Diamonds in the Sky

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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Diamonds in the Sky Edited by Mike Brotherton.PhD.Contents In the Autumn of Empire (Jerry Oltion) A cautionary tale about why scientific misconceptions can be important. This story will also be appearing in Analog soon. Keywords: The seasons. Misconceptions. End of the World (Alma Alexander) Nothing is forever, not even the earth and sky. Keywords: Evolution of the sun. The Freshmen Hookup (Wil McCarthy) An exploration of how the elements are built in stars using the antics of college freshmen as a metaphor. Keywords: Stellar nucleosynthesis. Galactic Stress (David Levine) You think your life is stressful? How about having to deal with the entire universe? Keywords: Scales of the Universe. The Moon is a Harsh Pig (Gerald M. Weinberg) Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress about a revolt on the Moon was a landmark novel of the 1960s. Jerry's story is also educational. Keywords: Phases of the Moon, Misconceptions. The Point (Mike Brotherton) What is the meaning of life in an expanding universe? This story previously appeared at Keywords: Cosmology. Squish (Dan Hoyt) How would you like a whirlwind tour of the planets? Keywords: The Solar System. Jaiden's Weaver (Mary Robinette Kowal) So many things about life on Earth depend on the cycles of the sky, from the moon and tides to seasons and more. Well, what if the sky were different? How would humans adapt to life on a world with rings? Keywords: Planetary rings. How I Saved the World (Valentin Ivanov) The movies Armageddon and Deep Impact featured nuclear bombs to divert asteroids headed for Earth, but this is really not the best way to deal with this threat. This story was originally published in Bulgaria, in the annual almanac "Fantastika", the 2007 issue. Publisher: "Human Library Foundation", Sofia. ISSN 1313-3632. Editors: Atanas P. Slavov and Kalin Nenov. Keywords: Killer asteroids. Dog Star (Jeffrey A. Carver) It permeates space and has a subtle but important effect on our existence. What if the effect were not so subtle? Keywords: Dark Energy. The Touch (G. David Nordley) Life in the Milky Way can be harsh depending the neighborhood you live in. You should hope you have helpful neighbors when the times are harsh. This story originally appeared in The Age of Reason, edited by Kurt Roth, at in 1999. Keywords: Supernova (type 1a.) Planet Killer (Kevin Grazier and Ges Seger) And sometimes the times are harsh but you have to depend on yourselves. It helps if you have a little unlikely but useful faster-than-light starships as in Star Trek. Keywords: That would be telling The Listening-Glass (Alexis Glynn Latner) What's the future hold for astronomy and astronomers? What would it be like to work on the moon? An earlier version of the story was first published in the February, 1991 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact. Keywords: Radio astronomy, the Moon. Approaching Perimelasma (Geoffrey A. Landis) A sophisticated tale about the ultimate journey. Previously published in Asimov's Science Fiction, Jan. 1998. Keywords: Black holes. Contributors About The ProjectToC In The Autumn of the Empire by Jerry Oltion This story also appears in Analog magazine. The emperor of Earth didn't like to be wrong. Many of his acolytes had learned that the hard way, though this was merely rumor, since no surviving member of the inner court had actually caught Hadron the Perfect in a mistake, nor even witnessed one. So when the little common girl, who had been brought to the palace garden to provide a photo op for His Excellency amid the falling leaves, asked him, "Why is there autumn?" two of his attendants faked sudden allergy attacks and ran coughing for the infirmary while another quickly said, "It's because of the tilt of the Earth's—" Too late. The emperor laughed and said in his reedy voice, "Ah, my little darling, that's an easy one. We get autumn because the Earth is moving away from the Sun. Soon we'll be millions of miles away from it, and it'll be winter. But don't you worry, because that's as far away as we'll go, and then we'll swing around in our orbit and head closer to the Sun again, and it will be spring, and when we get as close as we're going to go, it'll be summer and the whole cycle will start all over again." He smiled for the video cameras in a sickly attempt to look caring and avuncular. Curiously, only one of the camera crew wet himself. The others looked at him in puzzlement as he stammered an apology and rushed after the two fake allergy sufferers. The others continued filming the emperor and the little girl amid the multicolored leaves, and the videocast streamed out into the datasphere, where the emperor's billions of subjects heard his explanation. Most of them hardly paused in their labors. A small fraction said, "Hmm, I didn't know that." And a smaller fraction yet said, "Wait a minute, it's the tilt of the Earth's axis that causes seasons." Those people were never heard from again. An astute businessman heard the emperor's pronouncement and immediately bought every cubic foot of refrigerated warehouse space he could find, funding it by selling everything he owned in the tourism industry. Then he bought every perishable fruit and vegetable he could lay his hands on, packing them away in his warehouses for a future he hoped would never come. For the next few weeks the world buzzed with speculation, and even a few jokes about the emperor's knowledge of the planet he ruled with absolute authority, but the continual disappearance of jokesters and people with astronomical training slowed the innuendo until it seemed that the whole incident would blow over by winter. Or summer, if you lived in the southern hemisphere. Yet one universal truth that had proved true for millennia kept raising its ugly head: it's nearly impossible to purge bad data from the system. The emperor's explanation to the little girl kept resurfacing to blossom across the datasphere yet again. Overzealous teachers even used it in classrooms to curry favor with the censors so they could slip in more controversial lessons about evolution or human sexuality. People were by now quite used to "coming out of the water dry" — kowtowing to the official truth while privately knowing it was hogwash — but this particular one led to too many logical inconsistencies. How could Aunt Ortencia be watching her crocuses bloom in Argentina while the leaves fell in Canada if the whole world experienced the same seasons at once? How could Antarctica be dipping into six months of sunlight and the Arctic into six months of darkness if it was autumn everywhere? More to the point, how could people in the Northern hemisphere buy fresh fruit in February if February was winter in the southern hemisphere, too? Something had to give, and it wouldn't be the emperor. So nobody was really surprised to find vast engines springing up all over the planet, engines that tapped into the very fabric of space for their power and pushed against that fabric with all their might. Earthquakes rocked the world, but the emperor assured everyone that they would soon subside, and in that he was correct. When the stress in every major fault was finally released, the continents relaxed and went along for the ride. The few surviving astronomers noted a curious thing: Polaris was no longer the north star. Night after night it slipped farther to the south, until the sky whirled around the Cat's Eye nebula in Draco instead. Thereafter, the Sun rose directly in the east for everyone on Earth, took exactly twelve hours to cross the sky, and set directly in the west. It did that week after week, with no variation whatsoever. The Earth's axis no longer tilted with respect to the Sun. A careful observer would note that the Sun was also somewhat smaller in the sky than before. The Earth had been moved farther away from it. Winter arrived in the northern hemisphere as always. People in the southern hemisphere were rudely surprised to discover themselves drifting from spring right back into winter again, but since saying that something was amiss would mean contradicting the emperor's stated view of how things worked — not to mention reality itself now that the planet's orbit had been changed to match his description of it — they prudently remained silent and buckled down for a cold and hungry season. An enterprising businessman's foresight in storing perishables saved people from scurvy and rickets, but it was not a happy time. The Earth moved on in its orbit, just as the emperor had promised the little girl in his garden. It moved slowly at aphelion, extending winter several weeks longer than usual, but eventually snow banks thawed the world over. Farmers planted their crops. The growing season was shorter than usual, owing to the Earth's faster orbital speed when nearer the Sun, but there was just enough time for most fruits and vegetables to mature before the weather turned cold again. And the owner of a vast network of refrigerated warehouse space became even wealthier as it dawned on people that an entire planet's worth of perishables would have to be stored at once if they were to avoid a repeat of last winter's famine. Life went on. People adjusted to the curiously regular days and the oddly irregular seasons, although most secretly longed for the days when they could buy a fresh orange from Brazil in January or take a sunny vacation to Australia when the clouds in Seattle became too much to bear. The emperor aged, and eventually died. His son ascended to the throne, and a momentary hush fell across the Earth as his new subjects dared to wonder if he might defy his father as children often do once they come into their inheritance. To improve the odds, a small group of surviving astronomers presented him with a coronation gift of a globe, ostensibly as a symbol of his dominion, but tilted at a rakish angle of 23.5 degrees. It was, in fact, an ancient and valuable artifact from one of the observatory museums. The astronomers had bribed a courtier to install a bright light to the side of the throne that would shine on the globe when they presented it to the new emperor, so that he might see how the northern hemisphere tilted toward the light in its summer, and how it tilted away in winter while the southern hemisphere experienced the opposite season. Solemnly, they presented the globe to their absolute ruler. Smiling for the cameras that captured this moment for posterity, he accepted it and spun it a couple times around. Then he leaned close and examined the figure- eight printed in the Pacific Ocean. "An... a... lemma," he read slowly. "Did I pronounce that right?" "Yes, your Excellency," one of the astronomers said, and the fact that he wasn't lying to save his skin cheered the others immensely. The emperor examined the small print next to it. "Showing the Sun's declination throughout the year. And this is a historic artifact?" "Yes, your Excellency," said the astronomer. "Ah, then my father was wrong." A collective sigh arose across the entire world, until the new emperor said, "This is clearly a diagram of the Earth's orbit before he changed it to match his mistaken notion. A figure eight. That would explain why everything seemed so timeless during the dead of winter, and again in the middle of summer, when I was a child. The Earth actually did pause there at the extremes of its orbit before reversing course." He handed the globe to one of his advisors. "Make it do that again." He turned to the cameras and spoke to the world at large. "Your benevolent and merciful emperor now makes his first decree: I will make the world follow its proper orbit, a figure eight." Afterword: Amateur astronomers love to put on star parties where people can look through a telescope at the amazing things in the night sky. When I started doing that, I was amazed at how many misconceptions people have about the way things work on an astronomical scale. People get the terms "solar system," "galaxy," and "universe" mixed up all the time. They often think light-years and parsecs are units of time. And they nearly all think that seasons are the result of the Earth moving toward and away from the Sun in its orbit. These are perfectly understandable misconceptions. We're familiar with our own neighborhoods, our towns and maybe our home states. Our experiences teach us how things work on that scale. But the farther afield we go, the less we can rely on experience. The notion that light takes time to cross great distances isn't intuitively obvious because you have to get out to the Moon or beyond before the delay is noticeable. Solar systems and galaxies are both mind-bogglingly bigger than the Earth, not to mention how big the entire universe is, so it's understandable that people would confuse the terms. And we're used to getting warmer when we're near a heat source, so it's not surprising that people think that's why the weather is warmer in summer. Then they look at a globe and see the analemma printed out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. What the heck is that thing, anyway? No explanation on most globes, and a totally useless explanation when there is one. Small wonder if people think it's the shape of the Earth's orbit. But when you start adding all these misconceptions together, things start falling apart. If distance from the Sun causes seasons, then why is it winter in the southern hemisphere when it's summer in the north? If we orbit in a figure-eight, what are we orbiting around during that second loop? And so on.Misconceptions have a nasty habit of biting you when you most need the real knowledge they're masking. Writers are always looking for situations like that to tell stories about. This one was too perfect to resist. Copyright © Jerry OltionToC End of the World by Alma Alexander It was one of the cheap trips. Plasmaform expeditions could not by definition be 'crowded', not literally, because no physical body was actually present — but although space was vast and empty and all around them, Ter felt surrounded by others, asphyxiated by them, overwhelmed by the weight of their presence. If they had been corporeal it might have translated into an overpowering odor of morning breath and unwashed bodies or the sickening smell of sweet snacks from the school group on the far end of the Plasmaform cloud. Instead, it was the suffocating sense of the presence of uncomfortable numbers of people sharing what should have been an intimate personal space. In theory there were anywhere between three to seven levels of communication within the cloud, and it should have been possible to filter out all but the innermost one, the one most directly related to one's own concerns, and the emergency channel. But it was a cheap trip. Second and even third communication tiers kept on intruding into Ter's consciousness. The babble of other people's voices inside her head made her feel giddy and confused and irrationally angry — particularly as one of the intrusive presences was the painstakingly pedantic teacher of the school group, whose constant input of facts and figures about the spectacle unfolding before the group implied that there was to be a test on the subject matter afterwards (and dire consequences threatened if the facts and figures were not regurgitated properly). Another irritation came from a chatty, chirpy tour guide of a large group of gawking tourists, the kind who conceived it his bounden duty to fill every moment of silence with a mindless patter designed to keep his charges' limited attention span focused on the matter at hand and preventing anyone from falling asleep and then suing the company for having missed the main event. :::So — when this star was still supporting life, who can tell me how it was classified?::: That was the schoolteacher. Thankfully the field was too weak to transmit the individual answers from every student, but then the teacher was given to repeating every answer anyway, just to make sure everyone got it. :::That's right. Very good. It was a G2 star. Who can tell me more about it? Yes, that's correct. We are about 26,000 light years from the center of the galaxy. Yes, the star is currently believed to be about 10 billion years old. Very good, it originally fused hydrogen into helium in its core, nicely done, about 4 million tonnes a second of matter would have been converted into energy at its core about halfway through its life. And what is happening in its core right now?::: Unfortunately, ladies and gentlemen, this star lacks sufficient mass to provide us with some real fireworks. We will not be witnessing a supernova — it would, of course, be much more spectacular — it looks something like this... The tour guide, apparently had had access to some sort of visual crutch because every so often he would pause dramatically to allow his group to gaze upon something that Ter could not see. Instead, we are here to witness the expansion of what is really a perfectly ordinary run-of-the-mill average star, on the small side mass-wise, into its red giant phase. This is not an uncommon event around the galaxy, of course. You might well ask why our particular company, with our reputation for taking you to be witness to far more unique and exciting events in the cosmos, chose to lay on this particular tour — the answer, ladies and gentlemen, is the third planet away from the star in this particular solar system. Many years ago, this planet was called Terra. Earth. Ter — whose own name was drawn from the name of that legendary planet, the cradle of humanity, from whose doomed surface people had fled four and a half billion years before — tried to shut her mind to the intrusions, and stared out at the spectacle before her. They hung just a little way beyond Terra itself, a darkened orb showing as just a dramatic crescent from their position. Ter had had the digital memory implants — she called them to mind now, images of Earth as it once was, the luminous blue and white globe hanging in the dark of interstellar space — the glitter of lights that had once been human cities, limning the edges of continents on the shores of oceans. The water oceans were long gone by now, of course, and the cities were not even a memory of ruins, the continents themselves just melted outlines on a lifeless globe from which the last life had fled almost too long ago for the world to remember it had ever existed. Ter recalled her own school days, and the lessons that had been passed down by her great-grandfather, long before she had entered school. He had learned the stories he told her from his own great-grandfather in his turn, stories passed down through the generations, to go with the memory implants of long-vanished history from a distant planet, of the Earth that had once been. Ter's own world, the planet on which she had been born, on which generations of her ancestors had been born, had a certain kind of savage beauty of its own — but it was a harsh place, and it had molded Ter's people into its own image. In her physical form, she did not resemble much the gracile humans who had once walked Terra, the planet on which the human race had been born. A different gravity and a different sun had made her short, stocky, long-armed, her powerful shoulder muscles fusing with the neck to support a large head with a strong, robust jawline and eyes that saw deeper into the infra-red than her ancestors' eyes had done. But she had been a child with a vivid imagination, born with a gift to internalize and assimilate the memories that had been implanted in her, memories that were not her own — things seen with eyes different from hers but still human, more human than hers, the original human vision. She 'remembered' palm trees. It had been billions of years since the last palm tree had withered on the Earth as it slowly turned into a global desert, its atmosphere changing and eventually leaching away into space, the carbon dioxide levels in the air dropping until finally there was not enough to support photosynthesis and most of the green plants had died — and had taken the biosphere with them. And the Sun was no longer the pleasantly warm yellow orb from which it was possible to shelter in the shadow of a friendly tree. Because there were no more trees, and the Sun was a hot orange disk in the sky. And growing bigger. As though triggered by that memory, the schoolteacher was back in her mind. :::And is there an atmosphere there now? Very good. No. Can someone tell me what the Sun would look like from the surface of the planet a billion years ago? A hundred years ago? In the immediate aftermath of what we are about to witness...? Oh very good question. Of course, there would not necessarily be a planet in the aftermath...::: And the guide had the pictures. You can see what the star would have looked like from the surface of the Earth — if anyone had been left to look — over the last couple of billion years. We started off with the yellow G-type star under which our ancestors evolved on the planet — but watch what happens as the star gets hotter, and redder — the planet's atmosphere eventually changes, and then gradually boils away into space — and the friendly star, look, now about 100 times larger than it had been during the phase during which it supported life on the surface of the Earth, and from the surface of the planet, now molten and with lava lakes instead of the liquid water oceans of its antiquity, the star our ancestors once called the Sun now takes up almost half the sky..."Oh, just do it," Ter whispered to herself, tears in her eyes, watching the cinder that had once been a planet called Earth drifting helplessly just outside the huge red ball of fire which took up most of her field of vision. "Just do it..." That was what they had come here to see, this motley group of the descendants of the human race which had scattered into the far reaches of the Milky Way when it had become obvious that they had to leave, or die with their world. They had come to see the end of the Earth. They had come to the funeral of the mother world. And the teacher would not stop talking. And the tour guide would not stop yapping. If she could have afforded it, she would have paid the exorbitant sum that the Vixhor, the alien race who had sold them the Plasmaform technology, usually demanded for specialized solo trips — but Vixhor prices were steep, and this was the best she could do, this package deal with the school (maybe twenty schools, for all she knew, thankfully she was only picking up the mental chatter of the one group) and the thrill-seekers who cruised around the galaxy to observe the birth and death of stars and skirt the rims of black holes while giggling mindlessly at their own daring. It was in the company of gawky, ignorant schoolchildren and inane tourists that she had to come and witness this, and gather it up in her memory banks for her own folks to see, and know, and remember. The great-grandfather who had told her the stories of Earth was long dead — but her grandfather was still alive, and he remembered hearing his stories too. It was for him that Ter was here. For him, and for all the ones that had gone before him who could not be here to see this, and for those who would come after, who would also need to know, to remember. She was here to mourn — to cast a metaphorical flower into a grave of fire, as a world died. She had believed those private thoughts to be her own, but apparently there were more levels to Plasmaform than even she knew, because the response that bloomed in her mind was not her own words — a presence foreign, alien... Vixhor. It is good. It is good that you are here. That you are one who is here who mourns. "Get out of my head" Ter said, rubbing the metaphorical hands of her Plasmaform body against her metaphorical Plasmaform temples. Apologies. Private thought exchange. No need to involve others. We are grateful you are here. Watch. Remember. Ter did remember. As the disk of the red star grew infinitesimally, and then a little more, her great- grandfather's words swam back into her mind — "The Earth will be incinerated, one day," he had told her. "Cremated. Just like we do with our own dead. And then? Can you tell me what will happen, after?" :::And what will happen afterwards? Yes, that's right. At some point, when the red giant phase is over, the remnants of the Sun will lose the shell of its outer gases to space, leaving behind the dead core, a white dwarf, sitting in the middle of a planetary nebula...::: Ter opened her mind to the schoolteacher and let a blistering response return along the pathway. :::Oh, show some respect The Earth is being incinerated. Cremated. And in those clouds of solar gas that will escape into the planetary nebula, the ashes of the Earth will be, sent out into space...::: :::Who is that? Vixhor Main, we have an intrusion...:::She left the teacher to a panicked exchange with the control matrix of the expedition, in time to catch the tour guide finally stop talking as the Sun reached out with fiery tentacles and the crescent of the Earth vanished into the maw of the red star. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you ... the end of the world. Watch, said the Vixhor in Ter's head. And then there was silence as everything turned to fire and ashes, and then nothing was there except the huge red star hanging in empty space, as though nothing had ever been there at all. But something had been. Something that had, in its turn, given birth to Ter herself — the human DNA that had taken itself to another star, itself and its memories of the world that had once turned blue and white and perfect around its perfect yellow star. "Farewell, Terra," whispered the girl who bore the vanished world's name. The end of the world. The first world. For a long time, the only world that the human race had ever known — the only place in the whole wondrous universe filled with amazing things which they could call home. And now, in the place where it had been, there was nothing but fire. Ter did not speak her next words out loud, but somehow she wound up saying them in her mind almost together with the Vixhor presence that still lingered within her. We will remember. We will remember you. Afterword Alma's story "End of the World" was inspired by the death of our Sun and the eventual fate of the planet which was the birthplace of the human race — more about the events that will transpire at that time can be found here: Copyright © Alma AlexanderToC The Freshmen Hook Up by Wil McCarthy Living the entirety of their lives in puddles of water, the Bitomites of Kosm are creatures of abiding simplicity, with an immune system best described as "reluctantly promiscuous", and with few of the refined attributes we expect from Standard Model signatories. Nevertheless, their lifetimes are among the longest known, limited only by their mating habits, which are themselves so complex and so singular as to merit a treatise of their own, which you currently hold in your attentive hands. Therefore. . . We begin with the puddle itself, which has a distinctly muddy appearance, being amply stocked with the even simpler raw materials from which the Bitomites self-assemble. Initially this body of water is too cramped to support Bitomite life, but as this is the rainy season in Kosm, the puddle undergoes a period of rapid expansion followed by a much longer period of filling that swells its borders in a slower, statelier manner. Will this rainy season ever end? What preceded it, and what will come after? These questions will someday provide great consternation for the Bitomites, as well as limitless employment for their philosophers, puddleographers and puddleologists. For that matter, why should there be a puddle at all, and why so conveniently supplied with pieces of Bitomite, and with the exact conditions necessary for their assembly? But for our purposes here, we shall regard these questions as unanswereable, or at least unlikely to be answered during the span of your reading. So. There comes a point in the puddle's expansion when a large number of Bitomites appear, suddenly and spontaneously, and while not all the raw materials are consumed in the process, the great majority of them are. Consequently, the water is greatly clarified, and as the Bitomites open their little eyes and blink in bewilderment at the world around them, they obey their most basic instinct and begin swimming toward one another to spawn. But the pond is expanding, yes? Filling with rain? Their speed of travel is inherently limited by the friction of the surrounding medium, and so on the whole they find themselves drawing farther apart rather than closer. Poor Bitomites The best they can do is form little clouds, dwarfed by the empty waters surrounding, and slowly fight their way inward, toward a center they can feel but not see. Finally a few of them manage to stick together, and then a few more, until the waters are speckled with little black dots floating loose among the clouds. And then, as their collective body heat finds fewer and fewer avenues of escape, the communal balls one by one exceed the threshold temperature above which the Bitomites are induced — indeed, compelled — to mate. Fiat lux: bioluminescence begins, and the puddle flares with orgy lights. And as the Bitomites find one another, they come together in a strange way — their promiscuous immunity drawing no distinction between "self" and "other", and thus presenting no barrier to the absolute merger of bodies. Two Bitomites become one, and the resulting flash of light and hormones raises the ardor of the ones who haven't yet found a partner. Lust begets lust — as lust will do — and so the process accelerates.Now, members of this second generation of Bitomites — whom we will call Sophomores — are heavier than the members of the first generation — the Freshmen — each Sophomore being made up of the remnants of its two parents, along with other materials collected randomly from the water. Slower moving, the Sophomores tend to cluster in the center of the swarm while their smaller peers (or elders, if you prefer) continue to mate on the periphery. This goes on for quite some time, but as the population of Sophomores rises and its members come into increasingly heated and intimate contact, eventually their little subcolony within the swarm is ready to mate as well. Hey, baby Hey, baby Are the Sophomores more adventurous than their forebears? More lecherous? More emotionally needy? They may bump and grind in pairs, but it takes three of them to do the deed for real, and the Junior offspring they produce weigh many times more than the original Bitomites did (and do, for there are large numbers of Freshmen hanging around the periphery of the swarm, still looking for a date). And here's where it starts to get really complex, because when two Juniors combine, they can not only produce four different kinds of Senior offspring, each with its own distinctive mass and major and lifestyle choice, but they sometimes also regurgitate one of their perfectly intact parents or grandparents in the process Welcome back, Mom. Moreover, these Seniors are more than capable of mating with Freshmen and Sophomores in complex ways, and they do so with great vigor, producing such a variety of Masters within the swarm that we must wonder how compatible partners manage to find one another at all. Indeed, while the process of mating is more energetic at this stage, it happens less and less frequently. Such is the fate of aging societies, alas. Within this kaleidoscopic fifth generation, only one possible pairing produces offspring heavier than its parents. These are the Doctors, and while their offspring are even more varied — call them Lawyers, Accountants, Engineers, etc. — the most numerous among them are the Professors. These are sessile, contemplative creatures who, even when fully surrounded by swarming and amorous students, are quite incapable of mating. "We consider ourselves above such squelchiness", one Professor Magnus Ironicus famously quipped. "Let the students have their heat and fun; sooner or later they'll wear themselves out. We're the end of their line, and we shall welcome each of them among us in due course." However kindly these words may seem, there's an undeniable menace behind them — the languid arrogance of an immovable object in the path of an ultimately resistible force. And yet, just when things seem to be settling down within the swarm, instabilities have begun which will, in due course, not only scatter the gathered bodies back into their parent cloud, but touch off a mosh pit of sweaty collision — one hesitates to call it mating — in which the press of bodies can force even the Professors together with one another, or with smaller Bitomites, to form a bewildering variety of heavy, sterile offspring — the Graduates — who go on to form cold but exquisitely complex societies of their own. (Whole libraries have been composed on that subject, so we'll say nothing further about it here, except that you likely owe your own existence to it.) According to the more prophetic branches of Bitomite philosophy, however, the Professors will nevertheless rule the puddle some day, for the Graduates have limited lifespans. Some of these are quite long — indeed, some Graduates can only be destroyed by mating with a student in the heat of an orgy swarm, or in the innards or outards of some other pond dweller who cares little for the Bitomial consequences of its own activity. (A nuclear reactor, say, or a particle accelerator, or a pondic ray from elsewhere in the puddle.)But in any case, the "death" of a Graduate means the birth or rebirth of smaller Bitomites, who if they are sterile must themselves die someday, and if they are vital must someday take part in the complex mating ritual, of which Professors are the logical endpoint. Check and mate, or so it would seem. Herr Professor über alles. But in nearly every puddle of Kosm there are creatures so vastly much larger than the Bitomites that mere philosophy can scarcely be aware of them. In fact, these creatures are Bitomites in the strictest sense, having been created in the final paroxysms of the mating swarm. But the similarity ends there, for these entities — call them Corporations and, in the most extreme cases, Political Parties — are capable of swallowing student and professor and graduate alike, smooshing them permanently into collectives which no known force can break apart and from which, in the case of Political Parties, no information can escape. But on a final note, there are peculiar things that can happen in a rain puddle when it gets old and big and thin enough, when the seasons change, when the surface of the water is disturbed. The Bitomites may presume to know their future, but unless all the contents of the puddle are known, along with all the myriad forces acting within and upon it, who among them can so prognosticate, without sooner or later playing the fool? Indeed, who can say that the Professors might not someday learn to dance, and thus give birth to miracles yet undreamed? Meanwhile, as long as the Freshmen continue to frolic with one another, and with the Seniors, the puddle remains a realm of ever-expanding possibility, within which an infinity of stories can be told in each passing moment — including this one. Enjoy. Copyright © Wil McCarthyToC Galactic Stress by David Levine Dana sat at her vanity table, looking up at the reflection in the mirror of the plain white ceiling above, and sighed. She could discern no improvement in her vision. The vague, shadowy dimness still loitered at the edges of her view like a lurking thief. Casing the joint. Biding its time. She chastised herself for impatience. She'd had her first injection less than twenty-four hours ago. She shouldn't expect immediate results. Or maybe she was in the placebo group. Fear clutched at the back of her throat. This clinical trial was her last hope. All the standard treatments had failed to stem the gradual increase in intraocular pressure that was slowly, steadily stealing her sight. Her mother had been forced to give up driving at age 35, and today needed an image amplifier even to read her email. That kind of impairment would destroy Dana's career. Dana's adviser had tried to reassure her that she could always change tracks to theoretical astronomy. But observational astronomy was her passion. If she couldn't see clearly. . . She leaned in closer to the mirror, looking into her own eyes. Observing. Studying. It was what she always did with a problem. She'd spent a lot of time looking at her own eyes since her diagnosis. The fine brown, amber, and gold structures of her hazel irises always reminded her of the delicate, glowing filaments of the Crab Nebula, or the Helix Nebula as seen in infrared. Were they . . . different? They seemed . . . deeper, somehow. More convoluted? More colorful? Dana shook her head. Wishful thinking, that was all. There shouldn't be any changes in the irises at all. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and dug through her jewelry box for a pair of caps. After only a moment's thought she selected the cloisonné pair that Jeremy had given her when she'd successfully defended her Ph.D. thesis. She snapped the grinning sun onto the socket in her left temple, then the devilishly winking crescent moon on the right. They always made her smile. Especially when, as now, she needed a reminder that someone out there loved her. She couldn't deny she was jealous of Jeremy's trip to the Sagan space telescope at L2, but he'd be back home in just twenty more days. She leaned back and blew a kiss toward the ceiling, then headed downstairs for breakfast. It wouldn't do to be late, not on the day of her long-awaited time slot at the Morgenstern Haptic Visualization Facility. During her commute, Dana normally read the latest Astrophys. J. on her handheld datappliance, but today she looked out the ziptrain window. For some reason the same aspens and spruces she'd zipped past every day for the past three years seemed especially beautiful today. The flicker of sunlight in their branches was fascinating. . . mesmerizing, even. She was so distracted she nearly missed her stop. And then, as she hurried through the closing door, she lost her balance and stumbled. She barely kept herself from sprawling across the concrete platform. By the time she reached her lab she was beginning to realize that something strange was happening. She felt funny — giddy, lightheaded, maybe even a little woozy — and everything seemed brighter, bolder, more dynamic, more colorful. She spent a few minutes watching the cream swirl in her coffee — it reminded her of the Whirlpool Galaxy — before she thought that maybe she should call the clinic. She had been warned that there could be perceptual side effects, and they might want to know about this. Mind you, this wasn't so bad. A little trippy, but not unpleasant. But still. . . She was just pulling out her datappliance to make the call when it chimed, reminding her that she was due at the Morgenstern HVF in fifteen minutes. Dana double-checked that all the work files on her datappliance were up to date, then slipped on her coat and headed for the door. The facility was ten minutes' walk across campus and she didn't want to chance being even a minute late. She'd call right after her session. Waiting for the elevator, she realized that she felt a little wobbly on her feet, and the lights overhead seemed to thrum, unnaturally vibrant. Was she being foolish? Should she call in sick, try to reschedule? But as she hurried across campus, the imposing tower of the HVF looming over the Physics building, she realized that she didn't have any choice but to proceed. She was just a lowly post-doc . . . she'd had to pull every string she had to get even four hours of that multi-billion-dollar facility's time to herself. If she bailed out at the last minute, the administrators would have to scramble to fill her slot and she'd be on their shit list for sure. It might be months before she'd get another time slot, if ever. She quickened her pace. The HVF technician's shirt was a colorful collage of moving images, and Dana had to close her eyes as he leaned over her to buckle the strap across her chest. The interface drugs would help prevent her body from moving during her session, among other things, but just as when dreaming, a certain amount of motion did occur and nobody wanted the IV to pull out. "Comfy?" the tech said, patting the buckle. Dana's mouth was dry. She just nodded and tried to smile. "All right. You can put your caps here." She snapped the cloisonné caps off of her temple sockets and dropped them clattering onto the proffered tray, which the tech set down on a small table beside Dana's couch. He then handed her a pair of neural cables, which she snapped into place, white on the left and red on the right as usual. "Now, you might feel a little pinch. . ." "I'd prefer the right arm, please.""Got it." The tech was good; the IV needle slid into Dana's vein with little more than a tweak of pain. After he'd secured the needle with a dab of sterile adhesive, he helped her to slip her wrists under the elastic on the couch's arms. So far it was just like every other HVF session she'd had, with no sign that for the next four hours she'd have the computer on the other end of the cables — the third-most-powerful scientific data visualization facility in the world — entirely to herself. She couldn't wait. Finally, the tech bent down to where she could see her. Already it was getting hard for her to keep her eyes open. "Okay, you're good to go. Lights on or off?" "Off, please." "Productive dreams" The tech moved away, and a moment later darkness descended. Dana thought she could hear the HVF thrumming all around her, but that was absurd — the room was thoroughly soundproofed. For the next four hours the only information going in or out of this room would be through her neural cables. Dana keyed her access code into the numeric pad under her right hand. It was awkward, but she'd learned to cope with a right-handed world. Then she took a breath, closed her eyes, and pressed ENTER. When she opened her eyes, or seemed to, Dana saw what appeared to be a loose, fuzzy ball of stars. It floated ahead of her in the darkness at chest level; if she wanted to, she could lean forward and put her arms about half-way around it. A thin, tepid warmth came from the ball, like the heat of a single match at arm's length, gently warming her chest and the underside of her chin. This was her dataset. This was the accumulated result of decades of observations, some of them her own, from telescopes and dishes all over the Earth, above it, and around it. And the HVF was her gateway to truly understanding it. The fuzzy ball of "stars" was actually a representation of the entire visible universe — a ball of galaxy clusters fourteen billion light-years in radius, with the Earth at the center. Since the universe began fourteen billion years ago, the farthest anyone could see in any direction was fourteen billion light-years. There might be more universe beyond that limit — in fact, there almost certainly was — but there was no way for anyone on Earth to know anything about it. This view was not really possible in the physical universe, of course. If Dana had really stood at this point in space, only the nearest galaxies to her would look like this. The galaxies farther away would appear younger, because their light was coming from billions of light-years away and was thus billions of years old, and the light would also be redshifted because they were moving away from her. The view beyond that would fade into the chaos of the Big Bang. But in this simulation, she saw the entire visible universe in its "current" state, all at the same time, with no redshift. Dana moved the control panel from its default position on the right to within easy reach of her left hand, then zoomed in a bit, enlarging the ball to about three times her own height. Or alternatively, she thought, shrinking herself to a mere ten billion light-years tall. The rapid apparent motion made her dizzy; she had to stand still, blinking her simulated eyes, for a long moment until the sensation went away. At this scale the warmth of the ball was more apparent, like a bonfire some distance away, and Dana could easily see the structure of the universe — rather than an even distribution across space, the galaxy clusters were grouped into walls and filaments, like the walls of bubbles in foam, with mostly empty space between. One of her professors liked to say that it looked like the inside of a pumpkin. She reached out her hand and took one of the filaments between her thumb and forefinger. The strand of galaxy clusters felt like a warm, grainy string between her fingertips, and as she tugged gently it resisted weakly. It felt a bit like pumpkin guts, actually, though stretchier and slimier . . . almost like gritty mucus. This was the "haptic" part of the Haptic Visualization Facility — the simulation of the sense of touch. Haptic feedback gave Dana information on gravitic attraction, density and composition of the interstellar medium, average stellar population and temperature of the galaxy clusters, and much more, in a way that she could appreciate both consciously and intuitively. But because the sense of touch was so ancient, located in the brain's most primitive areas and integrated most closely with the autonomic nervous system, it was surprisingly difficult to fool — an effective touch simulation required massive amounts of computing capacity. And to simulate this enormous dataset, hundreds of exabytes, she needed every bit of the HVF's considerable power. Which was why she had to make the most effective use of her time. She'd experienced HVF simulations before, though never one this large; she shouldn't be wasting precious minutes marveling at the technology. Honestly, what had gotten into her? Dana turned to the control panel to zoom in a little closer. But as she turned, another wave of vertigo overtook her, and the galaxies seemed to flare in intensity. She closed her eyes against the sudden bright colors. . . . . . and the view didn't change. Again she closed her eyes. Nothing. The galaxies in her view continued to shine vibrantly, almost overwhelming in their brightness and variety of colors. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, feeling the muscles tense, but they didn't shut out the view. Instinctually she put her hands to her eyes, but that didn't help either. She felt her closed eyes beneath her fingers, but her hands didn't block the view. Now she was getting a little frightened. She pulled her hands away from her eyes and held them in front of herself. She couldn't see her hands. She couldn't see herself at all. She felt herself. Her body was there. Her hands could touch it, and she felt her hands on her body. Her simulated hands on her simulated body. If she were actually running her real hands over her real body, she'd feel the straps and the tug of the IV. Was her body writhing on the couch, straining against its straps, or lying passively? She couldn't tell. Her own body might as well be fourteen billion light-years away, it was so far beyond her perceptions. . . No. Stop it. Don't panic. There was just some kind of glitch in the system. The HVF software was one-of-a- kind, constantly under development — largely by Computer Science graduate students — and it did have more than its share of bugs. She'd work around this bug the way she'd learned to work around so many others. But it was still unnerving not to be able to shut out the view of the universe. Especially since it seemed to be getting more vibrant and dynamic by the minute. In fact, it was becoming overwhelming. The light of a hundred billion galaxies pierced her vision with an almost physical force. Unthinkingly, she put up her hands to block the light . . . and felt them tangle in the threads and membranes of the universe. Trapped like a bug in a spider's web. Her heart pounded and she thrashed in helpless, irrational panic. One of her flailing, invisible hands smacked into the control panel, sending it sailing off into the darkness to her left. She tried to grab it before it got away, but succeeded only in pressing several buttons . . . including the Hide button in the upper right. The panel vanished, still moving quickly away. And she began to fall. Dana shrieked as the structure of the universe expanded, or she shrank. Filaments and webs of galaxies whipped past her, stroking and clinging and tickling her hands, her face, her legs . . . some particularly dense knots of young galaxies burned her skin like hot sparks. She must have triggered a continuous zoom toward the center of the simulation; it felt like a factor of ten every ten seconds. She groped for the hidden control panel, but the onrushing galaxies were so bright . . . and she couldn't even see her own hands . . . and her head spun, and she had trouble keeping focus. No matter how far she reached, the control panel was nowhere to be found. And if she couldn't find the control panel, she couldn't hit the panic switch that would shut the simulation down. This shouldn't be happening, she told herself. As amazing as the universe was, and as impressive as the haptic interface was, she shouldn't be so overwhelmed by it. It had to be some kind of interaction between the glaucoma drugs and the interface drugs. Knowing this didn't help. She was still falling Plummeting uncontrollably through the universe a quintillion times faster than light. And her heart and guts wouldn't listen to her brain. She was now a hundred million light-years tall, and shrinking rapidly. The bubble-like structure of the universe quickly grew so large that it became invisible, replaced by clusters of galaxies . . . the forest vanishing, the trees becoming individual. Each galaxy cluster was a loose ball, basketball-sized or so. She collided with one as she fell, sending tiny galaxies scattering in every direction; the sensation on her skin was like sand grains in a sandstorm. Intellectually she knew it was only a simulation, but she still felt guilty for the destruction she'd caused. Dana fell through the dense wall of galaxy clusters into the empty space between. Ahead of her another strand of clusters grew and grew, visibly separating into individual galaxies as she watched. They didn't twinkle like stars seen from Earth — the interstellar medium was hard vacuum, compared to Earth's atmosphere — but they seemed to vibrate with drug-induced intensity, their light reaching out to claw at her eyes. She searched frantically for the control panel, feeling all around the place it had vanished, reaching as far as she could . . . but again and again her invisible fingers found nothing. Her heart pounded in her throat and she fought down panic. It was getting harder and harder to remember that this was a simulation. Her primitive monkey brain insisted she was plummeting to her death. She fell into the strand of clusters, galaxies flashing by on either side. Each galaxy was now hubcap-sized . . . she must have shrunk to only a million light-years tall. The galaxies were beautiful and terrible, shimmering

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