They say falling into a black hole will turn you to spaghetti. They're wrong. Natalie knows this as fact; that she's standing alive and inelastic in the command module of her craft is proof.
A point- it's not exactly her craft. It is hers by nature that she's the highest ranking officer left aboard the ship, and it helps that the only other person alive isn't even an officer at all, but the shrink assigned to the mission to ensure everyone's mental stability. Not like that matters any longer- they're falling into a black hole. Once you're in, you can't come out; if you do, you've just created a paradox.
But the real paradox, Natalie thinks, is standing next to her in front of the other double window, grasping her hand. The shrink, their supposed anchor, Christina.
The light from the accretion disc shines gold in Christina's hair. In zero-G, Natalie imagines they could be an accretion disc of their own, a halo of hair feathering around Christina's head, the center of her own individual galaxy. But for now they have enough power to keep the artificial gravity on, and so her hair remains flat, ordinary, unimpressive.
"You know they say the last moments in a black hole are just one continued moment," Natalie speaks into the silence. Her words are like molasses; cloying and seeping into the pockets of silence they find. Christina doesn't do this science-talk; Natalie knows that. But she goes on anyway. "It's just a single moment until you hit the singularity in the middle of it all. And then no one knows what happens, since no one's ever gone in before."
"If they would, we wouldn't know, would we?" Christina's tone is flat, as it always is; she's accepted her coming death long ago, and now everything seems boring to her. But she's using 'we' rather than 'I', and Natalie takes this to be a good omen. She needs these now, especially since there are no longer days and nights to call good or bad, just one long-lasting moment that drags on like the skeins of light around them.
"No. We wouldn't. We wouldn't even know it was a moment- we'll just..." Natalie doesn't know what the word is. They might not cease. Maybe the way the universe is run is the first entities into a black hole singularity become the next god, or gods. That'd be interesting- building a universe alongside Christina. She promotes order and logic; Natalie, the engineer, has long since given up on the precise nature of the sciences. Which seems strange, but after the life support systems gave out, immediately cutting life support to those inside the crew pods (she remembers their names, has them engraved into her pod's side, but never removed the bodies; they sit with the windows displaying their faces covered by little black cloths cut of their uniforms), and Natalie fixed the damn thing only after trying everything in three manuals only to fix it by hitting it with her wrench out of despair, she's given up on everything entirely. Everything except Christina.
And this is why. Christina turning is why; her skeptical glance as she says these words is why. "So you want to have a last meal now is what you're saying."
They've had several last meals before, once as a crew when the black hole first tugged on the ship, pulling it firmly into its grasp like a child would clutch a new toy; another when the life support systems failed- Natalie skipped that one- a third before they passed around the last of the sleeping pills for all to share (Christina took sugar pills for a reason she has not yet disclosed; Natalie woke up, having been given empty capsules, and she will never know who it was who removed the powder and probably double-dosed themselves).
And now they're down to the MREs, the meals ready to eat, and that last pinch of tea leaves from earth that Natalie's been saving for something. Not a miracle; even if she believed in those she wouldn't be given one, not a rescue; they're too far into the event horizon, and have been for years. Decades. Perhaps eons, depending on how time outside them flows. It begs a question of how old the damn black hole is; in its own time, it might still be in its infancy. Regardless- these, Natalie thinks with a smirk, are now the oldest tea leaves in the universe by nature of time dilation. A pity there are only two beings capable of sharing what drink comes from them.
"No last meals just yet." Natalie presses her face to the window. "We're still pretty far out."
"You said that the last time. It all looks the same, you know."
"But we are. Define 'far out' for me, will you? You can't. It's relative." She walks back across the ship, pacing the deck she's come to know all so well (thirty paces long, twelve across; one and a half Natalies to the ceiling, or one and one-quarter Christinas). "Sure, there's no one coming to save us. Sure, we can die at any moment, and even then, what if the singularity doesn't kill us? But imagine. We're millennia old by now. We're sitting in a spinning whirlpool made of dead suns and failed stars and hell, probably of the stuff the universe was made of in the beginning. We could be gods."
"Gods don't die."
"Says who? I bet there are a million who've died. The god in a kid's head who he prays to when there's no religion put in it yet, but he believes that maybe something bigger is out there, 'cause he doesn't know why it rains, it just does. His own rain god, who can help him stop crying. That kind of god."
"You sure they didn't recruit you on this damn mission as the shrink?" Christina asks. "You could be. Listen to yourself."
"I do. I'm telling myself that this is the best ending I could've asked for. If we die, it's painless; if we live, we inherit the secret of the universe. Black holes are secretly giant time machines. Imagine."
"I don't want to." Christina follows Natalie's progress around the ship as she heads back into the crew quarters, moving amidst the pods. Eighteen now are coffins; two, standing one across from the other, are still capable of sustaining life. "What're you doing?"
"Shh." Natalie peels down the cloth from one pod, exposing one pair of closed eyes. Her name was Brittany, Natalie thinks; she was our captain, and it wasn't her fault she needed to sleep. She moves on to the next. And the next.
"Why are you doing that?" Christina persists. It is her nature. She persists even in a place that by all laws of nature will kill her, and her survival thus far is defiance of these laws.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Natalie walks back around to Christina's side. Behind her there are eighteen makeshift funeral shrouds, turned down at their tops. "We're ending, but while we are, the world we know may already be gone. We don't know how much time's gone by. So we should enjoy it, or something." She shrugs, pulls the straps on the captain's seat aside and sits in it. "Come on," she says, patting the co-pilot's chair. "Sit."
"What good does this do us?"
"Nothing, really." Natalie places her feet up on the control board. Several switches flip on; outside there are flaps extending, the feeble firing of an engine that's run out of fuel long ago. These switches matter in the long run like everything else, like nothing. "It's just beautiful."
It really isn't. There shouldn't be anything beautiful about a death you can't see coming. But Christina looks anyway. It's the same as before, the light spinning out of reach in its frantic dance to escape. The light, she realizes, can never accept what is coming. It will always try to escape, whereas she and Natalie have made what peace they can and linger on.
Maybe that, in itself, is beautiful. And maybe the light that passes over twenty pairs of eyes- two open, eighteen shut forever- isn't what beauty is made of, but rather the absence of it that looms out of sight, the singularity that pulls them in, where even the constant of death may not be a constant at all.