Back around my birthday, I ran a fundraiser for RIP Medical Debt, which buys up the medical debt of Americans for pennies on the dollar, and having done so, erases it — meaning those people, previously despairing of the cost of their medical care, just didn’t have to worry about it anymore. I noted that if the amount raised was $5k, I would write a short story, and if it reached $10k, I’d do audio. Well, we hit about $18k, so, uh, yeah. I was gonna have to pay up.
And so, here it is, and an interesting bit it is — I mentioned yesterday, when I wrote about writing The Last Emperox, my upcoming novel, that I sometimes write reference pieces for myself so I can give some context to myself about what I’m writing. Those pieces usually are never seen by others, but they’re useful for me, and they make a better book for everyone else.
This is one of those pieces. In the book, humans get around space via “The Flow” — a “metacosmological multidimensional space” that’s not of this universe but lets people get around in it at multiples of the speed of light. I decided I needed to give The Flow an origin story, as well as understand how people discovered it, so I wrote this piece for myself, which I am sharing with you now.
Because the piece is not in the book, this origin story of The Flow is not “canonical” — which is to say, while I wrote it to understand the universe I created, I reserve the right in the future to ignore it entirely or in parts if, for the purposes of writing a new book in the universe, I decide to go in another direction. To that respect, you could consider it “fan fiction” of my own universe. Which I think is pretty nifty.
So: If you donated to RIP Medical Debt for my birthday: This is for you. Thank you for being awesome.
In addition to this fulfilling my promise to write a short story for the RIP Medical Debt donators, today over on Twitter I passed the 170,000 followers mark — which makes this story a pretty nifty way to mark that occasion as well. If you follow me on Twitter: Hey, thanks. I appreciate it.
And now, without further ado, our story. The audio version is up at the top, and the text version follows.
THE ORIGIN OF THE FLOW
by John Scalzi
13.7 billion years ago, there was an event that was commonly known as “The Big Bang.”
(On first blush this might appear to be going back a little too far, but stick with this for a moment.)
After the briefest of moments after the Big Bang, it’s generally understood how the universe proceeded. There was the appearance of everything that would ever exist in the universe in a tight, hot little space, a brief but significant expansion phase, and then from there it’s atomic creation: hydrogen and some helium turning into stars which turn into heavier elements which turn into other stars and rocks and planets and air and people and so on. Which is fine as far as it goes.
Of course, it was not as far as it goes. As the Big Bang birthed the universe, other cosmological entities, not of the universe but concurrent with it and in some cases coincident with it, sprang into multidimensional being and evolved as the universe evolved, although not always in the same ways or at the same pace. The universe, despite the roots of its name, was not alone.
Understandably human beings, and presumably any other intelligent species that might have also been developing along the entropic vector known as “time,” could be forgiven for thinking it was alone, and having a parochial view of things. For most of their time as a species, humans could only apprehend, understand and respond to the physical world directly surrounding them, a planet filled with water and atmosphere and predators. It was only after the species developed the capacity for abstract thought, language and mathematics that its understanding could contemplate the possibility that its planet, much less its solar system, galaxy and universe, was not all there was to the story.
Even then, and even after their capacity for thought was augmented by machines that would eventually do nearly all the heavy lifting, humans could only theorize that things beyond their universe might exist. This was for the same reason that their ancestors could only see to what was directly in front of them: They couldn’t escape their own frame of reference. The universe, as vast as it was – vaster even than could be observed – contained them utterly, a prison extending billions of lightyears in every direction.
And so it continued, until Tirzah Dalimunthe, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, came to the realization that her dissertation work – on an excitingly new and profoundly abstruse branch of mathematics describing wildly theoretical structures called “metabranes” – accidentally, incidentally and indeed almost insultingly casually suggested that at least some metabrane structures actually existed and intruded into the known universe – a fact that could shake the very foundations of mathematics, physics and indeed reality as it was then understood.
Or would have, had Dalimunthe given a shit about it, which she didn’t, because she was desperately trying to finish her fucking dissertation, which was about something else entirely. She couldn’t just abandon years of research and antagonize her dissertation advisor, who she was pretty sure hated her guts anyway, on the mere suggestion of metabranes maybe poking into normal spacetime. That was fine and all, but what she really wanted to do was get her doctorate, find a teaching job, marry her fiancé and go on a honeymoon in Anguilla with nothing to do but drink fruity drinks and sex up her new spouse.
And indeed Dalimunthe did all of those things, in roughly that order. Then she lived, mostly happily, for another 53 years, having forgotten entirely about emergent metabrane structures. Good for her.
Twenty years after Dalimunthe was cremated, and her ashes covertly spread near a beach bar in Anguilla, there was another doctoral student, this one at the Freising-Weihenstephan branch of Technische Universität München, who came across her dissertation while searching for supporting material for their own nascent doctoral project. Unlike Dalimunthe, Korel Mainz had not already invested years to a particular topic, so when they followed the math on her discovery, they were more than willing to invest the time, and the university’s resources, in building it out fully.
Six years later, Mainz’s dissertation exploded across the fields of mathematics and physics and made them into their generation’s rock star scientist. Ten years after that Mainz picked up their Nobel Prize in physics, following the Fields-Lee medal in mathematics they had picked up the year before. A year after that, while attending symposium on the rapidly growing field of metabrane research, Mainz stepped off the curb to take a picture of the newly refurbished Empire State Building and walked backward into a bus, killing them instantly.
Two years after that fatal vehicular embrace, there was a statue of Mainz on the Technische Universität München main campus, and a final paper, revised and finished by their post-docs, which posited an instance of metabrane intrusion within the solar system, positioned, for mathematical reasons that only six people on the planet could genuinely follow, 35 astronomical units away, well below the plane of the ecliptic, in the direction of the constellation Tucana.
Sixteen years later, the Dalimunthe I spacecraft (so named because Korel Mainz was not an asshole and quite willingly gave credit where it was due, propelling the late Dalimunthe into minor posthumous fame) arrived at Mainz’s Rift, as the metabrane intrusion was colloquially called. The Rift couldn’t be seen from Earth, or in the Dalimunthe spacecraft’s cameras and sensors. The Dalimunthe rocketed at sixty thousand kilometers an hour toward a spot described only by math, of unknown size and dimension, reached it, and disappeared.
Some minutes later, allowing for the speed of light, there was champagne being cracked open in the Dalimunthe’s mission control center. Humanity had proven the existence of metabrane structures by blindly chucking a spacecraft into one to see what would happen. Someone in the Dalimunthe mission control noted that humans had effectively littered outside the bounds of the universe. Someone else dumped their champagne on his head.
Where that litter went was the topic of intense discussion among metabrane scientists for the next thirty years, with the field schisming into two camps, the ones who theorized there was a there there, and the ones who theorized there was no there there. The former camp hypothesized the Tucana Metabrane was actually another universe with more or less the same design as our own, whereas the latter camp laughed in their faces for being naïve enough to believe that any alternate universe-sized structure would operate under the same rules.
The two sides yelled at each other at annual conferences until a physicist named Diego Vasquez, of the “no there there” camp, presented a paper that posited that by wrapping a bubble of local space-time around a spacecraft, it might enter the Mainz Rift, study what was there, and exit to transmit the data. Everyone agreed this was an intriguing idea. Now all they needed to do was figure out how to create and maintain a bubble of local space time.
Which only took 58 years. Along the way several of the “failed” avenues of scientific exploration into doing so created more efficient spacefaring propulsion systems, the “push” fields which simulated gravity (and kept crews inside spaceships from being crushed by high-gravity acceleration) and a number of advances in computational science. While the scientists were working away on the Bubble Problem, commercial spaceflight, exploration and habitation took off in a significant way. When the Bubble Problem was solved and an exploratory spaceship (the Vasquez) prepped for the rift, it did not launch from Earth on the top of the rocket years before reaching its destination, but was ferried there in a cargo ship – a Lockheed/Wu Tacoma-class hauler, in point of fact – which reached the Mainz Rift from Earth orbit in thirteen days.
The plan was for the Vasquez to enter the rift, spend six hours (of subjective, relative time as counted off by the craft’s internal chronometer) collecting data, and return the way it came, if possible. As backup, an antenna aimed in the direction of a science station stationary a third of an AU over the sun’s north pole (again, relative to the Vasquez’s position as it entered the rift) would squirt data back into space. If time worked weirdly in the rift – or didn’t work at all – and the Vasquez popped out months or years later, it was designed to locate the sun, reorient, and hail the science station and start sending data.
Which it did, sixteen years and a couple of months later.
The good news was that the emergency reorient protocol worked; the Vasquez found the sun, deduced where the science station would be, and the data streamed in strong and uncorrupted.
The bad news was the data was useless; whatever was in the Mainz Rift was not observable by any of the instruments the Vasquez carried with it. The “no there there” crowd was smug about this.
The weird news was that the Vasquez’s signal was coming from AD Leonis, a red dwarf star sixteen lightyears from Earth.
The fact that the signal was coming from AD Leonis was weird in itself; what was even weirder was the fact that the signal was received just a little over sixteen years after the Vasquez had disappeared. The signal in itself had taken sixteen years to reach Earth, coursing across the heavens at the speed of light.
Which meant the Vasquez had reached AD Leonis a little over two months after it disappeared into the Mainz Rift.
To do that, it would have had to have traveled about ninety times the speed of light.
Which is just not done.
In our universe, at least.