The Singularity of Louisa Lindsay
by Steve Bates
The stars and galaxies blur into pearly phantoms as fatigue exacts its toll. Amateur astronomer Olivia Crowe blinks, pulls back from the eyepiece and reaches for her coffee mug, only to discover that she drained it hours ago. Rubbing her fingers together against the cold, she considers abandoning the quest for the night. But no book, no re-run on the telly, can compare with the mystery of the firmament.
Three comets, an asteroid and a supernova: not a bad collection of trophies for 16 years of scouting the heavens from the remote town of Oberon, Australia. Lately, however, computer programs that analyze images from the most powerful telescopes have denied her the exhilaration and glory of being the first to identify a visitor from beyond.
She rubs a hand through her red, close-cropped hair, adjusts her eyeglasses, and returns to duty. Locating Hydra, she adjusts the view down to Centaurus, one of her favorite hunting grounds. Nothing but the usual taunting black gaps between familiar features in the constellation. No infinitesimal streak of light where none had appeared before. But something is not quite right. That is usually the first hint of a discovery.
“Show yourself, mate.”
She focuses on the brilliant stars Alpha Centauri A and B and their dimmer red dwarf neighbor, Proxima Centauri. Only, there is no Proxima Centauri. Something must be occluding it, rendering it perfectly dark.
She scoots across the pitch-black patio and fires up her laptop. Fingers flying over the keyboard, she logs on to the Pan-STARRS1 database and pulls up images of the Proxima region that were captured by major observatories over the previous three nights. Perhaps a gas giant just passed in front of the star.
Whatever is occluding Proxima Centauri, it has been doing so for at least three — make that four — nights now. What could be that large, or that slow-moving?
She draws a breath and exhales a cloud of frosty air to control the surge of adrenaline. Just to make sure that she isn’t losing her mind, she calls up a website that shows the positions of the major stars in the constellation, unchanged since the second century, when Ptolemy catalogued them. She checks her scope and the Pan-STARRS1 images again. And again.
On a mountainside southwest of Tucson, Arizona, the cellphone of Kitt Peak Observatory Assistant Director Benjamin Miller will not stop ringing on his nightstand. Miller has worked until 3:00 a.m. and is hoping to sleep in. Only on the fourth call does he reach for the device.
“This better be good.”
“It’s gone, Bennie,” says Crowe. “Proxima Centauri is just gone.”
* * *
“I represent the Suffer the Children Fund. I was hoping you might contribute something to help feed starving kids around the world.” The Swarthmore College student, volunteering for the summer, can’t help wondering how much money this old woman could spare. The shabby picket fence seems to be standing thanks only to the support of wild chicory plants, whose sparse flowers mirror the cerulean sky.
A generous July breeze propels the foul scent of skunk cabbage and spurts of cottonlike milkweed seeds across the severely rutted driveway. A hint of metal — perhaps part of a car or the remains of a bicycle — flashes among invasive weeds occupying territory that was once a lawn. Cabbage moth butterflies rise in a spiral mating dance before melting among walnut tree leaves like late spring snowflakes.
The farmhouse beyond is a portrait of neglect, with massive Virginia creeper vines threatening to pull down the once-blue walls, an upstairs window patched with cardboard, and holiday icicle lights dangling from the edge of the rusty tin roof.
The student departed the almost civilized town of Culpeper, Virginia this morning, wearing pricey shoes and a black dress more appropriate for a sorority party than this route, which wends along paved and gravel roads that dissect endless rolling fields. They’ll never believe this back at school, she thinks.
“You want me to give money to children?” Louisa Lindsay, the sole resident of the farm, is more incredulous than defensive. At age 53, Louisa appears to be hewn from native bedrock; lines in her face reveal eons of weathering. Years of hand washing have robbed her simple clothes of most of their luster.
“It’s our civic duty,” says the visitor. “If you knew of someone, maybe even a relative, who didn’t have enough to eat, wouldn’t you want to help them?”
“I mean, there are thousands of kids, maybe millions, who go to bed hungry every night.”
Louisa dismisses the student with a casual wave of her hand, as if swatting a gnat, and turns her back.
The dust settles as the young woman’s car descends the hill, and the crunching of tires on gravel is swallowed by the rustling of leaves. The only unnatural sounds to reach Louisa emanate from teenage drag racers out on Route 17 and a propeller plane dusting Frank Wilson’s soybeans.
Louisa removes three letters from her mailbox and rambles over the crumbling concrete sidewalk, onto her front porch, past the parlor and down the hall to the kitchen, where a cup of tepid tea bides its time. In the sink, dirty dishes draw the attention of a solitary fly. Stacks of boxes, magazines and other detritus of decades past cover large parts of the stained linoleum floor. Cobwebs like fine lace shroud the room’s corners.
Without even a glance at the letters, Louisa tosses them onto a convenient pile and opens the fridge. Aside from a few condiments, her choices are fried chicken and strawberry ice cream. She opts for the latter.
* * *
Alpha Centauri A and B are the next stars to vanish from the night sky. Barnard’s Star and Luhman 16A and 16B, which also were relatively close to Earth, go missing as well. Science nets and blogs explode with theories. Clusters of dark matter. Miniature black holes. Alien weapons. Rents in the space-time fabric. When journalists from reputable publications contact NASA for comment, the spokepersons chuckle. It must be flaws in the telescopes, they say. Or maybe weather balloons.
* * *
On the fifth try, Louisa transformed a sheet of paper into four human figures holding hands side by side. Her pudgy five-year old fingers left Daddy at full size and trimmed Mommy to a slightly reduced stature.
Lester was tricky; he was six years older than Louisa but nowhere near as big as Daddy. As she rotated the paper and worked carefully, her brother became smaller, smaller still. Then there was Louisa. She was nearly whittled down to the proper dimensions when — ouch! — the artist accidentally cut herself. She ran for a Band-Aid.
Next the Crayolas came out. Daddy should be deep blue; Mommy must be pink; big brother would be, hmm, yellow. And Louisa? She could remain white. No one would notice her. No one would bother her.
Louisa waited until after dinner, when Daddy had retreated to his study, where he was flipping through a newspaper while a radio mourned softly. The dimly lit room reeked of furniture polish and stale cigarettes.
“Look, Daddy,” she said after finding the courage to open the door. “It’s us. I made our family.”
“Come here.” She approached his overstuffed chair meekly and displayed her handiwork. A lanky man with a pencil-thin moustache and eyeglasses always drooped low on his nose, her father grabbed the paper without looking at Louisa.
“Hah. What a joke!” The derision hit the girl like a punch to the gut. He tossed the figures onto the floor. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time, child? Maybe if you learned to cook...”
The remainder of the tirade was lost as Louisa scampered down the hall, past the silent statue of her mother, past Louisa’s own bedroom. She flew down the basement stairs, opened a latticed wooden door and sat cross-legged in the narrow space next to the furnace.
She didn’t have to wait long for the feared click. The machine wheezed ominously, its vents and lights assuming the face of a fiend out of a Halloween story. She closed her eyes and held her ground.
An hour later, Lester tiptoed down the stairs and fumbled for the chain that illuminated the basement’s moldy cinder-block walls and almost-empty floor. Already succumbing to acne, Lester was trapped between a harsh childhood and the unfathomable world of adults. Louisa was aware of the whippings in the bedroom across the hall, but she had never heard her brother cry out.
As Lester entered the furnace room and locked eyes with her, words started to tumble from his lips. But they were washed away by tides of indecision and cowardice. He looked down, shuffled his feet, then left Louisa to her demons.
“Turn out the light,” she implored.
* * *
The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency is in the hot seat. Ronald Hendrickson has taken his place in the Pentagon conference room more than 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled briefing, but no inspiration, no positive spin presents itself as he stares at his folder and its labels: “Top Secret” and “For Eyes Only.”
The bureaucrats and military personnel arrive by twos and threes, eyes riveted straight ahead or on the floor. They take seats, shuffle papers and check phones at least once a minute. Finally, the general enters, prompting leather chairs to slide back and salutes to be executed. The room is warm, almost hot, under the glare of intense ceiling light panels. The walls are filled with maps, video screens and framed watercolors of taciturn warriors.
“At ease,” says General Terrence Darnielle as he leans over the edge of the polished hardwood table and makes eye contact each participant in turn. “Who could be behind this?”
“General, I wish we knew,” says Hendrickson. “For that matter, we don’t even know what it is.” He picks up a remote. The overhead lights dim and a diagram of the solar system bursts into life at the front of the room.
“Beyond all known planets lies a region of icy rocks called the Oort Cloud. The Hubble Space Telescope and one of our Voyager probes confirm that substantial portions of the Oort Cloud are disappearing at an alarming rate. Whatever the phenomenon is, we know that it is coming this way.”
“Could it be a secret weapon being tested by the Russians or the Chinese?” The general begins to pace, hands clasped tightly behind him.
“We can’t rule out anyone. But there’s no evidence to point to any foreign actor or any known terrorist group. In fact, intelligence suggests that other governments are every bit as — well, scared — as we are.”
“Have any more stars vanished?” Darnielle inquires.
“Yes. The region of lost stars is expanding rapidly outward as well. But we are not sure exactly how many have disappeared. The ones that we know of are all within a few hundred light-years of us. It’s possible that many more stars beyond these have also perished. We don’t know yet.”
Hendrickson crosses his arms. “The most amazing thing is that these stars are not dying in any manner that astronomers have seen before. Typically, an expiring sun goes out as a brilliant supernova. These stars are simply there one night and gone the next.”
Silence suffuses the room. The general tries to gather himself, but he is teetering on an abyss. A man who takes inordinate pride in his ability to craft a solution to any problem has encountered a threat for which he has no definition and no response. His tone becomes subdued, almost childlike. “Find out what this is and who is behind it. And please do so quickly.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Steve Bates