The G*M*S Magazine writing competition – Timelike
By Sarah Anderson
The destruction of Earth took us all by surprise. In our telescopes we saw the lines of multicolored light that tore through the Earth, slicing it to pieces—and by the time we did, we knew we were already twenty minutes too late.
There were only a few hundred of us at the Mars colony, probably not enough to sustain a viable population. Suddenly every other concern seemed so petty: the conflict over the colony between the American, Russian, and Chinese factions; the various romances and animosities between us; even the very purpose of our project here, the FTL drive that was supposed to carry humanity to the stars.
It was Zhukov’s idea. Though he was of course Russian and I American, he and I had always gotten along rather well, perhaps because we’re both astrophysicists. I had always found more to talk about with Zhukov than with most of the American team.
We were all in the cafeteria, forcing ourselves to eat. No one spoke, and all that could be heard was the futile clanking of flatware against plates.
Suddenly Zhukov stood up. “It is not too late!”
At the next table, Jacobs—director of quantum physics—gave him a disdainful stare. “What are you talking about, you crazy old Russkie?”
“Time… it is relative, is it not? There are reference frames, even now, for which it is before the… the… well, what happened. It could still be prevented.”
“But to reach them, you’d have to go…” I slapped my forehead. “Yes, of course. Faster Than Light.”
“Precisely,” he said. “And that, my friends, is exactly what we are able to do, assuming we finish the prototype.”
Jacobs stood up to meet him eye-to-eye. “You’re insane. We can’t change the past, even if our FTL drive could be made to work. It already happened.”
“Jacobs,” I asked, “aren’t you the one always saying how the universe is non-deterministic, that anything can happen?”
“Well—that’s not exactly—”
Zhukov laughed sardonically. “Is worth a try, is it not? In worst-case scenario we fail to prevent and must find another solution. But in best-case scenario, we are greatest heroes world has ever seen!”
* * *
We finished the drive ahead of schedule—something about being humanity’s last hope has a way of focusing the mind. We had originally planned to build a colony ship to hold a crew of hundreds, but none of us wanted to wait that long.
So instead we improvised, attaching the drive to a passenger transport, normally used to ferry to Earth and back. After being gutted to mount the drive, it only had enough space for a crew of 4. Somehow that ended up being me, Zhukov, Jacobs, and… Karen Marks. She certainly was our best pilot, I couldn’t dispute that; but she and I had history, a fight over one Sam Tyler. She was a major reason I didn’t like hanging out with the quantum team.
Yet oddly, I felt much less ill will toward her today than usual. It just seemed so stupid, so small to care that Sam had cheated on me with her. What did that matter now? We had a world to save. She really was our best pilot, and we needed her.
During the launch, Zhukov and I went over our the spacetime trajectory one last time. We were basically drawing a Z-shape; I proposed to call it the Zhukov curve. He pointed out that the Russian Z looks nothing like that; but we couldn’t well call it the Anderson curve after me, now could we?
We would spent the most ‘time’—proper time, strictly speaking—in the strangest part of our journey, the FTL jump itself. None of us had any idea what to expect; we all knew hyperspace existed, but nothing larger than an antiproton had actually been there. All we could do was push the button—and hope.
* * *
I had an experience of waking up. What I saw around me… well frankly, it made no sense at all.
I couldn’t see the rest of the crew, or the walls of the transport, or even my own hands in front of my face. This would have made some sense if I’d been surrounded in darkness, but I wasn’t. There were bright lights everywhere, in all different colors; there were even colors I don’t think I had ever seen before and can’t describe.
Nothing was where it should be. The parts of everything were jumbled and disorganized; I felt like I had floated into a Cubist painting. I wondered how I was even still alive, if I had been similarly broken into pieces. Suddenly it occurred to me: Hyperspace was non-Euclidean. Our ordinary notions of left and right, back and forth, up and down, no longer applied. Things could be adjacent, but not adjacent; aligned, but not aligned. This had happened to the ship and everything on it, including me.
I saw something in ‘front’ of me, unlike anything I had ever seen before. Unlike us, it actually looked like a coherent whole in this strange folded space; it was a sort of shiny, multicolored beast, with discernible tentacles, and mouths, and eyes—so many eyes. It was huge in size, though I could hardly measure precisely. It reached out its long, twisting tentacles to touch me; they felt like electricity. It studied me with its innumerable eyes, their pupils like checkerboards with squares that grew and shrank. Then suddenly all its mouths opened at once and bared jagged, angular teeth in what seemed to my naïve Euclidean mind to be rage. Then it slithered and swam and twisted away, far into whatever passes for distance in this dimension.
My calculations had said that the FTL jump would last about an hour in our proper time, but as I floated and twisted in hyperspace, I could tell no difference between a moment and eternity.
We returned to normal space; I have never felt so relieved. I let out a deep breath, and I heard the others do the same. After that, there was a long silence.
“Well, that was… interesting,” Zhukov finally said.
Marks glared at me. “Why didn’t you tell us it would be so horrifying?”
“Honestly… we didn’t know. No one has ever been to hyperspace before. The math said that we would survive, and we did, didn’t we?”
“Well, physically anyway,” she scoffed.
I looked around plaintively. “So uh, I know this sounds weird… but did any of you see a giant… tentacle-monster thing, or was that just me?”
Jacobs raised his eyebrow at me. “I didn’t see anything like that. Honestly, it was all just psychedelic kaleidoscope.”
There was much murmuring, and then Zhukov spoke again. “It seems that none of us saw what you saw. But this does not mean it was not real; I am sure our accounts of what we saw will not all be the same either.”
“I don’t know,” Marks said. “I feel like ‘psychedelic kaleidoscope’ is a pretty good description. ‘Tentacle-monster’? Not so much. Maybe it triggered a latent psychosis.”
“Psychosis!?” I tried to stamp my foot down, but it didn’t really work because we were still in microgravity, strapped into our seats. “I am not psychotic! I know what I saw.”
“Isn’t that what you’d say if you were?”
“I for one believe she saw what she saw,” Zhukov said.
Jacobs was still raising his eyebrow. “Whatever, it’s done. Now we need to figure out what happened to the Earth and what we can do to stop it.”
I sighed. “Yeah, did anybody figure out how we were going to actually save the Earth?”
“Have hope,” Zhukov said. “The jump took us back to several days before the event; in that time we can locate its cause and prevent it. I believe it was a rogue black hole.”
“If that’s the case… how do you stop a black hole?”
“You do not stop it, Dr. Marks; you deflect it, even just slightly. Black holes may seem exotic, but they still must obey conservation of momentum. Crash something into it very fast, and it must change direction.”
“Aren’t black holes huge?” Jacobs asked.
“Not necessarily. If it were stellar-sized, yes, there would be nothing we could do to deflect it. But if that were the case we would have seen distortions in the rest of the solar system. It must therefore be rather small, perhaps the mass of an asteroid. And that we might be able to deflect, at least by a few minutes of arc.”
“How big would it be, then?”
“Well, suppose it is about 10 to the 16 kilograms. The event horizon radius would be about 10 to the minus 11 meters.”
“How could something so small cause so much damage?”
“Well, it is a black hole, after all; and it has the mass of Deimos.”
Jacobs sighed, but finally put his eyebrow down. “So let me get this straight. We’re looking for something the size of a helium atom… with the mass of a moon.”
“Yes, that is approximately correct.”
“And you propose to do this… how?”
“Ah ha, that is where our time machine yields great advantage.” Zhukov produced a notebook from the chest pocket of his spacesuit. “I have calculated what its trajectory must have been. This narrows down its current position substantially.”
“How substantially?” Marks asked.
“Within a sphere 10,000 kilometers in diameter, to 90% confidence.”
She laid her head in her hands. “Now we only need to search an area the size of the Earth for something that is tiny and invisible and will destroy us if we get too close.”
“Is better than nothing?”
Jacobs scoffed. “And what do we do once we find it, if we find it?”
“There is only one answer, my friends. We must override the FTL engine to produce relativistic speed in normal space, and collide with the black hole. We will all die painful deaths by tidal forces; but humanity will be saved.”
“Well that sounds delightful.”
I bared my teeth at him—reminding myself of the hyperspace beast. Maybe I really was going crazy? “You got a better idea, Jacobs?”
* * *
So we searched Zhukov’s projected coordinates—which of course were moving at his projected velocity of 20,000 kilometers per second. We searched for days and found nothing. We moved ever closer toward the Earth, following the projected location of something we could not see and were not certain even existed.
By day 7—the day before the Earth was scheduled to end—we were all desperate. “What if it’s not a black hole?” Marks asked.
“It must be,” Zhukov said. “Only a black hole could be so destructive and so difficult to find.”
But he was wrong. How terribly, terribly wrong. For when day 8 arrived and the time came, what I saw was even more terrible.
It was in jumbled pieces, a mirror of what we had been in hyperspace; but its vastness and its twisting tentacles and unending eyes were unmistakable. The beast had followed us into our own space. It struck out with its tentacles, folded in so many dimensions, and the result was rips and tears in space itself. We watched the Earth destroyed, again, this time with front-row seats. Why it chose to destroy us now and not millennia before, I cannot say for certain; but I think it was because we intruded into its space. It could not see us as an enemy—that would give us far too much credit. I believe that it saw us as vermin, as mosquitoes come to spread the disease of Euclidean space. And what do you do with vermin?
We all sat in silence, staring out the windows of the transport at the fracturing Earth below.
And then the monster turned its eyes toward me.