Fiction: “Buckets of Light” by Dylan Fox

Henry Maur’s job was to observe a black hole called ANZ-7461, and he kept a guilty secret.

ANZ-7461, being a black hole, couldn’t be observed directly. There was a red dwarf star called 2X4B-523-P orbiting it, and Henry could watch the plasma being sucked from the star into an accretion disk. He could take readings of the x-rays and gamma-rays coming form the space where ANZ-7461 was, and he could watch 2X4B-523-P appear to be warped, twisted and duplicated as it passed behind ANZ-7461.

To the disappointment of his niece, he didn’t spend his time sitting in the observatory with his face pressed to a telescope’s eyepiece. Instead, he spent it like his brother who’d been trapped in the rat race – staring at computer screens and shifting through sheet after sheet of paper, trying to put everything in the right order.

ANZ-7461 wasn’t a name he could empathise with, so when he was talking to himself about the black hole, he’d call it Becca-Two, after his niece. The star he called Pickles, after her cat who seemed to follow her around everywhere she went. Somewhere deep in his chest, just behind his left ventricle if he was going to analyse it, he knew the star should be called Pickles-Two. But he just liked to call it Pickles, and to hell with the feeling behind his left ventricle.

He’d been watching Becca-Two and Pickles for half a decade. Light is the language of stars. From listening carefully to the movements of the stars’ outer layers, people like Henry could find out what was going on in their core. He could tell how hot a star was, what elements it was creating and destroying, how far away it was, how old it was, its past and its future.

Pickles’ light got sucked in, and never came out. Becca-Two drifted through the universe, collecting light like a bucket.

The scientific community thought Becca-Two was unremarkable, at best. There were dozens of binary system black holes in our galaxy alone, all slowly drifting and collecting light and space and time in their buckets, slowly getting larger and larger.

Becca-Two had shrunk in the five years Henry had been watching it, and he was too scared to tell anyone.

***

Rebecca ran after Solomon, who was running after the tennis ball Henry had thrown for him. Solomon was a black-and-tan Alsatian who was born to pedigree parents, but had come out a runt. Rebecca was twelve and didn’t like to be called Becca any more because she was almost an adult and should be called by an adult name.

Henry walked along behind them, hands in the pockets of his jeans, idly staring up at the clouds. He looked down at Solomon as the dog ran into his leg. Solomon shook his head and looked around, confused.

“Drop it!” Rebecca told him.

Solomon snapped out of it and dropped the well-chewed ball onto Henry’s foot. Henry bent down and picked it up.

“Uncle Henry,” Rebecca said.

“Hm?”

“You know the stars?”

“Yes.”

“Well, they’re millions and millions of miles away, right?”

“Billions of miles,” Henry said. “Billions and billions.”

“Well yeah,” Rebecca said. “Doesn’t matter, it’s just more zeroes. A billion miles might as well be a million because there’s no way I’m ever going to get there.”

“It’s important to me–” Henry started.

“But anyway,” Rebecca said. “If the stars are billions and billions of miles away, how come we can see them?”

Henry frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Okay,” Rebecca said. She took the ball from Henry and threw it for Solomon. The mutt bounded after it with gusto. “If I shout, the people in Australia couldn’t hear me, right?”

“Well, no,” Henry said. “They’re too far away for the sound to reach them.”

“Right,” Rebecca agreed.

Solomon dropped the ball at Henry’s feet. Henry picked it up and threw it as hard as he could.

“And our house,” Rebecca said. “It’s not going to be there in a hundred years’ time, is it? I mean, it’s going to fall down.”

“It’ll fall down sooner than that if your dad doesn’t look after it.”

“Right. So, if the stars are really, really far away, and the light from them is really, really old, how come we can see them?”

Henry watched Solomon running towards them, and side-stepped to let him run past. Solomon stopped and stared ahead, trying to work out where they’d gone. He turned around when Rebecca called his name, and jumped back to them. Rebecca reached for the ball, but he refused to let it go.

“Waves of light,” Henry said, “don’t dissipate the way sound waves do. They don’t… like when you throw a stone into water, and the ripples get smaller and smaller until you can’t see them any more. Light doesn’t do that. And it doesn’t decay the way – the way bricks and mortar do. It just stays the way it is.”

Rebecca finally got the ball from Solomon’s mouth, and threw it for him as hard as she could. She watched the ball bouncing over the field and the dog bouncing after it.

“So,” she said, “starlight doesn’t die. Starlight is immortal.”

Henry frowned.

“I guess so.”

***

Hawking radiation allows a black hole to slowly dissipate, in theory. Particles created on the black hole’s event horizon escape, and in doing so they steal some energy from the black hole. But Becca-Two was being fed by Pickles and that should have more than made up for those escaping quanta. Even the background radiation Becca-Two drew in should have compensated. Henry knew this. Yet, over the last five years, Becca-Two had been getting smaller.

He knew strings of equations which proved that black holes with red dwarf stars orbiting them didn’t shrink. The scientific elite – which was composed entirely of individuals far smarter than him – was all in agreement that those strings of equations were right. Stephen Hawking knew all there was to know about black holes and if he said black holes with red dwarf stars orbiting them didn’t shrink, then he was far more likely to be right than Henry Maur, a man who still got confused by the menu in Subway.

So Henry Maur came in every day and scanned through page after page of data, trying to find his mistake, the misplaced decimal point or ambiguous number he’d take the wrong way which would make everything okay again. But no matter how he manipulated the data, it still came back with the same answer: Becca-Two was getting smaller. It was getting so small, in fact, that it wouldn’t be around much longer.

***

A black hole is the soul of a star. The star’s core is carefully hidden behind a shell of super-heat and magnetism. As the star gets older, the core refines itself, slowly squeezing the superfluous space out of the molecules which make it up. When it no longer needs its protective shell, it’s discarded and the naked core spins in space. It continues to evolve, continues to refine itself and squeeze out all the space between the quarks and quanta until there’s nothing left but pure matter. From its birth as a collapsing cosmic dust cloud, it has finally achieved perfection. And it drifts through space, removing all the imperfect matter from the universe.

***

Rebecca sat in her armchair, legs folded up and Pickles sitting on her thighs. The cat was stretched out and purring. Occasionally, he would reach out a paw and poke Rebecca, who would obediently scratch him behind the ears. Pickles would reward her with a brief purr.

“So, how do you know the galaxy is spiral-shaped?” she asked.

Henry came in from the kitchen, drying his hands.

“Well,” he said. “We can see the edges of the arms. We can see them moving through space.”

He clapped his hands and Solomon jumped off the sofa. He looked at it, matted with dog hair and slightly damp.

He sighed, and sat in the old rocking chair which had been a feature of his parents’ front-room before they’d died. Now it was a feature of his brother’s front room.

“How?” Rebecca asked.

“Well, there’s… there’s clouds of stuff in space, you see. Outside the galaxy. When the arms of our galaxy move through the clouds, it disturbs them and they start to form stars. So, we can see all these stars forming along the edges of our galaxy, and we can see the edges are kind of spiral-shaped.”

“So where do the clouds come from?” Rebecca asked.

Henry crossed his legs and Solomon jumped up onto his lap. The chair rocked.

“Other stars,” Henry said. “When a star gets old, the outer layers get blown off, leaving just the core. That’s called a novae. Sometimes, you get supernovae. That’s when the core of the star explodes, too.”

He pushed Solomon’s muzzle and long, wet tongue away from his face. Solomon looked up at him like a kicked puppy, and licked his hand instead.

“Why does the core explode?”

“Because it’s too big,” Henry said. “There’s too much matter in them. The pressure gets too much so it explodes, like if you put too much air in a balloon.”

“But then they get made into new stars.” Rebecca said, stroking Pickles. The cat stretched and made a half-articulated meow.

“And the new stars might not be too big. So they’re being…” she waved her hands. “Erm… purified? No, perfected. They’re being perfected. That’s kind of cool. It’s like the stars really are immortal.”

“Yeah,” Henry agreed. “It’s very cool.”

***

There wasn’t much of left of Becca-Two. The barycentre had shifted outside its event horizon and now it was wobbling around Pickles in that strange dance of binary systems.

Henry had calculated the rate of decay. He had a day marked on his calendar, the day when Becca-Two would be too small to observe. He worried about telling anyone. He kept pawing over the data, looking for his mistake.

He collated readings and organised data and stared at his computer screen, hoping to see some small reading which would mean he’d come to the wrong conclusion and that, frankly, he was being stupid.

The day came and, when Henry arrived at work, he couldn’t find Becca-Two. Pickles was still there, drifting all alone in space with a halo of plasma that Becca-Two had pulled away but hadn’t been able to consume.

Henry leaned back in his seat and buried his face in his palms. He should have told someone sooner. He should have told someone as soon as he had some idea what was going on. Stephen Hawking was going to be pissed he’d missed it.

Henry called up all the readings he could: X-ray; gamma-ray; UV; visible; infrared… any wavelength he had access to. Numbers spooled across the bottom of his screens while graphs traced simple, unbroken lines. Henry stared at the readings from where Becca-Two should be. There was nothing, just the confused wobble of Pickles wondering where Becca-Two had gone.

He was the first man in history to lose a black hole. He picked up his empty Styrofoam cup and crushed it in his hand.

The computer screens flickered, the numbers changed and the graphs suddenly spiked. The software automatically adjusted the scale to fit the new peaks on. The peaks from the last five years seemed minute on the new axis. Henry stared at the numbers. He printed them out, snatched them from the printer and stared at them, running his pencil over each line to make sure he didn’t misread it.

All the energy, all the light and matter that Becca-Two had been collecting in her bucket for millions of years had spilled out in just a few seconds. In just a few seconds, the universe received millions of years of time and matter.

Pickles’ starlight had been stuck, spinning around the centre of the black hole and with one almighty scream it had escaped. Henry leaned back in his chair, the weight of the revelation pinning him to his seat: Becca-Two hadn’t been removing the star from the universe, just saving it up. Starlight was immortal.

A black hole wasn’t an end, any more than a supernovae was. And why would a black hole be the only full stop in a universe which is constantly changing and reinventing itself?

He reset the instruments and prepared to watch a new star being born. He was going to have to make some changes to Professor Hawking’s equations.

.

Dylan Fox lives in an old slate miner’s cottage in the foothills of Snowdonia, in North West Wales. It’s frequently cold, wet and dark but the scenery – and the night sky – more than make up for such minor inconveniences. After looking at the Moon through a telescope for the first time this summer, he was shocked to discover there’s a giant ball of rock in the sky. It was both amazing and terrifying.

He’s had stories in places like Bewildering Stories and The Nautilus Engine and is a contributing editor to SteamPunk Magazine. He has a blog at www.dylanfox.net.

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