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February 18, 2011

Last Contact by Stephen Baxter (part 3 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
Part 2/3

October 14th

That morning Maureen got up early. She was pleased that it was a bright morning, after the rain of the last few days. It was a lovely autumn day. She had breakfast listening to the last-ever episode of The Archers, but her radio battery failed before the end.

She went to work in the garden, hoping to get everything done before the light went. There was plenty of work, leaves to rake up, the roses and the clematis to prune. She had decided to plant a row of daffodil bulbs around the base of the new pergola. She noticed a little band of goldfinches, plundering a clump of Michaelmas daisies for seed. She sat back on her heels to watch. The colorful little birds had always been her favorites.

Then the light went, just like that, darkening as if somebody was throwing a dimmer switch. Maureen looked up. The sun was rushing away, and sucking all the light out of the sky with it. It was a remarkable sight, and she wished she had a camera. As the light turned gray, and then charcoal, and then utterly black, she heard the goldfinches fly off in a clatter, confused. It had only taken a few minutes.

Maureen was prepared. She dug a little torch out of the pocket of her old quilted coat. She had been hoarding the batteries; you hadn’t been able to buy them for weeks. The torch got her as far as the pergola, where she lit some rush torches that she’d fixed to canes.

Then she sat in the pergola, in the dark, with her garden lit up by her rush torches, and waited. She wished she had thought to bring out her book. She didn’t suppose there would be time to finish it now. Anyhow, the flickering firelight would be bad for her eyes.


The soft voice made her jump. It was Caitlin, threading her way across the garden with a torch of her own.

“I’m in here, love.”

Caitlin joined her mother in the pergola, and they sat on the wooden benches, on the thin cushions Maureen had been able to buy. Caitlin shut down her torch to conserve the battery.

Maureen said, “The sun went, right on cue.”

“Oh, it’s all working out, bang on time.”

Somewhere there was shouting, whooping, a tinkle of broken glass.

“Someone’s having fun,” Maureen said.

“It’s a bit like an eclipse,” Caitlin said. “Like in Cornwall, do you remember? The sky was cloudy, and we couldn’t see a bit of the eclipse. But at that moment when the sky went dark, everybody got excited. Something primeval, I suppose.”

“Would you like a drink? I’ve got a flask of tea. The milk’s a bit off, I’m afraid.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

“I got up early and managed to get my bulbs in. I didn’t have time to trim that clematis, though. I got it all ready for the winter, I think.”

“I’m glad.”

“I’d rather be out here than indoors, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, yes.”

“I thought about bringing blankets. I didn’t know if it would get cold.”

“Not much. The air will keep its heat for a bit. There won’t be time to get very cold.”

“I was going to fix up some electric lights out here. But the power’s been off for days.”

“The rushes are better, anyway. I would have been here earlier. There was a jam by the church. All the churches are packed, I imagine. And then I ran out of petrol a couple of miles back. We haven’t been able to fill up for weeks.”

“It’s all right. I’m glad to see you. I didn’t expect you at all. I couldn’t ring.” Even the phone networks had been down for days. In the end everything had slowly broken down, as people simply gave up their jobs and went home. Maureen asked carefully, “So how’s Bill and the kids?”

“We had an early Christmas,” Caitlin said. “They’ll both miss their birthdays, but we didn’t think they should be cheated out of Christmas too. We did it all this morning. Stockings, a tree, the decorations and the lights down from the loft, presents, the lot. And then we had a big lunch. I couldn’t find a turkey but I’d been saving a chicken. After lunch the kids went for their nap. Bill put their pills in their lemonade.”

Maureen knew she meant the little blue pills the NHS had given out to every household.

“Bill lay down with them. He said he was going to wait with them until he was sure—you know. That they wouldn’t wake up, and be distressed. Then he was going to take his own pill.”

Maureen took her hand. “You didn’t stay with them?”

“I didn’t want to take the pill.” There was some bitterness in her voice. “I always wanted to see it through to the end. I suppose it’s the scientist in me. We argued about it. We fought, I suppose. In the end we decided this way was the best.”

Maureen thought that on some level Caitlin couldn’t really believe her children were gone, or she couldn’t keep functioning like this. “Well, I’m glad you’re here with me. And I never fancied those pills either. Although—will it hurt?”

“Only briefly. When the Earth’s crust gives way. It will be like sitting on top of an erupting volcano.”

“You had an early Christmas. Now we’re going to have an early Bonfire Night.”

“It looks like it. I wanted to see it through,” Caitlin said again. “After all I was in at the start—those supernova studies.”

“You mustn’t think it’s somehow your fault.”

“I do, a bit,” Caitlin confessed. “Stupid, isn’t it?”

“But you decided not to go to the shelter in Oxford with the others?”

“I’d rather be here. With you. Oh, but I brought this.” She dug into her coat pocket and produced a sphere, about the size of a tennis ball.

Maureen took it. It was heavy, with a smooth black surface.

Caitlin said, “It’s the stuff they make space shuttle heatshield tiles out of. It can soak up a lot of heat.”

“So it will survive the Earth breaking up.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Are there instruments inside?”

“Yes. It should keep working, keep recording until the expansion gets down to the centimeter scale, and the Rip cracks the sphere open. Then it will release a cloud of even finer sensor units, motes we call them. It’s nanotechnology, Mum, machines the size of molecules. They will keep gathering data until the expansion reaches molecular scales.”

“How long will that take after the big sphere breaks up?”

“Oh, a microsecond or so. There’s nothing we could come up with that could keep data-gathering after that.”

Maureen hefted the little device. “What a wonderful little gadget. It’s a shame nobody will be able to use its data.”

“Well, you never know,” Caitlin said. “Some of the cosmologists say this is just a transition, rather than an end. The universe has passed through transitions before, for instance from an age dominated by radiation to one dominated by matter—our age. Maybe there will be life of some kind in a new era dominated by the dark energy.”

“But nothing like us.”

“I’m afraid not.”

Maureen stood and put the sphere down in the middle of the lawn. The grass was just faintly moist, with dew, as the air cooled.

“Will it be all right here?”

“I should think so.”

The ground shuddered, and there was a sound like a door slamming, deep in the ground. Alarms went off, from cars and houses, distant wails. Maureen hurried back to the pergola. She sat with Caitlin, and they wrapped their arms around each other. Caitlin raised her wrist to peer at her watch, then gave it up. “I don’t suppose we need a countdown.”

The ground shook more violently, and there was an odd sound, like waves rushing over pebbles on a beach. Maureen peered out of the pergola. Remarkably, one wall of her house had given way, just like that, and the bricks had tumbled into a heap.

“You’ll never get a builder out now,” Caitlin said, but her voice was edgy.

“We’d better get out of here.”

“All right.”

They got out of the pergola and stood side by side on the lawn, over the little sphere of instruments, holding onto each other. There was another tremor, and Maureen’s roof tiles slid to the ground, smashing and tinkling.

“Mum, there’s one thing.”

“Yes, love.”

“You said you didn’t think all those alien signals needed to be decoded.”

“Why, no. I always thought it was obvious what all the signals were saying.”


Maureen tried to reply.

The ground burst open. The scrap of dewy lawn flung itself into the air, and Maureen was thrown down, her face pressed against the grass. She glimpsed houses and trees and people, all flying in the air, underlit by a furnace-red glow from beneath.

But she was still holding Caitlin. Caitlin’s eyes were squeezed tight shut. “Goodbye,” Maureen yelled. “They were just saying goodbye.” But she couldn’t tell if Caitlin could hear.

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.


Steve C October 4, 2014 at 12:40 AM  

One of the most elegant sci-fi stories ever written.

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