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February 17, 2011

Last Contact by Stephen Baxter (part 2 of 3)


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" ?

Part 1/3.

June 5th

It was about lunchtime when Caitlin arrived from the garden center with the pieces of the pergola. Maureen helped her unload them from the back of a white van, and carry them through the gate from the drive. They were mostly just prefabricated wooden panels and beams that they could manage between the two of them, though the big iron spikes that would be driven into the ground to support the uprights were heavier. They got the pieces stacked upon the lawn.

“I should be able to set it up myself,” Maureen said. “Joe next door said he’d lay the concrete base for me, and help me lift on the roof section. There’s some nailing to be done, and creosoting, but I can do all that.”

“Joe, eh?” Caitlin grinned.

“Oh, shut up, he’s just a neighbor. Where did you get the van? Did you have to hire it?”

“No, the garden center loaned it to me. They can’t deliver. They are still getting stock in, but they can’t rely on the staff.

They just quit, without any notice. In the end it sort of gets to you, I suppose.”

“Well, you can’t blame people for wanting to be at home.”

“No. Actually Bill’s packed it in. I meant to tell you. He didn’t even finish his induction at Webster’s. But the project he was working on would never have got finished anyway.”

“I’m sure the kids are glad to have him home.”

“Well, they’re finishing the school year. At least I think they will, the teachers still seem keen to carry on.”

“It’s probably best for them.”

“Yes. We can always decide what to do after the summer, if the schools open again.”

Maureen had prepared some sandwiches, and some iced elderflower cordial. They sat in the shade of the house and ate their lunch and looked out over the garden.

Caitlin said, “Your lawn’s looking good.”

“It’s come up quite well. I’m still thinking of relaying that patch over there.”

“And you put in a lot of vegetables in the end,” Caitlin said.

“I thought I should. I’ve planted courgettes and French beans and carrots, and a few outdoor tomatoes. I could do with a greenhouse, but I haven’t really room for one. It seemed a good idea, rather than flowers, this year.”

“Yes. You can’t rely on the shops.”

Things had kept working, mostly, as people stuck to their jobs. But there were always gaps on the supermarket shelves, as supply chains broke down. There was talk of rationing some essentials, and there were already coupons for petrol.

“I don’t approve of how tatty the streets are getting in town,” Maureen said sternly.

Caitlin sighed. “I suppose you can’t blame people for packing in a job like street-sweeping. It is a bit tricky getting around town though. We need some work done on the roof, we’re missing a couple of tiles. It’s just as well we won’t have to get through another winter,” she said, a bit darkly. “But you can’t get a builder for love or money.”

“Well, you never could.”

They both laughed.

Maureen said, “I told you people would cope. People do just get on with things.”

“We haven’t got to the end game yet,” Caitlin said. “I went into London the other day. That isn’t too friendly, Mum. It’s not all like this, you know.”

Maureen’s phone pinged, and she checked the screen. “Four or five a day now,” she said. “New contacts, lighting up all over the sky.”

“But that’s down from the peak, isn’t it?”

“Oh, we had a dozen a day at one time. But now we’ve lost half the stars, haven’t we?”

“Well, that’s true, now the Rip has folded down into the galaxy. I haven’t really been following it, Mum. Nobody’s been able to decode any of the signals, have they?”

“But some of them aren’t the sort of signal you can decode anyhow. In one case somebody picked up an artificial element in the spectrum of a star. Something that was manufactured, and then just chucked in to burn up, like a flare.”

Caitlin considered. “That can’t say anything but ‘here we are,’ I suppose.”

“Maybe that’s enough.”


It had really been Harry who had been interested in wild speculations about alien life and so forth. Joining the phone network of home observers of ET, helping to analyze possible signals from the stars in a network of millions of others, had been Harry’s hobby, not Maureen’s. It was one of Harry’s things she had kept up after he had died, like his weather monitoring and his football pools. It would have felt odd just to have stopped it all.

But she did understand how remarkable it was that the sky had suddenly lit up with messages like a Christmas tree, after more than half a century of dogged, fruitless, frustrating listening. Harry would have loved to see it.

“Caitlin, I don’t really understand how all these signals can be arriving just now. I mean, it takes years for light to travel between the stars, doesn’t it? We only knew about the phantom energy a few months ago.”

“But others might have detected it long before, with better technology than we’ve got. That would give you time to send something. Maybe the signals have been timed to get here, just before the end, aimed just at us.”

“That’s a nice thought.”

“Some of us hoped that there would be an answer to the dark energy in all those messages.”

“What answer could there be?”

Caitlin shrugged. “If we can’t decode the messages we’ll never know. And I suppose if there was anything to be done, it would have been done by now.”

“I don’t think the messages need decoding,” Maureen said.

Caitlin looked at her curiously, but didn’t pursue it. “Listen, Mum. Some of us are going to try to do something. You understand that the Rip works down the scales, so that larger structures break up first. The galaxy, then the solar system, then planets like Earth. And then the human body.”

Maureen considered. “So people will outlive the Earth.”

“Well, they could. For maybe about thirty minutes, until atomic structures get pulled apart. There’s talk of establishing a sort of shelter in Oxford that could survive the end of the Earth. Like a submarine, I suppose. And if you wore a pressure suit you might last a bit longer even than that. The design goal is to make it through to the last microsecond. You could gather another thirty minutes of data that way. They’ve asked me to go in there.”

“Will you?”

“I haven’t decided. It will depend on how we feel about the kids, and—you know.”

Maureen considered. “You must do what makes you happy, I suppose.”

“Yes. But it’s hard to know what that is, isn’t it?” Caitlin looked up at the sky. “It’s going to be a hot day.”

“Yes. And a long one. I think I’m glad about that. The night sky looks odd now the Milky Way has gone.”

“And the stars are flying off one by one,” Caitlin murmured. “I suppose the constellations will look funny by the autumn.”

“Do you want some more sandwiches?”

“I’ll have a bit more of that cordial. It’s very good, Mum.”

“It’s elderflower. I collect the blossoms from that bush down the road. I’ll give you the recipe if you like.”

“Shall we see if your Joe fancies laying a bit of concrete this afternoon? I could do with meeting your new beau.”

“Oh, shut up,” Maureen said, and she went inside to make a fresh jug of cordial.

Part 3/3.

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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