They gathered in silence, lost in their own thoughts in the observation deck of the research station, Jupiter visible through the windows as if hanging against the starlit sky. From their station the gas giant’s red, brown and orange storms looked frozen in time, even though they all knew that the storms were raging at hundreds of miles per hour. James broke the uncomfortable silence with the words he was sure all the scientists in the room were thinking were thinking.
“Did we doom us all?”
No one answered. No one could know. Not for another 43 minutes.
Around the observation deck everyone was nervous. The station’s entire complement of staff was there. Some of the scientists checked datapads or stared at particular spots on the nearby gas giant as if they were expecting the planet to suddenly shrink or grow in front of them. James’ designated laboratory partner Jennifer, who was usually so relaxed and carefree now paced back and forth between two windows, taking a good half a minute at each to stare intently out into space, as if she would somehow spot something that would tell them what happened.
The project lead just kept staring at the numbers on his datapad, zooming in on certain points, examining every microsecond of data available. Of course nothing had been missed or overlooked; the simulation programs took every possible data point into account.
James sat down on a bench across from another scientist he had not spoken to since arriving. She had her head bowed in her hands and he spied a simple gold chain with what may have been a crucifix peeking out from fingers. Her lips were moving slowly, silently, repeating a phrase. He could not make out what she was saying but he could have a reasonable guess as to the essence of it.
He took a deep breath and looked at his own datapad again. He looked at the error bars and winced. Their best estimate of what would happen ranged from the chance of everyone on Earth getting a bad sunburn to the destruction of all humanity from a massive solar radiation burst. He shook his head at the extremes. They could really use more data right now, but there was nothing anyone could do now. Not for another 30 minutes.
Absent-mindedly he wondered where was the best place to be if the worst was going to happen. Mercury would be the first to go, the radiation hitting them about 3 minutes after the sun’s output had increased. They would likely give a warning to Earth and Mars, buying an extra 5 minutes at each place. Not that anything could be done with an additional 5 minutes; like themselves in orbit around Jupiter, all the people of Earth would be able to do would be to wait for it to hit. It did raise the question whether it was better to know what was about to happen or not, but he suspected it would likely come down to how bad the outcome was.
James stood up and walked over to the main window intending to look out to Jupiter, but he found himself unable to stand still. He stretched his legs, cracked his neck and paced several times around the room but nothing helped. Jennifer noticed him and joined him. She held his hand and motioned him through some breathing exercises. They helped, as long as he focused on them. She was a good lab partner, and he had enjoyed every moment of work with her over the last week. He felt a stab of sadness at the idea it might all end in the next 26 minutes. It seemed a strange thing to think when there was so much more that would be lost as well, and he wondered whether he should feel guilty about that.
James had transferred to the RS Jove research station above Jupiter only a week prior. Aside from Jennifer who used his actual name, everyone simply called him ‘the newbie’, or ‘the kid’ and he had been primarily left to observations for much of his stay so far. Even so, this research station posting was a dream come true. It was his first applied position away from the theoretical numbers of his studies and he had been accepted to the most advanced research station in the solar system.
To top it off, he was observing a ground-breaking experiment; the creation of a portal inside the mass of Jupiter, and a corresponding portal inside the mass of the sun. The creation of portals was old news by now, with permanently open gateways between major cities on Earth, Mars and Mercury providing rapid instant transit across the vast distances of space, but this was the test of a whole new application of the technology.
A small, momentary portal inside the sun’s mass, and inside the planetary sphere of Jupiter would provide proof that a part of the sun could be siphoned into Jupiter. The ongoing fusion reactions in the sun would then spread into Jupiter. To put simply, if you allowed enough of the sun to get through then Jupiter would ‘ignite’, and you would have a second, smaller sun, giving light and warmth to planned colonies on Callisto, Ganymede and Europa.
If the concept worked it would open up the possibility for further expansion into the outer solar system, currently held back by the lack of solar power in the outer solar system. New homes for billions of people who were struggling with housing would be a reality, as well as access to huge amounts of resources. It was to be the dawn of a new age for humanity, and James had been allowed to be part of it. His chest had swelled with pride at the thought of his involvement in such a project. It would probably swell now if he could manage to control his breathing for long enough.
The sense of pride disappeared as he remembered the moment it had all happened. Everyone involved in the project had been in the main control room where screens, keyboards and digital displays covered every square centimetre of useable space. Every scientist had their own dataset to monitor, and the station hospitality team had brought up a chilled bottle of champagne for the celebration afterwards.
The screens had burst into life as the portals had opened up, and the room had collectively held their breath.
“Portal in Jupiter is stable!” called Jennifer.
“Portal in the sun is stable!” called another.
The project leader quickly checked over a couple of screens and nodded.
“Ok, release the containment fields. Let the sun in.”
That was the moment it.
Alarm bells had rung up all over the place, the dull blue screens flashing a vibrant red, screaming out errors and problems.
“What the hell just happened!?!?” shouted the project leader.
Everyone was staring at screens trying to read the numbers and graphs being spit out. James’ own screen was no exception.
The numbers he was seeing were wrong, they had to be wrong. He frowned, they were simply impossible. He glanced across at Jennifer, who looked equally confused. Quickly, he tapped out some commands, trying to make sense of the numbers. They were...negative numbers? Negative numbers orders of magnitude bigger than should have been expected... Surely that was not possible?
In the background he was vaguely aware of the project lead screaming. “Get the containment fields back up, now!”
“It isn’t responding sir, there’s too much matter flowing through the portal!”
There was too much matter flowing negatively through the portal...it was going in the wrong direction! The sun was supposed to be flowing through to Jupiter, but Jupiter was flowing through to the Sun...that wasn’t right. How was that even possible? James glanced at Jennifer who was still looking confused. “Jennifer, it’s going in reverse. Jupiter is going into the sun and at a huge rate!” She blinked for a moment before her eyes went wide with alarm.
Jennifer looked down and then back at James. “It’s worse than that then, it looks like the hydrogen is undergoing fusion on the sun. The sun’s energy output seems to be rising, and rising fast!”
“Shut the whole portal down! Yes, pull the plug on the portal power, whatever it takes to shut it down! Yes, confirm project leader authorisation!”
The alarm bells suddenly stopped ringing, and for a split-second all the lights in the room flickered, and screens dimmed. Then there was silence. A small green notice on the corner of each screen indicated that they were running on station-power only with no connection to Earth. All portals were closed. With no more data coming through, the graphs had stopped changing. No one moved.
Jennifer was the first to speak. “Sir, you need to see this.” She showed the project leader her readout and explained what had happened. James shared his own screen and readouts, the information quickly being passed around the whole room in hushed whispers. It simply was not possible that the experiment had gone in reverse. They had checked the numbers a thousand times with the best supercomputers available.
And then there was the Sun. How could the hydrogen from Jupiter increase the fusion rate of the sun by any noticeable amount. Was it still rising? Theoretically if enough hydrogen went into the sun to cause a sudden uncontrolled runaway of fusion they could be looking at some kind of supernova event, but it would need far more hydrogen than they had allowed through. Or at least, it should need far more.
The project leader seemed to be having the same line of thought. His face had gone completely white and he gulped before speaking. “Find out how much of Jupiter went through the portal exactly, and run some simulations based on the last moment of data we got from the sun. Tell me we didn’t just start a supernova...”
They all joined together running the numbers. They ran them twice. And then, just to be sure, once more. Then, for lack of a better option they each split up and ran them independently. There was no firm conclusion to be drawn.
“It isn’t possible.” James said, frustrated. “We should be able to drop all of Jupiter into the sun and still not have a supernova. There just isn’t enough mass there to cause a supernova.”
“It isn’t possible that any of this happened and it did!”
The discussions went around the room arguing the possibility and the impossibility of it. Without enough data they could not come to any agreement except that it was deemed impossible, and yet somehow it had happened. How, they did not know, but there was nothing to do now except wait for more data via the satellite communication links. It takes light 43 minutes to reach Jupiter from the Sun. That was how long they had to wait before any data would start coming in for them to confirm the result.
With no more tests to run they had gone up to the observation deck to wait the time out.
Someone had put the countdown on a display. 10 minutes to go. It was silent, but James could swear each second that ticked by was accompanied by a deafening boom, like a millennia-old grandfather clock. He sat down again and forced his eyes closed. It isn’t possible to make the sun into a supernova. It isn’t possible to make the sun into a supernova. Over and over he repeated it to himself.
He looked over at Jennifer for what may well be the last time, who was now grinding her teeth, eyes unblinking and locked on the countdown. Painfully, the last few minutes ticked by. As the timer hit zero there was a few moments of complete stillness. For a few seconds no one moved and the lack of noise made him wonder if people were even breathing.
Then, like a clap of thunder the room erupted into motion as everyone scrambled to their displays and datapads, desperate to see what data was coming in from the sun. James looked around, there didn’t seem to be much he could do to help so he stayed out of everyone’s way. No warning lights were going off and no radiation alarms sounding, so that must be a good sign.
In the midst of all the chaos it occurred to him that no one had actually said a word since he had posed the question nearly 43 minutes ago. He looked at his datapad and saw the sun’s energy output had stopped rising. It seemed to have peaked. The graph beeped, and the number dropped. Another beep and another drop. It dropped again.
Everyone was now watching the project leader, who was nodding at every data point in the graph, each time more enthusiastically than the last. The numbers kept dropping. They were on the lower end. It would do some damage to electronics, particularly the older ones, and there would be a lot of sunburns, but there would be no mass destruction, no death of the human race. He took a long, slow breath and swallowed.
“No, we did not.”
With almost synchronised timing everyone gathered let out a sigh of relief. Some of the team were openly crying, some laughing. James sat back, he himself had the urge to be sick. This was not how he had expected his first week to go. The project leader continued: “I’m going to go to my office, I expect I will be receiving a message from Earth in about 5 minutes. They’ll want to know what the hell just happened.”