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February 16, 2011

Last Contact by Stephen Baxter (part 1 of 3)

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Dark energy (defined as a property of space, a new dynamic fluid, or a new theory of gravity) permeates all of space and tends to increase the rate of expansion of the universe. Dark energy it's like an antigravity field pulling the universe apart. What if the effective force of dark energy continues growing until it dominates all other forces in the universe ? What if the dark energy would ultimately tear apart all gravitationally bound structures, including galaxies, solar systems, and eventually overcome the electrical and nuclear forces to tear apart atoms themselves, ending the universe in a "Big Rip" ?

March 15th

Caitlin walked into the garden through the little gate from the drive. Maureen was working on the lawn.

Just at that moment Maureen’s phone pinged. She took off her gardening gloves, dug the phone out of the deep pocket of her old quilted coat and looked at the screen. “Another contact,” she called to her daughter.

Caitlin looked cold in her thin jacket; she wrapped her arms around her body. “Another super-civilization discovered, off in space. We live in strange times, Mum.”

“That’s the fifteenth this year. And I did my bit to help discover it. Good for me,” Maureen said, smiling. “Hello, love.” She leaned forward for a kiss on the cheek.

She knew why Caitlin was here, of course. Caitlin had always hinted she would come and deliver the news about the Big Rip in person, one way or the other. Maureen guessed what that news was from her daughter’s hollow, stressed eyes. But Caitlin was looking around the garden, and Maureen decided to let her tell it all in her own time.

She asked, “How’re the kids?”

“Fine. At school. Bill’s at home, baking bread.” Caitlin smiled. “Why do stay-at-home fathers always bake bread? But he’s starting at Webster’s next month.”

“That’s the engineers in Oxford?”

“That’s right. Not that it makes much difference now. We won’t run out of money before, well, before it doesn’t matter.” Caitlin considered the garden. It was just a scrap of lawn really, with a quite nicely stocked border, behind a cottage that was a little more than a hundred years old, in this village on the outskirts of Oxford. “It’s the first time I’ve seen this properly.”

“Well, it’s the first bright day we’ve had. My first spring here.” They walked around the lawn. “It’s not bad. It’s been let to run to seed a bit by Mrs. Murdoch. Who was another lonely old widow,” Maureen said.

“You mustn’t think like that.”

“Well, it’s true. This little house is fine for someone on their own, like me, or her. I suppose I’d pass it on to somebody else in the same boat, when I’m done.”

Caitlin was silent at that, silent at the mention of the future.

Maureen showed her patches where the lawn had dried out last summer and would need reseeding. And there was a little brass plaque fixed to the wall of the house to show the level reached by the Thames floods of two years ago. “The lawn is all right. I do like this time of year when you sort of wake it up from the winter. The grass needs raking and scarifying, of course. I’ll reseed bits of it, and see how it grows during the summer. I might think about getting some of it relaid. Now the weather’s so different, the drainage might not be right anymore.”

“You’re enjoying getting back in the saddle, aren’t you, Mum?”

Maureen shrugged. “Well, the last couple of years weren’t much fun. Nursing your dad, and then getting rid of the house. It’s nice to get this old thing back on again.” She raised her arms and looked down at her quilted gardening coat.

Caitlin wrinkled her nose. “I always hated that stupid old coat. You really should get yourself something better, Mum. These modern fabrics are very good.”

“This will see me out,” Maureen said firmly.

They walked around the verge, looking at the plants, the weeds, the autumn leaves that hadn’t been swept up and were now rotting in place.

Caitlin said, “I’m going to be on the radio later. BBC Radio 4. There’s to be a government statement on the Rip, and I’ll be in the follow-up discussion. It starts at nine, and I should be on about nine-thirty.”

“I’ll listen to it. Do you want me to tape it for you?”

“No. Bill will get it. Besides, you can listen to all these things on the websites these days.”

Maureen said carefully, “I take it the news is what you expected, then.”

“Pretty much. The Hawaii observatories confirmed it. I’ve seen the new Hubble images, deep sky fields. Empty, save for the foreground objects. All the galaxies beyond the local group have gone. Eerie, really, seeing your predictions come true like that. That’s couch grass, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I stuck a fork in it. Nothing but root mass underneath. It will be a devil to get up. I’ll have a go, and then put down some bin liners for a few weeks, and see if that kills it off. Then there are these roses that should have been pruned by now. I think I’ll plant some gladioli in this corner—”

“Mum, it’s October.” Caitlin blurted that out. She looked thin, pale, and tense, a real office worker, but then Maureen had always thought that about her daughter, that she worked too hard. Now she was thirty-five, and her moderately pretty face was lined at the eyes and around her mouth, the first wistful signs of age. “October 14th, at about four in the afternoon. I say ‘about.’ I could give you the time down to the attosecond if you wanted.”

Maureen took her hands. “It’s all right, love. It’s about when you thought it would be, isn’t it?”

“Not that it does us any good, knowing. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

They walked on. They came to a corner on the south side of the little garden. “This ought to catch the sun,” Maureen said. “I’m thinking of putting in a seat here. A pergola maybe. Somewhere to sit. I’ll see how the sun goes around later in the year.”

“Dad would have liked a pergola,” Caitlin said. “He always did say a garden was a place to sit in, not to work.”

“Yes. It does feel odd that your father died, so soon before all this. I’d have liked him to see it out. It seems a waste somehow.”

Caitlin looked up at the sky. “Funny thing, Mum. It’s all quite invisible to the naked eye still. You can see the Andromeda Galaxy, just, but that’s bound to the Milky Way by gravity. So the expansion hasn’t reached down to the scale of the visible, not yet. It’s still all instruments, telescopes. But it’s real all right.”

“I suppose you’ll have to explain it all on Radio 4.”

“That’s why I’m there. We’ll probably have to keep saying it over and over, trying to find ways of saying it that people can understand. You know, don’t you, Mum? It’s all to do with dark energy. It’s like an antigravity field that permeates the universe. Just as gravity pulls everything together, the dark energy is pulling the universe apart, taking more and more of it so far away that its light can’t reach us anymore. It started at the level of the largest structures in the universe, superclusters of galaxies. But in the end it will fold down to the smallest scales. Every bound structure will be pulled apart. Even atoms, even subatomic particles. The Big Rip.

“We’ve known about this stuff for years. What we didn’t expect was that the expansion would accelerate as it has. We thought we had trillions of years. Then the forecast was billions. And now—”

“Yes.”

“It’s funny for me being involved in this stuff, Mum. Being on the radio. I’ve never been a people person. I became an astrophysicist, for God’s sake. I always thought that what I studied would have absolutely no effect on anybody’s life. How wrong I was. Actually there’s been a lot of debate about whether to announce it or not.”

“I think people will behave pretty well,” Maureen said. “They usually do. It might get trickier toward the end, I suppose. But people have a right to know, don’t you think?”

“They’re putting it on after nine, so people can decide what to tell their kids.”

“After the watershed! Well, that’s considerate. Will you tell your two?”

“I think we’ll have to. Everybody at school will know. They’ll probably get bullied about it if they don’t know. Imagine that. Besides, the little beggars will probably have googled it on their mobiles by one minute past nine.”

Maureen laughed. “There is that.”

“It will be like when I told them Dad had died,” Caitlin said. “Or like when Billy started asking hard questions about Santa Claus.”

“No more Christmases,” Maureen said suddenly. “If it’s all over in October.”

“No more birthdays for my two either,” Caitlin said.

“November and January.”

“Yes. It’s funny, in the lab, when the date came up, that was the first thing I thought of.”

Maureen’s phone pinged again. “Another signal. Quite different in nature from the last, according to this.”

“I wonder if we’ll get any of those signals decoded in time.”

Maureen waggled her phone. “It won’t be for want of trying, me and a billion other search-for-ET-at-home enthusiasts. Would you like some tea, love?”

“It’s all right. I’ll let you get on. I told Bill I’d get the shopping in, before I have to go back to the studios in Oxford this evening.”

They walked toward the back door into the house, strolling, inspecting the plants and the scrappy lawn.


Continued on part 2/3.

Copyright © Stephen Baxter 2007, first published in 2007 by Solaris Books in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, edited by George Mann.


Full text of Last Contact is available here.

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