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‘Because it’s a good predictor of a volcanic explosion.’
‘… Oh.’ She was looking at the pool rim. ‘Look at this,’ she said. She pointed to a patch at the rim of the pool, where bare rock showed through the grass.
A foot-wide patch of rock was – Henry thought, shielding his eyes against the sunlight – glowing.
The rock flashed. Henry jumped back. He’d felt heat on his face.
When he looked again, the rock was changed. It had turned to the fine silvery dust, characteristic of the rest of the pool.
‘Holy shit,’ Henry said. ‘Did you see that?’
Blue said, ‘At least we know how it spreads now.’
Jane looked from one to the other. ‘I can’t quite read you two,’ she said. ‘You are interested in all this. Fascinated, even. But, underneath that … You’re afraid, aren’t you?’
Henry and Blue exchanged a glance.
‘Why?’ said Jane. ‘Do you think this is a volcanic event? Arthur’s Seat has been dormant for a third of a billion years. Do you think it’s becoming active now?’
‘We don’t know. This isn’t like any volcanic event we’ve faced before.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘We don’t know that either.’
She nodded. ‘And that’s what’s frightening you.’
‘Yes,’ Blue said. ‘That is what is frightening us.’
‘The growth rate has been maintained for weeks,’ Henry said. ‘The pool is still pretty small now, but it’s not going to stay that way.’ He regarded Jane. ‘We have to be ready to face that.’
Blue was studying the air. ‘It is blowing away.’
‘The dust. Spreading in the breeze.’
Jane asked, ‘Is that important?’
‘I don’t know.’
Blue was glaring at the dust, his face a sour mask.
‘So,’ Henry said. ‘What do you think, old friend?’
Blue sniffed. ‘This is something which should not be here. It is like a cancer, on the face of a good friend.’
Yes, Henry thought. That was exactly it.
Something new. And unwelcome.
They made their slow way down the Seat.
One more time to make love. Maybe the last time.
I have to stop thinking like this, thought Monica Beus. I’ll finish up doing a countdown …
But still, here was dear old Alfred, as tender and gentle as he ever was, and, in the cool mountain air that filled Monica’s apartment here in Aspen, they coupled like two elderly spacecraft gingerly docking.
Athletics, it wasn’t.
But it hadn’t hurt as much as she had expected. Maybe the quacks were right; maybe their new, ‘natural’ chemotherapy regime really was a little less brutal.
And afterwards, they shared the post-coital cigarette they were both too old ever to give up – and what would be the point anyhow? – and then they sat up in bed, blankets around their bony shoulders.
And they pulled their computers to their laps and went back to work.
Alfred got online to the International Astronomical Union nets, and Monica skimmed through the latest entries to the electronic preprints library being maintained by the National Laboratory at Los Alamos.
The papers on string theory, since the Venus incident, had become a blizzard. The excitement seemed to crackle out of the screen at her.
But Alfred had found something new on the astronomy nets and was becoming excited too.
Now people had started looking – NASA had hastily thrown up a couple of new satellites – they were starting to find signatures like the Venus event’s all over the sky. Alfred tapped the screen to show her. ‘Like these. Gamma ray bursts. Called GRBs by those who study them. Flashes of energy, emanating from explosions that lasted a few seconds …’
Huge explosions, he told her. By some estimates, radiating more energy in a few seconds than the sun does in ten billion years. There were lots of candidate explanations, none of them particularly satisfactory. Maybe asteroids were crashing onto the surfaces of neutron stars. Maybe neutron stars were colliding. Maybe giant helium stars were imploding.
‘Or maybe,’ Alfred said feverishly, ‘some interstellar cousin of our Venus killer is at work …’
She found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying, given the buzz on the Los Alamos nets.
She tried to summarize for him what had been going on in the world of theoretical physics, galvanized as it was by the natural laboratory which Venus had somehow, magically, turned into. ‘Alfred, string theory is the best way we have to describe the kind of extremely high energy density events we’re encountering inside Venus …’
String theory was a candidate Theory of Everything – which, if successful, would be a simple theory whose corollaries would describe a universe that was unmistakeably ours: with quarks and electrons, gravity, nuclear forces and electromagnetism, three space dimensions and one of time, a universe of atoms and babies and stars.
‘According to string theory,’ Monica said, ‘the most elementary object in the universe is a loop of string. Unimaginably tiny. Ten to minus thirty-three centimetres … The string has different modes of vibration. Like a violin string. Each mode corresponds to a particle, a quark or an electron. And the laws of physics correspond to harmonies between the strings’ tones.’
‘Ah.’ He smiled. ‘The Universe as a symphony. Rather beautiful.’
‘But,’ she said, ‘there’s a complication. String theory only works in a ten-dimensional space-time.’
Alfred rolled his eyes. ‘I always hated theoreticians.’
‘Now, the missing six dimensions are there, but they are crumpled up. Like garden hoses, rolled around themselves.’
Alfred struggled with that. ‘So these dimensions are there. But too small to see.’
Monica hesitated. ‘Something like that. Yes. The trouble is, there are tens of thousands of ways for the six dimensions to crumple. Each of those different ways generates a different internal space, as we call it. And in each internal space, the strings adopt a different solution.’
‘A different solution?’
‘One internal space describes our universe, with three types of electron, and one photon. Another might have two photons. Or something even more exotic. And so on.’ Monica leaned forward. ‘Now. The theoreticians are suggesting there is a – tear in space – at the heart of Venus. Or what Venus has been made into.’
‘A way into another internal space. You see, when a string enters a new internal space, it adopts a different configuration.’ She cast around for an analogy. ‘Like ice. Take it from the Arctic to the Sahara, and it melts. Vaporizes. It adopts a configuration that’s suitable for the environment.’
‘And so …’
‘And so, at the heart of Venus, we think we’re seeing strings being ripped apart. Literally. Maybe even being expanded to macro lengths before collapsing back down to new configurations.’
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