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An Explorer Takes an Emotional Journey Across the Stars in This Afrosurreal Sci-Fi Tale

io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Let the Star Explode” by Shingai Njeri Kagunda. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast. Enjoy!


Let the Star Explode

Before

The last picture that Karu has of her father alive is on the day of her graduation. She has this big smile that by the placing of her dimples makes it obvious that she is his daughter. He stands next to her holding her waist in the space between his biceps and his lower arm. And her mother who is half an inch shorter than her stands on her left side. Could not be any more picture perfect.

Two months later another picture is taken of Karu, her mother, and her little brother dressed in black by a casket. Mortality rates are lower than they have ever been in human history. This somehow makes it worse. It was not an evil or malicious death. There is no drunk driver or supervillain or robber. He has a stroke. He didn’t drink and he quit smoking twenty years ago but still . . . there is no one to blame. So they have no choice but to continue living.

The facts

Here is what you must know about star jumping. It was not invented by Elon Musk even though his grandchildren still hold onto the myth that he made it possible for contact with the star people to be established. They are part of a group that still believe rich does not equal exploitative. And argue that all the advancements in human history are based off of scientists, engineers, and explorers who were led by their curiosity. They believe that gatekeeping access is not bad and if it—the access—is had by everyone, then they would get complacent.

Most people these days dismiss this as fake news. And most aunties have stopped forwarding the WhatsApp messages saying that God has blessed this and that rich person because their wealth has been tied to their faith. When the star people introduced themselves, a lot of things changed.

Here is what you need to know about the star people. They do not look like one thing. But they are more inclined to look for one thing. They showed themselves first in Turkana. Then there was a sighting in Senegal, soon there were news reports about non-people with flashing lights on their skin in Mali, and then Kampala, Harare, Botswana, Arusha. Everywhere on the African content, then the Caribbean, then South America, and eventually Chicago. They appeared first to Black people because they were attracted to darkness.

Society tried to explain them. To understand them and some people will try to tell you what they want but no one actually knows.

They brought us star jumps. A thing that doesn’t make sense. But nothing actually ever makes sense.

Now

“Hurry up, please. There are other people waiting in line, neh?”

The star non-woman sounds Afrikaans even though her skin is dark blue—so dark you almost miss the blue—with little lights flickering in random spots, like on her left shin and her right cheek, behind her ears, and braided into her hair.

Karu wonders if she will become a star person if she gets this right. That’s not necessarily how it works. It’s more random than that. Some people who star jump do all the things they’re supposed to and still remain fully human. Right is a myth. Nothing makes sense and that’s okay.

Count to three and then take a step. That’s all you have to do. Karu knows this, has always known this. Just count to three and take a breath when nothing makes sense. She reminds herself that making sense is a lie. Nothing has ever made sense. That makes her feel better.

“We trick ourselves into thinking things make sense so we can have more control over our lives.”

“Huh?” the star non-woman does not hide her disdain. She is tired and overworked and this is the last thing she wants to be doing with her day.

“Nothing.” Karu says. “Just something my Fafa said to me once. I’m ready though.”

Star jumping was not something you did for fun. Most people only had one chance in a lifetime to get it right. Only the rich rich, you know the ones who could afford to pretend to be poor, that type of rich rich; only they could do it multiple times. And they were very hush hush about it. Not like mama’s stories of the rich before who would brag about their accomplishments.

These days it was embarrassing to be able to do more things than other people. These days access was tied to shame because everyone knew that if you had more access it probably came from a history of exploitation and that was . . . well, bad.

But shame was not enough of a reason that they would give it all up. Instead, those who wanted to be morally good wore plain t-shirts and cheap clothes and said they had less than 100 things because they never wanted to look like they exploited people, or like their ancestors exploited people. That was the worst thing you could look like.

Karu now, takes a step forward as she exhales. Maybe if she closed her eyes . . . She inhales one more time and then shuffles forward until her feet no longer have the support structures of anything that feels like earth. She vaguely hears the Star non-woman say something about bahati, wishing her luck? but she must be imagining it or the star non-woman was simply calling out to the person behind her. Karu knows the star non-woman ultimately does not care what happens to one measly girl from Eastlands, Nairobi. Why would she when she’s seen the whole galaxy?

More facts

The where of star jumping is an interesting one. Very simple too because most things need not be overexplained to be understood. Non-cities are the most likely first choice. Areas of Earth that have managed to remain rural however few they may be.

The most important rule of star jumping is that you must be able to see the stars. It is uncanny how certain truth enters language through idioms, and not fully interpreted as prophesy. Truth that has not yet been revealed. To shoot for the stars quite literally explains the direction, even though the jumping itself is more metaphysical than mechanical.

What all this means tangibly is that there must be access to the night sky, and access to star light which requires the least possible amount of light pollution. Upcountry has been a well-suited jumping spot, some ocean sites as well, and Brown indigenous folk revealed the jumping sites hidden in sacred caves with rocky walls that stopped just short of a full covering so moonlight could reflect on cenotes below.

Lastly and most importantly, it is not possible to star jump without a non-human.

The jump

The next time Karu inhales it is not air she is breathing in, but darkness. Darkness tastes like banana passions. The fruit she used to pick and suck on in her great-grandmother’s back yard. Her thoughts are immediately entangled, all the same incoherent thing like disjointed pictures.

Disoriented is a word that sits weird on her tongue. She mixes the positioning of the s and the d so it comes out . . .

sidoriented.

She laughs and bubbles come out of her mouth instead of sound. She wants to think what is this? But can only form and hold onto the word what in her brain. She realizes she might still be closing her eyes and tries to open them but it still feels like she is seeing through slits.

There is a planet somewhere in her line of sight. She is moving towards what looks only like water. Her first stop, she assumes. She hears the echoing of sperm whales as if they were far and near at the same time.

What is distance comes out as Ta Danced. She has never seen a sperm whale, most of them having gone extinct. But she has seen drawings of them, was always fascinated by the shape of their heads and the sounds she imagined they made.

The planet isn’t just round. And as she gets closer she sees the true shape of water. Malleable. Uncontained it becomes many things slowly unfolding in layers of movement like people dancing. She sees societies rise and fall in the story told through the waves. A collective history is unveiled and suddenly she feels very small in the grand scheme of everything she is a microcosm pretending to take up more space than she actually does. In a moment she is part of the water, fully submerged in its depth and the cold does not attack her skin the way water on the people planet does. She laughs as she revels in the feeling of being indistinct. Makes a game of trying to figure out where her skin ends, and the water begins.

The whale lets out a loud song, deep and dark and sad. She wants to follow it, to find out what it wants, what it sings of. She whistles trying to catch the melody and is taken back to the beginning of the whale. Of when they first walked into the sea and drank in the colour of water. How they decided to stay, to hold watch for those who chose pole pole. The song was about the practitioner of slowness. The whale taught the tortoise who taught the sloth who was too tired to teach. The tortoise learned that those who were slow were the most vulnerable so he developed a shell, unwilling to give up pole pole.

The whale’s song goes on about the land walkers who could never be satisfied. How they dismissed pole pole and killed off those who could not be anything other than slow. This was on the people planet of course, though all planets unfurl from the same seed. Obviously, the whale does not need to explain how on this planet of maji, majini live.

It is not that Karu can breathe underwater, just that she simply does not need to breathe. A fact that does not need to make sense, she reminds herself. She has heard stories of people who die trying to make sense of their bodies while star jumping. All of this is purely speculation of course, because no one person can ever experience the details of another’s star jump. And if a person dies, they do not come back to tell their story. She surrenders and loses the whale and their song.

Then there is another play tune in the water. She does not know how she has not noticed before this moment but the water is undertoned with warm light. She opens her mouth and tastes sun and salt and the colour orange. Then she sees her.

“I am Mumbi, Creator.”

The deity takes the form of a woman, brown and sky blue, still moving skin that refuses to settle. Her hair is in bantu knots held together by cowrie shells. The most stunning living thing Karu has ever experienced. Her voice is soft; tamu tamu like melting ice cream touching tongue on a sun-flavoured day back home. Karu tugs at the edges of the creator’s beauty.

“From me all is that has been, and will be because I am.” She grabs onto Karu and sweeps her off the current, the waves chasing her feet in the dance of many lifetimes, for this is what it is to dance with a deity. It is quick. A stark contrast to swimming with whales.

Mumbi’s fingers wrap around Karu’s waist and her whole body is entwined with time. Karu feels the formation of the universe under her left rib cage, the beginning of man underneath her eyebrows, the erasure of Earth stings her right breast. And suddenly her heartbeat is the digging of caves. Powerful men taking resources that were not to be owned, drumming getting louder and louder and louder. It is the colour white. She gasps and for a heartbeat remembers that she is just a human in a body. She needs to breathe but cannot. What is she doing here? Dancing with a deity? Swallowing bite sized capsules of time? She must force her mind to settle. Surrender is the only word she holds onto, letting everything else be a rumble of feelings.

Mumbi says I am formless, disappearing into the depths of the sea, and Karu is dropped. She free falls into the blue light and it does not end. This is the feeling of forever, she knows deep in her bones stunned by how at peace she is at the knowledge that eternity is freefalling. And then it ends and Mumbi is there again bringing Karu in, cradling her into the nostalgia of yesterdays and weeks past and last year, and decades come and gone come and go again. And there is nothing new under the sun but you can always find new suns.

The First

A little Maasai boy on the Tanga Coast was the first human invited to star jump. He introduced the wageni to his language and relationship to the land by accident. This is a short story so it must be told quick quick. But it must be said, as much as the star folk saw people in cities obsessed with buildings high as the Hyperion tree and roads as wide as the Nile, “development” had impressed them less than the earth substance that had existed for millennia.

Then this boy, let’s call him Toto, well he was part of the tradition of Nomadic inventors. They moved from place to place, infusing stories of ancestral migration into a working praxis of reciprocal relationship to soil. But that is not what is important, what is important is that at this point where we meet him, Toto was having a not so good, very bad kind of day. He was talking to the soil and it was not listening to him. A Plant he had been trying to grow rejected its surroundings and now he did not know what to do with it.

So you can imagine how not in the mood he was when a 7’5” aka 227cm tall night shaded star non-person interrupted his conversation with the soil. How less in the mood he was when the non-person started talking about how tired they were of Earth’s obsession with light right as the boy was thinking maybe the plant decided not to grow because it needed a little more sunlight.

Toto sucked in his teeth and said if you’re soo obsessed with everywhere that is not here then why don’t you just leave? And can you imagine. This tall star non-person who was tired with most of humanity just stood there laughing, the ground rumbling beneath their feet and in their belly.

Toto’s eyebrows creased, even more annoyed. The non-man said you are probably right. In fact, we are on our way already, about to leave this people planet for another. At this, the boy was silent for a moment as the gears in his mind started to grind against each other. He asked hesitantly, can you carry life with you?

The non-person had heard this request before. People were always curious about the galaxy but obviously, as with most things, exploring the galaxy was political. There was always talk about the ethics of travelling to other planets. Curiosity or colonization? As time passed people felt more at ease when the star people landed on Earth, because if we could be welcoming to them then maybe it was morally okay for us to go into their worlds.

But that is besides the story. In the story here, the star non-person was just gathering their thoughts to say no, they could not carry the little boy with them when Toto added to his request with a flurry of words.

It’s just that my friend does not want to live here. I’ve tried everything and she is not rooting and even when I speak and sing and play she curls into herself and becomes smaller and I think maybe she needs more space and I’ve heard that star people all come from places with lots of space and you’re closer to the sun and sometimes maybe being closer to the sun is what life needs to live. I just thought maybe you could take her with you.

And it took the star non-person a heartbeat to realize that the boy was referring to the little aloe plant on the ground besides him. The boy knelt and cradled the green shoots, soothing the plant with whispers, his own anger dissipating. He sang a song of finding home, no, the star non-person realized, it was returning home in this language. Returning back to what you came from. They were intrigued and told the boy, if I take the plant there is no guarantee she will continue to live where I am going.

And the boy, resolute said, then it will mean she was not ready to live and that is okay, but we must try everything.

The story goes that the star-folk are not completely void of human feeling such as impulsivity. The story goes that for some reason, be it the plant’s unfurling at the boy’s song, be it the boy’s peace with things ending, be it a decision that needs no reason, a decision was made. The story goes the 7’5” big footed non-man with skin as dark as night hauled the boy and his plant friend and dissipated into the stars. The story goes the boy became a god.

The story goes.

The middle

He had wanted to study astronomy. The number of times he told Karu that story as he was driving her to school was wild. How he had it all figured out, he was going to go to America for his bachelor’s degree and get a full scholarship to study the sky.

Then his KCSE grades came out and they were good but not quite good enough. He did Math instead at University of Nairobi. In his day it was still a pretty prestigious school. And he got a job and he met her mother and they had her.

That’s what he would always say. It didn’t go the way I wanted but we move, we figure it out, even when it doesn’t make sense. We figure it out. He died before star jumping was fully accessible. He taught Math in a public university until Karu was old enough to understand what it meant to fall in love with dying stars. Of all the things scientists had achieved for humanity, they couldn’t go back, and bring him back.

If Karu has learned anything from the water planet, it is that quick and slow are not oppositional forces. They are both tools of movement that build off of each other, play with each other.

Mumbi loves to tell stories, she admits to Karu. Of course that is the reason the galaxy exists. “What is the universe but every story?”

“And what is the point of every story then?” Karu asks.

“You ask for points as if stories are pencils heh,” the creator responds, “when here in everything you will not find a tip. The only meaning is that it exists.” She laughs. “Stories are simply for play. Just like music is to dance and work is to experiment.”

And Karu asks, “Then what is your favourite story?”

The creator smiles, pleased with the question. “We are on our way to it.”

And Karu sees a burning star in the distance, not too far away from the water planet. She settles into the juxtaposition of physical sensation, holding onto the wetness of the sea while anticipating the heat emanating from the star. She is distracted by the conversation with Mumbi, not paying attention to how time is moving or not moving.

And unlike the water planet Karu does not land on or in the star, instead they stop just short of it and watch as its story unfold backwards.

First, there is mass;
darkness with a density that echoes to the point of pushing against Karu’s skin.

Then it retracts,

glowing as it folds in on itself, pulling age old particles of
light and heat and gravity,
a dip in space-time.

Then it starts again.

This time at the beginning and not the end.

The star narrates its own death,

in the voice of a little boy.

“Are you not scared?” Karu asks in awe of the massive burning body.

“Not really.” The star says softly, blazing brighter and more crisp.

“Where will you go after?” she asks.

“I will start again,” the star responds. “In a different amalgamation.”

“Will you know you are you?”

And this is the big question. The one that Karu has held close to her chest. She asks it differently. “Will you still know those who knew you?”

The star says, “let me show you.”

And Karu looks at Mumbi, the creator who smiles gently nodding, releasing her hold on the girl. The ball of fire draws her in and . . . it hurts.

God it hurts

Everywhere. Her chest burns, the tears falling down her face scald her cheeks. Her skin melts and grows and melts and grows over and over again and her broken heart is being pounded on with a searing hammer. The star sucks her in, syphoning her memories. And she thinks finally. This pain makes sense. The physicality of it matches the dark inside her she has not been ready to see. The one she covered because she had to continue living.

And then in an instant, or a millennia, she is at the heart of the star and it is green. There is a plant. An aloe vera plant that has covered the walls of the inside of the star, expanding and taking up space. A leaf slithers its way to her, opening itself up so that its gel is squeezing out and nearly dripping. Karu reaches down and scoops up the salve, applying it over her whole body, and instantly feels the tangibly soothing re-leaf. She exhales air. She is just a human after all. A little boy in a Maasai shuka appears from somewhere in the star and giggles.

The Prediction

Scientists have said that the Earth’s sun is heating up exponentially faster than expected. As much as there has been, the planet cannot function without a sun. Some religious zealots claim that the reason the star people came when they did was to offer an alternative Heaven. After all, this world too will pass away.

Others have muttered under their breath that maybe it was the star people themselves who sped up the dying of the earth’s sun. They must have been the ones that brought impending doom. Of course it is a lot easier to come to terms with disaster when you can blame someone else for it. When it is not your fault.

The question of whether to settle other planets is still up in the air. If it is a matter of survival who knows. Then there is the little matter of the humans who become star people. Maybe that is the only future. Whether it is a thousand years or a hundred, the sun will die soon.

It is a star after all, and eventually all stars explode.

The end-ish

Memories are like every other story. They are play. They always come back, most times pole pole.

Karu and Toto walk in the aloe garden for a long time, and they talk of many things that she will forget when she goes back to the people planet. But not now, now she can admit that she does not want to leave. To go back to the constant not knowing of being alive. Even if she has taught herself nothing makes sense in theory, she cannot train her human mind to not constantly try and make sense of everything.

We don’t have to be quick, Toto says. You will only go back when you are ready. Karu says, my Fafa once told me it only takes fifteen seconds for a star to explode. This does not feel like fifteen seconds.

Toto just shrugs. And scrunches his little face. Does it matter? I was on Earth not so long ago and yet I think I have also been in this star since its birth. Time is not constant here heh, but I never get bored. His face brightens and Karu cannot help but giggle at this.

Let me show you a stingo! Karu remembers the word from long ago, back before she forgot to pay attention to joy. It means cool trick. And he sings to the plant and she responds by unfurling and wrapping around him, pulling him up so his legs are off the makeshift nebulous floor. They dance and Karu laughs as the plant tugs at her too. They chase each other round and round shouting TIPPO! YOU’RE IT! YOU’RE IT!

Until they are a bundled mess of laughter and breathlessness and Mumbi appears there besides them smiling and saying, “Thank you for playing. For making this,” she waves at the galaxy, “worth it.”

Then the creator redirects her gaze to Toto and she shifts form, taking on the build of a tall man. Dark as midnight with stars in his skin. “It is time.” The 7’5” non-man does not resemble the other star people Karu has seen and she knows this is not his true form. The creator is a shapeshifter. She becomes what she has created so she can love them more.

Toto runs up to the now non-human star person and hugs him tight, only able to wrap his little arms around the back of the deity’s knees. Karu watches the interaction so intensely she almost misses the aloe plant retract its leaves.

“I am tired but I don’t feel old,” Karu hears the little boy say.

The creator laughs a deep booming laugh which echoes throughout the exploding star.

“I am old, and I do not feel tired.” There is a twinkle in the star-man’s eye. “But even me, one day I may burn out and start again.”

The star collapses, bits and pieces disintegrating over and over and over and over again. Losing all its light and heat and the whale’s song plays in Karu’s mind. She hums it as she closes her eyes, waiting for the Black hole to swallow her back into nothingness.

And then

“Did you hear me?”

The South African accented non-woman with blue-black skin tugs at Karu’s shirt. “You dropped something.” She side-eyes the yellow letter attached to the star jumping ticket fallen on the sand. Karu is back on the Malindi coast at the medium sized jumping site by the sea.

She picks up the note that is covered in pebbles and small stones, blowing them off as she feels the familiar lump in her throat.

A graduation gift for you kasichana. I wanted so badly to study the stars and I got to see the sky in your eyes every morning. It makes no sense how much I love you, but I have stopped trying to make sense of what I do not know. May the galaxy teach you what I may not be able to.

Love,

Baba

The grief feels different this time, like it is dancing with something else. Her memories play a game of tag with her sadness, joy, wonder . . . and she lets them. Swallowing, she takes a breath, letting the tears fall down her face.

It is okay.


About the Author

Shingai Njeri Kagunda is an Afrosurreal/futurist storyteller from Nairobi, Kenya with a Literary Arts MFA from Brown. Shingai’s work has been featured in the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2020, Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction 2021, and Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2020. She has work in or upcoming in Omenana, Fantasy Magazine, FracturedLit, Khoreo, Africa Risen, and Uncanny Magazine. Her debut novella & This is How to Stay Alive was published by Neon Hemlock Press in October 2021. She is the co-editor of Podcastle Magazine and the co-founder of Voodoonauts. Shingai is a creative writing teacher, an eternal student, and a lover of all things soft and Black.

Graphic: Adamant Press

Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the March 2024 issue, which also features work by Will McMahon, Alex Irvine, Angela Liu, P H Lee, Adam-Troy Castro, Sharang Biswas, Marissa Lingen, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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