TRANSCRIPT: Welcome to Gateways, a short story reading series from Otherworld Theatre. Our quest is to give science fiction short stories a place to shine through voice. For this special episode, we are reading a piece from Ruari McDonnell who has contributed to the series before. She is one of her favorite stories to have written and I am thrilled to be reading it for you today.
This story is written by Ruari McDonnell. Ruari is a recent graduate from DePaul University with a BA in English that is finally being put to use. She narrates shows for the Adler Planetarium and throws axes for Ragnorok Axe Throwing in Chicago among various other strange jobs that support her cat’s instagram modeling career. She loves writing science fiction that is based on real astrophysics and will often consult the astronomers that she works with for her pieces. This is “Entangled”.
Falling into a black hole is always a violent death, but the pain levels vary. The smaller the event horizon, the greater the tidal forces. This means you can feel every bit of yourself being divided into multiples of two until every atom, every quark in your body has been separated. Of course, this is only until you are recombined at the bottom of the warped space time along with all the other unfortunate people, nebulas, and stars that were eaten before you. A larger event horizon will have lower tidal forces, granting you a death by “spaghettification”. Yes, this is a technical term. It was coined by the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking all the way back in 1988 as a joke, but was adopted after the first witnessing of a person getting sucked into the super massive black hole in the middle of the Milky Way Galaxy in 2384. There are also such things as entangled black holes. In the least technical terms, these are two black holes connected by a worm hole. The events that happen at either end of these black holes are linked despite the large distance between them based on Einstein’s theory of quantum entanglement. We don’t know a lot about the insides black holes, entangled or not, because it is impossible to survive a trip into one, as far as the scientific community knows. Even if one were to survive, it would be impossible to report back.
So here I am, a disembodied consciousness at the mercy of my new home in an entangled set of black holes, essentially talking to myself with no hopes of escaping. I think it’s amazing I’ve managed to survive in some form. If I wasn’t so bitter about leaving my life on the outside, I think I would enjoy being the first to survive a journey into a black hole. This of course, would be brilliant if the rest of the scientific community had a way of knowing this. I would be immortalized among the likes of Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, and Edwin Hubble.
I am Dr. Alma Roddena, an astrobiologist with the Virgo Unified Astronomy Commission. My focus, before I fell into a black hole, was on finding intelligent life outside of humanity, which was increasingly difficult as we moved out from our own cluster. There aren’t enough exoplanets that can support life beyond simple bacteria within a travel span of 500,00 light years. My studies focused on combing through the biological factors of every known exoplanet in that radius to determine the likelihood of intelligent life developing if helped through terraforming. It was absolutely thrilling work in concept, but involves extensive math and spectroscopy, which was less thrilling to a civilian. It was also incredibly frustrating to comb through thousands of spectrographs, each with signatures of hydrogen, methane, and water, only to find them completely frozen over or boiled into gas, depending on the proximity to a nearby star. But when I found a trace of bacteria or a virus, it was like a nondenominational winter holiday.
My most recent work brought me to a small research facility on PSO J318.5-22. It is a rouge planet belonging to the Beta Pictoris moving group about 80 light years away from Earth. It glows a faint red from the molten iron covering the surface of the planet. It also glows red from the hundreds of thousands of nightclubs on the planet. With no star near by, it is eternally night, hence why it became a party planet as soon as we had the technology to make it so. The research facility is the oldest structure on this planet, with heat shields that are in constant need of repair, and doors that need a good shove before they open, if they open at all. It is a living hell hole, literally. My team was stationed there because Todd went behind my back and submitted a transfer. He said he was “trying to help us all get a better look at the Beta Pictoris group, seeing as they’re completely written off every list of possible life sustaining exoplanets.” We all know he did it to party all night and get laid.
Todd is a recent graduate of the Ceres University Astrobiology department. He was a member of two different frats that resented being called that. It’s all really just an argument of semantics. Frat and fraternity are the same thing. Todd was placed on my team by the VUAC because I needed a more qualified spectographer than the one I recently fired. Little did I know that Todd would spend more time gelling his incredibly blonde hair than actually working. By the time I discovered this, it was too late to return him for a full refund. He’s more trouble than he’s worth, so I redefined his prime directive from finding life to sitting out of the way and looking pretty. It wasn’t difficult for him, seeing how classically handsome he is.
Mark was my other teammate. He’s a really nice guy, but too nerdy for me to talk to outside of research. If it’s not based in fact, it’s useless. Sometimes I wonder if his goal in life was to fulfill the space nerd stereotype. He reminded me of one of the guys from that ancient sitcom The Big Bang Theory. He forced me to watch one of the first episodes and I was greatly disappointed by the lack of actual scientific theory and the horrible misrepresentation of women. Though it was accurate in one respect: the appearance of the classic space nerd. I told him that he looked like the annoying one if I squinted hard enough. He said if I were to compare him to any fictional character based on looks, I should have said a young Nathan Filament from Firefly or whatever. Todd and I had a good laugh with that one.
So, after a particularly hot and long day on PSO J318.5-22, after repairing the heat shields for the umpteenth time and shoving heavy metal doors closed, Todd thought he would bring us out to a local karaoke bar, the Ursa Minor Key, as an apology for marooning us in an ancient research facility. There are several reasons why this was a doomed idea from the start. First of all, Ursa Minor Key makes no sense as a name. Beta Pictoris is clearly by Scorpius-Centarus OB and not anywhere near any of the stars in Ursa Minor. I understand it was word play on minor key, which was common for classical karaoke music, but I resent the cosmic inaccuracy. Secondly, Todd abandoned us as soon as he assessed which girl in that bar was single and drunk enough to fall for one of his pick up lines. And lastly, I didn’t like bars, parties, or nightclubs. My idea of a good time was reading essays on quantum mechanics or Sudoku. I didn’t get invited out, but my guesses are you already came to that conclusion when I was complaining about the faults in the bar’s name. I stuck out immediately as someone completely out of water in this environment, which is funny because there was no water on this planet due to the high temperatures outside. Todd described my outfit as “a librarian who has never been clubbing, but wanted to reinvent herself after her recent divorce and losing custody of her kids.” I was just flattered he thought I looked married at some point.
The place was like a minimalist architect’s idea of the 2280’s. Everything was white and streamlined. There was a laminated shine off the stools, the tables, the bar itself. The bottles of alcohol on the shelf were also the glue like white, which was concerning, considering they were unlabeled. I’m sure you can see the problem here. The underside of everything was illuminated by strips of different colored neon tubes that actually provided light to the place. There was a microphone stand on the stage under a white disco ball that appeared to have Pepto Bismol dripping off the top. No one else at that bar seemed to be confused by the sights within this bar. They were wearing dark colors with geometric textures to contrast the whiteness around them. All of them were fashionable groovy people, who would all disapprove of my use of the word groovy.
Mark could tell how uncomfortable I was and decided my drinks were on him. This was contingent of me actually listening to him drone on about how Picard is the best captain on Star Wars Galactica or whatever. So, five shots in, I was gone. I don’t know what those shots were, but I was stumbling in my sturdy heels. That was when this beautiful angel walked up to the bar, clearly intoxicated as well, and ordered a drink. She had dark hair cropped to her chin and eyes like a solar prominence. The red light of the bar lit her skin in a very flattering shade of pink. And though I understand there is no intelligent life besides humans anywhere near PSO J318.5-22, she looked like she was from a different planet, in the best sense. Those five shots began speaking to me and I did my best to introduce myself.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Alma Rhododendron. I wanna-uh, I want to, you should-lemme see about-Hey…you should a spectrograph of that body,” I slurred. I’m very embarrassed I even said that, or that I’m repeating it now. She looked over to me, with the brightest smile in the galaxy, and laughed at me.
“And I thought I was drunk. Give me a moment.” She downed her drink in one go, ordered two shots, and took those too. “Oh god. That’s a lot. I hope it kicks in soon.” She took a moment to compose herself, swaying gently to someone screeching into the microphone at karaoke. “I’m Jackie and that pick up line? Was really really bad.” She started laughing and I couldn’t help but laugh with her. “You don’t hit on people that often, do you?”
“I’m more used to numbers than people. But you’re probably the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen and the alcohol told me I should at least try.” She gripped onto one of my arms for stability. Her hands are tiny, but she has long fingers. They would be excellent for piano or surgery. I wondered which one she was more inclined towards.
“That was a better line! You should have started with that! But hey, it was a good first try for someone not used to people.” The song ended and she cheered for the person stumbling off the stage. “So, Dr. Alma, what brings you out then? There aren’t any numbers here.” I scanned the bar and found Todd walking up to the microphone. I pointed at him.
“This jerk decided to station us here and take us out tonight,” I slurred.
“Doesn’t seem like a jerk.”
“He let me leave the research center dressed like this.” Jackie looked me over.
“What an asshole.” Todd began singing completely off key and out of sync with the music. He kept winking and gesturing to a woman at the bar over the cacophony of what sounded like a space craft being crushed by an intense gravitational field. Jackie and I both tried to block out the monstrosity Todd was creating.
“So, where are you from?” I asked her.
“Trappist-1e. I’m actually a tour guide in that system.”
“That place is a tourist trappist.” That one made her laugh, but on purpose this time. I wanted to make her laugh until the universe expanded to the point of the Big Freeze.
“It really is, but the college kids planet hopping for spring break tip really well. It’s a living.” She didn’t seem entirely enthused by the idea.
“What do you want to be doing instead?” I asked.
“I would be a travel blogger.” She nodded, as if this was the first time she was thinking about it. I nodded with her, just do mimic her. I read somewhere the more you physically mimic someone, the more likely it is that they’ll like you. I really wanted her to like me and needed every trick I could think of.
“You know, blogs are really on the rise in popularity.” Jackie burst into laughter.
“You don’t know what a blog is, do you?”
“No idea. Do you?”
“Nope. It was just the first word that popped into my mind. The second was vampire.”
“You’d be a vampire?”
“Why not? If this is all hypothetical.” We lost track of time discussing the theoretical nature of vampires in accordance to gothic literature. She made a very compelling argument based on Carmilla as to how vampirism could be a career choice. Maybe it was actually a really bad argument because I was too distracted by how captivating she was to actually analyze her evidence.
Todd finally finished his song and music played as a transition in between singers. It sounded like a computer malfunctioning assembling random tones. I’ve never been a fan of contemporary music. From somewhere in the crowd, someone shouted that it was Jackie’s turn.
“Oh fuck. That’s me!” She stumbled over to the stage and picked up the microphone. The intro music for Drops of Jupiter began playing. I didn’t expect her to choose classical music, especially a super obscure one. “This one goes out to Dr. Alma because I think she’ll know this song seeing as she’s a shut in and I’m going to go back to her research center if she sings this one with me or something.” My heart was racing faster than when I got the research position with VAUC. Todd came over to me and excitedly said something, but I wasn’t listening. I was too focused on this beautiful woman, singing one of my favorite songs with a voice like nails on porcelain, who just said she come back with me if I sang with her. I ordered another shot, took it, and marched over to the stage with a stern determination. I took another microphone offered to me and promptly blacked out. It may have been from all the alcohol I had. It may have been from fear. I don’t remember anything that happened and I wish I did more so than anything else.
I woke up to the feeling of my body being torn apart, which initially I thought was a hangover. There was loud crunching and a whoosh as the oxygen left the spacecab I assumed I was in. I heard screaming from someone else and hopped for the first time that it wasn’t Jackie. I opened my eyes for the seconds I had left and saw a silent void with a glowing red dot far off in the distance. Then, nothing hurt anymore. I no longer had my physical form. I could think. I could see. I could feel very vaguely. I could feel a pressure pushing me down and a pulling me sideways, which I still don’t understand. At first, I was panicked. I didn’t know what had happened to me and all I could see was incomprehensible. There was light from various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum around me in splotches. I could hear screaming, my screams, from what I assumed was the past, just now catching up to me. It all twisted and untwisted around me as more sounds and lights entered the black hole. They came in from both sides, which is the only way I figured out I was in an entangled black hole. I would liken it to if Jackson Pollock had control over your senses and created art with it in the worst way imaginable. Or if you took LSD and went through a haunted house based on sensory torture. There was nothing in my extensive research that could have prepared me for this. I got my doctorate in astrobiology and nothing in that process could help me decipher all the sensory information I was experiencing. I was overwhelmed in my first introduction to life in a black hole.
I wasn’t alone when I first got here. There was a space cabbie named Albert that had been the source of the other screams. Apparently, his gravitational sensors weren’t working when he encountered a small entangled black hole outside of PSO J318.5-22. He claimed it was roaming, but I know for a fact that roaming entangled black holes don’t exist. After I told him this, he was quiet and wouldn’t speak for the longest time. I think he died.
I can’t tell you how long I’ve been here. Time warps in ways that makes it feel like eons one moment and in the next, seconds. I am constantly bombarded with new particles from things that happen across my black holes. Once I got past the emotional shock of what had happened to me and the death of the space cabbie Albert, it has been a wealth of scientific discovery. For example, one day a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works fell into both ends of the black holes, which supports the theory of quantum entanglement, but also defies all laws of probability. So, that’s been proved by observation. Anyway, this book came in one piece, which was impossible unless the book somehow bypassed the event horizon and just fell in. I got a look at it for a moment before the book began to dissolve within the black hole. The words themselves lifted and warped around until all the letters overlapped into an incomprehensible pile. Then they completely dissolved into individual particles. It was absolutely fascinating.
That’s a lie. It was only exciting because it was the first anomaly to happen while I was there, bored by my own repeating thoughts and the predictable flashing lights of dying stars. The only reason why I remember it so vividly is because Jackie had a love of gothic literature and she probably liked Poe. I think about her a lot. It’s like my own version of limbo. I replay the memory of making an ass of myself to the most beautiful woman in the world. I go up and take the microphone every time and then it blacks out. I sometimes play the what if game. What if Jackie and I went back to the research lab? What if she didn’t sing I song I knew? What if we had more time to fall in love?
I used to be plagued with questions of life beyond humanity. Is there intelligent life outside of the 500,000 light year radius we’ve explored? What if the other forms of intelligent life are in other universes? What if black holes are the way to enter the multiverse? What if we could make contact by sending someone through? I would even ask myself what it would be like in a black hole, if I somehow survived. I know that answer now. None of these questions really plague me. All the ones surrounding Jackie do.
The only science fiction thing I actually liked was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the 2005 film. Mark loaned me his copy for a particularly long flight from Ceres to Betelgeuse. He thought it was funny that one of the characters was from the area we were going to. I had forgotten my usual selection of travel essays, so I took him up on the offer. In that movie, Arthur falls in love with Trillian and the question he asks at the end, the only question that matters to him as his brain is about to be harvested is, “Is she the one?” That’s the scene that plays after the moment I black out at the bar. And that question has never been more relevant to me. Is she the one? Funny enough, that sound bite floated into the black holes one day. Someone flying dangerously close must have had it on speaker to the entire galaxy. Pricks.
I do hear things that are less fun, though all of them seem funny when warped through space time. The pitch is severely warped most of the time along with the speed. I once heard a couple arguing over politics. It sounded heated, but with chipmunk voices that suddenly went backwards, I couldn’t help but laugh. It ended in what sounded like a slap. That made me stop laughing. There was also a distress call that I couldn’t understand. Time had crunched it all together until it was incomprehensible. The screaming of hundreds of people was the only part I could understand. There was a lot of red that came into the black hole. I tell myself that it was the particles of the explosion, even though fiery explosions can’t happen in space due to a lack of oxygen, because I don’t want to believe it’s blood.
You’re probably wondering why I’m going on and on, particles of matter actually hearing this. One thought I had early on in my eternity here was the phrase, “I think therefore I am” by the philosopher Renee Descartes (I think. I was required to take one philosophy course long ago and I didn’t retain that information. I could be very wrong.). I’m thankful I thought of that earlier on, while comforting myself through flashing lights and the nausea of high speed space warping. If I just keep thinking, keep talking, I will continue to exist. If I stop talking or thinking, like Albert did, I’ll die, most likely, I don’t know. I don’t like thinking about it, but it’s there in the back of my mind. So, I just keep remembering and talking and reliving and retraumatizing and refocusing and collecting data. I’m very good at collecting data.
Like right now, in this moment, the wormhole is actually fairly dark. There is some light left over radio signatures that are keeping the place from being an eternally dark void of despair. I’m kind of cold actually, even though I don’t have a physical form. It still baffles me. There hasn’t been a wave of plasma in however long it’s been. Time is weird here. I mentioned that didn’t I? The events that happen at either end of these black holes are linked despite the large distance between them based on Einstein’s theory of quantum entanglement. I said that already. Sorry. I’m running out of things to say, things to think. I don’t have a lot of new ideas after what seems like an eternity.
My favorite color is bright green because that’s the emission line for oxygen. There’s also red and orange, but green usually shows up the brightest. You can tell if a nebula has oxygen in it from what shade of green it is. Normally it’s double ionized, but that doesn’t matter much. Mark preferred the emission lines for mercury because they are more blues and purples. Todd liked sodium because they were just orange and easy to find. I never asked Jackie what her favorite emission lines were, not that she would know what I was talking about. But I obsess over these lines of colors for a living. Now that is taken away, all that’s left to obsess over is Jackie. She’s the most interesting woman in the world and I’ve only met her once and if I just keep focusing on her and the memory of her, maybe I’ll survive. My consciousness will stay right here, just waiting for the day where probability is on my side and she comes across one of these black holes and I won’t be driven to madness by isolation anymore because she’ll be here. Jackie and I will be in this entangled black hole together in the flashing lights of a quantum night club.
I just need to keep thinking. I’ll start from the beginning again. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve repeated this. Falling into a black hole is always a violent death, but the pain levels vary. And if you’re unfortunate enough to survive, that pain will continue exponentially.
I am Ansel Burch the curator for the Gateways Series. I am also the producer and host for the comedy variety show podcast, Starlight Radio Dreams which is available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.
Thank you for joining us here at Gateways. We’re going to keep the stories coming so keep an eye on Otherworld Theatre on social media for all our upcoming digital events and developments.