The Gray Hole
Gareth D. Jones
The Terran Star Ship Orpheus hung at a cautious distance from the dark, swirling vortex that dominated the sector like a suzerain of space. No other celestial object conjures up such fear and fascination, Dom Fraser mused as he stared transfixed by the most powerful eating machine known to the universe. It was on object of such strength and hunger that anything foolish enough to approach its gravity well would never be seen again, for not even light could prevail against its awesome grip. Nothing could. It was feeding ravenously on the fabric of space and drawing everything into its maw. For this reason it had been termed a Black Hole.
Yet it was not. Its tyrannical dominion was not complete. Its blackness was not absolute. Its pull was not irresistible. Sometimes a particle could escape. For this reason Dom preferred the term ĎGray Holeí. Not many shared his enthusiasm for this more accurate name; it did not sound as dramatic, as powerful. Black holes, since the coining of the phrase in the late twentieth century, had been rulers of space, a constant threat to the interstellar travelers of fiction. They had destroyed worlds, entrapped starships, been hailed as gateways to new galaxies and alternative realities. Still, they were really only gray and Dom Fraser, with his fellow expeditionists, was there to find out why.
Most currently propounded theories were centered on the same basic idea. This involved twinned particles of matter and antimatter constantly materializing and dematerializing around the holeís rim, swirling around each other, waltzing through the gravity well, a risky ball where gravity was the host. The unlucky partner would go over the edge, down the well to be crushed to non-existence in the singularity that lurked at the center. The forsaken mate would be cast off, spinning alone into the depths of space, not knowing of its narrow escape from doom.
Dom pulled back from the viewport, his shoulders aching and eyes beginning to water from the effort of looking for the fleeing particles that only the shipís scanners could detect. Those particles spelled the doom of the hungry beast. It could not continue growing while it gave off particles and gradually it would shrink and as its sphere of influence declined it would have less to feed on. The shrinkage would continue to accelerate as it became the cause of its own decline until, finally, the singularity would starve to death, ceasing to exist in even the smallest form.
Unmoved by the plight of the hole, Dom kicked expertly away from the hull and floated along an almost perfect trajectory that brought him to a stop hovering a few inches from the food dispenser. The holeís self-destruction would not reach its climax for millennia at least. There was plenty of time for a drink.
The LCD readout flickered around zero for a few seconds, the plus and minus symbols vying for supremacy until they finally canceled each other out and a straight zero remained stable. All scanners were finally calibrated in preparation for the real work that lay ahead. Gabriella Faranti sighed softly to herself and began closing down the system. LEDs, digital displays, LCD readouts and monitors all faded quickly, many leaving a faint afterglow which too was soon lost.
"All finished, Gabi?" asked the young German pilot seated across the command center. Gabriella nodded, frowning at his use of that particular shortened variation of her name. She refrained from comment though. After all, the crew had to think of something short to use when they worked so closely together all the time.
"Sure have, at last!" she replied, no trace of her Italian ancestry in her voice. It was a week since they had arrived in orbit of the hole and the calibrating work was all she had done so far. "Iíll be off to my cabin now. Gínight Luky."
Lukas nodded acknowledgment and watched her disappear through the hatch down to the living quarters. She felt no guilt about shortening his name as he had always insisted that that was his preference.
An absent smile from behind a tube of juice was the only acknowledgment that she received, or even expected, from Dom Fraser as she flew gracefully through the lounge on the way to the sleeping area. He had been strangely quiet all week since their arrival.
Heíll be busy enough from tomorrow, Gabriella thought. Then we can put all that equipment through its paces for real. She used a handrail to alter her course for the door to her cabin, slowing herself to avoid a collision by pressing the door-open pad. The dark entrance swallowed her up and the door swished quietly shut behind her.
A bright pinpoint of light traced across the monitor, leaving behind it a wavering line. Peaks and troughs represented gravity fluctuations from the edge of the whirlpool.
Like a heartbeat, thought Dom, but faltering.
"What did you say?" Kellyís voice interrupted his wanderings.
"Hmm?" Dom looked up from his equipment to the red headed, multifunction crewmember floating midway between the main computer terminal and the command chair. He realized that he must have been talking out loud. "Oh, just musing." He blinked at her and turned back to the grav-flux monitor, deliberately not noticing the worried look she had given him. The psychologist in her is getting restless, he reassured himself. Everyone talks to themselves once in a while.
The heart trace absorbed his attention once more. It was quite mesmerizing. Heart trace? No, it was more like ocean waves rushing to the shore. Pixel-sized men on surfboards skimming the peaks, rushing down the troughs, using all their skills to benefit from the currents and remain upright as they hurtled onward to the beach, only to run out of monitor space. Dom shook his head.
Iíve been watching screens too long. He gave a cursory glance to the other proximity scanners and energy monitors as he rose and pushed off for the hatch to get a drink.
Commander Ruhiger looked up from his computer screen, where the flashing cursor was patiently waiting for him to input the last line of his poem. The door chime had chased the perfect ending out of his head and probably into the Hole. Sighing, he pressed the door-open then quickly hit a couple of keys to replace his poetry with the shipís schematic before Kelly was far enough into the room to get a glimpse of the screen.
"Come in!" he said at last. "Medical report?"
"As ordered," Kelly replied. "And I have a bone to pick with you."
"Me?" Ruhiger put on his most innocent face. "But Iím perfectly healthy!"
"You wonít be for long, Ben. Some people have been neglecting their exercise."
"Never!" He feigned shock and horror. "Who is it?"
"Well, Iíll give you a clue. Five out of six crewmembers, and they donít include me." She smiled.
Ruhiger shrugged, defeated. He enjoyed the camaraderie that he had built up with all the crewmembers during the ten month voyage. In such a confined area you could not afford to be isolated by a title, or by superiority.
"What are your recommendations?" he asked, more serious now.
"I want you to set an example," Kelly said in her best doctorís voice. "It wasnít too bad while we were traveling and there was limited gravity. That stopped us all from wasting away."
"All right, spare me the lecture."
"I just hope I donít have to remind you, commander."
"Yes maíam!" Ruhiger gave a mock salute. "Any other problems?"
"Nothing medical, but, well, there may be some psychological quirks developing."
"Oh?" Ruhiger sat forward in his desk. Psychology was to be taken seriously.
"Itís Dom Iím worried about. Ellaís noticed it too."
"Iíve noticed heís been rather quiet. Is there something else? I thought he was just absorbed in his work." After all, heís had very little to do for ten months. Now the situation is reversed and the crew will be quite slack while the scientists work. But Kelly knew all that too.
"Well," Kelly explained, "I donít know his exact work procedures, but he seems to spend a great deal of time just staring at monitors, sometimes mumbling to himself. Iím sure heís just daydreaming half the time."
Ruhiger thought for a moment. He could not imagine how a CRT screen could inspire oneís imagination to daydream. That was probably why he was an astronaut rather than a scientist.
"Any suggestions?" he asked finally.
"Iím just going to keep an eye on him. Let me know if you notice anything will you?"
"Will do, Kelly. Anything further?"
"Thatís all, thankfully."
As Kelly left the room Ruhiger re-entered the poetry screen. He hoped that this would at least keep him sane. This mission, for all its scientific importance, did not promise great adventure or excitement.
Buffeted by invisible tides of gravity and waves of radiation, Probe 1 ventured bravely forth into the well of the gray hole. Multi-pronged antennae competed with intricate receptors and irregular transmission dishes to offer the most artistic form against the backdrop of the swirling entity. The probe soon shrank to insignificance and disappeared from sight.
Turning back from the viewport, Dom shook the image from his mind and fixed his attention instead on the telemetry coming back from the probe.
"Itís all coming through!" Roger reported excitedly. "Energy flux, gravity waves, radiation count, theyíre all there."
Dom nodded, not wishing to get too excited at this early stage.
"Howís the probe itself?" Roger asked.
"All fine. Maintaining stability. Everything within tolerance." Both men turned back to their equipment, keeping an eye on transmission clarity, occasionally adjusting gain and pickup, checking that everything was being recorded and backed up. It was too important for anything to be missed.
The probe gradually accelerated into a spiral course that would take it eventually over the event horizon and beyond all knowledge. After that it would be stretched spaghetti-thin and crushed out of existence.
What a fate for a multimillion euro piece of hardware! Dom thought. But that would be a long time in the future. Even though the probe was accelerating, time was decelerating as it neared the horizon, so the probe would come to a standstill by the time it went over the edge. Bits of date that were transmitted at intervals measured in picoseconds would arrive at the ship months apart. The last bit transmitted before the probe intersected the event horizon would not be received by the outside universe for millennia. It was a frightening thought. To start a process that will continue into the unimaginable future! He shuddered. Physicist and engineer he might be, but his mind was only as large as the next manís.
The weekly report to be sent back to Earth was a very straightforward form. There were standard replies to be put in set places on the form before it was transmitted on its ten month voyage. Ben Ruhiger, his mind having been concentrating on poetry of late, found it exceedingly boring. He wanted to include rhyming sections and elaborate language to entertain himself and the guys back at mission control, but unfortunately his military training would not allow him that indulgence.
ĎEngines: 98%,í he tapped into the keyboard. What he really wanted to input was:
Engines are fine,
Hardly a whine.
But he doubted that would go down well with Commodore Hart at the other end. The following sections were equally straightforward and tedious, until he came to the section entitled ĎCrew, Psychological:í
For ten months of traveling he had been able to fill that in with ĎNo problems,í but now, on their third week of observation, he was not so sure. Kelly had been to see him twice about Dom Fraser. She did not seem too worried, but now it was the commanderís choice as to whether he would include a comment in the report.
So far from Earth and with such a huge time lag in communications, the commander had to assume full responsibility. There would be no advice from any higher power.
Eventually he wrote: ĎFraser, Dominic: Under psychological evaluation. Minimal concern.í That would have to suffice. They could infer what they liked from his statement, but he hoped that phrase could not call into question the research that Dom and the other scientists were carrying out. They had come too far for doubts to be cast on the reliability of their work.
Satisfied, Ruhiger went on to complete his report.
A flashing green LED warned Gabriella that another back-up nucleic disk was nearing capacity. She opened one of the drawers underneath the terminal and unclipped a new disk from its rack. The old disk, ejected from the drive, evaded her grip and began to float gently across the desk. Once the new disk was in place she retrieved the old and stored it away safely.
The information streaming back from Probe 3 filled a dozen screens across the three consoles of the monitoring station, but the one that was of utmost interest was the Radical Particle Detector system. This data was currently assigned to the largest screen in the center of her own desk, pride of place for the history-making bits of data that were now arriving not quite one thousand times per second.
Probe 3 had been spiraling away for almost seven hours now, and its transmission was becoming noticeably slower, though still far faster than the seemingly comatose Probe 1. Radical particle emission was definitely occurring however, though with the time scale differential it became confusing trying to interpret it. Thankfully the computer was quite happy to do all the hard work, while the scientists could claim all the credit.
A brief scuffing sound announced the arrival of Dom Fraser into the monitoring station, and he drifted over to catch the back of Gabriellaís chair.
"Everything OK, Ella?" he asked.
"Fine. Probe 3ís doing a wonderful job."
"Of course she is." Dom said. After all, he was the designer of all seven probes. "Mind if I transfer the RPD to my console?"
"No, go ahead, Iím off duty now anyway." She transferred the data stream to Domís desk as he strapped himself into his seat.
"Thanks. Now, letís see what gifts weíve been sent."
Gabriella left the room silently, Dom already absorbed in his screen.
Hours later Dom still sat at his console monitoring the continued observations of Probe 3. Ben had drifted in earlier to see what, if anything, was happening, but had not stayed long when it was obvious that Dom was too engrossed in his work to spare him any attention.
After briefly checking all of the other transmissions he turned back once more to the screen displaying the detection of radical particles. Generations of scientists had theorized about the very phenomenon that he was now observing. This could be Nobel-winning work. The momentous weight of the privilege kept him glued to the screen far longer than his usual scientific dedication would.
Even so, flashing dots and wavy lines lose their magnetism eventually. Dom switched the live RPD data over to a lesser screen and called up the stored information from the beginning of the probeís transmission on the center display.
Luminous blips appeared on the screen at random points, the raw data that did not convey much to the naked eye. Dom called up a graphic representation of the gray hole as a backdrop and put the particles into their correct geographical positions. The hole turned slowly, then began to speed up as he increased the time scale. Suddenly it looked like a giant catherine wheel, sparks shooting off in all directions. Adding a 3D effect, he began to change the perspective, spinning the hole around in all directions until it became quite dizzying.
Dom looked up to check that nobody had come in and observed his frivolous antics. There was nobody there. Going back to 2D he introduced lines of circumference and radius, slicing the hole into a compass-rose. The arbitrary northern sector seemed to be favored by particle emission, probably something to do with the tidal forces and the morphology of the event horizon. He superimposed the gravity flux data from the same time period. The waves were definitely more erratic in the north, a phenomenon that would have to be investigated. Slowly this area of disturbance was shifting clockwise. Accelerating the time scale and extrapolating forward he calculated that the area of greater particle emission would take approximately seventeen hours to orbit the gray hole. Only four hours left for this hypothesis to be confirmed.
Suddenly Dom remembered that the time differences between particle emissions as recorded by the probe were not necessarily of the same length as when they occurred. Particles recorded as having been ejected ten seconds apart would actually be much closer in time if the probe had happened to be nearer them at the actual time of occurrence. Even particles appearing simultaneously, in subjective terms, but in a different position around the rim, would be subject to varying time scales.
The shipboard computer was capable of compensating for all these factors, but Dom found he was too tired to go through all those procedures. He preferred to continue playing with the graphics options. Joining the particles produced a squiggly mess across the screen, but if you squinted, it could almost be a head with a mass of wavy hair. Dom quickly de-selected that option. Plotting the mean position of the center of the concentrated expulsion of particles was a more worthwhile endeavor, and this quickly produced a wavering circle when the time element was included. Compensating for gravity flux and then returning to the 3D hole representation soon smoothed it into a perfect ring. Dividing the ringís circumference by its diameter gave 3.141125794.
Pi looks a bit strange, thought Dom. But then I am rather tired.
Leaning back in his chair he stretched his aching back and yawned heartily. It was probably best to wait until a complete cycle of data arrived anyway, Dom told himself as he began to shut down his console and prepared to go off shift.
"Well, Dom called this meeting," Ben Ruhiger began, addressing the crew assembled in the lounge, "so I guess Iíll hand straight over to him." The audience turned their attention to their crewmate, their faces expressing varying degrees of interest and curiosity.
Dom would have stood up to talk, but such a position was immaterial when everyone floated in weightlessness. He remained floating loosely in the restraints of one of the chairs.
"Iíve made some startling discoveries," he announced, then paused to consider how best to continue. It seemed silly to make a formal speech in front of his friends. Rog and Ella were staring at him in puzzlement. They had access to the same data as him but had made no 'startling discoveries'. He decided to hasten on before he lost the initiative.
"Two weeks ago, when Probe 3 was first launched, I did some manipulation with the RPD data."
"I did too." Gabriella interrupted. "I didnít spot anything extraordinary."
"Perhaps I was more imaginative in my approach." Dom smiled. "I used a lot of the graphics options and presented the data in lots of different forms." Roger nodded his approval of Dom's method.
"I thought data was data?" Ben queried.
"Yes, but you may not notice some anomalies unless you process it a certain way," Dom answered.
"Anomalies?" Roger prompted.
"Right." Dom said. "Let me get on with it. The radical particle emission always occurs more heavily at one particular point on the holeís perimeter. As you know this favored area rotates every seventeen hours." Thankfully everyone remained quiet, just nodding in agreement and allowing him to carry on. "I plotted the mean emission point of this cluster and calculated its orbit, taking into account gravity flux to give a perfect circle."
"Naturally." Ella put in.
"So, then I got the computer to compensate for time differential, giving me another circle. When I divided it circumference by its diameterÖ"
"You got pi?" Luky asked sarcastically. "How incredible!"
"What was incredible," Dom persevered, "was, yes I got pi for the time-normalized data, but when I performed the same calculation on the uncorrected orbit -- I didnít!" There was silence.
"Well, you certainly strung us along well." Roger grinned.
"I didnít get pi!" Dom repeated, deadly serious. Rogerís smile faded slightly. "I thought Iíd made a mistake, but when I checked again it was the same: 3.141125794"
"And that isnít pi?" Kelly asked, unsure of the exact figure.
"Well, theoretically even geometry can be warped by our hole. After all, we know that time is." Ella was starting to get intrigued.
"I havenít finished!" Dom waved his hands to subdue everyone. "Would anyone like to guess what the ratio of particles inside the orbit is to those that occur outside, remembering that emissions occur away from the concentrated group?"
"Pi?" Ruhiger ventured, not fully comprehending the consequences of his answer.
"Pi." Dom stated emphatically. "Until you take the time scale into account once more, then it changes to our pseudo-pi."
"Youíre serious?" Ella asked, incredulous.
"Do you know what this signifies?" Dom pronounced. "It must be a signal! Itís too incredible to happen randomly. Particle emission isnít random!"
"Sent by energy beings?" Luky laughed. "Donít be foolish, Dom."
"From inside the hole?" Roger asked. Dom nodded eagerly.
"Dom, this is all fantastic stuff," Ella said, "but letís not get into fantasy! All these phenomena can be explained by physical laws."
"I think your imagination is a little over-worked." Kelly said calmly. "You shouldnít spend all those extra hours in front of the screens."
"Itís obvious!" Dom protested.
"The only obvious thing is that youíre getting side-tracked from our work." Ella said. "Roger and I will check out your work, but it doesnít mean there are alien energy beings trying to communicate."
Dom started to protest but Commander Ruhiger pushed himself forward into a more obtrusive position. "Calm down Dom." He said kindly. "I think you should give it a rest."
"Thatís my advice too." Kelly said. "You should go and get some extra sleep and look at it again after that." Her authority as the shipís physician would accept no argument. Dom glared defiantly at all of them before launching himself out of the room towards the sleeping quarters. Ben and Kelly shared a worried glance before she followed.
Gabriella shook her head in bewilderment. "Whatís got into him?" She asked the room in general. Luky turned away, while Roger merely looked thoughtful.
It took less than an hour to check through the shipís navigation and drive systems, and after that the duty crewmember had no real work left for the rest of their shift. The routine had been the same for the past six weeks of their orbit around the gray hole, and during all that time the crew had not made any positive contributions to the running of the ship. Their proximity to such a powerful object warranted the permanent watch that was being kept though, so Luky, like the other crew members, sat at the duty station of the command center and occupied his mind with other things.
Domís arrival in the center halfway through the shift surprised him. Dom had remained unobtrusive and quiet since his meeting two day previously. Luky smiled to welcome him, hoping that he was not still upset.
"I need to talk to you." Dom said.
"Iím not doing anything else." Luky indicated the quiescent control board.
"I donít know what Roger and Ella have decided about my discoveries, but I still think thereís more to them than chance." He paused and Luky raised his eyebrows, unsure how to respond. "Donít let them put you off." Dom said hastily. "What I said about energy beings is all perfectly feasible."
"You really think those things you spotted are attempts at communication from within the hole?"
"Yes. But what I canít work out is: Whatís the message?"
"Couldnít the configuration of the particle emissions form the message somehow?" Luky suggested, still unsure whether to take the conversation seriously or not.
"Iíve checked it a dozen times, I canít spot anything."
"Maybe you could ask Kelly. Sheís the communications expert."
"I thought the same thing." Dom looked relieved. "But she probably wouldnít take me seriously. It would be better if you called her up." Luky considered this proposal for a minute before finally consenting. If nothing else she might send Dom away for some rest. He signaled her on the intercom.
They were viewing the particle charts once more when Kelly arrived a few moments later looking rather tired.
"Something up?" she asked wearily.
"Not with me," Luky replied, "But Dom needs your assistance." Dom launched straight into another explanation of the situation while Kelly listened sympathetically.
"I thought this was all settled," she said when he had finished.
"Not at all!" Dom exclaimed. "It was just dismissed by everyone with no serious consideration. I need your communications skills, not your psychological help."
"Okay, Iíll take a look." Kelly held up her hands placatingly. They turned to an examination of the particle emission data, Dom with a new surge of hope, Luky still amused and Kelly more worried about Dom.
Screens full of plots and transmission data passed before them, each one carefully analyzed for clues. Aside from the peculiarities already noted by Dom, however, there was nothing positive that any of them could detect. Kelly yawned, rubbing her eyes. She had lost the end of her sleep shift with nothing beneficial to show for it.
"It doesnít say anything!" Luky complained, though he had been glad of the distraction.
"Iím afraid heís right." Kelly said. "Theyíre not saying anything, unless...unless the particles themselves contain the message."
"The particles?" Luky repeated.
"Of course!" Dom shouted. "Messages encapsulated in the particles, just waiting to be read!"
"How do you read a particle?" Luky was becoming fed up now his shift was almost over.
"Like our own nucleic discs. Itís obvious."
"Would we be able to read it though?" asked Kelly.
"Iím sure theyíd find an obvious way of making us understand," Dom continued excitedly. "Maybe it broadcasts on certain frequencies. It could even be psionic. Who knows?"
"So we have to catch one?" Luky asked.
"Why yes! Probe 6 is equipped for just that operation!"
"That isnít scheduled for launch until next week." Kelly pointed out.
"Schedules can be changed!" Dom yelled gleefully, pushing himself away from his seat with a tremendous force that sent him hurtling out the door.
"You call Ben, Iíll go after him." Kelly said, and did just that. Luky nodded to empty space.
One year later:
The long corridors of the Mission Coordination Center echoed hollowly to the sound of Commodore Hartís purposeful footsteps. He turned a corner smartly, boots squeaking on the polished floor. He was a worried man. Frosted glass door panels reflected light into his eyes every few paces as he strode along. The door marked ĎMission Control: TSS Orpheusí approached rapidly on the right and he came to an abrupt halt beside it. Wheeling around he grasped the door handle and, turning it, he pushed the door open.
The corporal on duty stood up and saluted hastily.
"Message is transferred to the controller's screen ready for decoding." She reported. Hart nodded and approached the indicated desk. For almost two years he had come to this room to receive the weekly reports form Commander Ruhiger. Initially they had arrived every two weeks as the Orpheus sped away from them, but now that she was stationary they came in weekly just as they had been sent. Now for the first time an unscheduled transmission had been received.
What could possibly have warranted this? Hart wondered. The mission had been approaching its first anniversary when the message was transmitted. Was it a medical crisis? Had one of the crew, particularly Dom Fraser, snapped under the stress of long-term space travel? Ship systems failure? He hardly dared think of the worst case: had they been caught by the black hole? Whatever the case there was nothing that anyone on Earth could do to help them. They were on their own.
The corporal was still watching him expectantly. He sat down and initiated the decoding process. It seemed to take a long time to finish. The message scrolled on to the screen for the Commodore to read:
From: TSS Orpheus, Commander William Benjamin Ruhiger
To: Mission Control, Commodore Jeremy Hart
A prompt appeared for the Commodoreís personal access code. Once supplied, the message scrolled on. He read through it and by the last line had stopped breathing. He flicked his eyes back to the top and started again, remembering half way down to resume respiration.
He continued to stare at the last line of the message for a long time:
Protocol 23 initiated: First Contact established.
Bio: Gareth D. Jones says, 'I live in England where I work in waste management in between reading and writing science fiction. I have had stories published in the e-zines 'Bewildering Stories' 'Star Trek and Science Fiction Stories.' And now he has one in Aphelion!.
E-mail: Gareth D. Jones
Comment on this story in the Aphelion Lettercol
Or Return to Aphelion's Index page.