“Croplis’s Error” by George Cox
A few solar cycles after the Fourth Galactic Congress swore itself in, an inquisitive astronomer made a curious little discovery in the Galaxy M33.
Observing the latest image transmissions and adjusting the controls that influence the direction and mobility of the omniscopic ultralens, Director Eishanati Croplis pondered the news he had just heard over the network audios. Another scientist had been found guilty of insubordination and now awaited sentencing. In a humble, monotone voice, the electric herald reminded listeners of the Social Obligation Resolution that effectively banned all disloyalty, rebellion, or subversion in regard to any State mandate. Anyone challenging congressional rule earned Class B retribution: banishment to the cold, brutal penal colony on the moon. If rebellion resulted in the death of a congress member or citizen within the protective political sphere, the perpetrator received Class A judgement, a lethal injection of Annihilant.
Less than one solar cycle after its appointment, the FGC had directed its politics on space. New legislation had spawned two disastrous offspring: the Galactic Guard, a battalion of militant astronauts that policed both the lunar penal colony as well as any congressional project; and the Space Seed project, dozens of poorly conceived and unsoundly constructed biospheres floating endlessly throughout the galaxy. To Croplis, the new Congress’ agenda was too risky and very expensive, believing state revenue should be spent on less expensive, more immediately satisfying exploration, such as the superorbital omniscopic ultralens. And while he had a substantial congressional budget, he felt he needed more.
As director of the Ultralens project, Croplis held full responsibilit for calibrating and testing the systems of the omniscope and recording some deep space images for analysis. His assistant, Meelan Enjuri, crafted elegant computer code that mapped the interiors of the neighboring galaxies. Together, they studied the frenzied activity around a galactic core, created an image map of all significant findings, and reported any anomalies discovered within the data. Other junior astronomers toiled on juvenile projects like surveying the Centauri system, but Croplis and Meelan peered into the hearts of galaxies.
Today, he would shuffle off any congressional confines and submit willingly to true exploration. His ultralens will unlock the true nature of the universe, and this truth would literally set him free.
Croplis stared into the blank view scope on the console, the fingers of his right hand tapping gently against the smooth ceramic surface of his workstation. He did not hear Meelan walk up next to him. Slender, wearing the standard, tight fitting, silver blue lab scrubs of a junior astronomer, she held two porcelain cups of hot black tea, slivers of yellow-green herbal stimulants floating about the rim. With her head slightly bowed, she offered her superior one of the cups, long spirals of gray steam swirling delightfully before her sky-blue, speckled eyes. He smiled at her as he took the cup and sipped, wincing slightly.
Croplis liked Meelan, by far his favorite assistant, and it did not hurt that she was a first-year graduate with honors from his own prestigious alma mater. While he had never once fraternized with any of his female subordinates (congressional retribution Class-D, punishable by a grade-two lapse in pay), he did sometimes consider that she would be worth losing a week’s currency. Her physical beauty was easily eclipsed by her sharp intellect.
He set the cup down, quickly dismissing his momentary fantasies with a wave of his hand. Now was not the time for daydreams.
“It looks like SOUL is awaiting its next command, sir.” Meelan’s voice was music, a tonal blend of birdsong and feminine innocence. “Should we input coordinates now?”
Meelan often affectionately referred to the superorbital omniscopic ultralens as SOUL, sometimes claiming it was a device for peering into the heart of God. Croplis shared Meelan’s acronymic sentiment, if not her religious point of view, for he had realized long ago that observing the universe from orbital scopes was the only way to truly observe the ever-growing and ever-changing eternal—what some might innocently refer to as The Almighty. For Croplis, God is the universe. And since man’s ability to travel between the stars was limited to ill-conceived biospheres, Croplis believed that watching the cosmos unfold through the eyes of the largest omniscopes ever built was the best, most efficient, way to travel the stars.
“Allow me,” Croplis announced, pushing his warm cup away from the control board. “Let’s see what the SOUL has discovered.”
Meelan nodded subordinately, taking a step back. Pecking away at the keyboard, Croplis bypassed the security lockouts in a manner that seemed to Meelan (and the FGC) that he was making a routine check on SOUL’s onboard systems while he recorded the black hole’s images bouncing against the gigantic mirror at the speed of light.
With a few keystrokes he tapped into the Senate power grid, maximizing all focal enhancers and optical power outputs on SOUL, directing the massive mirrors at the galactic core of M33. Croplis knew he was exposing himself, a fatal risk to deviate from the currently approved charting operations. Yet he pushed forward. Within seconds he had aligned SOUL to the glowing central regions of M33. A long moment later the view scope shimmered for an instant, resolving itself into a clear view of M33’s black hole. The large dark gap in the center of a bright whirlpool of collapsing light held fast to the multitude of elongated spirals of white-hot brilliance ineffectually clawing their way out of the inescapable gravity well. The black hole seemed to consume everything in its path, all light, all matter, everything.
Meelan sighed. It was her first time witnessing the destructive beauty.
Of course, Croplis had seen the image of the black hole a dozen times (never illegally, of course!), always the same conflict between light and gravity, the same inevitable chaotic dance. But with the added power from the Senate grid, he now peered at a closer, more focused image, a raw look into the deep pupil of this awesome, black divinity. With a turn of a dial, the filtering system activated and all observable white light vanished from the image.
He gasped. His brain told him he should be looking at an almost blank screen except for a faint halo of violet rising around the accretion disc of the singularity. Instead he gazed at the impossible. Through the image enhancers, Croplis gazed at the illogical picture before him. Slowly, winding its way toward the gaping dark mouth of the galaxy was a dusky shadow of blackness. It seemed that something not quite as dim as the deep dark gravity well was folding itself into the eternal void.
He blinked hard.
“I have to warn them,” Croplis blurted out. Then he instinctively covered his mouth
with his hand, mumbling, “I must.”
Meelan put her free hand on the director’s shoulder. “Warn them about what, sir. What exactly are we looking at?”
Croplis viewed the screen suspiciously, as if he were unsure that the images were accurate. What he saw perplexed the astronomer deeply. Image after image displayed the same truth: that space itself was being sucked into the black hole.
“Excuse me, Meelan,” he politely said, gently pushing her aside as he reached behind her to another console. He ran a few ultra-spectral analyses of the images and conducted some mathematical computations trying to explain what he was seeing. He even rubbed his eyes vigorously, hoping to clear this illusion from his vision.
“How can I help, sir?”
He ignored her request and walked back to the display screen. With true scientific determinism he glanced at the view scope. The singularity seemed insatiable; not only light, but everything connected with it became lost in the vast churning void. He knew what he witnessed was impossible, against all known laws of astrophysics and quantum relativity. Even though the few electrons and lost photons scattered over the many kilometers of space constitute the limited mass of the cosmic abyss, Croplis knew that the great nothingness of interstellar space could not be influenced; one could not move something that did not exist.
Or does space even exist? Does interstellar space have substance or mass, some hidden energy? Is it tangible?
Questions reeled in his mind, answers as far away as the churning black hole. The image in the view scope impertinently defied his rational consideration. He tried to infuse some ancient philosophy with cosmological physics, hoping to gain a different perspective on the situation. However, platonic ideals and existentialism do not accommodate the subtleties of quantum realities. To make his report to the people, he had to collect more substantial evidence.
So he upped the ante.
“You want to help, Meelan? Before you go home I need you to write a quick program.”
Croplis’s official shift had ended hours ago, having sent Meelan to her residence away from the observatory. Her latest program was working overtime, smoothly coordinating all possible omniscopic lenses scattered along the periphery of the solar system, connecting each lens and simultaneously commanding them to point to and focus their massive mirrors on the galactic center of M33. Alone in the silent lab, Croplis anxiously viewed each image processed into the view scope, rejuvenated by what SOUL was discovering. He was unconcerned that he had used Meelan sealed her fate by cajoling her to violate the Social Obligation Resolution. He subconsciously knew that he was doing the right thing.
As the computer labored, he leaned closer towards the view scope, all his scientific patience ebbing quickly. Even though both his career and life were over, he still had a little time before they came to get him. Since he was the director, he was separated by many administrative levels from the rest of his subordinates at the observatory, including Meelan.
He would be arrested last.
But sacrificing a few lives, including his own, was well worth it for discovering the truth. In a way, he felt quite lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn the ultimate truth about the nature of the universe: that it, like all life everywhere, must also eventually die.
He thought about the light streaming in from the view scope, million-year-old photons exploding in the gravity well long before man struggled out of the primordial ooze. Croplis tried unsuccessfully to calm his rapid pulse. He knew he, personally, wouldn’t drown in the mysterious force of the black void, that his meaningless, brief existence on Earth would end long before the outer edge of the Milky Way’s spiral arm turned one millionth of a revolution around its own singularity. But the haunting image still troubled him. He realized the finality of everything. All things–light, energy, matter, space, even the sacred Laws of Constants–everything met the same fate within the bowels of this hungry, awesome, radiant beast.
The computer buzzed, saving each critical image in its vast storage banks. The first two images showed the gaping abyss in remarkable clarity, a peculiarly twisted red-yellow-orange ribbon surrounding its event horizon. The third image revealed a unique wide-angle perspective of the black hole swirling in the center of a magnificently bright radiation pool composed of billions of suns crammed into a five-thousand-light-year section of the galaxy. The fourth image was unfortunately blurred, too fuzzy to discern any details. However, the fifth image was unmistakably eerie and inconceivable.
Hanging impossibly in front of the dark gravity cradle was something massive. He had missed it at first, probably because the filtering system from just one omniscope was insufficient. Image after image flashed by in greater detail, each one confirming Croplis’s fears. In the fifteenth picture he could make out what looked like large geometric shapes imprinted across the surface of the large cylindrical object.
Croplis’s heart skipped a beat.
The spaceship must have been truly massive, an ancient architectural wonder carrying long dead, ill-fated passengers. Of course, if the Theory of Quantum Deceleration is in fact true, then those passengers could possibly still be alive, hopelessly and eternally plunging into the rapidly spinning nothingness. He scrutinized each image, patiently waiting for the next to appear. In between images, Croplis tried to ascertain the purpose of the million-year-old thing. Where did it come from and where was it going? How long—if such a question could be answered—was it hopelessly hanging above the void?
It was almost morning, the Galactic Guard would probably be knocking down the observatory’s gates to any minute. Until then, Croplis continued to study images steadily being processed by SOUL. The sixtieth image, the most refined render yet, clearly showed a broad, bluish beam emanated from an endpoint on the strange ship. Croplis blinked twice, making sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. However, the image didn’t change; the ship seemed to be flooding the singularity with some sort of energy. His fingers maneuvered frantically across the control board striving for the best possible resolution. The next three images confirmed his belief–the ship was indeed firing an energy weapon at the center of the black hole, but for what purpose? What did that alien intelligence hope to gain?
A muted explosion sounded outside – the gates were being breached. Suddenly he realized what he had to do. He cut the power on the computer board only, allowing SOUL and its companions to continue to collect the ancient light. As the computer rebooted, he punched a few commands and entered the setup mode. The computer asked for authorization and when satisfied allowed Croplis to reprogram its primary function to lock out anyone trying shut off the system. In his haste he overlooked the command line that initiated digital recording procedures. A few short minutes later, the computer was again synthesizing and printing an array of impossible images.
The first one he saw revealed a horror he could not imagine. It showed a great gap in space, as if the black hole had made one final desperate gulp before receding upon itself. No matter how he manipulated the picture, the quantum singularity simply was not there anymore. He risked manipulating some of the other omniscopic lens to offer different angles and programmed the computer to capture the widest possible field of stars across a ten-thousand-light-year cross section of the galactic center. While the first image was rendering, he performed X-ray and quantum signature analyses, each one signifying the same result: The black hole was gone!
Every subsequent image confirmed his inconceivable conclusion: all the stars seemed to fly apart in a confused dance away from what had moments ago been an infinitely dense core. Brilliant flashes blotted out the chaotic regression of the stars in the backfield and those in the foreground bent sharply towards unknown directions. Light was now autonomous, free to roam undaunted. As the tenth image passed his gaze, Croplis was certain that the alien ship had performed a truly miraculous feat. Whoever collapsed the singularity was indeed a power higher than any he could ever possibly imagine, or much less understand.
A much closer explosion shook the inner walls of the lab.
After supplying scores of images from varying angles and field perspectives of M33, the computer system connected to SOUL suffered an abrupt power surge and seconds later went dead. At the same time, a dull thud emanated from behind the lab’s main door. Croplis ran to the window, flinging it open, revealing stars that shone brightly above the atmospheric haze. The observatory was situated at the summit of a mountain, well above any light pollution emanating from the well-illuminated cities below. Of course, its location was strictly coincidence and unnecessary, since all omniscopic ultralenses were located tens of thousands of kilometers beyond orbit of Pluto. Out on the ledge, Croplis poised himself against the wall, positioning his head so that the light from the window didn’t obstruct his untainted view of the heavens.
The main door splintered, wood and brass shrapnel flying across the consoles. Croplis tensed, backing up as much as he could against the wall. Soon one of the Galactic Guard poked his helmeted head out the window, scanning as much of the area allowed by his cumbersome electronic headdress. Croplis held his breath.
The officer didn’t notice the short figure leaning nervously against the wall and closed the window as he backed into the room. Croplis took a deep breath and slowly turned to face the wall. Then he raised his head to see the brilliant night sky above him. The disappearance of M33’s super massive black hole millions of light years away—millions of years ago—was as unspectacular as his own imminent death. No pyrotechnics, no awe-inspiring explosion, not even a faint whimper.
As he leaned away from the wall, Croplis could easily see the thousands of sparkling blues and reddish white flickers that made up the cosmic chorus. They shone with the confidence of millions of years of awesome power. They all spoke the same illuminating language, teaching us about the heavens, sharing its peculiar secrets, and warning us to stay away. He knew that if people looked hard, they would see the message clearly. The truth was so unmistakably clear, and so indisputably final.
The universe, dying slowly since its birth, could still be saved.
Halfway through his freefall, Croplis had a horrifying thought—he had forgotten to record and save the images depicting the black hole’s demise. Congress would have pictures of space falling into the gravity well, of a huge strange object with even stranger exterior markings, and a bluish light beam falling into the singularity. But they would not have the final and more significant images, the ones that illustrated a new truth—that the heat death of the universe could be avoided. The world would continue to believe the old fallacy that everything dies; his sacrifice would have been for naught.
He fell below the rim of the encircling mountains, his last breath cool and curiously comforting as he vanished into silent blackness.