The Sign (a short story contest submission)

In 2015, I entered all the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) literary prize contests as part of my effort to get writing back into my life. I didn’t win anything, but that’s OK. The competition was immense for both quality and quantity. This is my entry for the Short Story contest (link to winners), which is now over and I can share my entry. It’s my first ever science-fiction story. I hope you’ll enjoy it. 🙂

It was just a sign, but a monumental one. A minute distortion in the cosmic background radiation, it was ignored as an imperfection in our monitor until it flickered regularly like a beacon. This was either someone trying to get our attention, or perfection happening as a natural phenomenon, not imperfection.

Closer examination of that blinking distortion revealed it to be a window to another part of the universe. Its alternate state was a glimpse of the radiation in another part of the universe, since cosmic background radiation was a by-product of the early expanding universe, being slightly different at any given point. When we realized the blinking distortion was potentially the theoretical natural wormhole in space that we had never observed, we pointed every radiation detection instrument we had at it to learn everything we could from it. Good thing, too, because it was not only a wormhole, but one with someone communicating from the other end!

A wormhole was a rupture in the space-time continuum that was a shortcut between two points. Our blinking distortion was just that, opening and closing at set time intervals rather than being open all the time. With each change in state, the wormhole gave off radiation in different parts of the radiation spectrum from that of cosmic background radiation. It also gave off radiation in signature format by consistent type, amount, variation and timing. What gave away the communication signals from the other end of the wormhole was a tiny band of radiation that only came through when the wormhole was open. The signal had intermittent small and large patterns, but no regularity. Nor was it close to radiation signatures of any natural phenomena we had ever observed. The signal puzzled us for a while until someone compared it to radiation output for our communication purposes. Then it all made sense. This was radiation from the communications of another species! We suddenly had proof we were not alone!

The species which had sent the signal resided in a different galaxy cluster to ours. That was very far away, even by astronomical standards. The wormhole cut the signal travel time down to almost nothing compared to the time required without it. Unfortunately, almost nothing on the astronomical scale was still a lifetime for us, roughly five sevenths to the wormhole, and two sevenths to us. As a result, communication with these aliens via radiation signals was impractical. Fortunately, we had recently developed space travel technology to travel much faster than radiation. With the wormhole, we would be able to get to the alien’s planet like a vacation destination. We would just have to introduce ourselves in their neighbourhood rather than a call from far away. It would cause a much bigger shock to them in suddenly meeting other intelligent life for the first time, rather than just hearing from them, but we didn’t have a practical choice.

 

The mission to the alien’s planet was not difficult to plan. We had traveled longer before. Travel through the wormhole was not a concern because our fastest space travel technology was essentially tunneling through space in an artificially generated tiny wormholes, one after another. Traveling through a real wormhole was going to be the same phenomenon, just naturally generated rather artificially generated. There was only one way to know for sure, of course. However, given the forces involved, if anything went wrong, it was probably going to be deadly and very hard to plan for survival.

Once in the alien’s star system, we were going to keep our distance and introduce ourselves by radiation signals, in their most common languages from their signals we had received and deciphered, before proposing to meet. They did not have weaponry that would threaten us, from we could tell and project them to have from their communications, so we felt safe to approach them this way. We would reassess this upon arrival in their star system, of course, before offering or accepting any offer to meet.

With our advanced knowledge and planning, the journey to our destination went as planned until we arrived at the alien’s star system. When we disengaged our tunneling space travel technology to slow down with propellant systems, we found ourselves in a massive field of gas and solid debris, instead of an empty region at the edge of the alien’s star system. We could not engage those propellant systems in fear of igniting all the gas around us, so we had to steer and slow down by strategically ejecting non-essential matter like gifts, some weaponry, among other things, to generate the required opposing forces. It was very nerve wracking, but we survived thanks to the fine manual maneuvering skills of our pilots. All that debris had come at us very quickly given our speed coming out of wormhole tunneling. When we finally came to a complete stop, we determined things were acceptable, and we began assessing what had happened here.

It was not hard to tell immediately that something here had changed on an apocalyptic scale. There were fewer planets than there should have been, and far more solid bodies flying around separately, not having had the time to gather by gravitational attraction. There were also major gas clouds that should have only been present in the early stages of star system formation, not in a mature system as this one. Yet, pretty much all the mass were still present according to our instruments, in the forms of mass or energy, compared to what we had known of the alien’s star system in their communications. This was definitely the same star system. Something catastrophic had just happened to it. But what?

Answering what happened here took a while. Analyzing a lifetime’s worth of communication signals collected traveling in reverse of their trajectory to get here ruled out probable events like self-destruction due to war, weapons development gone wrong, or natural destruction like collision of astronomical bodies. What we had to resort to was reverse modeling of what might have happened. We mapped the material distribution and their movement around us, then compared it to what we knew of the star system’s material distribution just a lifetime ago from information among the alien’s communications we had picked up. Our analysis revealed to us only one probable possibility of what might have happened.

The smallest of black holes had been artificially formed on the alien’s planet for the shortest of time. Yet, it basically turned their planet inside out in that instant, expelled it as energy like a quasar on the same scale of existence. This ruptured the space time continuum enough that it sent every other object out of their orbits around the system’s star into a chaotic equilibrium. Most of these objects broke apart, with the mostly gaseous ones losing their gases before breaking up. Everything was flying everywhere, only held in check by gravitational forces of other object around them, the star of the system, and the empty space to be filled where the alien’s planet had once orbited. The system’s star remained mostly stable through it all, only because it was so much larger than the rest of the mass in the system. A small amount of matter did get dislodged to form most of the gaseous clouds we found, but the star was mostly unaffected from what we could tell.

As for how this all had happened, that was the ultimate tragedy. The alien’s communications suggested they had a research facility called the Large Hadron Collider, which simulated subatomic environments, including those found in stars, black holes, and soon after the creation of the universe. It would seem that during the last experiment, something went drastically wrong. Details of these experiments were not generally broadcasted in detail, and until well after they had happened, so we could not determine exactly what went wrong. However, from what we had intercepted in the alien’s communication of what had been done at the Large Hadron Collider, and what we detected before us, we could speculate this with confidence, as to what had happened.

During a typical experiment, particles of positive and negative charges were created from neutral matter. Given the massive amounts of energy involved, the numbers of each had to be correct so that unpaired charged particles would not start chain reactions with other particles in neutral matter, constantly leaving uncharged particles until they could be neutralized under very specific, intense conditions. One created particle of the wrong charge, though, was, in effect, a double error. Not only was a particle of that charge missing, an extra particle of the opposite charge was present to double the chain reaction impact. It seemed that during the final experiment resulting in the aftermath we found, a particle created had been of the wrong sign. Just a particle of the wrong sign had caused all this, an error of the simplest kind.

It was just a sign, but a monumental one.

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