved with alacrity compared to its own calculations, for it conserved energy with its sluggish calculations. It was with horrid realization that this star, this cooling wick of a celestial candle, powered strangely similar thoughts. His own.
Arathi did not understand the physics behind it, at least not yet, but he felt what was coming. A small machine lifted off from the iron star, heading for a ring-like device. He did not understand what a closed-time-like curve was prior to this, but he immediately knew he beheld one. The craft traveled through, with a message to himself in that distant past. The probe ship encountered the familiar hull of the Aphelion, that cigar-shaped hull swollen with sensor masts like erect members. It easily overrode the security protocols, which he'd known by heart. He was the one who set them, after all.
Arathi awoke back on the bridge of the Aphelion. He stared at his own arms incredulously, doubtful of his human body for a moment. He asked the vessel's AI for an updated on the strange craft, and he heard it was vaporized by the point defenses. He sent out salvage probes, which brought back materials unknown to any in the database. A cursory analysis showed they had thermal efficiency exceeding anything presently known.
That was not all Arathi noticed. He felt a familiar chill climb up his spine. The nanite recyclers had been retasked by the probe's orders, and they produced a device which hovered towards his arm. It resembled an ornate, silvered bracer with a beam emitter mounted on it. He ran his finger across it, and he pulled it back, feeling frostburn on his exposed flesh. Nevertheless, there was something familiar about it, this object reminiscent of the entropic future.
Arathi decided it was the message he'd awaited. He had much more to his life than piloting a tramp freighter on a centuries-old loop across a backwater system. He stood at the end of the universe itself, and even beyond it. He'd sent the probe back for two reasons. One gave him the technologies of that doomed future, so he could advance them for the next iteration. The other was to inspire him. No matter how bad he thought the present was, he had to keep pushing on.
That was how the legend of Arathi Ironstar started.