Sometimes the unraveling of a life begins simply and quietly. As lightly as the fluttering descent of a moth with a torn wing. A tiny point of light falling in the deep night sky. A moment passes, unnoticed and unremarked-upon; it is only in hindsight that everything becomes clear.
For Evan Sumner-Beauville, the moment happened shortly after one of the happiest days of his life. On their 60th wedding anniversary he and Mac stood together in front of the observation window in their new apartment, surrounded by the silent brilliance of a million stars, and knew they were going to live like gods.
Retiring on a space station does give one a certain giddiness of spirit.
It was there, where the warm, strong clasp of Mac’s wrinkled brown hand was the only thing keeping Evan from floating away (metaphorically; the gravity in their new dwelling was less than Earth’s—and oh-so-easy on old bones—but not truly weightless) that it began: with one simple question.
“Evan, did you see that?”
“See what?” He could already see—oh, it felt like everything. Rivers of stars. Lakes and pools of them. Later today he would get his first glimpse of Earth from space. His heart hadn’t stopped hammering with elation since he stepped from the grav lock into the long space station hallway.
“That flash of light.”
How could one notice a flash of light amidst nearly 360 degrees of sky so thickly carpeted with countless points of it? It was utterly overwhelming. In the best sense. “I guess I didn’t see it,” Evan said, squeezing Mac’s hand. He looked over at his husband and grinned. “Why, was it something special? Even more special than all of this?” His other hand gestured expansively, and he wobbled a little as he adjusted to the motion in this lowered gravity. He would have quite a bit to get used to, here.
“I…don’t know. Maybe.” Mac’s grin was usually even bigger than Evan’s. Crooked and gamine and roguish, no matter what age. But right now his gaze was thoughtful. He met Evan’s eyes briefly, flashed a smile, and then turned back to the window, craning his head around, searching. “It was beautiful. I don’t know what it was, but it was so beautiful.”
“Then I’m sorry I missed it.” All light is beautiful, Evan thought. Especially the ones out here. Even the darkness between the stars is beautiful.
And Mac was beautiful too.
Evan slipped his arm around Mac’s back and tucked himself into place. Mac had always been just the right height to rest his head on Evan’s shoulder; these days, although they were both shorter than they used to be, both a little more sloped and a little less square, they fit together better than ever.
“Anyway, you’re the best thing in the room.” Evan paused, smirked. “Michelangelo the Great.”
After a brief hesitation, Mac’s head settled down into the curve of Evan’s neck. “Psh, you’re Evan better than Michelangelo,” came the proper response. It was important to maintain a relationship built on bad jokes, after all.
“No, you are.”
“No, you are.”
And all was right in the world. And outside of the world, too.
Oh, Evan should have been paying better attention.
The first week or so in their new home blurred together as they learned to adapt to the 3/4 gravity, the space-age facilities, the silence of the cosmos around them. At first, the very attentive full staff of service people and medical professionals—that had looked so good on the brochures—felt a little oppressive. But they tapered off once Evan and Mac looked to be settling in, which was a mercy.
Although sometimes the quiet of it all was downright unsettling.
Mac seemed to feel it too. The pull of the silence.
It was odd, actually. Earthside, Mac had been the one bristling with energy and excitement. Reading aloud all the guide materials, talking animatedly about the science behind the adaptive gravity technology, the medical studies being conducted out at the station, the advancements in geriatric care that all of this represented. It was part of Mac’s medical life-work, this stuff. He had been so eager to experience it first-hand, as a retiree and recipient rather than a doctor and research consultant.
They had known it was going to be a one-way trip, and that was part of the appeal, too. To live out the last 20 or so years of their lives together among the stars. Evan, always the artist, thought it a most fitting end. He anticipated long days of tranquility, writing his memoirs under the light of the stars, while Mac corresponded with his medical peers and conducted all sorts of tests with his usual enthusiasm.
Yet now it was Mac who spent lengthy periods of time in the observation room, just gazing at the heavens.
Evan could hardly blame him, of course. Clearly the beauty of space could be expected to have a profound effect on both of them. But Evan had to admit to himself that it was an unexpectedly lonely experience.
When he joined Mac at the window, delighted to share in the wonder with him, Mac wouldn’t even look his way for what felt like long minutes. Was it selfish to expect a little more engagement than that?
Was it stupid to find it discomfiting?
Probably. Everything was so new to both of them. There were no precedents for a one-way move into a space-station-slash-retirement-home. Perhaps he should just let it go, just wait for things to settle as they may.
It was another week before Evan realized something was definitely not right.
Mac had disappeared for the observatory again. This time, when Evan decided to join him, he also decided to speak up.
“Hey, so I was thinking. Want to try doing some other stuff around here? We could go use those gym facilities again. Maybe get to know some of the other residents. What do you think?”
Evan frowned, annoyed. He stepped close to his husband and took his arm lightly. “Hey. Can you take a moment and acknowledge me? I just want to talk for a second.”
More silence, and Mac didn’t even turn his head. His gaze was fixed on the stars. Evan’s frown deepened. “Mac! Hey! Snap out of it.” He waved his hand in front of the other man’s face. Nothing.
Evan could feel the panic rising. His voice rose too. “Mac!” He stepped in front of him, grabbed his shoulders, shook them. “Jesus Christ, Mac! Look at me! This is not ok!”
He reached for the panic button on his belt, the one that would summon one of the medical professionals at a moment’s notice. “Come on, Michael Beauville-Sumner. Please.”
“Um. Evan. Is something wrong?”
Oh, thank God.
Evan withdrew his hand. “Jesus. Where were you just now? I was about to hit the panic button!”
Mac blinked and quirked an eyebrow. “Really? That’s awfully extreme. I was just lost in thought.”
Evan crossed his arms, unable to sort through the surge of conflicting emotions. Why was his gut still clenching, his heart still racing? Was he angry? Should he be relieved?
He settled on annoyed. “You call that lost in thought. I yelled right into your face.”
“Really? Huh. I guess I am getting old.” Mac sent Evan one of those crooked smiles, brown eyes crinkling, and snaked an arm around his shoulders. “Maybe we should schedule ourselves another physical and mental eval for next week. Could be that outer space is getting to us a little.” From his tone, Evan could clearly hear the unspoken assumption that space was making Evan crazy and overreactive and he needed someone, preferably a professional, to settle him down.
He decided not to argue about it, because it was actually the best solution he could think of. An eval would settle things. It would help them figure everything out.
A few days before the eval, Evan found Mac at his link screen, surfing the outernet for medical articles, and felt nothing but relief. Here was the old Dr. Beauville he knew.
“Find anything interesting?”
“Not yet.” Mac sat back, ran hands through the silvery fuzz of his hair. Evan would have joined him in that, if his hands weren’t full at the moment.
“Look what I found in the last transport!” Evan grinned, anticipating his husband’s reaction. He held up his very favorite oil painting, sunset over old San Francisco, circa 2018. God, they had been babies then. The piece was the one Mac had accidentally stabbed with a scalpel while Evan was working on it; he’d been trying to convince Evan that he could paint with old “dull” medical tools. Big loon.
Of course they had kept the painting after that. It was the art they had “created together.” And now it was here, in their new home at last.
Mac looked at the painting and frowned. He pointed at the corner where the metal had gone through. “Did it get damaged in shipping?”
Dread took up residence in the pit of Evan’s stomach. It could be nothing. “Um, Mac. You did that. Remember?”
Or, taken together with those moments before, it could be something unthinkable.
Mac hesitated. “Oh. Right. Sorry about that.” But his body language told Evan all he needed to know.
Mac didn’t remember. One of their most cherished memories, and he had forgotten it entirely.
Here they were, trapped on a space station, far from everyone they knew and loved—except for occasional holo calls, which had seemed like acceptable substitutes at the time.
And one of them could be succumbing to dementia or Alzheimer’s. Now, of all times.
Despite all the prevention work they had done together ever since the groundbreaking studies first came out in 2025. Despite the fact that those diseases had been steadily decreasing statistically over the past fifty years. Despite the fact that it had never once occurred to either of them that they might have to face that out here.
That it was Mac, the medical professional of the two, who could be losing ground—that just made it so much worse.
Or maybe Evan was overreacting.
Please, God. Let it be that.
He didn’t know if he could handle slowly growing old out here in space, completely alone. Caring for someone who had stopped being the man he loved.
He didn’t know if he could be strong enough for that.
The eval couldn’t come quickly enough.
“Everything checks out,” Dr. Lee said, after a full day of testing.
“I told you,” Mac said, squeezing Evan’s shoulder. “Nothing to worry about. Just getting old, the both of us. We knew it would catch up with us eventually.”
Evan wasn’t convinced. He pulled Dr. Lee aside. “Are you sure there isn’t anything wrong?” He had already explained the previous weeks’ occurrences in a lengthy message before the eval.
“Nothing that our tests could pick up,” Dr. Lee said. She frowned. “There is one thing with Michael, though. An oddity.”
Evan’s heart thudded.
“Look here, both of you.” She nodded to Mac and pulled up some incomprehensible images on the screen. Evan squinted, mystified. Mac looked oddly pleased. “His bones. They look better than they had before he came here. Healthier. This is not what one expects in this environment. We’ve done what we can to counter the way bones and bodies want to degenerate out here, but there’s a reason this is a one-way trip even then.” She glanced at both of them, and they nodded, because they already knew all this. “In fact, everything about Michael is better than it was, according to these tests.”
Mac grinned and headed for the door, a spring in his step. Evan followed more slowly, wondering why the information filled him with unease rather than elation.
Mac ignored Evan constantly now.
Evan had been pleased to see the retired doctor return to medical journals at first, but now Mac was simply dividing his time between hunting through the outernet for incomprehensible things, and going back to the observation room again and again. Evan never followed him there anymore. He was too afraid that Mac might shut him out again. He didn’t want further proof that he was losing his husband to something he didn’t understand.
Evan had loved that room more than anything else in this place, and now he couldn’t stand to walk by it. “What do you do, when you go to the observatory?” He tried to ask Mac.
Mac looked confused at the question. “I observe, of course.”
“But what? You were all excited about research and testing of humans and bodies before you came here. Now you just look at the stars and hunt for articles that aren’t even related to your work.”
“It’s all one thing,” Mac said, indistinctly. “You don’t understand because you’re not in it. You didn’t see the light. It’s all connected, body and light and space.”
A sinking feeling stole over Evan. The light. The flash of light that Mac had seen at the beginning…was he still searching for it out there? Why? Why did Mac’s words sound like they were supposed to make sense, but really meant nothing at all? It wasn’t dementia or Alzheimer’s. They had checked. If not that, then what?
Somehow, the stars were taking Mac from him, piece by piece.
The points of light in every window seemed to burn with menace instead of bright tranquility.
And the darkness between them was the darkness of the unknown.
He couldn’t stand it anymore. The not knowing.
He had tried to lose himself in art, getting out the old paints and going into the part of the facility that had near-earth gravity. He tried to remember what his old life had felt like.
All the while it gnawed at his edges. The fear that his life was unspooling around him, slowly and inexorably. That the man he loved more than anything else in the world was turning into something alien, driven mad by the stars themselves.
He should be keeping a journal of it all, of each incident that made his husband feel like a stranger. Each forgotten memory. Each long silence. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He kept hoping the old Mac would come back. Every time the man flashed his gamine grin, or gave Evan’s hand a squeeze, Evan’s heart leapt. Every time Mac stared blankly, just minutes later, Evan’s heart sank again.
Then he realized Mac was changing. Physically.
It happened when he snuck up to Mac’s side and slipped an arm around him. Just like old times. He wanted so desperately to feel like everything was all right again.
For a moment, it was. Mac relaxed into the embrace. His head drifted down to Evan’s shoulder.
It didn’t sit quite right. Didn’t tuck in perfectly. As if sensing the sudden awkwardness, Mac lifted his head quickly, gave Evan’s shoulder a squeeze, and left.
It was nearly an hour later when Evan finally realized what had been wrong with it: Mac was too tall to fit against Evan’s little old shoulder.
What was happening?
Suddenly dozens of images poured into Evan’s memory. Pieces of a puzzle he hadn’t thought to put together until just now. Long, easy strides where once Mac had walked carefully. Smooth brown skin on his hands, age spots gone. Straight back, brisk movements. Just like the old days.
How could he have missed it?
True, Mac’s hair remained a beautiful silver color. But Evan should have noticed.
Something was desperately wrong, and he was lost in a sea of confusion.
He couldn’t live like this. It had to end.
“Evan,” Mac replied, his tone neutral. His husband-turned-stranger didn’t look up from the screen. Evan knew better than to try to interrupt him while he was stargazing, but screen-gazing still offered half a chance at gaining his attention.
But now he couldn’t think of any of the right words. “You’ve changed into something I don’t recognize,” he said, finally. “You said I wouldn’t understand. I’m not an idiot. I can see that you’ve—I don’t know how, but—you’ve somehow reversed aging. How? Why? Why do we never talk anymore? You’re not Mac, you’re—” His throat closed on the words.
“You’re delusional. Of course I’m me.” Mac still didn’t look up from his screen. “You just don’t understand what it’s like, and I can’t show it to you. You can’t know. You didn’t see it. I’m better now than I ever was before. Stronger. More connected to all of this.” He gestured vaguely.
“But you’re not connected to me,” Evan half-whispered, and realized exactly what it was that he feared most. It wasn’t just losing Mac.
It was being left behind.
“You have to help me,” he pleaded. “You have to talk to the doctors.”
“I can’t do that.” Mac had refused any further evals after the first one.
“Mac, please. I’m losing you.” Sixty years, and you’re leaving me, and I can’t stop it.
“Goddamnit, look at me.” In growing desperation, Evan yelled, “Hey! Michelangelo the Great!”
Mac turned, looked him squarely in the face. “That is not my name, Evan.”
Twin hammers thudded into Evan’s gut, one after the other.
First, the knowledge that their inside joke, their long-running corny little affection that meant nothing and yet everything, had died in a single devastating moment—
Second, that Mac’s eyes were a completely different color.
Warm brown had turned into bright silver.
Evan took a step back. “What are you?” he whispered.
“I’m Mac,” the alien said, puzzled. It rose from the chair, gracefully as a young man. Beautiful as Mac had ever been…but for the fact that it wasn’t him at all.
Evan backed up two more steps.
He turned and ran, pressing the panic button as he went.
He couldn’t raise anyone, through any means of contact. No response on the button. No calls through to the med facility, once he locked himself in the bedroom. No connection to the outernet.
Somehow Not-Mac had shut down all communication.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” the alien called from outside of the door. “It’s going to be over soon. I am so sorry, but it can’t be helped. You didn’t see the light.”
Fuck you, Evan thought. I loved you. We stood by each other during those difficult early years, when we still had to fight for marriage rights.
We laughed together, wept together, became famous together, grew old together. Went to the goddamn stars together.
“Fuck the light. Give me my Mac back.”
“I am Mac.”
The doorknob rattled. Evan clutched the neck of a champagne bottle, the only thing resembling a weapon he could find. He had hidden it in the bedroom on the very first day. He had intended to surprise Mac with it after their first month of living in space together.
Despite himself, he couldn’t keep the tears from stinging his eyes.
How could everything have become so broken, so quickly?
He could never get it back.
He was trapped here.
He was alone.
The door wrenched open, and Evan swung the bottle with all his might. Feeble old man that he was. It connected, and Not-Mac grunted. “Why would you do that?” It reached for him, and he lurched to the side clumsily, limbs shaking. Threw the bottle at Not-Mac’s head and ran while it ducked.
Somehow he made it past the alien being that had once been his husband. Somehow he made it into the hallway, slamming the door behind him. Out of the apartment. Just a short walk down the space station halls to the security section. All he had to do was get his frozen old body to start moving again. Please, God. Please.
The security guard found him there in the hallway outside his apartment door, shaking and huddled against the wall. The guard didn’t understand his wild words, but still opened the door and went in.
The apartment was silent.
The apartment was empty, the guard told him, after a brief search. She showed him the scanner with the life-signs on it. He didn’t believe her.
She clearly thought he was a crazy old man, but because the apartment was registered to a couple and he was clearly alone, she called in back-up to hunt for his missing husband. Someone stayed behind to look after Evan while they searched the station.
The alien being couldn’t have left the apartment without Evan knowing, could it? Unless it had simply vanished through the observation window. Back to the stars from which it came.
Which meant that Mac was gone too.
Evan went to the observation room, his guard trailing behind. Nurses and a doctor would probably arrive soon, to try to sort out the trauma and make sure he wasn’t having a psychotic break.
Maybe he was. Maybe he had been all along.
He stared out of the window, searching for something, anything.
Come back to me, he pleaded. He didn’t care anymore. He just wanted Mac to be home again.
He sank to the floor, tears blurring his eyes.
A brilliant light, white and gold and blue, flashed across the window.
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“Did you see that?” he asked the guard.
The guard looked at him quizzically. “See what?”