Archive

Archive for the ‘SiMF Fiction’ Category

Insert Magic Here

Science fiction is not science fact, and shouldn’t pretend to be, but it should have respect for the laws of science. It’s not that everything within a scifi movie or a scifi book has to be scientifically accurate, only that it’s scientifically plausible. Star Trek is a great example of this, with its vision in the 1960s of handheld communicators echoing our mobile phones, its non-intrusive medical scans being a forerunner of CAT & PET scans today.

Star Trek never pretended to explain its advanced technology, only to predict possible forms in which technology could plausibly be expected to adapt. We don’t have teleporters yet, but we are exploring the idea.

One area in which books have an advantage over movies is they have the time and space to stay true to physics, if the author so chooses. But movies have a strictly limited format of 2-3 hours running time, and this imposes a number of hurdles for script writers, challenges they often overcome with some magical slight of hand instead of following the science.

I don’t mean to be pessimistic or critical of science fiction movies in this regard, as they need to keep the pace and rhythm of the story going, but this often means a disregard for physics because an accurate scientific representation is inconvenient to the plot.

star-trek

Star Trek Into Darkness, as an example, has starships falling from somewhere close to the Moon all the way to Earth in a matter of just a few minutes, instead of going into some highly eccentric orbit covering hours to days.

In reality, covering the 238,000 miles between Earth and the Moon in just a few minutes  would mean atmospheric entry would occur in the blink of an eye, and the craft would either burn-up or plough into Earth like a meteorite rather than crash landing intact in the sea. Ah, but don’t let that deter you from seeing Star Trek, as it’s an enjoyable movie, so long as you suspend your disbelief.

In the same insert-magic-here manner, a journey at warp speed to a distant star dozens of light-years away takes mere minutes in the movie, being comparable to a trip down the road in your car rather than a flight through the vast empty void of interstellar space.

The absurdly large distances involved in space travel present numerous problems like this for script writers, problems they often simply ignore.

There’s a scene in the latest Star Trek where Kirk is on the edge of “the neutral zone” talking to someone on Earth using a portable communicator. As Kirk is in the process of travelling between stars, this presumably happens at a distance of several light years, but the conversation is conducted in real time, something that would be impossible.

Perhaps there could be some kind of quantum-entangled device that allows faster-than-light instant communication (even though current science sees that as impossible), but between that an the ability to teleport instantaneously between planets in separate star systems, it does make you wonder why they bother with starships like the Enterprise at all. Using teleporters and quantum-entangled cell phones, the tyranny of distance would be reduced in practice to that of walking into the next room.

Ah… Star Trek… Once there was a time where if you wanted a little science in your fiction you could look to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to entertain you, even with a little hand waving on the side, but we’re not seeing too much of that these days.

Perhaps in the next movie we’ll see the script writers push themselves to stay within the bounds of physics and explore where science could boldly go.

Intelligent Science Fiction

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the books Who Goes There? as well as I Am Legend and The Hunger Games.

Have you ever wondered what is it about science fiction that gives this particular genre such a broad appeal?

Looking at Hollywood movies, it’s tempting to think it is the visual sensation of blockbusting special effects, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the reliance of movies on mind-bending special effects has diluted rather than enhanced great science fiction stories.

Science fiction has a strong appeal because it is intelligent, it stimulates our thinking. And, often times, this distinction is lost when books morph into movies.

In Who Goes There? John Campbell introduces us to a creature Hollywood immortalized as The Thing.

Although The Thing is a vivid and faithful rendition of Campbell’s novella, it misses a significant amount of the reasoning the scientists go through as both they and the readers struggle to comprehend a hostile alien encounter. And that is where the brilliance of the story lies, in the exploratory, inquisitive, reasoning nature of man.

The essence of the storyline in Who Goes There? is, how can reason triumph over a mindless, instinctive monster, one than can perfectly mimic its target? Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but the way the scientists drive their minds to understand the nature of this alien beast in the novella is brilliant, and it is lost in the screen adaptation.

In the novella, the trapped scientists consider the biological nature of the alien, they think about how the infection spreads at a cellular level, realizing that the infected cow at the Antarctic station would have laced their milk with parasitic spores, dooming them all. They discuss why the alien won’t engage in open combat with them, realizing it has evolved a unique strategy to avoid such confrontations, and they come to the chilling realization that it would sweep unopposed throughout the world if even the smallest biological trace remains. When it comes to The Thing, just a few cells is all that’s needed to overrun Earth’s entire biosphere. As a reader, you feel like an unnamed member of the ice station, traveling with them on this voyage of the damned.

In the same way, I Am Legend, takes an absurd, mythological notion and says, what would happen today if the legend of vampires were true? How could vampires exist in a modern world?

The protagonist of the novella, Neville, talks us through the logic of why vampires fear the cross. Surprisingly, it’s not because of any inherent supernatural power in that particular shape, it turns out that the shape is a catalyst for thought, a vivid reminder of what the vampire has become and so causes a physiological revulsion. Neville even conducts experiments with vampires of Jewish origin, noting they suffer the same aversion to the Star of David as former Christians do of the cross. He hypothesises that a Muslim vampire would find the crescent shape equally repugnant, but would not be worried by a cross.

In the same way, mirrors allow vampires to see themselves for what they really are, and they are repulsed by the realization that they are monsters.

Garlic, rather than an old wives’ fable, becomes a biological agent that causes anaphylactic shock within the vampire.

Sunlight, it seems, breaks down the vampiric bacteria, just as UV is known to destroy other types of bacteria.

And in the course of the story, the question is raised, why do stakes kill vampires and not bullets? Neville, our rational hero, applying science over superstition, learns that the hemorrhaging caused by a stake cannot be contained as easily as the smaller holes caused by a bullet. And the reader finds themselves inhabiting a world where the absurd has suddenly become plausible and rational, at least in a fictitious sense in which disbelief can be suspended for the enjoyment of the adventure.

The Hunger Games is another recent example of intelligent science fiction.

The movie is breathtaking, but action and adventure win out over the awe of reason. In the movie, we see Katness attack the supplies of the upper crust contestants from Districts 1-5, but without the audience really understanding why. In the book, we get a sense of the hunger and desperation Katness suffers in the wilderness (after all, it is called the Hunger Games). And so, rather than a mindless attack on the stores of wealthy tributes, we see Katness attack these stores to level the playing field, to square up the fight and ensure that the rich kids also have to scavenge and forage for basic necessities. In this way, they can no longer ruthlessly hunt down the other tributes with such ease.

And so the book allows us to explore this fictional world with Katness, and to understand its means and motives in a way that is glossed over in the movie.

As a science fiction author, I appreciate what these authors have done, they’ve started with a simple premise and explored the possibilities latent therein, seeking to build fictional worlds for our enjoyment.

It is said that the plot is the character in action. When it comes to science fiction, the plot is the character interacting with science in a way that influences both their actions and the actions of their opponents. I’m a little bias, of course, but I love the way science fiction makes us think about the challenges facing a protagonist.

Peter Cawdron is the author of the highly acclaimed dystopian novel, Monsters

Scientists Gone Wild

“He had the greatest mind since Einstein, but it didn’t work quickly. He admitted his slowness often. Maybe it was because he had so great a mind that it didn’t work quickly… I watched him hit that ball. I watched it bounce of the edge of the table and move into the zero-gravity volume, heading in one particular direction. For when Priss sent that ball toward the zero-gravity volume – and the tri-di films bear me out – it was already aimed directly at Bloom’s heart! Accident? Coincidence? …Murder?” The Billiard Ball – Isaac Asimov

In “The Billiard Ball”, first published in the March 1967 issue of If, Asimov presents a story in which scientific competition rises to the level of murder. Maybe.  Asimov understood that scientists are human beings, and can be arrogant, petty, cruel, and filled with hatred. These traits, in turn, can make for a compelling science fiction story. And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s plenty to be found.

Lord Kelvin, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, accused Wilhelm Roentgen, who announced the discovery of X-rays in 1895, of fraud. He argued that the cathode-ray tube, which Roentgen had used in his discovery, had been in use for a decade, and therefore if X-rays actually existed, someone would have already discovered them. True, he eventually came around and apologized, but calling a fellow scientist a fraud is pretty serious.

But Kelvin was actually the least of Roentgen’s attackers. Roentgen had borrowed a cathode-ray tube from physicist Philipp Lenard, who had been exploring fluorescence using cathode-ray tubes before Roentgen, although he failed to pursue its origins or photographically document his findings. Lenard became angry that Roentgen hadn’t acknowledged his work in developing some of the technology that lead to Roentgen’s discovery, and for years he both demanded credit for the discovery of X-rays while simultaneously (and wrongly) arguing that they were just a kind of cathode ray with new properties instead of a different phenomenon. Lenard’s attacks on Roentgen lasted until Lenard died in 1947, and because of the attacks, Roentgen left orders for all his papers concerning X-rays prior to 1900 burned, unopened, upon his death. Lenard went on to be an early member of the Nazi party, an advisor to Adolf Hitler, Chief of Aryan physics, and a fierce opponent of Albert Einstein and “the Jewish fraud” of relativity.

Then there’s English inventor and scientist Robert Hooke. Hooke was a polymath, and is often referred to as the English Leonardo Da Vinci. He discovered Hooke’s Law (the extension of a spring is proportional to the applied force), contributed to knowledge of respiration, insect flight and the properties of gases, coined the term “cell” to describe the individual units making up larger organisms, invented the universal joint and the anchor escapement in clocks and numerous other mechanical devices, his work on gravitation preceded Newton’s, his Micrographia was the first book on microscopy, his astronomical observations were some of the best seen at the time, and he was an architect of distinction and a Surveyor for the City of London after the Great Fire.

But he was also an ass, especially when it came to Isaac Newton.

Hooke and Newton were involved in a dispute over the idea of the force of gravity following an inverse square relationship to define the elliptical orbits of planets, as well as Newton’s theory of light and colors. In 1672, Newton was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and his first letter on Light and Colors was read to the Society. Hooke, at the time a respected senior scientist and Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, attacked Newton’s theory, and also claimed that he had invented a reflecting telescope before Newton (Newton had actually invented it in 1668). Newton fought back, and won, but in In January 1676, Hooke again attacked Newton, alleging that Newton had plagiarized Hooke’s Micrographia, which contained Hooke’s own theory of light.

Despite the attacks, Hooke and Newton corresponded and in private correspondence, Newton had shared calculations that, he believed, showed that the path of a body falling to Earth would be a spiral. Unfortunately, Hooke realized that Newton’s argument only held true if the body were precisely on the equator, and in the more general case the path would be an ellipse. In 1679, just after Newton’s mother had died, Hooke exposed the error to the Royal Society, and after briefly responding to Hooke, he stopped writing anyone for over a year.

In 1686, when the first book of Newton’s ‘Principia’ was presented to the Royal Society, Hooke claimed that Newton had obtained from him the “notion” of “the rule of the decrease of Gravity, being reciprocally as the squares of the distances from the Center”. Only the diplomatic intervention of Edmund Halley persuaded Newton to allow the publication of the final volume of the Principia trilogy, with Halley telling Newton that Hooke was merely making a public fool of himself, and Newton removing every reference to Hooke in the volume.

But before you feel too bad for Newton, don’t, because Newton could be just as much of an ass as Hooke was.

John Flamsteed may not be a name that’s familiar to you, but was Astronomer Royal, and over 30 years had measured the positions of thousands of stars with a precision far exceeding anything undertaken before him. When Newton needed observations on the ‘double’ comet of 1680, he turned to Flamsteed, who provided him with the observations. There were some small errors in the data Flamsteed sent to Newton, and Flamsteed attempted to make amends by carrying out some of the calculations that Newton needed for himself. Newton, however, Newton caustically informed Flamsteed that he needed his observations, not his calculations. Feeling mistreated Flamsteed threatened to withhold his data.

Newton needed these calculations for a new section he was planning for the second edition of the Principia, around 1703, on a “Theory of the Moon”, so using his courtly influence, he persuaded Queen Anne’s husband, George, to commission a royal star catalogue, to be printed by the Royal Society. Flamsteed could hardly refuse this commission from his direct employer; but the moment he handed his draft data over to the Royal Society it was certain to go straight to Newton, who now dominated there. Flamsteed stalled, publishing the data as slowly as possible, and making certain it wasn’t the data that Newton needed. When Flamsteed argued with Newton over an error in Newton’s measurement of the size of stars in Opticks, Newton deliberately excluded Flamsteed from the discussions about the publication of his catalogue, and his request for a £2,000 grant to purchase a new telescope was rejected under Newton’s influence. In 1708, Prince George died, and the star catalogue project died with him. In retaliation, when Flamsteed’s membership of the Royal Society lapsed in 1709, Newton refused to renew it, effectively expelling Flamsteed.

But Newton wasn’t through with Flamsteed. He needed Flamsteed’s data, and by 1711, had persuaded Queen Anne to take up the mantle of sponsor of her late husband’s project. In a  note to Flamsteed in 1711, Newton threatened that “[If you] make any excuses or unnecessary delays it will be taken for an indirect refusal to comply with Her Majesty’s order.”

The matter came to a head with the eclipse of 4 July, 1711. Observations of the eclipse would be invaluable to Newton’s calculations, but Flamsteed refused a direct order to observe it. He was ordered to explain himself before a panel of the Royal Society, and the council that was to stand judgment over Flamsteed was selected by the President of the Royal Society (Newton) and consisted of Newton and two of his most loyal supporters. The council, to no one’s surprise, ordered the immediate publication of all Flamsteed’s hard-won data.

Flamsteed’s masterwork, Historia Coelestis, was finally published in 1712, against Flamsteed’s wishes and without his involvement. The following year, Newton issued the second edition of his Principia, compete with a lunar theory based on Flamsteed’s data.

Scientists gone wild, indeed.

References

1. Asimov, Isaac, 1986. The Edge of Tomorrow. New York, NY: Tom Doherty Assoc Llc

2. Kevles, Bettyann H., 1998. Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

3. Chapman, Allan, 2004. England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke and the Seventeenth-Century Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

4. Clark, David H. and Clark, Stephen H. P., 2001. Newton’s Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman

5. Grant, John, 2007. Corrupted Science: Fraud, Ideology and Politics in Science. Wisley, Surrey, England: Facts, Figures & Fun

Fiction: “The Long Toss” by Gary Cuba

Hell of a way to lose, I thought, as I plowed my way through the detritus covering the parking lot.

I headed toward my office in Newton Hall, the center for Physics and Mathematics studies at Manley University. The trash was the day-old aftermath of the school’s final football game of the year. It consisted, in the main, of plastic beer cups, discarded game programs and empty half-pint bottles.

The students had been gifted with a good reason to get smashed. Once again, their team had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, ending their season with a record whose “wins” column consisted of an unblemished goose egg. What had made it all the more depressing was the way they had lost, on a last-second “Hail Mary” pass by the opposing offense. Heck, I thought. How had that scrawny Framingham Tech quarterback managed to throw the football so far, scrambling from deep in his own end zone? It must have traveled ninety yards in the air!

I plopped my heavy briefcase down on my desk and looked over at my office-mate, Harvey Atwood. Harvey was a full Professor, an aging don with dual doctorates in Physics and Chemistry. His unkempt, gray hair spilled across his shoulders, making his deep frown seem all that much more dour.

“Morning, Harvey. You look like you bet on the wrong team. How much did you manage to drop?”

Harvey snorted. “George, you know I try to stay clear of that sort of thing. Unless it’s a sure deal. No, there’s something else bugging me about that game–about that last play, that last pass.”

“Like, perhaps, the thought that it was impossible? That it violated the laws of physics and human physiology? Old friend, my lowly field of expertise may be in linguistic meta-geometry, but even I know that. It had to be a fix, a trick football. Filled with helium or something.”

“Not a credible hypothesis,” Harvey replied. “The volume-to-weight ratio is too small. You couldn’t pack enough helium in there to make a significant difference in the ball’s performance. But we saw it with our own eyes. It seemed impossible–but it’s obviously not. I’ve been tearing my hair out all night, trying to reason it out scientifically. And then, this morning I began to think about Dudley.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction: “The Fermi Project” by Edoardo Albert

“We’re spending Christmas in LA next year,” Jeff said.

His younger brother, Brandon, continued to stare out at the snowscape. “You say that every year.”

“It gives me something to say.”

Brandon gave no sign that he had heard. Jeff blew on his hands and stamped his feet against the cold.

“Must be cold for you, too.”

Brandon slipped him a quick grin. “New Mexico nights are chilly,” he said. “But not like here in New York, it’s true,” and he turned back to contemplating a world gone white.

Jeff peered through the door. Inside all was movement and noise, a blur of preparation and excitement as Mom and Mark, Janine and the kids prepared in their various ways for Christmas.

“It’s going mad in there,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Brandon, not needing to look around. “It’s better out here.”

Jeff stepped out of the light streaming from within and joined his brother looking up at the sky. They each had their reasons for staring at the stars.

“Still chasing ET?” Jeff asked, turning from the night sky to his brother.

Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction submissions needed!

Science in My Fiction is experiencing a dropoff in fiction submissions. We want your speculative fiction! Please read our guidelines and consider sending us your science-inspired stories!

Fiction: “The Trouble With Chips” by C.B. Calsing

God, my head is throbbing. And my guts… Ugh. I must have the flu or something.

Franklin swallowed. Then Franklin realized he had a hangover. He reached for the bottle of government-issue analgesics on his nightstand. He dry-swallowed three without lifting his head from his pillow and then closed his eyes again. Franklin wanted water; the kitchenette in his flat lay mere inches from the edge of the bed, but he didn’t feel like moving.

He reached his arm out, grabbed his Google GOggles off the table and slipped them on. His other hand found the book-sized remote for his Hitachi Integrated Media System. He pressed the ON button. The darkness of the minute lens screens in his GOggles slowly brightened to show his desktop of choice, one of the pictures from the Olson Twins’ 2012 Playboy spread. Relaxing ambient music, meant to optimize human interface performance, drifted through the headphones.

He first checked the news. The newscaster listed off the streets with restricted travel, from such a time to such a time, due to a United Nations conference. Only employees from the neighborhood and attendees with proper clearance could enter those blocks.

That would mean no deliveries to those areas today; carriers wouldn’t get through security. He opened the site and checked his order stats; he exceeded the plan set by last year’s sales for the previous day. He’d get a bonus.

Finally, Franklin opened his email. One was from Elliot. Franklin thought about the night before. Elliot had taken him out. Why did I go out last night? Franklin still couldn’t remember. He clicked on the link, and Elliot’s voice came up over the ambient music.

“Hey, Frank. Hope you made it home all right last night. That was some crazy shit! Anyway, Charley and I are gonna meet up for some racquetball later, maybe around two, then cocktails. You know where we’ll be if you wanna play.” Elliot paused for a moment. “Oh, and congratulations again, man. Joining the club!” Club? That didn’t sound promising…

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Fiction: “Ending Alice” by Stephanie King

The smell told Grant that Alice had soiled her nappy again. He knew that wasn’t what it was called when the wearer was fifty, but somehow that was the word that stuck in his head. As Alice whimpered and squirmed in her seat, Grant looked in the rear-view mirror and caught sight of shame on his mother’s face.

“Oh God. I don’t believe it, not again,” Susan hissed as she rolled down the window. It was enough to turn any last vestiges of irritation into pity.

“It’s a long journey. It’s hardly her fault.”

“We stopped an hour ago. Why couldn’t she have gone then?”

Alice started to rock and moan in the back seat.

“You’ll have to wait,” her daughter snapped. “There’s nowhere to stop.”

Grant scanned the horizon. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. There’d also be a sign for a rest stop in a couple of miles. Maybe he wasn’t wishing hard enough. “We’ll find somewhere,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm and prevent round three from kicking off between his sister and his mother.

“This is a nightmare,” Susan said. “I can’t believe we’re doing this. It’s wrong.”

Grant’s heart sank. They’d had this conversation so many times, but she raised it again and again, trying to get a different answer. “It wasn’t our decision to make, it was hers, and she signed a living will. We’ve been over this.”

“She was probably mad by that point.”

Any answer Grant might have had was lost as Alice’s moans went up an octave and she started plucking at the flowered polyester dress the home had dressed her in. “Hold on, Alice,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m looking for somewhere to stop.”

“It’s not Alice, it’s Mother,” Susan muttered.

Alice didn’t acknowledge either of them, which didn’t surprise Grant. She hadn’t recognised either of them for most of the last two years. It was one of the triggers for the living will.

A sign at the side of the motorway showed a hotel at the next exit and he pulled into the inside lane with a sigh of relief. Within a couple of minutes they were in the car park. Susan got out and collected a new disposable pad from the boot while Grant helped Alice from the car. “Come on, Alice. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

She eyed him warily until she saw the cleaning wipes and pad in Susan’s hands; then she climbed out and let them take her into the hotel.

The receptionist greeted them with professional courtesy, but Grant thought he saw censure in her eyes as she booked them in over the sound of Alice’s moans. “Will you be wanting breakfast?’ she asked.

“No, we’re just taking a break on the journey to give our mother a rest,” he said, and watched her lip twitch in the beginning of a curl.

“Here’s your key.” She handed it to Grant but kept her eyes fixed on Alice as she spoke. “There’s someone here all the time if you need anything. All the time.”

Grant was sure she meant well. She thought Alice was being escorted to her death. In a way, she was.

“Thank you, we’ll be fine.” He took Alice’s elbow and shepherded her to the hotel room where they could clean her up and change her pad.

Once she was clean Alice calmed down again, and she slept for an hour before following them without protest back to the car. The receptionist didn’t say anything, but Grant felt her eyes follow them as they left. He hoped that she wouldn’t try to make trouble as they left; they’d signed an agreement to keep the facility a secret. Still, if the hotel saw enough people being taken there to get suspicious, presumably the facility knew how to handle them. He’d let them know when they got there.

The turning was another thirty miles after the hotel, and the roads got smaller and quieter with every turn. There were no signs to help. Grant followed the directions on a copy of a hand drawn sketch with tiny villages marked in an untidy scrawl, while Susan stared out of the window with a frozen face. Alice stared at the sheep grazing in the fields, pointing and grunting as if she’d never seen one before.

Even the villages disappeared eventually, leaving them to bounce up a farm track alone. Susan held onto the dashboard as the car lurched into a pothole.

Grant flicked a glance sideways at her; she was rigid with tension, her knuckles white on the dash. Grant braced himself for the outburst.

It wasn’t long in coming. “I won’t allow it,” she said as she stared at the track winding up the side of the mountain ahead of them. “Turn the car around. She’s mad. She has no rights.” She turned to face him. “Didn’t you hear me? Turn around!”

“Suse…”

“No. I don’t care what you say. She’s not allowed. I’m going to stop her.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why?”

“She knows what she wants. She chose this.”

Susan sneered. “She doesn’t even know what year this is.”

“She did when she made the will, and she can hear you, you know.”

“I don’t care. I won’t let her do this to me. It’s not fair.”

“So what do you want to happen?”

“I want her to be normal, even if that means dying. I want a funeral, flowers, a gravestone.”

“She’ll be legally dead. You get your share of what’s left.”

Susan stared at him with contempt. “But I’ll know. I’ll know where she is. And if anyone finds out I’ll die of shame. How can she do this to me?”

Grant thought that was fairly obvious, that Susan and Alice hadn’t seen eye to eye for as long as he could remember. Susan had rejected her mother and everything about her lifestyle as soon as she could, married an accountant, had two children and tried to ignore Alice’s free-spirited ways. Growing up in the same house had been a nightmare.

Susan would go around and hide all the primitive art before her friends came round, pretend that she was adopted. In their worse fights she’d scream at Alice that she’d be better off dead like their father than living with a stupid hippy. Alice never acknowledged that that one hurt, but she’d disappear for hours afterwards and come back with puffy eyes. Grant had tried to step up and be the man of the house in his father’s absence but it was hard.

“It was her choice.” He drove the car at a deep rut, jouncing them all in their seats. It had the desired effect; Susan shut up.

After what seemed like an eternity of rutted tracks and wilder and wilder country, they pulled up to a slatted steel gate set in a high wire fence. Grant got out of the car and pushed a red call button at the side of the gate.

“Hello?’ The man’s voice that answered was tinny through the grille above the button. It sounded for all the world as though Grant should be ordering burgers, and he fought back a wave of inappropriate laughter. That would give Susan ammunition for the next ten years. “Alice LaStrange and family. We’re expected.”

“Come on in.” The invitation was accompanied by a click as the gate lock released, and he opened the gate before jumping in and driving through.

The track led them through a thin belt of trees before going through another gate, this one solid and impenetrable instead of something you’d find on a farm. The fence around it was eight feet tall and topped with sharp coils of barbed wire.

The gate slid sideways as they approached to let them through into a small gravelled car park. Two land rovers were parked to the left under some trees. A broad stretch of grass separated the car park from a forest to the right.

A tall, bearded man wearing a black t-shirt and forest camouflage pants was waiting for them at the door of the squat building in front of them. A field of bright yellow flowers stretched out behind the building into the distance. “Welcome,” he said, “I’m Simon Grey. Come in.”

Grant opened the back door to help Alice out of the car. She hung back, staring at him and he sighed. She’d forgotten him again. It hurt. It always did. He produced a packet of chocolate buttons from his pocket and she scrambled out to grab for them like a greedy toddler. “Come on, Alice,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“No.” Susan stepped round the car, ridiculously overdressed for the Welsh mountains in her pressed grey suit and court shoes. “Mother… Mum. You don’t have to do this, or go back to the home. You can come and live with Richard and me.” She took hold of Alice’s sleeve and tried to drag her back to the car.

Alice reacted, shrieking at the top of her voice and waving an uncoordinated hand in the direction of the field as Susan struggled to hold on.

“Mother, stop it. Stop screaming, for God’s sake.”

“Suse.” Grant put a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “She wants this. Let go.”

Alice was sobbing and babbling, pointing to the field. He wanted to cry too.

“Let her go.”

Susan let go and stalked away to stand on the other side of the car. “Fine. What else would I expect from you? You’re as bad as she is.”

Grant ignored her and turned to his mother. “It’s okay, Alice. You’re still going.”

She let him lead her into the building in Simon’s wake. Simon took them to a small room with a medical table set along one wall. A sealed window at the back of the room showed flowers as far as the eye could see.

“I have some forms for you to sign.” He handed over a consent form. It looked like the form Grant had signed when he’d had to put his old dog down three years ago. He tried hard not to think about that, stared at the writing that crawled across the page like ants instead. His eyes were stinging and the letters wouldn’t keep still.

“Take your time,” Simon said, his voice quiet.

“I’m sorry. I can’t follow it. Not at the moment.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell you what it says. You sign to say that you understand we can’t be responsible for her welfare once she’s out there. We can’t control them, all we do is protect them from the outside world. As soon as she leaves, she’s on her own. We study them as much as we can but nobody really knows how they think once the flowers take effect.”

“So she could die out there.”

“They take care of their own dead so we don’t know all the details, but I’ve never seen them attack their own. They keep away from the research facility as much as they can.”

“Will we know if she dies?”

“We implant a bio-tracker before we release anyone into the environment. If it goes quiet we’ll notify you, but it doesn’t mean much. We’ve found trackers on the ground before. We think they take them out if they can find them.”

“And she’ll never remember us?” That was the part that frightened him. What if one day her mind came back and she found herself living like a savage in the woods and wondered what happened to everyone she knew?

“It’s never happened that we know of. Everything we’ve seen from the programme so far indicates that it’s permanent. They recover their health, their motor skills, even some of their youth, but their minds are gone forever. If anyone ever came back to the facility we’d call their next of kin, but it’s never happened. Everything that makes her your mother is gone. We encourage families to think of them as dead.”

Grant looked over at Alice. She was standing at the window staring at the flowers, rapt.

“Do you ever think you’ll make the medicine?’ he asked.

“I don’t know. We’ve been running twenty years and we still haven’t isolated what creates the physical change. We know it’s the flowers, but as to how and why–” Simon shrugged. “It may never happen. As long as people like your mother leave us legacies to keep the programme running, we’ll keep trying.”

Grant scrubbed at his eyes and signed the consent before handing it back to Simon. “It’s what she wants.”

Simon nodded once and produced a hypodermic needle. “We’ll sedate her and then implant the tracker. You can stay if you think you can handle it. Otherwise you can sit in another office till it’s done.”

Grant’s stomach twisted. “I’ll stay. She’s still my mother, even if she doesn’t know it any more.”

Simon turned to Alice. “Time to lie down for a few minutes. Grant is going to keep you company. Ready?”

She lay down on the table without a murmur. Grant forced a smile and held her hand as Simon injected her with the sedative. “I know you always liked me to call you Alice,” he said as her eyes drooped, “but you’re still Mum. I love you, Mum. Be happy. If you ever remember, come home. I’ll be waiting for you, okay?”

“She’s out,” Simon murmured as he produced an implantation gun and loaded it with a tiny cylinder.

“I know.” It didn’t matter.

“Do you want to sit with her till she wakes up?”

“Please.”

After twenty minutes, Alice opened her eyes and looked round. Simon looked up from the desk and smiled at her. “Ready to go?”

Together, Grant and Simon helped her up and walked her to another door on the other side of the building. Simon took a face mask from a hook by the door and passed it to Grant, taking another one for himself.

As they walked out into the warm summer air, Grant could hear drums in the distance. Alice did too; she lifted her head and stared into the distance.

“They’re here,” Simon said. “They start to gather when they see a car that isn’t ours.”

He guided them to the edge of the field where a small footpath disappeared into the yellow flowers. They danced in the breeze, graceful yellow bells nodding on waist high stems. Simon let go of Alice and stepped back, indicating to Grant to do the same.

She took a tentative step forward, then another, then started walking away into the sea of blooms. Shadowy figures dressed in animal skins waited for her at the edge of the woods.

Grant watched as Alice dragged her polyester dress over her head and dumped it on the ground, followed by the humiliating adult nappy. Naked, she ran towards her new life without looking back.

.

Stephanie King is an environmental consultant who lurks in a corner of south east England. She has an eight year old son whom she feels is destined to be emperor of the universe and a husband who’s a lot more trouble than the son. She lives with two male dogs, and since catching the writing bug her house could politely be described as ‘Dog Hair Central’. She feels that cleaning has no purpose in life if you live with a bunch of men whose mission in life is to make more mess immediately. She has previously been published at 365 Tomorrows, Golden Visions and Static Movement. Her website is at https://sites.google.com/site/stephkingfiction/Home.