Closed Session

30 05 2011


Lit by the white light of the projector, the faces of the Presidium remained blank. Faraday, sitting next to Stepan, crossed his arms.

“Okay,” Stepan managed awkwardly, and brought up the next slide. “From the top. This is the data that the GBM squeezed from the burst we detected three weeks ago. As you can see, it’s a short-duration spike that tails away quickly. The spike peaked at precisely 17.59 mega-electron volts. We turned the satellite on the source after the burst was detected, but were unable to detect an afterglow.”

Gina Divero, representing Alpha-2, spoke up. “And that’s unusual?”

“Oh yes. The energies involved in the events which generate gamma ray bursts are…well, almost beyond description. So powerful that we’ve detected the afterglow of GRBs across thirteen billion light years.” Stepan skipped ahead a few slides to a series of pixelated images of orange and red spheres. “We’ve never detected one in the Milky Way because, not only are they exceedingly rare, but a GRB in the Milky Way would be nothing short of an extinction event.”

“But its says here,” Charles Clarendon, representing Alpha-3, read from his tablet, “that you established the point of origin?”

“We think so.” Stepan fumbled with the slides. “Without an afterglow, we could not measure the redshift of the light, and so could only determine a direction – not a distance. But along that path we quickly find – ”

A touch of Stepan’s fingertips to the tablet, and an animation was projected onto the wall that showed Alpha A and B orbiting their mutual barycentre. There was Fram, just for a moment, a delicate bead suspended on a line tracing its orbit; but then the image quickly panned out, and a line travelled away from the twin stars, passed Sol, bounced from a red marble labelled Lalande 21185, and intersected with another binary system far to its left. The image zoomed in on a small, red dwarf and its even dimmer companion.

“FL Virginis.” Stepan froze the image on the mysterious binary. “Or Wolf 424, if you prefer. A binary system of an M5-class red dwarf and an unknown companion, probably a high-mass brown dwarf. An utterly unremarkable system, cold and dim, deficient in metals and with little hydrogen. Barely more than a dozen light years away, so the source was clearly not a gamma-ray burst.”

Figures suspended on the lines between stars suggested that Lalande 21185 was equidistant from both Alpha Centauri and FL Virginis – 8.2 light years in each direction.

“But the source, this star, is a flare star, I read from your report,” Clarendon inquired.


“Yes,” Clarendon repeated, but in an expectant tone.

Gina asked, “Could this be the cause of the spike you detected?”

“That’s what I thought, at first,” Stepan responded, “but my colleague Elzette Skovgaard has spent much time refuting the theory. Flare stars unpredictably and dramatically increase in brightness along visual spectra. They’re usually red dwarfs, like FL Virginis A – ”

“And Proxima, yes?”

“ – and like Proxima. And they’re usually binary or trinary systems, where another member of the system might induce contortions in the star’s magnetic field. Like a solar flare. Using Proxima for data, she’s shown that flare stars can radiate in the visual spectrum, X rays and radio waves – but don’t tend to flare gamma rays. But I don’t want to step on Konrad’s toes here.”

Stepan slid his tablet to Faraday, who cleared his throat.

“Yes. And of note here is the precise energy detected by the satellite.” Faraday changed slides, and the figure 17.59 MeV appeared on the wall. “This is the precise amount of energy – the precise amount – shared by the high-energy neutron and an alpha particle formed in a thermonuclear reaction between a tritium and deuterium nucleus.”

“Tritium,” Clarendon repeated. “Deuterium.”

“Indeed,” Faraday continued, “and tritium occurs irregularly in nature. Occasionally in atmospheres containing hydrogen and nitrogen that interact with cosmic rays.”

Stepan spoke up. “And, as I noted before, the Virginis system is deficient in hydrogen.”

“And these other possibilities you mentioned here,” Gina asked, skimming the report quickly, “you discount each?”

“I thought, maybe, that we’d detected a magnetar or a pulsar, directly behind FL Virginis, visible through gravitational lensing. But look at that spike. It’s a one-off; it hasn’t repeated in the three weeks since its first detection. For the same reason, it’s not a soft gamma repeater. We’d see oscillations related to its rotation period.  So then I thought that the red dwarf had developed an accretion disk, and that its companion was ploughing through that disk and generating pulses of gamma rays with each interaction. But we know the brown dwarf’s orbital period, just over sixteen years, and we’ve never detected a burst like this before –”

“We keep coming back to two things,” Faraday said impatiently. “First, FL Virginis is an unexceptional system. Second, the energy detected was precisely that of the fusion of deuterium and tritium.”

“And hence,” said Clarendon, in a low and foreboding voice, turning to the gathered members, “the closed session of the Presidium. You’re saying that, in a star system essentially two doors down, you’ve detected evidence of the detonation of a hydrogen bomb…”


An Arrangement of Ones and Zeroes

15 05 2011

RUSLAN: Dr Renard. Thank you.
JACQUES: Please. You may call me Jacques.
RUSLAN: Jacques. Certainly. Thank you, Jacques.
JACQUES: I haven’t done anything yet. Would you like some tea? Hydroponics have grown their first crop of chamomile.
RUSLAN: My national flower! Please. I feel a little embarrassed to be here. It’s just…well, there’s no one else I can talk to.
JACQUES: It’s good that you’ve come.
RUSLAN: I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got friends. But they’re mostly colleagues, and I can’t talk about this with people I work with.
JACQUES: Anyone outside of work?
RUSLAN: Not in this solar system  –

Jacques paused the recording. He slid the bar on the screen of his tablet and skipped through the introductions. The recording buffered; a program that transcribed the recording into a written transcript was running in the background.

JACQUES: – should know that, while our conversations are strictly confidential, I will be reporting some parts to the oversight board.
JACQUES: If this is a problem –
RUSLAN: No, not at all. But, is this because of –

He slid his finger forward. Jacques flipped through his notes as he watched the computer populate the transcript.

RUSLAN: – I keep telling myself that I’ll get through it. I mean, I always do. It’s a passing thing, the depression.
JACQUES: But so is the happiness?
RUSLAN: Yeah. It’s up and down. Real mood swings.
JACQUES: What else do you feel?
RUSLAN: Like what?
JACQUES: Do you feel anxious?
RUSLAN: I guess. Not as much. I feel frustrated. Angry. A bit guilty. It’s very, I don’t know.
JACQUES: We tend to be distracted by the popularised notion of unrequited love as heroic and noble, as anachronistic as those notions are –

Here Jacques inserted his own notes into the margins of the transcript: “rapid mood swings.”

JACQUES: Let’s talk about your job.
RUSLAN: Let’s.
JACQUES: Your job entails a lot of work away from the Colonies?
RUSLAN: Mmm. I’m a surveyor. You know, geological features, topography, that sort of thing. I’m often away, out past the ranges.
RUSLAN: Used to be. Before the May, during the Bottleneck, especially when our walkers were down for maintenance.
JACQUES: Do you like it?
RUSLAN: Surveying? It got me into the Project; it got me here.
JACQUES: I mean being alone. Out there, far from the Colonies.
RUSLAN: You know, I think I do. It’s a different world. It feels so strange coming back. It actually takes me a couple of days to readjust to the people, to the noise. But it’s really nice to be out there, seeing things no one else has ever seen. It helps me forget about her, too.

Jacques inserted “introversion” and “avoidant personality disorder” into the transcript.

RUSLAN: – she doesn’t know. I don’t have the guts.
JACQUES: That’s not uncommon. But it’s not a matter of courage, Ruslan.
RUSLAN: Well, it’s the absence of something.
JACQUES: Objects of unrequited affection are usually friends or acquaintances. Or someone regularly encountered in the workplace. Particularly in circumstances – such as yours – that involve the workplace, awkward social situations are created. It’s a relatively modern construction.
RUSLAN: Unrequited love?
JACQUES: No. The interpersonal and social relationships created in the workplace. Some fear embarrassment, or rejection –
JACQUES: – or that to communicate your affections would end access to the object.
RUSLAN: It just doesn’t seem right.
JACQUES: That’s certainly another reason. That there might be an inconsistency between your current association and your desired relationship.
RUSLAN: No, it’s…I don’t know…it’s tired and it’s clichéd. But what the Fram would a woman like her want from a guy like me? I mean, chyort, she’s a –

Jacques brought up Ruslan’s file. He checked the details of Ruslan’s education and work experience. Flicking back to the transcript, he inserted from his notes “underemployed” and “hypergamy.”

JACQUES: – long have you been single?
RUSLAN: Relative or subjective?
JACQUES: Excuse me?
RUSLAN: Factoring in the time dilation of our journey from Sol?
JACQUES: How long has it been for you?
RUSLAN: Longer than the period of time in which my country was at war with Germany in the Second World War.
JACQUES: Interesting that you should think of it in those terms.
RUSLAN: Really?
JACQUES: It’s not a war, Ruslan, it’s –

Out of curiosity, Jacques quickly looked up the figure that Ruslan avoided. He was unsurprised to learn that it was nearly four years. Added the time on Quoqasi, and the sum was a significant fraction of Ruslan’s life.

RUSLAN: What is loneliness?
JACQUES: Are you lonely?
RUSLAN: Yes and no.
JACQUES: That makes sense. It’s entirely subjective. Generally, loneliness is the perceived inadequacy of social interaction.
RUSLAN: I don’t have many friends.
JACQUES: It’s not about numbers. Think of it not as being with people or being without them; think of it as the gulf, the discrepancy, between the kind of social interaction you desire and the kind you are getting. That gap – that’s loneliness.
RUSLAN: So, the gap between the relationship I want with Sze Leng and the one I have –
JACQUES: Exactly.
RUSLAN: Mmm. I’m not sure I buy the idea that everyone comes under a certain set of rules. You know, the way they tick.
JACQUES: I’m not sure “rules” is the right word. Let’s stick with “theories.” There are theories, and then there are theories. Sure, human discourse can never be accurately predicted, nor can the effect of each person’s experience within that discourse. I’m not suggesting that. But there are theories, overarching theories, which are borne out from culture to culture. Theories about the human condition.
RUSLAN: That we all must deterministically seek out our soulmates? Obey some line of coding in our heads? Our hearts? That people like me are an aberrant string of code, an error in the programming? That consigns us to this, this, this crap?
JACQUES: Not an error. More like, hmm, more like a different arrangement of ones and zeroes. Attachment theory is the modern, accepted frame for discourse relating to human relationships. Families. Good friends.
RUSLAN: Oh no. Not my mother’s breast.
JACQUES: No, no. Freud has his place. But attachment theory works as well for adult, romantic relationships as those involving children and parents. There are many styles of attachment; I think you might qualify as fearful-avoidant.
JACQUES: Would you describe yourself as having mixed feelings about close relationships?
RUSLAN: Well, yes.
JACQUES: Do you suppress your feelings?
JACQUES: Mind you, this only applies to Sze Leng. I’m not suggesting you’re fearful-avoidant of your friends or colleagues. You can hold different styles of attachment for different relationships.
RUSLAN: But this attachment theory, it all comes down to long-term relationships with others?
JACQUES: More or less.
RUSLAN: See, this is where I take issue with your set of rules. This ridiculous notion that people measure themselves by their partner. These people who aren’t able to live with themselves, aren’t able to exist as an independent entity –

Jacques paused. He tapped his fingers on the tablet. Ruslan offered such a clear contrast to Jacques’ last patient, a man who so entirely measured himself and his existence by the woman he left behind that, when confronted with that diagnosis, he ended his own existence. The patient on whose behalf this sad malpractice case had been brought against Jacques.

RUSLAN: – we’re all independent. We’re all alone. We should all be emotionally self-sufficient, and leave it at that. Epistemic loneliness.
JACQUES: Ruslan.
JACQUES: Wouldn’t you like a long-term relationship with Sze Leng?
RUSLAN: I…huh, wow. I’m doing it again, aren’t I?

Jacques typed “fearful-avoidant” and “attachment theory.”