Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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The Alchemy of Oblivion

by Glenn M. Diamond





Dr. Harrison Hayes admired the self-reinforcing beauty of this perfect madness. After all, the world couldn't really be ending before his eyes, could it? Little doubt remained concerning the outbreak of delusions and hysteria, now confirmed across the globe. News reports were barely coherent, making them strangely accurate in conveying the bewildering state of affairs. It wasn't surprising the authorities suspected a bioweapon or engineered virus; so little was known at this stage of the crisis.

No, he darkly thought, it wasn't people who had gone crazy, it was the world itself. Regardless of the taint of circular reasoning, he believed the hallucinations were the accurate perceptions of a new, shifting reality. For Hayes had stumbled on chilling evidence of a much bigger threat; that physical existence was winding down like a tottering gyroscope and before it ultimately ended with the disintegration of matter, the world would first appear gripped by insanity.

On the plus side, Hayes allowed for the hopeful possibility he was wrong. Despite being the leader of an elite team of scientific troubleshooters, he could have misplaced a decimal point somewhere. In any case, he didn't have long to wait. The latest measurements from his odd apparatus suggested that days, perhaps only hours, remained.

The meeting was tomorrow, and for now Hayes was grateful to be at home with his wife Sylvia, who dozed lightly a few feet away. This was their special place; a thick area rug on the floor in front of the fireplace rimmed with several large pillows. It was easy to lie here and forget about anything that needed, at least for a short time, to be forgotten.

Also of great relief was the fact the other members of his team were home with their families. When the White House contacted him two days ago to convene an urgent meeting of the so-called "Alchemist's Club," he was able to arrange it via secure videoconference. All things being equal, nobody wants to be stuck in some dirty airport snack bar when the world ended.

Hayes was curiously calm, and given the unprecedented circumstances, he couldn't account for this. The stress was exhausting and perhaps he simply didn't have enough energy to worry about it anymore. Not enough energy! He smiled. If this thing blew over, he might get a chance to use that line at the next meeting of the International Thermodynamics Society.

"Something funny darling?" Hayes didn't realize Sylvia was watching him.

"Oh... just a little work humor. How are you feeling?"

"Good. No, not good, wonderful. I don't know how to explain it; I know half the world's gone mad but I feel so peaceful. I guess tranquility is my brand of insanity because suddenly I'm ready to give up this frantic business of selling houses."

"What? Do you mean it?"

Sylvia nodded enthusiastically and Hayes reached over to encircle her with a passionate embrace. They held each other in silence for a few precious moments while the world seemed far away. Sylvia gently pushed him back to look him in the eye.

"Darling... I know better than to ask about your work, but--you know something about all this--don't you? You have some idea of what's happening?"

He didn't know what to say, or if it even mattered.

"Well, I am working on a theory, but frankly... it's nuts."


* * *

The next morning a groggy Hayes greeted the day with one skeptical eye which he slowly opened and examined the room. It's still there, he thought. Reassuring sounds filtered from downstairs in the kitchen and so he rose and hurried through his morning routine pausing only to kiss Sylvia as she left for the office.

Switching on the TV news and sitting down at his computer, Hayes soaked up as much as he could. The crisis was still in its first week, as marked by the initial flood of bizarre news reports. Paging through his regular on-line sources he found the unseemly headline "Global Markets Surge Despite Madness." Other headlines spoke of missing persons, lost pets, malfunctioning computer networks, strange weather, and just about any type of breakdown, whether mechanical, electrical, or biological.

Hayes left the house and a short time later was waiting in line to buy his coffee at the local Grab n' Go when he noticed the densely tattooed and randomly pierced young man at the register. Generally, such a sight would leave him muttering about the decline of Western civilization, but today he managed only a detached curiosity about why anyone would want to resemble the victim of a bizarre tackle box explosion.

Tackle Man was dawdling, unable to close the deal on a pack of cigarettes. Hayes caught the eye of Molly, the petite young brunette cashier who smiled at him with raised eyebrows and a polite shrug.

"Look," she gently told the man, "I'm very sorry but we don't carry Ashton 100's Green. We've never carried them, only the regulars."

The man had arrived at some painful crossroads. He openly grimaced while sweeping his palm backwards over his thick hair, then began absently fingering the various metal loops and studs sprouting from his flesh.

"But I swear I've bought them here before. Oh, this is SO jacked up. Just give me the regulars and ten bucks on pump three."

Meanwhile, there was a sharply-dressed woman between Hayes and the man, and another drama was unfolding with her. She looked to be in her low forties, possibly a banker or realtor, and immediately reminded him of Sylvia. A quiet battle raged between her and her smart phone as evidenced by her pawing and tapping at the screen while muttering soft, ladylike grunts. Momentarily self-conscious, she turned around to face Hayes, whom she addressed with a sheepish smile. "Damn things."

"Anything I can do?" he offered.

"Well, it's not the phone. It's BlabbIt. I just don't understand why they did it."

"Sorry, I don't know what you mean." Hayes hated apologizing for his ignorance of social media.

"Oh. Well, BlabbIt is now just forty-six characters. It used to be one hundred twenty-five, now it's only forty-six."

"That's terrible." Hayes noted with complete insincerity.

"You bet it is. How can anyone Blabb with just forty-six characters?"

By the time he finally paid for his coffee, Hayes had been waiting so long he needed a pit stop before continuing to his office. Upon entering the men's room, he was irritated to again encounter Tackle Man, who was standing at the sink staring at his reflection in the mirror. He obsessed over his piercings, touching each one gingerly with a look of dismay, as if he just realized they were radioactive. After Hayes finished up and began approaching the sink, the man finally noticed him and moved towards the door. Pausing, he glanced back and pleaded to Hayes, "Why do I have all these damn things? One should be enough."

Hayes struggled to recognize if, or how this man fit the pattern. Obviously, something had changed with him, and change might be a key to this puzzle. He considered the idea of 'change' in the deeper sense of 'transition', which triggered a vivid memory of his honeymoon in Maui with Sylvia. He recalled the overwhelming beauty of the turquoise sea, the lush emerald jungle, and the crystal stars against the rich blackness of the clear night sky.

On the third day, they drove to the blustery summit of Haleakala Crater, ten thousand feet up. It was during the steep thirty-eight mile drive back down to sea level when they noticed it--the amazing series of transitions in climate and ecosystem. One moment they were in frozen, windswept tundra; the next, a desert-like chaparral, then a sleepy Mediterranean hill-country and finally a steamy tropical rainforest.

Hayes believed he had found another transition, happening inside the very fabric of matter itself. It may have started days or weeks or even centuries ago, but it was now accelerating to some mysterious culmination. In its aftermath, what would remain? He never went in for the metaphysical, but lately found himself more receptive to considering the immaterial world beyond what we see and touch. Sometimes even the most skeptical scientists have been known to hedge their bets.

Hayes glanced at his watch, cursed softly, and hastened his exit from the store. A fresh line of customers had formed, from whom Hayes instantly detected an air of impatience. Molly smiled and shook her head.

"We sure are going nowhere fast, Dr. Hayes."

"Faster than you could imagine, Molly."


* * *

Hayes got on the highway and began surfing the satellite radio stations for any useful news. How do you compile, let alone summarize, millions of innocuous anecdotes of people going a bit loopy or suffering mild hallucinations? Does Big Media care if someone discovers five tomato plants in the garden when they're absolutely certain they planted six? Should it make headlines if a person notices their car is a slightly different color, or their wife is missing a mole on her shoulder? It was this type of story, repeated thousands of times, which defied normal journalistic treatment.

The meeting was in a half hour and he was cutting it close. The two-lane state highway bisected the bucolic expanse of wooded hills dotted with small dairy farms. He'd taken this route a thousand times, but today it looked wrong. Just as he asked himself "Wrong how?" his phone began playing the opening guitar riff from Crosby, Stills, and Nash's Woodstock. It was Sylvia; he put her on speakerphone.

"Hello, dear, everything okay?"

"No, Harry, it's not okay. My eight o'clock never showed. I tried calling him but his phone's been disconnected or something, but it gets worse. Nobody likes me anymore."

"Honey, that's ridiculous," he sighed before remembering all bets were off when it came to what was ridiculous and what wasn't. "What are you talking about?"

"It's BuddyNet." Good Lord, Hayes thought. More social media nonsense. "Yesterday, I had nearly two hundred and fifty Buddies. This morning I only have one hundred and seventy. Overnight, I've lost eighty Buddies! What's worse, they didn't UnBuddy me, it's like I never had them to begin with."

Hayes wanted to ignore this, but couldn't. It might fit the pattern.

"Okay, it's mysterious, but considering everything that's going on right now, well..."

"I know, but I get the strangest feeling it's something you would understand. What's that thing you're always talking about--when a hot cup of coffee gets cold sitting on the counter?"

Hayes nearly gasped at the innocence of such a profound question and struggled to say that one powerful word:

"Entropy?"


* * *

Five miles north of town amidst wide stands of birch and maple was an unmarked turnoff joining a narrow paved driveway winding upward towards the crest of a gentle hill. Even those familiar with the area could easily miss the turn if they weren't paying attention. Hayes started slowly up the drive feeling a growing reluctance. Normally, he jumped at the chance to begin a new project, but this was different. He was a part of the story like everyone else and this exacted a price; the loss of his scientific detachment. Hayes wanted nothing to do with it and fought a strong urge to simply get out of the car and wander off through the trees, which were cool and quiet and in the fresh green of spring. Very fitting, he reflected, that he'd just entered the grounds of a former insane asylum.

Visitors to Kessler House often assumed it was a creation of Frank Lloyd Wright. The sleek lines, expansive glass, and broad cantilevered sections made that a good bet, but in reality, the only connection to Wright was its rural Wisconsin location. After operating for twenty years the facility was closed by budget cuts and ultimately fell under the custodianship of the National Parks Service who renovated it for use as a remote site for discrete government meetings and training events. Hayes was fortunate enough to have a permanent office there. He parked his car and entered the main lobby.

A few of the regular staff were gathered around the reception desk when Hayes entered, and they greeted him enthusiastically. Of course, they were probably hoping for some inside information, but he didn't want to talk to them and tried to deflect feelings of cowardice as he offered only a few pleasantries before passing into the main hallway.

Arriving in front of a heavy wooden door, Hayes gathered himself for a moment before entering the conference room. There he encountered the other members of his team, virtually present on three large video monitors placed in a wide arc opposite the head of the table. They were all there; Breslin the M.D., Ranbee the astrophysicist, and the young computer genius, Launsby.

"Good morning everyone and thanks for your availability at such short notice." There was a hurried exchange of muttered greetings before Hayes continued.

"We haven't met in a while, so let me review how this game works. Among our various clients is Dr. Laura Hadley, the President's science advisor. Generally, she contacts us if the normal intelligence or military channels come up empty on a problem, or if they need some creative alternatives to what the establishment provides. She's the one that stuck us with the 'Alchemist's Club' moniker, by the way, because we're supposed to turn any crap they throw at us into gold. So whatever we come up with, I've got until four p.m. eastern to give it to her and the clock is ticking. Each of you was assigned a different aspect of this problem, and I have my own ideas which you'll hear last. Let's go ahead and get started with Liz."

Hayes nodded to the striking woman appearing on the monitor to his left, mid-fifties, elegant, with long silver hair and a remarkably youthful face. This was Dr. Elizabeth Breslin, chief of neurosurgery from the prestigious Reynolds Clinic near Minneapolis.

Dr. Breslin consulted the copious notes she'd taken over the past two days. "Okay, Harry. I suppose I get most of the focus on this one, but I don't mind saying I'm baffled. Unless the rest of you can come up with something, I'm afraid a real-life Merlin might have been a better choice for this assignment.

"I was asked to investigate reports of widespread delusions, memory dysfunction, hallucinations, paranoia, schizophrenic behavior, etc. Analysis of disease outbreaks normally begins as a needle-in-a-haystack problem; finding a locus of infection, common transmission vectors, etc. This time the challenge is too much data. There is no center, no starting point. We are confronted with a massively parallel problem; millions of haystacks consisting of nothing but needles.

"In the short time I've had to look into it, everything is anecdotal. As with most pandemics, initial data are generated by first responders, namely paramedics and the local ER. These reports contain everything from acute anxiety to full blown psychotic episodes."

Hayes was already growing anxious. "What does it add up to?"

"Not a clue," she confessed, "but it's still too early for much of the blood work. Initial lab results are turning up the same things you would expect in the normal, asymptomatic population. It could be a neurotoxin, but unless we can isolate it or identify the transmission mechanism, all we can do is dispense tranquilizers. Supplies of the most common types are already dwindling."

"Okay, Liz. I guess we need to stay with the toxicology, but for what it's worth I don't think we're dealing with either a toxin or a pathogen." Hayes shifted his focus to the monitor directly facing him, which contained the image of Dr. William Ranbee, Professor of Astrophysics at MIT. "Have you found anything along the lines I mentioned, Bill?"

Ranbee, on his best days, had the look of an aging mad scientist, complete with ill-fitting tweed jacket, thick glasses, and bristly hair sprouting in tiny clumps from unflattering places. Few would guess he was only forty-four.

"Hello, everyone. The good doctor of thermodynamics suggested that I ask some of the faculty if they've encountered unexplained problems with lab experiments, electronic instruments, faulty measurements, etc. I guess the idea was to find out if this 'madness' somehow extended into the physical world. It was a wild idea, but of course, I should know better than to underestimate Harry. It turns out the first person I talked to, a grad student in physics, complained about a malfunctioning EDX."

"Excuse me, EDX?" The question came from the last member of the team, reclining with his feet up on a conference table two thousand miles away in Palo Alto. Craig Launsby was only twenty-nine but well on his way to becoming a titan in the exploding field of "Big Data" analytics. He indulged a nervous habit of twirling a pencil around his fingers as he spoke.

"Sorry," Ranbee explained, "energy dispersive X-Ray analysis. It's an instrument that tells you exactly what something is made of at the atomic level--which elements, and in what proportions. The student was having trouble calibrating the machine, which involved analyzing a reference sample of gold ore his professor had once found during a camping trip. Since the sample never changed, it was a good way to check the machine. What he told me next made no sense at all."

Hayes interrupted Ranbee with a wild notion: "Let me guess. The grad student was trying to figure out why the machine said the sample was becoming more pure each time they measured it."

Ranbee reacted with sheer disbelief. "Good God, Harry, that's precisely it. How on earth did you know?"

"I'm sorry to jump the gun Bill, I'll explain after you and Craig are done." Ranbee didn't have much else to report, confessing that in an academic setting it was tough to get information from a staff that disliked going out on a limb. He deferred to his young colleague from California.

Craig Launsby was already a Silicon Valley billionaire despite being reclusive and unconcerned about accumulating great wealth. Combining brilliance in computer science and statistics, Launsby was the ultimate data miner; a scientific fortuneteller who founded LaunScape Analytics and its advanced software capable of reading the trillions of digital breadcrumbs sprinkled daily throughout cyberspace.

Launsby took his feet off the table, stopped twirling his pencil, and looked soberly into his webcam. "This is a tough one. Dr. Breslin is spot-on; the problem is too much data. One concept that's starting to emerge could be loosely described as a worldwide reduction in complexity. Yes, that sounds nebulous but it seems to be quantifiable.

"Take social media. BuddyNet seems to be collapsing. In the past day and a half, over three hundred million Buddy connections have evaporated. BlabbIt traffic is down, and now they've dropped the character limit to forty-six per Blabb. The world seems to be losing social connections, blog posts, comments, emails, you name it. The most frightening thing is that it can't be traced through server logs or backup files. It's like they never existed. If this is the work of hackers it would be a phenomenally sophisticated attack with no obvious motive."

Breslin and Ranbee were flabbergasted. Even Hayes was shocked the problem reached that far.

"Okay, try this: My retail analytics group has flagged a huge change in buying patterns related to design elements like color. Just in the past week, paint purchases at home improvement stores have shifted towards primary colors. People don't want 'terra cotta red' or 'sea foam green'. They simply want red or green.

"By far the most frustrating analytical challenge is the news, because most of it makes no sense to begin with. Modern news stories are riddled with non-sequiturs--things like 'fewer people are working, but unemployment is down'. Facts don't matter due to hidden agendas, lies, cover-ups, or just crappy journalism. We have to really look hard to find anything useful.

"Which leads to my personal favorite. It must fit into our puzzle somewhere, but I can only guess. Did any of you catch Coyote News this morning?"

Breslin shook her head in disgust. "Certainly not. I don't waste my time on moronic drivel and naked propaganda."

"Strictly speaking Doctor, I agree with you, but my research team sees them as a valuable contra-indicator."

"Meaning what?" Breslin asked.

"Meaning they lie so consistently, it offers a backwards way of getting to the truth. I have an entire team working on 'inversion algorithms' for use in news analysis, but what's really ironic is your use of the word 'naked'. Let me switch my feed to run the video clip, which I've obtained directly from sources within the network."

It was the familiar New York studio set of the Coyote News morning show, 'News Pals'. A sweeping stage trimmed with red, white, and blue accents. The rear wall was mostly bulletproof glass separating the cozy studio from the streets of Manhattan. In the middle was a crescent-shaped couch of dubious ergonomic value, and on the couch were the three Pals.

The Pals formed a sort-of lurid newscaster sandwich, with the scantily clad blonde, Suzy-something, in the middle flanked by her two brunette Ken-doll co-anchors. The placement of the main camera created an image with Suzy's crotch located in the exact geometric center. Her contribution to the national discourse involved extremely short skirts and copious amounts of cleavage. The only thing that concealed her panties from the rest of the planet was her heroic vigilance in crossing her legs every moment she was on the air.

The Pals were dutifully reading their teleprompters when the Ken-doll on the left, Troy-something, drifted off the reservation. He was staring at Suzy's legs and slowly shaking his head. That's when the trouble started.

"Sweetheart, you can't live life in the middle of the road, so either put on some clothes or just take the damn things off."

Suzy tilted her head like a golden retriever being told to order a pizza; then a broad smile came over her face as, deciding on the latter, she stood up and promptly tugged her skirt right down to the floor. Launsby explained the seven-second delay saved the network from catastrophe, and both the man and the woman were immediately placed on paid leave pending the results of a psychiatric examination.

"Mass hysteria," Dr. Breslin stated flatly, "coupled with repressed exhibitionism revealed in a moment of weakness and confusion brought on by some toxin or disease. So what?"

"My sources at the network added some background details," Launsby countered. "Those who know her and talked with her afterwards described her as quite rational, down to earth, sincere. Before this episode, she'd been generally considered as flighty, shallow, and not very well liked. Afterwards she reported feeling..."

"Purified?" Ranbee offered.

Launsby grinned and slapped the table. "Bingo! The actual word she used was 'cleansed'."


* * *

After a short break the group reassembled, apprehensive yet eager to hear what their team leader had come up with.

"I want to show you all something," Hayes began. After typing some commands on his laptop, the main monitor on the front wall came to life behind him. It was a simple animation showing a white background filled with dozens of black dots plus one red dot in the center.

Next, the dots began to move. It was like watching a game of computer-generated billiards. The black dots moved around in random directions, hitting each other and eventually the red dot in the center, which also began to move. As the red dot moved, its irregular path was displayed in blue. Numbers appeared; a count of some sort, which increased as the red dot moved.

"Anyone recognize it?" Hayes quizzed the others.

"Of course," Ranbee said, "Brownian Motion, or 'The Drunkard's Walk' if you prefer."

"Excellent!" Hayes commented. "In 1827 botanist Robert Brown observed that pollen grains suspended in water moved randomly for no apparent reason. Eventually it was deduced that individual water molecules were hitting the grains and causing them to move. This simulation just illustrates the process. The red dot acts as the pollen grain, the blue line is the random path it follows, and the numbers show speed, distance etc."

Next, Hayes showed a photograph of an exotic apparatus sitting on a lab bench. It looked like a small aquarium filled with shiny particles of gold glitter suspended in some green fluid. It was surrounded by lasers, wiring and some instruments.

"Several years ago I built this... device. It's a modern version of Brown's original experiment, using reflective nanoparticles and a laser tracking system to follow the path of an individual particle. It measures Brownian Motion very accurately."

"Why?" asked Dr. Breslin.

Hayes was surprised by the question, as if it was normal for people to build stuff like this. "Well... originally it was for my granddaughter's science fair project. I suppose I got carried away."

Puzzled glances were exchanged.

"The key is this: As long as the temperature is fixed, the average particle will always travel the same distance in say, one minute. It's so reliable that I've considered developing it into the world's most accurate thermometer.

"Shortly before this madness outbreak I was playing around with the detector and made a startling discovery. There's no mistake, the particles aren't moving as far even though the temperature is the same. This would be impossible unless..." Hayes paused a moment for it to sink in, "...there was a reduction in the quantum energy of matter itself.

"Einstein taught us that matter and energy are related. Matter IS energy, the energy which keeps electrons spinning and generates the forces that hold atoms together. I now suspect this energy is winding down, and doing so at an increasing rate. We've known for a long time that entropy will eventually cause the universe to freeze at absolute zero--billions of years from now. Now, I'm not so sure. It might be happening a lot sooner--maybe not to the whole universe, just a tiny portion of it."

"How tiny?" asked Breslin.

"The earth, or maybe the Milky Way."

"What?" Launsby gasped.

"Well... I haven't worked out that part yet.


* * *

Despite the great respect his team held for him, Hayes' explanation was greeted with deep skepticism. Clearly, a graduate degree was no protection against the madness epidemic.

"No offense," Ranbee said curtly, "but haven't you forgotten a basic fact? This isn't something that can sneak up on us. There's actually something called global warming. I think we would have noticed if we were headed towards absolute zero."

"That's right," Breslin added quickly. "People are showing signs of acute mental illness, not frostbite. Let's face it, people are seeing things. Even I..." She paused, reluctant to finish until urged to do so by the others.

"All right, here goes. We all know a famous ice cream chain, right? How many flavors do they advertise?"

"Thirty-one" was the unanimous reply.

"Not anymore," Breslin announced. "As of last night they only have thirty. I swear that's what the sign said, 'Thirty Flavors'; a strange delusion, but a delusion nonetheless."

"Maybe not," Hayes responded. "Quantum theory says it might be so, at least for that moment in time when you saw it."

Launsby was now shaking his head in frustration. "That moment in time? Please, Dr. Hayes, this is getting pretty far-fetched. Need I invoke Occam's razor? Delusion or hallucination has got to be the simplest explanation, and therefore the correct one."

"Fair enough," Hayes agreed, "but hear me out. What we think of as reality is based on quantum energy states. If this energy drops, they'd be fewer and fewer states. We may even begin slipping between them, like a needle skipping on a phonograph. People wouldn't lose their grip on reality; reality would lose its grip on itself. Even the properties of matter could change; transmutation could occur."

A flash of excitement flooded Dr. Ranbee's face as he nodded vigorously. "A fantastic idea, Dr. Hayes! Ironically, you're suggesting a type of alchemy. The grad student's instrument was working correctly, because the gold sample was becoming more pure."

"Just to play along," Breslin offered, "people grappling with a changing reality could easily exhibit confusion or hysteria; but I suppose others might react differently. Those with chaotic lives might experience the opposite effect, a type of down-shifting perhaps."

"Indeed." Launsby remarked. "They might even take their clothes off on television. Dr. Hayes, do you realize this fits nicely with all that New Age mumbo-jumbo about consciousness shifts, the Age of Aquarius, and the Mayan calendar? I even bought into some of that myself, but we all know what happened on December 21st, 2012, right?"

"Nothing happened," Ranbee smirked. "It was all nonsense."

Hayes had to concede these points. It did sound very similar, except for one thing: The metaphysical crowd didn't own a laser-synchronized nanoparticle Brownian Motion detector. The only thing he could say was that the Mayans were great astronomers but their instruments were no more sophisticated than sticks and rocks. They could have missed it by a few years.

"Believe me," Hayes offered, "My theory is almost as implausible as the delusions people are reporting, but at least we won't have long to wait. According to the detector, the process is accelerating so rapidly I've given up trying to extrapolate it. What happens now is anyone's guess, including the possibility it just subsides as quickly as it came. If it's some force acting on the earth, we could pass through it. If not..."


* * *

By the time the call from the White House came in over the secure hard line, the team had developed a position statement and was handicapping the odds anyone would buy it. With Laura Hadley now waiting, Hayes went to work.

"Dr. Hadley, our team sends its regards to yourself and the President. With respect to this crisis, we feel it should be treated as a pandemic event, possibly involving weaponized agents. We need to mobilize all lab capacity to process samples for toxicology and pathology. We need the CDC compiling hospital data to look for spread patterns, if any. We need to quarantine the most serious patients and run full tox and psych evals. Meanwhile we wait. It might simply run its course."

Dr. Hadley made a disapproving noise halfway between sigh and snicker. "Dr. Hayes, surely you understand we've already taken these steps. You must have something else, just in case we're not dealing with a strange flu bug or LSD in the water supply. Your charter, and budget I might add, encourages unconventional thinking. There must be other avenues of investigation."

Hayes watched the sheepish expressions of his colleagues before exhaling audibly. "Yes, of course, but I must stress this is highly speculative. We're investigating evidence of a broader physical phenomenon, possibly astrophysical. In short, our planet may be passing through a potent energy field capable of, among other things, disorienting humans in a similar way that magnetic storms can affect migratory birds. If this is really the case, we simply don't know if it will resolve itself or... continue to intensify."

The video link allowed Hayes to observe his team sharing a look of guilt for offering something so sketchy to the White House.

"Good Lord. I'd really hoped to avoid hearing anything like that. All right, do whatever you can to investigate it further, and let me know what other resources you need. NASA, NOAA, whatever. Let's reconvene tomorrow, as long as..." she paused a moment to consider if tomorrow was even on the calendar. "Just give us something actionable. The President wants to show leadership, he just doesn't know what his options are."

With this, the weary group exchanged goodbyes and planned, with circumspection, to meet again tomorrow, having reluctantly left the strange affairs of the world hanging from a weakening thread. Hayes watched as the images of Launsby and Ranbee blinked off the monitors, but Dr. Breslin remained. She had one more question. Her normally clinical voice had grown soft.

"Dr. Hayes, if you're right about all this, then why aren't we experiencing physical effects, like extreme cold? I also can't shake this strange feeling of... expectancy. I'd describe it as both wonderful and terrifying, yet without any sense of contradiction. Do you know what I mean?"

Hayes felt it as well, the palpable sense of pending arrival; as if standing beside the railroad tracks near a blind curve knowing that any moment a tiny puff of wind or slight rumble would precede the roar of a sudden, overwhelming, and undeniable force.


* * *

On the drive home, Hayes reflected on her first question. He'd done his best to explain that our normal conceptions of heat and cold were meaningless if the foundations of physics were changing. Cold might be the least, or more accurately last, of their problems.

Sylvia was waiting for him at the front door. She kissed him and led him back to the living room where gentle flames and soft crackles emerged again from the fireplace. The two lay close together on the floor in peaceful silence. Harry was amazed at the metamorphosis of his wife who'd normally be talking on the phone while sifting through papers and trying to cook dinner this time of day.

She now resembled the woman he'd met decades ago full of wonder and love of the simple things, the woman who spent a month in Guatemala on a mission trip, returning sick and malnourished but with a sense of satisfaction she'd never matched since. Hayes whispered in her ear.

"You've changed, darling."

"Haven't we all?"

The fire was mildly hypnotic. Hayes found himself in that state between sleeping and waking, yet his thoughts remained lucid. Something nagged at him, a riddle that all his scientific naturalism was useless to explain. The answer could be laying right next to him, with the woman who never lost faith in a spiritual world beyond science and routinely challenged her husband to explain credible accounts of the supernatural. Sylvia met his searching gaze.

"What is it, dear?" she asked groggily.

"I doubt we were much help to the President," Hayes confessed.

Sylvia merely squeezed his hand.

"I've never been much of a philosopher," Hayes began, "occupational hazard I guess. You always had a better grasp of the... metaphysical."

She grinned. "Are you trying to ask my opinion?"

He nodded. "It's just... if we have souls, what are they made from?

Sylvia pondered this for a moment. "Pure spirit."

"That doesn't help. Do you mean some form of energy?"

"I don't know dear, but I doubt energy or matter or even time and space figure into it," she replied. "It's above all that. I've always believed there's a spiritual dimension beyond anything we can perceive directly. It would be like a two-dimensional creature trying to comprehend a skyscraper but only being able to see the outline of its shadow. Our souls are a natural part of that other dimension, which by the way, some would call Heaven."

"So our souls don't depend on our physical bodies? We'd still have a soul even if we... didn't have any atoms?"

"What? I suppose so. Harry, are you feeling okay?"

"Maybe just a touch of The Crazies"

Sylvia only smiled and kissed Harry on the cheek before rolling over on the floor to a spot nearer the fire. Even though it was blazing nicely, it didn't seem to be producing much heat.

Hayes also felt a slight chill. He looked around and realized it was getting dark, but how did it get so late? He rose and slowly made his way into the kitchen to check the time and look outside. "That's odd," he thought to himself, just past five-thirty. Not even twilight.

A more noticeable chill began spread across his neck and shoulders. Walking back towards the family room, he paused by the little alcove with a small desk they used for mail. Mounted on the wall was a gift from Harry's uncle who once worked in a chemical plant. It was a large stainless-steel industrial thermometer and Hayes gasped at it with wide-eyed disbelief. It read minus one hundred and twenty five degrees Fahrenheit, and was falling. That's when he knew.

Sylvia called to him. "Harry, I've got an awful chill. Could you do me a favor?"

Hayes was unable to take his eyes off the thermometer, but could barely see it as the room was quickly fading into darkness.

"Of course honey. I'll get you a blan-"


THE END


2016 Glenn M. Diamond

Bio: Mr. Diamond has a background in electrical engineeringand currently lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and daughter. His first published short story "The Cleansing" appeared in the Huffington Post. His last Aphelion appearance was The Best Friend in Greyworld in our December 2014 issue.

E-mail: Glenn M. Diamond

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