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Two Seconds to Midnight

by Sara Webb about a month ago in Adventure / Sci Fi / Mystery
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The end of the World. Maybe.

Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. But that is not how my nightmares go.

All I can hear is my screaming as I desperately float away from the one lifeline left in this world. I watch, as the Soteria spacecraft slowly drifts out of my view, beyond the horizon of the Earth. I feel the tears fall down my face, how warm they are against my skin. This spacesuit was not made to have been worn for this long, and it’s beginning to get cold. The suit’s systems are failing. I know because I hear the tireless beeping of the AI alarm system fighting to preserve my life. I feel the end. The darkness of space starts to close in and I sob, not for myself, but for all of humanity that was relying on me. I’ve let them all down.

***

Reality comes crashing down as I push the sheets off my sweltering body, why is it so bloody hot in this god-forsaken room? I hated sleeping in hotel rooms, and Californa was too hot for my southern roots. These nightmares have become part of my routine now. Almost like an alarm system, because my subconscious is dying to check the G-portal for any new updates. G-portal was the system astronomers and physicists around the globe used to monitor the gravitational waves passing through the Earth. About every hour, an alert is triggered as the few second events are detected from the Earth's slight wibble and wobble. From detectors across multiple nations, earthlings have almost perfected the art of localizing the most violent and energetic events in the universe. Black hole mergers. We’ve been doing this for decades and most scientists have lost the passion they once had for reading every new alert. But most scientists weren’t privy to the special section I can see.

The INERTIA, or INtErformetre pRoject In spAce because astronomers can’t help themselves but use overly forced acronyms, was the brand new space-based gravitational wave detector. These were the alerts I'm looking for. This gigantic feat of science consisted of three bus-sized satellites, all in distant orbit around the Earth. One of the satellites was the commend system, the hard worker, projecting two perpendicular lasers outwards to travel 3 million km towards the other satellites. The laser light gracefully reflects off the specificity mirrors and ends up back where it started in the command system. This insanely massive precision scientific instrument was built to detect just the slightest, and I mean very slightest, bend and stretch in the fabric of space and time.

Unlike the detectors on Earth, INERTIA can find us objects well in advance. When black holes or dense neutron stars merge, they do so over millions of years. They spin around and around each other, drawing closer and closer, choreographed by gravity. As they get close energy from the system begins to get lost through gravitational waves, the literal ripping of space and time around these objects. Earth-based detectors are lucky if they catch 1 minute of data from these waves before the objects collide. INERTIA can collect data over months, maybe even years, of very very weak gravitational waves passing through space. That is what made it remarkable. Or was what made it remarkable, it’s now made everything so much more complicated.

The buzz of my mobile breaks me out of my thoughts.

‘Sunny? Please tell me you have news. GOOD news, I don’t want to hear otherwise, we might as well just pretend this isn’t happening.’ I pinched my nose as I remembered the absolute trash pile yesterday was. The system for INERTIA had been cooling down and initializing for a month now. Successful launch. A perfect trip out to L2. Exceptionally smooth deploy. And then this. A hideous repeating jumbled signal that wasn’t responding to detector fine-tuning. If it was an issue in the assembly we’d potentially be looking at 2 billion dollars, 20 years and 500 people's livelihoods, down the drain. It just couldn’t be.

‘Dr. Malloary…’

“Murph’ I interject.

‘What?’ Sunny sounded confused and completely off guard. She was the incredibly bright and brilliant new researcher assigned to signal analysis on the INERTIA team. I’d only met her once before yesterday, in her job interview. She was the star candidate from the beginning. Being one of the lead project scientists for the INERTIA experiment was the pinnacle of my career to date. One as a woman in science felt completely impossible at 25, but now I'm older and wiser, I knew it was possible. With a lot of patience.

‘Call me Murph, Murphy, anything that doesn't remind me of teaching’

'Of course, sorry. Murph you were right, I don’t think this signal is noise in the detector. I’ve run multiple diagnostics to isolate if the problem is stemming from the internal…’

‘Well, shit' I say but not meaning to, at least not out loud. Sunny laughs but there is a panic to her giggle.

‘Exactly what I thought. Long story short, I'm fairly happy that it’s not a detector systematic. But the other option was from natural modulation, but none of the models I have for this is even remotely close.’ She sighs ‘ I know that Professor O’Hare didn’t like the idea of me running it through my source models, and I don’t want to disrespect him, but I have an idea.’

“What? I’m open to anything at this point.’ Also O'hare was a total asshole to us yestuday Sunny, so disrepect my ass. I think only to myself.

‘ Well, I wanted to see if I could deconstruct the signal, and using some transforms I think I’ve isolated one component which is periodic enough to have me suspicious.’

“Of what?”.

“That it’s real.’ She says slowly.

‘Well of course it’s real, otherwise, we wouldn't be up at 2 am would we?’.

“No no, I mean REAL. Like, astrophysical’ Sunny's voice gets quiter, like she isn't confidence in her own assertion.

“Can’t be right? It’s so strong, so clear?!’ I muse.

‘That's exactly what I thought at first but this component of the signal fits a decay model of a binary neutron star system. And the signal strength suggests it’s within 1000 plus or minus 500, parsecs.’

The line hung dead, just silence and a faint buzz of interface rang in Sunny's ear. ‘Murph, did you catch that?’.

‘Yes! I did. I just. Well, that’s. Ah, incredible? If it’s true, that is the closest binary neutron star system we’ve ever found. Oh my god, if this is true we’ll be able to test general relativity like never before, imagine the significant figures…’

‘No. Murph. This isn’t good'. Sunny was stern now.

“What, of course, it’s good! It’s groundbreaking. You’re broken ground, Sunny!’ I could feel my heart racing, all of the things that could come from this. It’s almost scientifically never-ending, having a probe of pure physics so close.

Sunny cleared her throat, ‘Using the signal matching, it will merge in 6-14 months. If it is a binary neutron star, we’d expect a short Gamma Ray Burst…’

My mouth went dry. “OH!” Silence. After several seconds of silence, time felt like it just stopped. ‘It’s too close', I whispered.

‘It’s too close.’ Sunny repeated, I could feel her nerves across the phone line. I closed my eyes and tried to do the mental math. ‘So 3300 ish light years away right.’

“Sounds about right,'' Sunny agreed.

‘That could, uh, that could be bad, hey.’ I spoke, softly. Not convinced of my mental math, but convinced enough that the number I was thinking about would mean certain devastation to parts of Earth. If, and only if, the Gamma Ray Burst beam was pointed at us. But we wouldn’t know until it’s too late. Until 2 seconds after merger.

‘Is there someone we should call? Like, do you think the President would want to know?’ Sunny interjected across my rapidly slowing thoughts. Oh yes, I think, the President would probably want to know.

AdventureSci FiMystery

About the author

Sara Webb

Astrophysicist by day, science writter and communicator by night.

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