Waiting for the End




This is the beginning of a novella.

Message me to let me know what you think or if you want to read more.


Chapter 1

He was one of the first people to have a glimpse of the Great Collapse; coincidentally, it occurred on the same day his father died.


Doctors had recommended he waste no time coming down to London as they worried about his father’s rapidly deteriorating health, but he couldn’t just leave his responsibilities like that. Despite being in his late thirties, he was already the principal investigator for one of the imaging instruments on Hipparchus, the latest and grandest space telescope sent into space, and the following day was to be a significant milestone in the mission; a long-lasting snapshot of a particular region of the sky, known within the field as a deep field image.


Knowing that he would have to be absent for a few days, he wanted to make sure that there would be no snags. Not that he didn’t trust his team; they were a very talented group of engineers and scientists, the best the twenty-first century could produce. You just didn’t become one of the leaders in your field without a strong sense of dedication and acute attention to detail.


He finally left in the latter part of the morning and after driving for a few hours towards the south, he parked at a service station that had seen better days, switched off the engine and called his sister Michelle. Their father was in a stable condition although doubt lingered in her voice. Alone in the car battered by the Scottish wind and rain, he closed his eyes and fought the emotions within.


After a few minutes of being still, he took off his circular glasses, wiped the few dissident tears that had rolled down his cheeks and looked at himself in the rear-view mirror; he was a tall man with a prominent nose and dark hair. His well-trimmed beard speckled with white hair provided him with a sense of gravitas.


He stepped out of the car, a brown coat clutched in his left hand. At the service station before the English border, he ordered an overpriced latte served in a thin paper cup and sat down absent-minded at a corner table covered with fresh crumbs and mug stains; signs of its previous occupants and the cheap labour that was often used in such establishments.


He observed the raindrops trickling down the windowpane and felt the sadness and sorrow descending upon him like a slow-motion tsunami encroaching deeper with each wave. Rushing in and out. In and out. He was bracing himself for what was to come. Suddenly, a ringtone from a nearby table took him out of his thoughts and a loud conversation ensued. His latte had gone cold. It was time to go.


The rain had stopped now and once outside, he looked up and saw a timid patch of blue sky nestled between heavy clouds. His reverie brought him to the space telescope. His team should have received the image by now.


He sat back into his car and called James, the project scientist. The answer he received was not what he had expected. 'Daniel. Something’s gone wrong with the deep field image. You won’t believe this but half the galaxies are missing and I have no idea why,' James then sent him a low-resolution picture of the image. Something was indeed not right; according to their calculations, the deep field image should have captured hundreds of galaxies. Far less could be seen in the image.


This was bad news. Weeks of reviewing and testing would be required, delaying an already busy schedule. And then there was the media. He would have to brace himself for the storm they would unleash. He could already see the headlines now: ‘The Blind Telescope.’, ’Hipparchus in Trouble’, ‘Billions wasted in space’.


As he was mulling around with the potential causes for the missing galaxies, his phone rang, it was his sister. A cold fist formed in his stomach as he knew what it meant. He was too late.


...


The following days proved harrowing. Daniel stayed at Michelle’s house in Greater London where the mornings were busy with paperwork, phone calls and various arrangements for the funeral, while the afternoons were spent tying loose ends and talking with family members and friends who reached out upon hearing the news. Work also crept in although he managed to keep it at bay; a few urgent phone calls and responding to some emails were all he could find time for. Who knew there would be so many administrative tasks to bury a loved one he thought; as if dealing with the emotional anguish of losing someone dear was not difficult enough.

Three days had passed already since his father died and Daniel was staring blankly at some leaflets spread across the table; they were for the purchase of a tombstone and showed a wide variety of colour, patterns and shapes. The disappearance of someone that shared your DNA reverberates deep within the soul and reminds you that simply being alive is an incredible event in itself. Yet, thought Daniel, the way many of us want to honour our lost ones is by placing the most lifeless thing we could find - that is, large pieces of solid mineral material, most commonly known as rocks.


Daniel recalled that the ones used for tombstones have a lively history. Granite is formed within the fiery bowels of our planet while marble is created, for the most part, by the recrystallization of limestone and dolomite which are rocks that can be associated with life. So, in a way, the symbolism of these minerals being churned and recycled by our planet might be a fitting metaphor for our physical bodies as they returned back to Earth, although, he considered, this would probably not sit well as a marketing text on the leaflets he had at hand.


It was already afternoon, and bright rays of sunlight appeared through the kitchen windows and took him out of his reverie. He stacked the leaflets to one side of the table and stood up. The back door led directly into the garden where he took his shoes and socks off and walked barefoot upon the grass; step by step, he felt every single blade caress or crunch under his feet. When he reached the middle of the garden, he looked up and saw billowing white clouds moving slowly across the sky like sleeping giants and the sun playing hide and seek behind them. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The simple act of taking in a big gulp of fresh air filled him with renewed vigour and, in that instant, the feeling of being alive struck him; all his senses became one: the sound of the wind blowing through the nearby trees, the coolness of the air he was breathing in, the warmth of the scattered sun-rays on his skin, the prickly feeling under his feet. The world was alive and he was aware of it.


Evening meals were shared at home with Michelle, her husband Nathan, their two quick-witted boys George and Julian, and a sulky cat named Plump. Given the circumstances, they mainly opted for take-aways and good bottles of wine. At dinner, Michelle brought up the topic of school reports.

‘Daniel, you never asked about Julian’s science project. You know, the one you helped him with a few months ago. I think it was on the solar system. Right Julian?’ she asked, frowning.

‘Oh. I’m sorry,’ Daniel said, turning to his nephew with an apologetic gaze. ‘I’ve been so busy lately. I completely forgot. How did it go?’

‘The teacher gave me top marks!’ said the boy enthusiastically. ’She even said that she learned some new things about the Solar System.’

Daniel sneered. ’A ten-year-old teaching his teacher; education in a nutshell.’

‘Hey. I’m already eleven!’ exclaimed Julian indignantly.

‘Yes indeed. Sorry.’ Daniel replied looking slightly embarrassed. ‘You both just seem to grow so quickly, I’m losing track.’

George chimed in between mouthfuls of pizza. ’How about me Daniel? Do you remember how old I am?’

‘Mmmm... What is eleven plus two? You’ve given me a tough maths problem there George.’ Daniel said while presenting an empty plate to his nephew. ’And since we’re talking numbers, can you pass me a slice of Four Seasons please?’

‘Another one! Don’t eat all the pizza,’ George replied as he put a slice on the plate.

‘Hey! Leave some for me.’ Julian cried out.

‘Boys! Enough!’ interrupted Michelle whose dark under-eye circles had grown more noticeable in the last few days. Silence descended on the gathering.

It didn’t last long though. Julian broke the spell while chewing on a slice of Margherita .’Daniel, when will the space telescope be fixed?’

Surprised, Daniel gave his sister an inquisitive look.

She swiftly answered.

’Your telephone calls. You’ve been taking them from the living room, so we can all hear you. I meant to tell you, actually.’

Daniel took a moment to consider this then turned to his nephew.

‘So you heard that the telescope is broken. Well, as we’re sitting here, some very smart people are checking every part of it using sensors, a sort of check at a distance. Once we spot the problem, we’ll try to fix it.’

‘Yes, but how can you be sure you’ll find a problem?’ the boy replied cautiously. ’What if the telescope isn’t broken.’

‘Well, that’s great because it means we can continue studying space with it!’

‘But, what about the galaxies?’ George chimed in.

‘What about them?’ replied Daniel, feeling his heart sinking.

‘They’re disappearing!’ Julian cried out.

I’m such an idiot Daniel thought before responding, ‘That’s not true. Galaxies don’t disappear. We’re just having problems with the imaging tools,’

‘But, what if there are no problems?’ persisted Julian.

‘I don’t understand.’ Daniel replied.

‘You know… what if the galaxies are really not here anymore?’

‘That’s not how the universe works Julian. Billions of stars and planets don’t just vanish like that,’ said Daniel although, he could see why his nephew was considering the idea as there was something to say about a young spirit not constrained by the dogmas and intellectual frameworks trapping most adult minds.

‘How do you know?’ Julian asked, staring at his uncle with eyes wide open.

‘Well,’ Daniel hesitated before continuing. ‘Let’s just take your idea forward then. What if the galaxies are truly disappearing? How could we explain it?’

‘Isn’t it evident? The cosmos is shrinking!’ Julian said.

‘The cosmos is getting smaller?’, George asked surprised.

‘Yes. As if the cosmos is collapsing on itself.’ said Julian more assertively.

After a long pause, Daniel turned to the young boy and said.

‘Ever heard of the Pioneer anomaly?’

‘No,’ replied Julian.

‘Oh, I know!’ George cried out, ‘I saw it on YouTube. It’s about how we got gravity all wrong. It said that the Pioneer spaceship is going faster, or er, maybe slower, I can’t remember. Anyway, it’s not flying the way we thought it would. Right, Daniel?’

Daniel chuckled lightly.

‘Well,…’ He started answering but Julian interrupted him.

‘George, is it Pioneer 10 or 11? Because, you know, NASA launched more than one Pioneer spaceship.’

‘Actually...’ Daniel continued but was once more interrupted, this time by George.

‘It’s been a while so I can't remember. But I’ll show you the video after the meal. It has really cool images.’

‘Boys! Can you let your uncle talk!’ Michelle cried out once more.

‘Okaaay’ Julian and George said in unison.

‘Well,’ Daniel replied as he leaned backwards on his chair. ‘The so-called anomaly has nothing to do with our misunderstanding of gravity but all to do with us building very complex machines. The two space probes that were sent into space decades ago, which are Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, seemed to slow down unpredictably as they were leaving the Solar System. It took us a long time to figure out the reason why, and no, George, it has nothing to do with our failure to understand gravity.’ Daniel looked at his eldest nephew who raised his shoulders in an I-don’t-know gesture. Daniel continued.

‘The reason for the slowdown was a tiny heat loss in the probe’s power system. That, with time, had a perceptible effect on its speed. Mystery solved.’

‘Ah,’ said Julian. ‘This means that NASA didn’t fully understand the spacecraft they had built.’

Daniel smiled at his nephew; Julian always seemed to be one step ahead of everyone else. He’d make a fine scientist, Daniel thought.

‘Well, I would have not said it in those terms Julian but, yes, the machines we build are sometimes so complicated that we can’t foresee all of their effects.’

‘So, if I understand well,’ Julian continued, ‘it's more likely that the space telescope is too complicated than that something weird is taking place in space.’

‘Exactly. Put it in this way, what are the chances that a thirteen billion-year-old cosmos is collapsing right now during your very short life span compared to the chances that an incredibly complicated machine has a technical failure?’

‘Collapsing cosmos. Sounds like a cool name for a band,’ replied George.

‘Oh, and please keep this to yourselves, boys, because we haven’t communicated this to the public yet,’ cautioned Daniel. ‘I’m already amazed there’s been no leak so far,’ he thought to himself pouring a glass of wine. It was going to be another long night.

...