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Returning Excerpt No. 2

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The first to notice that something had happened was an astronomer at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England. Doctor Carla Tuttle was an astronomy professor at Queen’s College, Oxford. At forty-five, she had written four books, but had never discovered anything significant. Not even a comet. There was nothing out in the cosmos with her name on it, and that was the goal of every astronomer, whether they admitted it or not. They wanted a comet, or a new star, or, well, something important.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic, she thought, if she could be the first to identify an exoplanet supporting life? To be the first human being prove that we were not, absolutely were not, alone in the universe?

After several years of trying, Tuttle had been assigned a three-hour block on the Hawking Stellar Array. That morning, Tuesday, 2nd April, 2126, from midnight universal time until 0300, the array was hers to control. She could point it where she wanted to look. Mostly empty space, at least in the visible spectrum, but that was fine with her. The Hawking had capabilities other than just what a human could see with their limited visual capacity.

The array, a set of seven big, multi-articulated mirrors, was positioned above the equator in a meticulously calculated retrograde orbit. It required just over a year for the array to make a complete orbit, so at any given time the field of view would remain essentially stationary. That morning, the array was pointed at a star cluster which, Tuttle hoped, might do something interesting during her three hours of viewing time.

Like most professional astronomers, Tuttle wasn’t viewing the stars through a lens. That sort of thing was for amateurs, who were mostly limited to earthbound optical telescopes. The Hawking Array used cameras—high density digital sensors, really, but everyone still called them cameras—and the resulting images, reduced to compressed digital signals, were relayed to ground stations, spotted around the world. Infrared and x-ray sensors added to the data stream.

For Tuttle’s session, the data went first to a ground station on Diego Garcia, located on what had been an American naval base before the UK government decided to evict all American military units from British soil. From there, the data was relayed to Greenwich, where Tuttle could view the raw images on a high-resolution monitor in very nearly real time.

That was a convenience. It was fun to watch the images as they came in, but Tuttle recognised that she wasn’t going to learn much that way. This was why everything was being recorded. Long-term analysis, with the help of a computer, would be where the real meat was to be found.

Tuttle would have two years for that. Once her session ended, a two-year clock would start. During that time, no one else would have access to the data unless she authorised it. There would be complaints from the amateurs. There always were. Why should data from a publicly-funded source be the exclusvie property of only one person, even if only for a couple years?

Well, Tuttle thought, why should a professional astronomer spend several years planning a session, programming the parameters, and waiting for the observation time to be available and the array pointed in the right direction, and then give away the results? If she couldn’t finish her work in two years, the others could look at it then.

At least, that was the usual practice.

It happened at 0147:18. A single black pixel in the upper left quadrant of the screen suddenly turned white. A second later, the white glare had expanded to a diameter of 30 pixels.

Tuttle was mesmerised as the glowing area continued to expand, until the white circle, after only three seconds, was over 300 pixels in diameter.

I have my own supernova, was her first thought. Then she was wondering just how big the cosmic explosion had to be. Nothing had ever been detected in that region of space before. It was absolutely empty in the visual spectrum, and barely registered in the infrared or x-ray spectra. If this was a supernova, it had to be millions, perhaps even billions, of light years from earth.

Dinosaurs were walking this planet when this happened, she thought. It might even predate them. It could be so far away that there was no planet here when that star exploded.

She felt suddenly frightened. If this was that far away, and expanding at that rate, something was wrong.

Supernovas always happened a very long way from earth. There were no stars close to earth capable of exploding. That meant that any supernovas would be fun to look at, but harmless. Distance was a safety factor. Like the sun, the closer stars would ultimately expand as they used up their fuel, then collapse and die. It was the collapse that caused some stars to explode, but that end required far more mass than any nearby star contained.

Ultimately, the sun would expand past earth’s orbit, destroying the planet, but it wasn’t something anyone needed to worry about for a few million more years.

Tuttle had read quite a few books, published early in the 21st century, predicting doom. One of her favourites, written by an astronomer, had listed various ways the planet could be destroyed. Strangely, not that many people had been worried about those scenarios, all of which were still quite capable of ending life on the planet.

It was the other doomsday predictions they’d obsessed over. In 2012, there was a brief panic in some circles when it was pointed out that the Mayan long cycle calendar would end on 21st December of that year. The surviving Mayans had not been among those panicking at this “predicted end of time.” The Mayans had decided that, if the calendar ended after 5,000 years, the logical thing to do at that time was start over, just as you’d do with any other calendar.

Others had predicted ridiculous scenarios where the earth’s crust would start sliding around, causing universal earthquakes and tidal waves. Others predicted plagues, or the arrival of a rogue planet that would smash into the earth and destroy everything. A lot of fundamentalist Christians had predicted Jesus would return, and all the hallucinatory nonsense in Revelation would happen.

What actually happened was nothing, beyond a few scientifically ridiculous motion pictures, and a lot of books that abruptly stopped selling on 22nd December.

One of the scenarios from that manufactured panic was that Betelgeuse would go supernova and wipe out all earthly life. Could that star blow up? Certainly. It was a red giant, and reliably predicted to be close to the point where it would run out of fuel and collapse, triggering a supernova.

But it was also over 600 light years away, so even if it did go supernova it was too far away to do any damage on earth, with the possible exception of a gamma ray burst. The star’s orientation precluded that happening. Gamma ray bursts emerged at a dying star’s poles, and Betelgeuse’s weren’t pointing towards earth.

Now it was 2126, and as far as anyone could say, Betelgeuse was still there. You could never be sure, obviously, as what she saw when she looked at Betelgeuse was what the star looked like in 1512. It could have blown up at any time since and no one would know until the light reached earth 614 years later. For that matter, the sun could suddenly go out and no one would know until eight minutes later. Light was astonishingly fast, but it still took time to cover astronomical distances.

Whatever Tuttle was seeing now, it obviously wasn’t Betelgeuse. If the stellar explosion the Hawking was now observing was as far from earth as she thought it was, then the explosion had expanded more than a light year in less than a second. It made her wonder if this was a supernova at all. At even a million light years, this thing would have to be expanding faster than the speed of light to grow that large that quickly. Faster than Einstein’s theories said was possible. Nothing could move faster than light.

With one exception. The conversion of a quantum singularity into energy and matter could do that, during its expansion phase. That wouldn’t last long, less than a second, really, and at the end you’d have a new universe.

“No,” Tuttle said aloud, “that’s not possible.”

It was the sort of thing every astronomer wanted to see—but only in a theoretical sort of way. The problem with actually observing the expansion phase of a new Big Bang was that there was already a universe here. The one she was living in. It would be like overwriting a file on a computer. You’d have all this new data recorded, but what was already there would be wiped out.

Then the glow started to fade. In less than a minute it had vanished completely. So, it appeared, the universe wasn’t about to be overwritten after all. This was even more mysterious. A supernova might have expanded that fast, presuming it was considerably closer than she’d thought, which would make the diameter of the explosion  significantly smaller, but it wouldn’t vanish. That would normally take months, and could be expected to leave a new nebula, or at least a considerable cosmic debris cloud, behind it.

So just what had she seen? Whatever it was, it was probably visible from earth using an ordinary optical telescope. Perhaps it wouldn’t even require a telescope. If she wanted credit for the discovery, she’d have to work fast. She wasn’t going to have two years to report this, she thought. More like two hours.

It was time to let the computer get to work. See what it could make of it.

Tuttle typed in a series of commands. Most computers worked with a voice interface, but astronomers and other scientists still preferred to use the keyboard. No matter how good voice recognition software had become, it still had problems with equations.

And here was the answer. Estimated distance to even, 12.8 astronomical units.

“What the fuck?”

“Doc?” Allan Grosvenor, the Oxford PhD candidate in astronomy who was assisting her, hadn’t been looking at the screen and so had missed all the excitement. He’d been her assistant for four months now, and this was the first time he’d heard her even raise her voice.

“Nothing.” Tuttle was keeping this to herself until she could check the calculations again. The computer could be wrong. That distance was inside the solar system. Still a very long way from earth, out beyond the orbit of Saturn, but well inside that of Uranus. According to the computer, something had blown up—or, at least, created a gigantic energy surge manifesting as visible light—about 1,915,763,000 kilometres from earth.

She started checking the figures again, at the same time composing the news release in her head, just in case they checked out. Something very interesting was going on it space.

Excerpt No. 3

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