Authors: Larry Enright
by Larry Enright
Copyright © 2012 by Larry Enright
All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced, displayed, modified or distributed without the express prior written permission of the copyright holder. For permission, contact [email protected]
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design © 2012 Larry Enright
For the 6.8 billion
With Special Thanks to Cicely and Dan
The world ends for someone every day. One day it will end for everyone.
The Smartest Man on the Planet
Dr. Philip Loeb was a theoretical mathematician. He had always said, without pretension of modesty, that he was the smartest man on the planet. At eighteen, he earned his first Ph.D. in mathematics, and three years later, a second in astrophysics. He published his first scholarly work at the age of fifteen and his first best seller, “One Galaxy” at twenty-one. His rise to fame was meteoric, and with it came myriad honors and memberships in every major scientific society in the world. The university where he was employed provided him with a spacious office, a full professorship, a token course load of one honors class a semester, free lodging, and a salary that was a king’s ransom.
But for all his intelligence and all his fame, Dr. Philip Loeb could not make the trains run on time. His was late that day and he had missed his connecting flight to Philadelphia for a scientific conference at which he was to lecture. “We Are Not Alone” — that was the title he had given it to attract more interest — but in truth it was a dry dissertation on the technical aspects of faster-than-light space travel. That was his specialty — the mathematics of the folding of space and time.
For many years, Loeb and most of the scientific community believed it more likely than not that life existed on other worlds throughout the universe. The 2011 discovery by NASA of planet Kepler-22b had all but closed that discussion. It was the first known planet in the universe other than Earth where liquid water could exist on its surface and where the temperatures were earthlike, and therefore, where human life could exist. NASA had already cataloged a thousand others like it since the Kepler-22b discovery, but, as exciting as this was, it would neither lead to further government funding nor to manned explorations. The reason was simple — Kepler-22b, the closest of them, was a staggering six hundred light years away.
But Loeb’s theories changed all that. Uncovering the secret to folding space and time made the distance between worlds meaningless and time irrelevant. The six hundred light years of space between Earth and Kepler-22b could simply be folded over, and man would be there in an instant. He could even be there yesterday if he so chose, strike a match, return to Earth, and watch it ignite six hundred years from today. That was the paradox of space and time. If he was right, and Loeb always was, faster-than-light travel would recapture the imaginations and purse strings of a public that had lost its taste for riding the carousel of expensive and boring unmanned missions. The brass ring was a virtually limitless universe of raw materials for whoever got to them first, countless worlds for a desperately overpopulated planet to expand into, and who knows how many intelligent civilizations waiting to become the world’s next customers.
The possibilities were endless, but the one that fascinated Loeb, and the one for which he was publicly ridiculed, was that some other civilization already knew the secret, and they had found us before we found them. It was only logical. Life-sustaining planets have existed for billions of years, modern day Earth humans for a mere two hundred thousand. If we were on the verge of discovering the secret of faster-than-light travel, would it not follow that a planet with even a one or two hundred-year head start on us would already know it?
That kind of thinking did not sit well with most people. Somewhere in its brief history the human race had acquired a belief that it alone was chosen to rule the world, and once worlds beyond Earth were discovered, to rule them as well. Loeb’s intimation that things might be otherwise was heresy and became an embarrassment to the university. That kind of talk put him in the same category as every other crackpot claiming to have seen a UFO or a creature from another planet. He was no better than the nutcase who said he was abducted by aliens and probed and genetically altered before being returned to his family. The university was forced into damage control mode. Loeb was not required to recant outright, but if he wanted to continue in their employ, he needed to equivocate, become more ambiguous on the subject, withdraw from the public eye for a time, and above all stay out of the papers. Loeb did all that, but it did not change his conviction that Earth was being visited on a regular basis by a higher intelligence.
The airline agent was very accommodating. She had read his first book and enjoyed it because it was the first science book she could understand, and she liked the pictures. She got him to autograph his worthless plane ticket for her while she found an alternate flight on a helicopter that would get him to his destination sooner because it would land on the roof of the conference center, not twenty miles away at the airport. Loeb didn’t like flying and he particularly didn’t like flying in helicopters. They made him sick to his stomach for hours afterwards.
This was what was on his mind that particular afternoon as he neared the conclusion of his lecture.
“Given the data obtained from recent discoveries with respect to creating an infinitesimal black hole under laboratory conditions and given the calculated gravitation pull on the space within the event horizon of the created singularity, and if you properly interpret these equations I have developed from that data, it becomes clear that faster-than-light speeds can be achieved by the folding of space and possibly time as well.”
At exactly 12:21:12 p.m. the slide with his equations on it rippled like a pebble in a pond. His hands shook, and he felt sick to his stomach. His heart pounded on his eardrums. Loeb closed his eyes, the moment passed, and he refocused on his notes. When he looked up again to ask if anyone had any questions, he found the auditorium empty. A minute ago, the room’s three hundred seats had been filled with coughing, sneezing, throat clearing attendees pretending to understand theoretical mathematics. Now they were all gone, not gotten up and walked out on him gone — he would have heard that. And not up in a puff of smoke gone — he would have seen that and smelled it. No, they had simply vanished, as had everyone else in the conference center, and everyone else on the street outside, and everyone in every other place he looked. Gone.
He panicked, but panic gave way to questions and hypotheses. For Loeb, the world had always been about solving equations and plugging in numbers. The world’s number was not up, one simple fact told him otherwise — not everyone had vanished. He had not. Therefore, it was not the end. Therefore, there had to be others, people with something in common, some factor he had not yet perceived, something that kept them and him from being swept away into the cosmic trash can with the rest of humanity.
He tried to contact his colleagues and friends around the globe. Web servers were up. The Internet was functioning. He had five bars on his phone. Everything was working, but no one was answering. Loeb wandered the city streets. It seemed normal enough: traffic lights told him when to walk and when to wait, tinny holiday music enticed him to come into the department stores for some last-minute shopping, and neon signs seared their impressions into his brain so that he would remember to tell his friends over dinner that night. But a snarl of stalled cars and busses filled every street on every block as if everyone in the city had simply shut off their engines and left.
Near City Hall, Loeb stopped at a newsstand. Under a portable radio spilling static into the frigid afternoon was wedged the last copy of the
. Its headline filled the front page: “12|21|12” — the time of the event, the time the human race had vanished, but it was also the date, today’s date. Boxed in red off to one side were the top stories: “Doomsday Today — details on page 6, Mayan Calendar Predicts End of the World — exclusive photos on page 4, Mayor to Attend Post-apocalyptic Open House — find this and other fun things to do in the Weekend Section.”
He had forgotten. It was the last day on the Mayan calendar, the day the latest gaggle of honking doomsayers and fortune-tellers had proclaimed to be mankind’s last on Earth. For weeks, the media had made a circus of it, turning TV into a barrage of inane talk shows and special reports discussing the pseudo-science of Armageddon. Magazines, papers, the Internet, his students — there was no escaping it. Of course, the scientific community and every rational being on the planet dismissed the notion, but they, too, were having fun with it. It was Mardi Gras in December, but he had forgotten because it was ridiculous. There was not a day that went by that was not predicted by somebody to be the end of days. Eventually, one of them would be right. This? This was something else.
Loeb returned to the Freedom Hotel where he had booked a room for the three-day conference. That was where he stayed whenever he traveled to Philadelphia. The lobby was a mausoleum. He took the elevator to his floor and walked down an empty hall past numbered vacant tombs. A room service cart stood abandoned at the door beside his. The eggs were cold but the coffee in the insulated carafe still hot. He took the plate of toast, the coffee, and a half-filled snifter of brandy and locked the door behind him.
The city was beautiful at night. He had always liked the view from the hotel — a ribbon of lights in perpetual motion on the tree-lined Parkway, the illuminated and majestic Art Museum in the distance. The streetlights still converged to a distant vanishing point, but the cars were dark and motionless, and the ribbon gone. He placed the food and drink on top of a magazine on the writing desk by his window. A shot of brandy, then another — the world was falling apart, had fallen apart. He needed to think straight. He needed coffee, coffee and more brandy.
Below his hotel window, the fountain in Logan Circle was dark, its lights and water shut off for the winter. Streetlamps cast the snow-covered park in pale yellow. The traffic circle connecting the Parkway to all the major avenues in that part of the city had a park where people met and connected — networked, as people liked to say. It was all about making connections. Loeb saw what needed to be done as clearly as he saw the bottom of the brandy snifter.
Priority one was survival. That was a given. Every winter, too many neglected and homeless people froze to death on the streets of Philadelphia. He wasn’t going to end up like that. The Freedom Hotel had power and heat, a high-end men’s clothing store on the mezzanine, a five-star restaurant, chillers stocked with meat and vegetables, and a passable wine cellar. He would take inventory the next day and get whatever was lacking from the city’s finest markets and liquor stores nearby. He would live in luxury to the end.
Finding the other survivors was priority number two. Loeb would not accept that everyone but him had vanished. Millions, perhaps even billions, might have— that he could conceive in a world filled with weapons of mass destruction — but not everyone. Neither species extinction nor the laws of physics worked that way. Physical equations were never solved without some degree of uncertainty. Ask Heisenberg. There are no absolutes in life. And beyond the physical impossibility of such an instantaneous mass extinction, even the smartest man on the planet did not have that high an opinion of himself to believe that, of the 6.8 billion humans, he alone had been selected by nature to survive. There had to be others.
As predicted by the many who feared rather than embraced artificial intelligence, the world’s network of computers survived the demise of man. The Internet was closest thing to a living, thinking being Loeb had found thus far. It chose appropriate ads for him to see as he probed for others online. It knew he was at the Freedom Hotel, suggesting a wine to try with dinner that night. It somehow surmised that he would be interested in a vacation on some remote island near the equator, someplace warm, and it offered to book him an ocean cruise to get there. It even concluded that he needed a date that night.
He posted messages on bulletin boards, giving his email, cell, city, and identity. He posted on hundreds of news sites and purchased ads that automated servers pushed to every major online news outlet on the planet. Everything was connected. TV stations were still broadcasting, most looping endlessly through commercials targeted at a demographic no longer there. Some were transmitting blank screens, which Loeb found more appropriate, but one — Channel Three — was different and so became his inspiration. Its story was an eerie newsroom still life with vacant anchor’s chair. This story needed a face, his face.
Days passed before Loeb ventured outside. He chose a cold clear morning to make his way to the studios of Channel Three through desolate streets and around abandoned vehicles. Had humanity at least shown the courtesy of pulling over before the end, he could have driven there, but they must have had more pressing concerns at 12:21:12 p.m. on 12|21|12. He found a bicycle and pedaled the twenty blocks to Channel Three.
No one was there, yet the building seemed alive when Loeb came through its revolving doors. With the station’s unmistakable theme music as the backdrop, monitors throughout the lobby ran clips of news broadcasts from history — the first man on the moon, the fateful Dallas motorcade, the boxing match that stunned the world — stories so famous that sound was irrelevant. Motion sensors detected his presence, and an automated greeting welcomed Loeb and asked him to check in with the receptionist. Frozen in time, Friday’s closing prices rolled across a stock market ticker above the elevator. The directory beside it told Loeb what he needed to know. He found his way into the electronic heart of the station and set up the recording equipment, sat in the anchor’s chair and recorded his message.
“I am Dr. Philip Loeb. If you are seeing this, you are one of the few left. As far as I can tell, everyone else is gone. It’s like this all over the city and, in all likelihood, the world. I don’t know the cause. I don’t know how it happened. It just… did. The systems in place before this event are still functioning: we still have power, heat, and there is enough food to last the winter. The Internet is working, and the satellites are still transmitting. If you are watching this message, know that you are not alone. We must join together. We need to make plans. We need to survive. Contact me. My phone, email, and location are on the screen. Please, contact me. It is our only hope.”