The Beacon

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“Another 3 metres to the tetraquarks, Commander. Set the anti-plasma bursts to fire at 5 microsecond intervals,” intoned the disembodied voice of the on-board AI, CharCon. At this rate, Belén would reach the tetraquarks in 27 minutes. It had been a long, gruelling journey. The hard part was over; the years of conditioning were finally about to pay off. But the celebration would have to wait. She knew she had to be patient.

An hour ago, Charcon had manoeuvred their sleek craft into an equatorial orbit almost skimming the incandescent surface of 1T 660. The operation had been surprisingly glitch-free. On screen, Belén examined the perfectly smooth, lambent surface of the neutron star that they were synchronously orbiting. 1T 660 had been chosen because it was old and cool, and it spun slowly, about once every 7 hours on its axis. Belén had nicknamed it The Beacon. The Beacon was a ‘quiet’ neutron star, with a magnetic field of only about a million tesla, but this was enough to levitate the craft and almost counter the crushing gravity near its surface. In the three billion years since it went supernova, the neutron star had slowly accrued mass and was on the verge of its final collapse. Belén and the mission planners knew the risk, but The Beacon was the only plausible candidate that could be reached within the brief window of time available to them.

27 more minutes to completion. After 6 years, Belén could wait another 27 minutes. And it would be worth the wait. If the Tanaka-Khan conjecture was correct she would find whorls of tetraquarks lurking beneath the ultra-dense steel shell of the pulsar, like improbable flowers blooming within the most exotic interstellar wasteland. Earth needed tetraquarks. Without tetraquarks, the inter-dimensional bridge to Solis B would collapse, leaving Earth drifting in a cold, dark void. She had to get this right. Earth’s very existence depended on it. Belén adjusted the anti-plasma blaster and initiated the next stage of the mining process. It will all be fine, she told herself.

A small red light flashed on the health indicator of her spacesuit. “CharCon, update,” Belén said calmly, touching the indicator. “Your blood oxygen levels are falling, Commander. I’m afraid you must abort the mission,” CharCon replied. That can’t be, thought Belén. They had prepared for every contingency. The years of training, conditioning, coupled with the gene editing to enhance her resistance to the effects of the radiation should have kept her safe. And the triple-layered Faraday cage lining the interior of the craft was working – the radiation levels inside were well below the threshold values.

“Identify cause of disorder,” she commanded. “It’s the gravity, Commander. We didn’t factor it in to our quantum models. The gravitational field differential across your body is having unexpected quantum effects, distorting your haemoglobin molecules. In less than 15 minutes, your blood oxygen will fall below critical levels. You must leave The Beacon now.”

“CharCon, take control of the extraction and delivery of the payload to the mothership. And prepare a pod for my evacuation,” Belén instructed, her voice still level.
“I cannot comply, Commander,” CharCon responded. “The gravity differential is interfering with my circuits too. I have sensed an increasing cascade of tunnelling currents through my neural net… net… nyet… … …in 3 minutes.” CharCon fell silent, then spoke abruptly, “Expect frequent disruptions in functionality. I am dying, Commander. Please abort. Please…”

She couldn’t abort! She had to complete her mission. Earth had no future without tetraquarks.

Belén increased the intensity of her anti-plasma bursts. She had to get to the tetraquarks faster. “If you penetrate beneath the tetraquark layer… initiate an implosion…Reconsider… Abort... space-sift for tetraquarks instead...” Space-sifting was too slow, the yields unpredictable.

Belén steeled herself, and fired the blaster. She would reach the tetraquarks in time now, but the anti-plasma would surely tunnel into the neutron core, triggering an implosion to a singularity, a point of no escape. Getting the tetraquarks was all that mattered. Belén permitted herself to imagine what the tetraquarks would look like, though she knew it was an impossible task. They would be indescribable even if she could lay eyes on them. Human language had not evolved to express the realities of the quantum world. But her overwhelming focus was on extraction, then ejecting the canisters back to the mother-ship.

As she bore down toward her target, Belén reflected on her life, and the probability of its extension beyond the next few minutes. There are only two possibilities: yes or no, she thought. All theories suggested the most likely outcome would be that The Beacon would turn into a black hole and stretch her to fine spaghetti before sucking her in. But there was another, more fantastic possibility. The implosion could create an Einstein-Rosen bridge to somewhere, sometime else… perhaps to a different universe altogether. If she was sucked through it and came out alive at the other end, there would still be no way back home for Belén. She focused on the depth readings, and counted down the metres till the end, but for Earth a new beginning.

About the Author: 
I teach physics to high school students, which I love doing and which my students say I should stick to. I also try to write, and fail miserably at most of the time. Understandably, I don't show my writing to any of my students.