Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
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by Edmund Schluessel

“Angela!” Fred Tarkies called to his wife in the kitchen. “I think it’s time for the guacamole!” To the woman across the coffee table from him he noted slyly, “Angela makes the best guac. My mother’s recipe. I’ve taught her well!”

Dr. Nehal Gupta half-smiled awkwardly in reply and used the change in topic as an excuse to break eye contact. She looked toward the kitchen door as a slight, heavily made-up woman stepped in carrying a plate. She’s wearing high heels around the house, Nehal noted with a shock she didn’t allow to show. Angela moved efficiently but without grace, in a stooped gait, and deposited the flat, broad plate on a small stand on the table with a faint clink but no flourish, alongside a bowl of corn chips. On the plate was a lid. Nehal saw in the woman’s hollow-eyed smile, in a smile no more sincere than her own, a plea for approbation. Nehal nodded encouragingly to Angela, who relaxed but stayed in place until her husband dismissed her with a curt “very good, thank you.” Between the doctor and the portly, bearded engineer sat the intricately painted china plate with an un-matching china lid, no guacamole in sight. He thinks he’s clever, Nehal posited from experience. That means the guacamole is indeed here. Thus...God damn it, Fred. Her eyes narrowed in frustration. Tarkies didn’t see.

Fred Tarkies dramatically lifted the lid and revealed from underneath it a circle of chunky, green sauce dotted with squares of tomato-red. Around the edge of the circle was a loop of copper wire connected to a square inch of printed circuit board and a watch battery, and faint blue Cerenkov-radiation glow. “Try some!” Tarkies encouraged the doctor. “Go on, taste it! Taste how fresh it is!”

He’s done something to it. Some simple trick...aged it? That’s it, isn’t it, it’s a week old. Nehal took a chip and incised a line across the guacamole, edge to edge. Another “taste it!” came out of Tarkies as Nehal raised the chip to her mouth and bit down. The guacamole was fresh and tangy, not cloying with too much cilantro like so many were, not overwhelmed by lime juice, well-blended.

“Ha!” Fred gasped. “That’s days old!” To the other room he shouted, “honey, tell her when you made the guacamole!”

Thinly, Angela replied, “last week, darling. Last Thursday.”

“That guacamole has been in that pocket universe for eight days, Nehal.”

He thinks he’s solved the stability problem, Gupta thought.

“I’ve solved the stability problem!” beamed Tarkies.

Dr. Gupta expertly faked a triumphant laugh and tipped her head back to cover the rolling of her eyes. The ceiling of the living room in the Tarkies’ house was high, far higher than the ceiling of her own studio apartment, and the skylights shone with sunset.

Solving the stability problem was nothing. Any senior undergraduate could have done it. New universes flicked almost immediately out of existence in a spray of mesons without matter or energy to fill them. Fred Tarkies’s “stability problem” was just the control logic for a circuit that pumped dark energy into the pocket universe and kept it from collapsing. “It’s really just a negative-feedback circuit,” he explained. “I track the density inside the universe, I” --I, even though the circuit was doing all the work--”decrease the current when the density goes down so the universe contracts as the contents empty, until it’s empty. The hard part,” he boasted, “was getting the cost down. It’s a superhet circuit, like in an old radio...” and on he trailed, as Nehal ate a few more chips. Cheap meant dangerous. Any oscillator wants to turn into an amplifier, Nehal noted to herself. Overload Fred’s cut-rate circuit and a lot of investors’ guacamole would vanish in a pop and a fizzle and a wormhole to nowhere. Well, maybe he’d learn something about cutting corners.

The circle on the plate was a portal to another, artificial cosmos, a cosmos filled to the top with avocado dip. Nehal had to hand it to Fred: he had a knack for hooks that would attract investors. This was a simple proof-of-concept, something he could take from place to place. Really, though...

“...this is what we’re going with?” asked Nehal after she’d dipped and swallowed a few more chips--it genuinely was quite decent guacamole, extracted though it might have been from the unappreciated, unearned labor of Fred Tarkies’ wife. Nehal hazarded some skepticism, now that Tarkies’s pride wouldn’t be wounded so much after his big reveal. “We’re the only people in the world who can produce arbitrarily large pocket universes and we’re going to market them as jam jars.”

“Hmmph,” he replied. He was affronted after all, then. “You told me yourself, if these universes aren’t expanding there’s no time passing in them. If we sold them to the research market, there wouldn’t be enough of a demand to make it worthwhile...we buy these”--he waved toward the portal on the plate, born in the jetsam of a particle accelerator--”from Fermilab for a dollar each, before we process them. Scientists never have any money.”

Nehal pictured her apartment again. Maybe she’d be able to use a pocket universe to give herself some more living space.

If she did she’d have to hack Fred’s circuit. The dynamics of the closed universes they made came down to three parameters: the density of whatever filled them, and the dark energy to balance it out, were just two. The third was how the material responded to being compressed. A bedroom or a sitting room--Oh, I could finally set up a study and get some bookshelves--would be mostly empty space filled with air, so the space-time would act completely differently from one filled with something nearly-incompressible like water or rock or, well, guacamole.

“Businessmen want practical solutions to practical problems,” Tarkies continued, operating on the assumption Nehal didn’t know this. “If I sell it like this, we get seed capital. Don’t worry honey, you’ll be taken care of.”

Now Nehal had to bite her tongue. She’d never asked to be “taken care of.” She just wanted to be able to live her life and carry out her research. Joining one of Fred Tarkies’ start-ups had seemed like an alliance of convenience, straight out of postgraduate work. He got the rights to all the patents, she got a salary barely enough to survive on in New York. The high wall of patent law meant even the research community couldn’t follow up on her discoveries though, and wouldn’t be able to for years. Fred had stopped her from publishing anything more than generalities, too: “trade secrets.”

Nehal could feel her career slipping away into the anonymity of a functionary.

“So what I did,” Tarkies concluded, “is I’ve formed up some bigger pocket universes, and I’m gonna put on a big show for some investors next month. August 15th. I’ll send you the invite, I’m gonna need you to give a little PowerPoint.”

That was an easy enough task. She could do it in her sleep.

“Oh, and wear your lab coat. And a skirt. Something above the knee. And a pair of high heels. Look cute. But professional.

Darling!” he shouted, turning to the kitchen. “I’m gonna need you to start making guac! Four or five pounds!”

Look cute. That part was going to take far more energy out of Nehal.


Dr. Gupta was sitting at the table in the hotel conference room as Tarkies gave his wrap-up. Her toes, the balls of her feel, her knees and calves, even her back all ached from having to stand and walk in ridiculous shoes all afternoon but the presentation itself was entry-level, even offensively trivial, and the sweltering New York summer was always ten degrees worse in Manhattan. Inwardly she compared herself to a medical “expert” on an infomercial hawking miracle cures--just a prop to give the product legitimacy.

She had to admit, Tarkies’s speech roused the assembled potential investors. In front of people he wanted something from, he was approachable, even charming.

Nehal had seen him without the audience plenty of times. The effortless self-confidence came from sneering arrogance. Before the sales pitch’s doors opened Nehal had run to and fro around the meeting room setting up dozens of chairs. Frederick Tarkies had warmed up by improvising into the microphone, his id unchained.

“Check, check, one, two, one, two. Pigs and swine, pigs and swine, all you’ll ever have is mine. You want success? I am a success! I take what I want and I leave you the rest...” Nehal had tried to ignore the chatter but in her fatigue the rhythms of the inane rap pounded into her head.

Those same cadences drew her back to the present as Tarkies finished. “So now, thank you very much, and I’ve got a demonstration for you of just what PocketSpace can do.” He motioned toward the back and a man in an apron and bow tie rolled up a table with a flat surface, empty underneath, and on top nothing but a circular lid and a little white box with a few flashing lights. Another waiter deposited a few plastic bowls of corn chips. Tarkies lifted the lid from the table and flicked it with his finger so it tolled like a bell. “Ladies and gentlemen, dig in to a whole other universe.”

The crowd rushed forward, hungry for salt and novelty. Low theater, a bit of prestige, whatever you called it, Nehal sensed a chance to relax, to lean her head back and to close her eyes. She was preparing herself mentally: in a minute, she’d have to get up and answer insipid questions, take be leered at with a smile. There had been that one fake-tanned man in the pinstripe suit staring at her legs during her whole presentation, and Nehal was sure he’d try to corner her. “Oh hello, I really liked your talk, you’re so beautiful, you know, really exotic, would you like to go over to the bar and tell me more about what you’ve got to offer...” Nehal steeled herself, and began working her features into a happy face, when she heard a woman’s yelp. “Eep! It’s cold!”

“The table’s bending. Damn, my keys! My car keys!” another voice exclaimed, startled. Nehal’s mind was already in gear as she kicked off the high heels and stood. From the raised stage she could see the Cerenkov light of the portal glowing too bright as the scent of coriander and lime juice filled the air too strong. The inside of the artificial cosmos seemed dark, with a haze of green above it.

The pocket universe is expanding. That was an obvious deduction. Why? Not enough mass density--the crowd had eaten the dip hungrily, nearly emptied it out, faster than Fred’s dumb circuit could handle. The expansion had sublimated the remaining contents into vapor, changing the state of matter. How to fix the problem...

Reverse the polarity. It’s just that simple--reverse two contact wires, change the sign of the cosmological constant. Fred’s circuit was simple enough that she would be able to alter it in a few seconds, once she got the plastic cover off.

Nehal stood in place. She had the key to saving the world and herself in her head.

With cool clarity, she realized she didn’t want to use it.

Either Fred would step in and fix his own problem, or the pocket universe would grow forever.

Fred Tarkies never looked at her, not even to ask for help. He strode, long-paced and dumbfounded, toward the little plastic box he’d made, but before he’d even come close the box itself fell in. Eventually the battery would run down. That didn’t matter. The new universe would grow exponentially. Stretched-out space on the other side of the portal meant gravity, pulling toward the portal, on this side. Maybe it would close off to its parent universe before it had consumed the whole galaxy. Certainly, it wouldn’t stop until it had taken in all of New York City.

Now Nehal smiled for real. She felt the muscles in her face relax, her mask of feigned expression falling away in public for the first time in years. There was wind at her back as the atmosphere blew into the growing singularity, and as the storm siffled through her and the edge of the portal drew near her she pictured the world to come.

A whole new universe, she thought as the tidal forces began to tug at her body, and I get to live in it, for just a little while. Nobody would survive, but death would be quick, and every molecule in Nehal’s and everyone else’s bodies would be rendered into atoms to feed the newborn cosmology.

Now Nehal was falling, sideways, down, in a swan dive that would last forever, and at last she felt no gravity. Distantly, she was aware of screaming around her. It was getting quieter as the air thinned. Anoxia would be free from pain. A whole new chance for physics, and maybe in fifteen billion years, a whole new civilization looking back in time and finding the origin of life in the molecules of Mrs. Angela Tarkies’ guacamole.

Nehal was at peace with that fate. It really had been exceptional dip.


© 2017 Edmund Schluessel

Bio: Edmund Schluessel is a theoretical physicist & high school math teacher living in Helsinki, Finland, where he is an active member of the Helsinki SF mafia. Beyond writing, his hobbies extend to solving differential equations and getting to the bottom of beer glasses; the one tends to enhance the other. His favorite place to write is at the back of a small café in Kallio. He blogs at Space Curves.

E-mail: Edmund Schluessel

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