Take The Stars

This short story from January 2007 is what eventually became The Astronomer’s Loss. I was never really happy with this story. Gary’s emotional outburst towards the end never felt like it was timed or paced properly. The fact that he explicitly figures out exactly what is happening to the stars is implausible, as is the notion of the quintillions of microscopic singularities in the first place, and the odd saboteur at GILO obviously doesn’t fit in the story as it eventually turned out. Also, apologies to the real people whose names and identities I borrowed for some of the party attendees.

"What time is it?"

Gary is the kind of geek who's geeky enough to own a binary wristwatch but not geeky enough to be able to decode the digits instantly. The alcohol doesn't help. It's been a good party so far. Though he is still vertical. "Eleven fifteen," he says after doing the numbers in his head.

"Cheers," says the girl-- Yin? He has a bad head for names. He smiles broadly. Drains his bottle.

"I'm gonna go get some more beer."

There are sixteen bottles of Carlsberg left on the coffee table. Gary takes one and automatically starts arranging the rest into a triangle. Then somebody calls him from the balcony. "Gary! You do astronomy, right?"

Gary looks up. "I've been known to." It's actually his full-time job. He is working on his thesis. It's on Cepheid variable stars.

"Can you explain something to us?"

"It's highly unlikely there's anything up there I would know anything about," says Gary. "This is London. I imagine you're lucky if you get to see a full Moon."

"Well, we're looking away from the middle of the city, at least. You know Orion, right?" The speaker is Jules. Jules is a banker (primary) and a drinker (secondary).

"Sure." Gary joins Jules, Ellie and James at the balcony. James is Jules' roommate - he is gangly, and works for the Home Office. Ellie - minuscule, bespectacled, horrifyingly cultured - is James' girlfriend. Gary follows their gaze. "What's up?"

"Orion's belt ought to have three stars on it, right?"

"Yeah." Gary squints. Then he takes off his glasses and huffs on them so he can see better.

"Middle one's missing," they all say together.

"Huh," adds Gary.

"So what would cause that?" asks James.

Gary stares at the missing star for a very long time. It is a fairly clear night for London in Spring. There is the usual amount of light pollution, but there are no clouds. "I thought something just got in front of it," suggests Ellie. "An asteroid or a planet or something."

"No planets that far off the ecliptic, all the asteroids would be too small at that distance," says Gary, not even glancing at her. "Huh," he says again. "If there was some eclipse-type event going to happen this evening I'm almost positive I would have heard about it. James, you sail. Do you have any binoculars lying around?"

"I'll do you one better," says James, puts his drink down and plunges off into his increasingly wrecked apartment.

"I know where he's going," says Ellie. She, also, sails.

Gary turns back to the missing star and his expression becomes increasingly perplexed. "That's... really weird. Hot air balloon is my best guess, currently. Do they fly hot air balloons at night? Over London?"

"Not that I know of," says Jules.

"Epsilon Orionis," says Gary. "That's its name. Means it's the fifth brightest star in the constellation of Orion."

James returns triumphantly with a black box. Gary opens it. It has a brass cylinder in it. "You take this out sailing?"

"Not yet," says James. "We're visiting the Isle of Wight in August. Mostly I've been using it for spying on people."

Gary extends the telescope and takes another experimental look at the missing star. The magnification is reasonable, but he sees nothing but black sky where Epsilon Ori should be. Every other nearby star looks normal - at least, those bright enough to be visible. He hands the telescope away to the next person to hold out their hand, Jules. They all take turns taking a look.

"I dunno."

"Well, what good are you?"

Gary pulls out his phone so that he can phone his friend Tron at the observatory, and nearly jumps out of his skin when Tron calls him at that precise instant.

"Tron? Gary! Yeah, we're missing you, man. Yeah. No, not yet! Hah hah. Ask me again tomorrow morning. Not too early, mind." Tron Jordheim is Gary's friend at the observatory. Co-worker, actually. Mentor, to some extent. There is ten years' difference between them. They've written a few papers. Nothing notable, as yet.

"Gary, are you outside? Have you taken a look at the sky?"

"Epsilon Orionis is missing, right?"

"Dozens of stars are missing, Gary. Everybody we know is calling everybody else we know. The office phone is going mental, I've had to unplug it. You're in London, right? Epsilon Ori is the only major star you can't see right now. You can't see the fainter stars from your vantage point; you can't see the detail yet. I'm the one with the big optical number, and I can. I've confirmed this with half a dozen other people. There is a circle of stars cut out of the sky. It's growing. It's been growing for at least an hour. Hold on a second--"

"Whoop, there goes another one," says James. "The one on the right."

"What?" Gary ricochets confusedly between the two conversations. "Tron-- James, you just saw it vanish? Did it, like, wink out? Just switch off? Did it dim at all? Was it like a wipe from one side to the other?"

"The last one," says James. "From left to right, like it was a shutter or something. I was looking right at it. Happened quite fast."

Gary frowns, and wishes he hadn't drunk so much.

Tron returns to the phone. "You see Mintaka go?"

"That's really weird, Tron."

"Do you remember what Steph-from-GILO was talking about on Thursday?"

Gary doesn't remember.

"GILO. Gravity wave interferometry. I think it's a black hole."

"...Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

"I have no better ideas. By the rate it's growing it's coming towards us fast and it's completely dark in every spectrum anybody I know has scanned it with."

Gary looks around. Nobody is listening to his conversation. "We would have heard it coming," he says. "I don't know the math, but we surely should have seen real gravitational and optical effects, months ago. Decades, even."

"I know, I know. Look: I'm going to try to arrange some parallax readings to maybe get its distance and size. Don't tell anyone anything until I get back to you. With something concrete."

Gary closes his phone again. "Can somebody turn on the television? Put it on a news channel?"

Nobody hears him. Gary struggles through the other partygoers to the pile of remote controls, fumbles through for the one for the television, then turns it on. He finds the BBC news channel. There is a report about a foundry being closed down. Nothing immediately relevant. He sits down and flips through a few more channels.

"There was something weird going on at GILO," he mutters to himself.

"What?" It's Yin. She turfs some crumbs and cushions off the sofa and plonks herself down next to him.

"GILO," says Gary. "Massive experiment in Spain. They're trying to detect gravity waves. Spoke to a friend of mine there this morning. Doing her PhD. Said they actually had something. That or they just couldn't calibrate it. Gravity waves are like electromagnetic waves, any kind of asymmetric movement of massive bodies emits them, but they are so unbelievably weak even two colliding black holes barely make more than a whisper at this distance. GILO, this thing they built, can detect that whisper, no problem - it's like a ten-kilometre-long laser and they watch the beam for wobbles, fantastic stuff - but the problem is that even on the cosmic scale, black holes don't collide very often... but anyway, they got it working, or they thought they did, but they couldn't get it calibrated because it was just reading continuously. Ringing like a bell or something. Had been all week."

"Was this going to be on the news?" asks Yin.

"Well, I don't know. But the stars are going out, and I think there could be a link."

"The stars are--"

Gary's phone rings again. "Hello?"

"Steph," says Steph.

"GILO," says Gary. "Did you get it calibrated?"

"Don't ask. Just don't ask."

"Steph, the stars are vanishing. I'm standing here on a terrace in London and we watching Orion disappear right in front of us star by star. Like something big and black is passing front of them and getting bigger. I think some major gravitational anomaly might be coming to hit us and would like to know whether, assuming for the sake of argument that your interferometer is set up correctly, that this agrees with your anomalous readings."

"...No, it does not," says Steph. "Not a single mass, not moving towards us. That would result in an entirely different set of anomalous readings. Which would have been observed through more conventional means--"

"--Months ago, I know. So: any ideas? Any actual ideas, I mean? Miss Quantum Gravity?"

Steph sighs. "I don't like to speculate wildly--"


"But I think... these readings are consistent with an array of small singularities moving almost at random a fixed distance from Earth."

"How far?"

"I don't like to speculate. I don't like guessing. Ask me again in a year once we've processed the data-- Hey, YOU!" Suddenly Steph is shouting at somebody else entirely. "Don't you dare touch that!"

Gary switches ears and listens intently to the commotion at the other end. "Steph, are we talking klicks or parsecs?"

"Gary, look up," says Ellie in his other ear. He does so. A blanket is falling over the sky. The stars are all going out, the black disk - and it is a disk, he can see that now - expanding much faster than before.

"Steph? Talk to me."

"Probably light-months," she says, muffled.

"There has been a contamination," says another voice. This one sounds unlike anything Gary has heard. His eyes widen and he crams the phone against his ear.

"Steph? Who was that?"

"I have to go."

Gary looks at his now-inert phone, then looks up. He is surrounded by people now. Watching him. Watching the sky.

"So what is it?"

Gary tries to focus. Tries to join the dots. Beer lubricates his thought processes a little but it also makes them slippery and difficult to control. "If you wanted to completely cut off Earth and humanity and our solar system from the rest of the universe," he says, "you could, in theory, I mean in the usual sense of 'theory', not the scientific sense, like this probably could never actually work, surround it with an event horizon. You get a quadrillion or a quintillion or some insane number of primordial-size black holes and scatter them, on a spherical lattice centred on the Sun. We wouldn't notice that stage. That would be difficult to detect. Each black hole would be cancelled out by another one on the other side of the sphere and only their smaller interactions would get picked up by gravity wave detectors..."

He goes to the railing and looks at the horizon, where the black curtain is coming around. The job is half-done. "Then you join them up. I don't know how, but you join up the event horizons. You get long narrow event horizons, black threads. Then you fill in the gaps in the weave and they swallow together until you have a black shell. A hollow black hole. Black from the outside, black from the inside. An impenetrable barrier."

"But wouldn't they all collapse on us?" asks Jules.

"No! Sure, the whole structure contracts to a point - but because spacetime is curved, and that curvature is not in our regular three dimensions, that point of contraction isn't in real space. It becomes a bottleneck. A pinch. Like a raindrop dangling off the bottom of a giant steel sphere. With a single black hole blocking the only route out. We're going to be locked away. Just our Sun and us."

Jules is using the telescope again. The disk covers more than half the sky now. If it was a real disk, or a circle, they'd have been hit by it. Gary's theory seems to be holding up. "You'll be out of a job," he says.

"That's not funny!"

That gets almost everybody's attention.

"That's not just my livelihood going up there, that's my life! I've been looking at the stars since I was, what, six? I wanted to go there, alright? I wanted to be the first guy to ride the first faster-than-light drive to Proxima Centauri and back. All we've ever done, as humans, is look up at the sky. And think about what could be. That was our source of inspiration. That was what we were always shooting for. The galaxy could have been ours. And-- and-- we're stuck--"

The gap's closed. All the stars are gone. Gary grips the railing futilely.

"I have nothing to study now, but data. And we have no future. We're stuck at the bottom of a hole, with stupid, petty Earth problems, until the Sun runs out."

"I think you're overreacting," says James. "It's not the end of the world, Gary."

Gary looks around the pained expressions looking down at him. He's not usually like this. "I feel ill," he says, and stumbles for the bathroom.

Slouched over the sink knocking back water he hears the conversation awkwardly start up again. He hears people laughing. His phone starts ringing again and he turns it off.

This doesn't change anything, he thinks to himself. What use are the stars, anyway? In your day to day life? These people hardly ever even see them. They've all been looking at the ground for their whole lives anyway. Almost everybody has. Nobody was planning to go to Proxima Centauri. Not really. Might as well take away the planets too, for all the good they were to us.

And then, finally, Gary figures it out. Nothing has changed.


Discussion (8)

2010-01-27 18:13:06 by skztr:

I like this, and think it fits well as "the other side" of The Astronomer's loss. Not to geek about too much, but I can't help but be reminded of "The End of Evangelion" opposed to the last couple of episodes of it- one is the metaphor, the other is what that metaphor translates into.

2010-01-27 21:30:33 by Abdiel:

You had me at the first paragraph. I do wear a binary wristwatch, and I can tell the time by just glancing at it!

2010-01-28 07:59:49 by YarKramer:

Yes, but can you read it *while drunk?*

2010-01-28 08:19:05 by eneekmot:

Yeah, it definitely drives home the point better than Astronomer's Loss. Maybe a better way to do it would be to start with a flashback to another party or a convention where a quantum physics major was explaining how a black hole bottleneck would work, and then jump back to people watching the sky and slowly realizing what's happening. Also, I think a better analogy for walling off Earth with a black hole is twisting up a baloon animal. It's a little closer approximation of what's happening, but it's also less understandable (and Sam's focusing on not making this sci-fi require a physics degree to read it.)

2010-04-01 10:32:06 by YourNameHere:

I don't really get the last bit...

2010-06-14 00:08:04 by YourNameHere:

I do now, actually, don't worry. Yeah, I like Astronomer's Loss better too.

2012-02-23 14:42:27 by Mike:

First of all, I'm extraordinarily pleased that your site doesn't require registration for comments. Second of all, Fine Structure is gloriously original and intricate. I find that I prefer this to The Astronomer's Loss, in the end. The inclusion of Steph and the GILO shutdown might be reaching a little, but the black hole explanation seems like it works: after all, the Imprisoning God is the Imprisoning God, it can do pretty much whatever it wants. Gary's outburst works better for me than the unnamed Astronomer's dialogue: this is, after all, a man whose dreams and livelihood just got sucked down the tubes. Overall, I'm glad this story got into the extra stuff file instead of just going into the bin. Great stuff!

2013-02-25 13:31:38 by SamS:

I, in common with the chap before me, find this chapter much preferable to The Astronomer's Loss. It seems to fit the Imprisoning God's modus-operandi much better than the conversation in the latter, and actually I find Gary's sudden emotional outburst rather believable (after all, he's drunk and there's an unprecedented event happening which is ruining his entire future life).

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