There must be some kind of way out of here… Charis’ sleep had been invaded. She battled through the covers, paused to hear Hendrix’s liquid solo, and turned off the alarm. She arched her back and stretched, forcing awake her body. Light had already begun to glint through the blinds. Neither the alarm nor the illumination bothered her boyfriend, Duane. Charis shivered from the draft of the newly occupied apartment as she made her way to the bathroom.
When Charis returned from the shower, Duane was rousing himself playing with his smart phone. “Oh, babe, go back to sleep!” Charis said, leaning over and toweling her brown, cropped hair.
“It’s your big day! Of course I’ll see you off.” He responded through a yawn. It was Charis’ first day at the Large Hadron Collider. She had recently acquired her Ph.D. and, through numerous connections in her program, found a spot as a researcher at the facility on the French Swiss border. “How are you feeling?” Duane asked excitedly as Charis walked into the kitchen. She smelled bread Duane had put in the toaster as she adjusted the thermostat a little warmer.
“Jesus, I will be working with people in the top of this field!” Charis exclaimed, turning around and waving her hands for emphasis.
“Well, you’re one of those geniuses, too!” he responded with a smile, opening the fridge and retrieving some eggs.
“So, will you be, like, splitting atoms and dividing by zero today?” he jokingly asked as she cracked eggs over a pan.
She laughed over the sizzle of cooking. “No. We don’t do that, you know. We’re colliding particles and trying to simulate the conditions of the beginning of the universe.” Duane passed his hand over his head with a whooshing sound.
He pulled out the toast and shook his hand rapidly to cool a burn. She chuckled but sighed internally. She hurriedly ate and gulped down the coffee, letting it scorch her throat. She went to the fridge and put her lunch in her bag. Kissing Duane on the cheek on her way out, he swallowed his mouth of food, stood up, and kissed her on the lips.
They met when Charis was finishing her doctorate. Duane was working in Information Technology at the university. She turned in her computer for work, then again and again. They dated all throughout the remainder of her graduate work, with Charis giving Duane crash-courses on her studies as long as he would follow. There wasn’t any hesitation when Duane heard she was accepted to work at the Large Hadron Collider. Despite her insistence to consider being uprooted, Duane would not entertain it. He quit his job the next day and started packing.
Charis descended down the spiraling stairs to the first floor. Out of habit, she wrapped herself tightly in her wool coat and tightened her scarf: Ithaca had prepared her for the Saint-Genis-Pouilly winter. She grasped the icy doorknob and light shone in from the street and cast her shadow across the complex lobby before Charis wedged the door back into its awkward resting place.
The three semesters of French did little for Charis. She navigated the streets looking for the bus stop to take her to the CERN grounds. “Pardonnez-moi, où est la rue avec la bus ligne Y? Transports publics genevois?” She would follow their directions as much as she could comprehend – two blocks or so, before stopping someone else. “Excusez-moi…” Charis was glad she gave herself ample time to get to the bus. Perhaps too ample – after she accidentally bought two additional tickets from an indecipherable machine, she sat at the stop alone for a few minutes, wrapping her coat tight around her torso. A crowd soon grew as other people showed up. Eventually, the bus pulled up and the doors swung open. Charis hesitantly stood as a crowd boarded. The driver looked at the lone figure standing there. She stepped forward and asked, “Eh, est-ce que c’est le bus à la . . . CERN facility?” She grazed over the parts that she roughly translated.
The driver nodded, “C’est ça.” Charis was greeted by a wall of warmth as she boarded. She undid her scarf, coat and gloves for the ride. She plugged her ears with earbuds and connected them to her phone. As she practiced her French, she let Billy Corgan’s nasally voice enter her head. Is it bright where you are? Have the people changed? Without any reference, Charis eventually abandoned her efforts at French and lulled into watching the road to her music. Line, line, line. Each one passing the spinning wheels, slow to come yet fast to leave. She tried to follow one with her eyes, before watching it disappear in the road. From ethers tragic I am born again.
Charis’ eyes, fixated on the road, caught site of the border between France and Switzerland. Further down, right past the border, was the CERN facility. Charis swelled with anticipation and wriggled her fingers into her gloves as the bus eased at the CERN front gate. “Merci beaucoup!” A phrase she was sure made sense. She waved to the driver as she carefully stepped off.
“De rien.” He muttered, addressing a number of other passengers.
By the front gate was a security office. Charis opened the door and peeked inside, knocking. It was an expansive office with a waiting, room, front desk and an expectant looking security officer. “Entrez?” Charis closed the door behind her and smiled her way up to the desk.
She recited what she had practiced on the bus: “Bonjour, je m’appelle Charis Walsh…” Charis presented her passport, “je suis une chercheuse nouvelle. C’est mon premiere jour.”
“Ah, oui!” The security guard said. He opened a drawer and withdrew a temporary pass. “Ici! Maintenant, vais au le ‘User Office’ pour un badge d’identification.” Charis thanked the guard and tucked the pass in the breast pocket of her shirt, ensuring that it was secure for the trip to the User Office. She passed through the gates and suffered the cold to take a photo of the main CERN building, Building 40. It was impressive, with blocky structures flanking a cylindrical glass middle. The building sat proudly amongst the open skyline, nestled on a groomed lawn. She attached it to a message to Duane.
When she arrived at the User Office, Charis slipped into the restroom and straightened herself for her identification photograph. Listening for anyone, she practiced a neutral, quiet smile. She set every hair in place and straightened her collar. Careful to not allow anything out of place, she walked as even and balanced as she could to the desk. After giving her information once more, the administrator motioned to the chair to her left. “Look at the camera.” Out came her rehearsed smile. The flash exploded in her eyes. She blinked a few times to scatter the blindness.
The printer ejected the identification card and the attendant handed it across the desk. Charis inspected it: her eyes were half-closed from the flash and the temporary pass was sticking out of her breast pocket. Disappointed, Charis stuffed the card in a plastic holder and fastened it to her shirt. Despite the photo, Charis felt like a real part of CERN. Something about having a permanent identification card felt validating. She went back into the restroom and took a picture of herself for Duane. The picture was striking; a picture of someone wearing a picture of themself. “Droste girlfriend!” She added to the text, wondering if Duane would get it.
Next, Charis would have to go to the office of her director, Doctor Erin Scheffler. Charis slipped her phone in her coat and went back to the User Office. “Sorry, where could I find Doctor Erin Scheffler?” The attendant hammered away at the keyboard, clicked a few times, and pulled up a building and office number.
Doctor Scheffler’s office door was half ajar. Unsure of what that meant, Charis lightly rapped on the door. “Hold on,” a voice ordered. Charis stepped back from the frame. After a few seconds, the door swung open and Doctor Scheffler beckoned her inside. She had shoulder length blonde hair pulled back tightly and intense green eyes. Her face turned up to a bright, white smile. “Hi, Charis, right?”
“Yes, hello.” Charis presented a hand, “It’s a pleasure, Doctor Scheffler.”
“Erin is fine.” She turned and went to her desk. Charis followed and took the seat in front of the desk piled high with papers, only a space open for a laptop. Charis sat taut in the chair, erect against the wooden back and arms folded against the useless rests.
“Well, I just want to say, it’s really a pleasure. You know, I have been following your research and publications since I was an undergraduate.”
Erin cordially nodded. “I was impressed with your work, too, Charis. Listen, before we get sidetracked, there’s an espresso café in B-40. How about we walk there and talk further?” Erin had already put on her coat. On her way to the door, she tossed away two empty, browned coffee cups. Charis stood up to follow her, slipping past her as she was beckoned out the door.
As they walked, Charis scrutinized her more. The bland, academic photos she had seen did Erin’s delicate, angular features no justice. She really was pretty, just watered down with business attire. It’s clear she didn’t need to impress anyone here.
“Where are you from originally?” Erin asked over her shoulder.
“Richmond, Virginia. I did undergraduate studies about an hour from home at UVA before heading to Cornell.”
Erin turned to look at Charis. “I remember passing through Richmond via I-95; I wish I could have stayed longer.” Her eyes were big and glassy, resting over high cheekbones. Her smile was sincere and wide, each one feeling like a unique connection.
“Yes, I miss it.” Charis admitted. “But this area is wonderful.”
“What have you seen?”
“I’m afraid not much, we came last week and have been moving in since. Just a tiny radius around our apartment in Saint-Genis-Pouilly.”
She stood half a head taller than Charis. Her slender neck stood out from her collar, exposed by the pulled back hair. Charis caught notes of a light perfume when they turned around a corner of the B40. Charis was partly disappointed to enter, wishing they had more time to themselves. The inside of B40 was as impressive as the outside. The middle part of the structure opened up to a dwarfing ceiling, with each level opening with a balcony around the ascent.
They entered the sleek café, greeted by the smell of steamed milk and ground beans. “Double shot Americano.” Erin’s order re-positioned Charis in the moment. “And you?”
Charis turned to the barista. “Vanilla latte, two-percent milk.” Charis reached for her wallet and Erin held up a hand as she passed a card to the cashier.
“I’m going to dip into the restroom; find us a seat.”
Charis walked over to a two-person table near a window. She twisted in her seat to retrieve her phone. She briefly opened her screen camera to straighten her hair and fix herself up. She saw she had a Snapchat from Duane. The application sends pictures of videos accessible for a maximum of ten seconds. Clicking on Duane’s message, an extreme closeup of his face filled up the screen. He had wide, crazed eyes and held his nose up with a finger. Blue text emblazoned across the picture: “GO DO SCIENCE.” Charis smiled and was about to save it with a screenshot when she saw Erin approaching with their coffee. She closed the application and the timer ran out.
Erin handed Charis her steaming cup. She positioned herself across from Charis and crossed her long legs. Natural light from the window outlined her profile. Charis’ latte foam was artfully shaped in a spiral. She took a moment to appreciate it.
“So, your thesis caught my attention.”
Charis blew on her drink as Erin sipped on hers. “Thank you, I-“
Erin spoke through her, “I just have one question…” and with that, Charis spoke to someone about her research, or particle physics in general, for the first time in months. Duane couldn’t keep up with Charis’ explanations, much less hold a conversation about them. They had started on Charis’ thesis, but the talk went everywhere in particle physics, even the personal.
“So, what brought you to studying physics?” Erin asked as she ran a finger along the rim of her half-finished cup.
Charis looked up from her latte. “It’s the fundamental workings of reality! The field fascinates me unlike nothing else. I studied philosophy for a while, but, just, lost interest. Maybe they ask different questions than physics.”
Erin gave a knowing nod. “I could never get into philosophy, myself. All the categorical imperatives and Cartesian…” She trailed off and waved a dismissive hand. Her eyes caught sight of her watch. “Shit!” She said with a laugh, “We’ve been here a while!” Charis felt herself flush. “Let’s get you to your office.”
They made their way back to her office building and retrieved a key from the administrative office. “I’m helping her move in.” Erin explained to the person at the desk. “This is Charis, a new researcher here.” Charis took the key and went two floors up to her office. They both stood outside, letting Charis appreciate the moment before slipping in the key and unlocking the door.
“You’ll be moved in in no time.” Erin said as they inspected the empty room.
“No, it’s great. I’m so excited.” Charis had gotten used to barren rooms with her apartment.
“Well, I’m glad.” Erin reached into her briefcase. “Once you’re settled, I want you to get accustomed to analyzing datasets. It’s a significant part of what you will be doing. As you know, we have to go over virtually endless amounts of data from these tests,” Erin withdrew an example sheet. “Lots of this stuff gets ruled out by a computer; what we are looking for is detected and sent to us for analysis.”
“Does the computer ever miss anything?”
Erin’s eyes met with Charis. “No more than a human.” There was a pause. “Anyways, I want you to get used to this, so we will be spending a little time on this today.” She handed Charis the sheet. “Each particle leaves a different signature on the LHC. You will be analyzing these signatures on a chart, like this. This chart was what confirmed the Higgs Boson, actually. You see that spike? There was less than one chance in a million of this happening from background.” Charis took the dataset from her hands and looked. She had seen it before, of course, but never from a practical standpoint. “You will be working on this a bit today. On a weekly basis, you will present your findings from this data in B40, the main building where we got the espresso.” Charis couldn’t hold back a smile. In the moment she felt legitimized, all the work and studying finally having produced a result, and what a result it was. “Thank you, Erin.”
“Of course. I’ll leave you to move in and get to work. Just get acquainted right now. You know, I really enjoyed speaking with you.” As she made her way to the door, Erin said, “If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Yeah, it was so nice to meet you! And I will.”
“Really, come find me for anything.”
Charis nodded and the door closed. She wiped her hands on her shirt; they were sweaty from the caffeine and nervousness. Charis sat down and pulled out her laptop, placing it on the bare desk. As the laptop connected to the wireless Internet, she started a list of things to bring to the office. After being adequately acquainted, she pulled up the datasets she was to analyze and printed them on an office printer. She felt a satisfaction in closing the door to her office. She placed the thick stack of papers on her desk and adjusted the blinds for the sun to shine through. It was so bright she turned off the overhead light. Charis sat at her desk and removed her shoes and socks, placing her bare feet over the rough fibers of the carpet, feeling the textures and patterns on her soles. She leaned into her desk and scrolled through her music library for music to which to analyze the LHC tests. She clicked on a playlist and turned up the volume, then pushed back the computer to make room for the datasets. Like the late nights studying, Charis was swallowed up by work. It all felt familiar, finally. She had gone long without tackling a pile of work to her favorite music. A form of mediation, an act in which one is guaranteed socially acceptable solitude.
The singer Noel Harrison joined her work. Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel… She was halfway through the datasets when she noticed a strange trend for which she could not account. …and the world is like an apple whirling silently in space…There were tracks and energy throughout the detector’s readings. Charis went back through the set and confirmed it. At first, she passed it off as anomaly. “Come on, what’s the probability of that happening on your first day?” She told herself. …is the sound of distant drumming just the fingers of your hand? Charis checked the test’s objectives again, and nothing could account for this strange phenomena. She retrieved more results of the dataset, and they all pointed to the same result. Charis sat back and debated asking Erin. As the images unwind, like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind. If this were a foolish mistake, it could be a learning opportunity, she reasoned. She slipped on her shoes and turned off her music.
Stuffing her laptop and datasets in her bag, she retraced a path back to Erin’s office. She felt déjà vu as she knocked on the office door.
“Come in.” The familiar voice ordered, considerably colder than she had remembered. Charis poked her head past the door.
“Hello, sorry, I just…” Charis trailed off.
“Charis! Come in. How are you settling?” Erin’s faced turned up into a wide, sincere smile.
“Fine, I was looking over the datasets and found what looks like an extreme anomaly. It’s probably nothing, I just wanted to figure out what this was.” She handed over the datasets she printed off, with the info in question circled.
“Yeah, it takes a while to get acquainted with these things.” Erin took the dataset and looked over them. Silent minutes passed. Charis was careful to not break the silence by shifting in the chair too much, watching Erin’s eyes scan over the results.
“You know what this is? Do you have any idea?” The researcher asked.
“I’m sure you all have a theory already.”
“Sure, just say it, Doctor Park.”
Gwang-ho furrowed his strong eyebrows and ran a hand through his neat, black hair. “I am new, but this looks like a black hole.”
“You’re right.” The short, curly-haired woman said. She leaned over the desk and retrieved the data.
“Doctor Holm, I’m not sure I understand.”
“We are having a meeting in twenty minutes in the conference room.” Doctor Holm turned and paced out of the room, leaving the door swinging in her wake.
Gwang-ho Park sat, trying to make sense of what had just happened. He pulled his stout figure from the soft chair and closed his office door. Gwang-ho untucked the hem of his shirt to clean his glasses in the light. Placing them back on his face, he went to the mirror and re-tucked his shirt, lined it with his pants, and straightened his collar. He had started about a month ago at this research facility and started to feel a part of the community. He learned, for example, to not feel slighted by Doctor Donna Holm, who treated everyone in her terse, blunt manner. Gwang-ho pondered about the recent developments. What would they do about a black hole? Where is it? From where did it come? He felt silly asking the simple questions, but doubted that any of these questions would be answered.
Gwang-ho shouldered his bag and made his way to the conference room. He was one of the first there.
“Joseph, do you know what’s going on?” Gwang-ho asked a colleague.
Joseph shrugged his hunched shoulders, leaning his massive frame over the table. “Doctor Holm had me come. Said something about a black hole.”
“Me, too,” Gwang-ho added. “She said nothing else?”
Another researcher walked in. “I don’t suppose any of you could clue me in?”
At the end of the twenty-minute timeline, the room was full of conversation, everyone informing each other of their collective ignorance. Doctor Holm entered. A path was made in the crowd to the front of the conference room, where Holm placed a folder and opened it. “Some of you have properly guessed what I’m about to say: we have detected a black hole. It’s extremely tiny, microscopic, but it originated from what we had been analyzing. Our detectors picked it up this morning. We have no idea about a cause nor had we seen any conditions for a black hole, so as far as we know it was produced spontaneously.” The room opened up with questions and comments. Holm held up a hand and beckoned one scientist to speak.
“How can something like a black hole produce spontaneously? There must be some mistake.”
“You all saw the datasets yourself. The fundamental way reality works at this tiny, tiny level is wholly different. We can’t account for this, but it happened.” Holm took the opportunity of a confused pause to continue. “Moreover, however small this black hole is, it swallowed up our object of observation.”
Gwang-ho wondered out loud, “What was the object of observation?”
Holm eyed him and said, “A system of planets.” She leaned forward. “We’re doing a press release.” The room erupted in questions and objections. Over the next hour, Holm dealt with scientists concerned about media frenzy, funding questions, and the accuracy of the data. Eventually, Holm grew tired. “We’re repeating ourselves. Gwang-ho, come with me.” Gwang-ho felt all eyes on him as Holm strode out of the room. He stood up and snatched his bag, following Holm’s exit under the scrutiny of the conference room.
She led him to her office and sat him down.
“You were actually the only one to guess it was a black hole,” she told him as she closed the door. Gwang-ho felt simultaneously silly and proud.
“Well, it was fairly apparent.”
“Apparently not.” Holm quipped. “Listen, I understand you were on the collegiate debate team. It says you went to nationals three out of four years.” Not understanding, Gwang-ho nodded. “We need a talker on this. I want you to deliver the press conference.”
Gwang-ho felt his throat tighten. “I don’t know what I would say, I just guessed it was a black hole, you know.”
“And you guessed right. Listen, you’re doing this. We’re all going to help draft bullet points. You’re a talker, we need someone slippery for questioning.” Gwang-ho wasn’t sure he was being complimented. When Gwang-ho returned to his office, he found a group of curious scientists waiting to hear what happened. As soon as the word of his involvement in the press conference got out, he became the recipient of many visits.
“You shouldn’t do it.”
“Here’s what you should say…”
Everywhere Gwang-ho went, he felt under the scrutiny of everyone. An unpopular director for a very controversial job is tasking the new one. He felt as if he were the foil for this unpopular move.
“Why did you agree to do it?”
“Doesn’t Holm know she’s jeopardizing a lot, here?”
Whatever it was, Gwang-ho noticed a tangible difference in the distance of his colleagues. He felt like a snitch that was exposed, although he had nothing to hide. The following days he was informed of the latest developments, what to avoid talking about, and what to not say. His colleagues begrudgingly gave him information on the black hole as it developed.
Gwang-ho stood behind closed doors, feeling his consciousness take the back seat and his debate training and practice taking over. For all his experience, Gwang-ho never escaped the moments of dread before the presentation. He reached inside his suit, where it was hot and damp. Sliding the cards out of the inner pocket, he slipped them in his sweaty palms. He felt his heart rate throbbing as he opened the door to the conference room, where a week ago he had been on the other end of the flow of information. Click, click, click. Cameras went off. He had an audience of scientists and reporters and little red lights indicated the video cameras were recording. Gwang-ho stood at the podium and set his reference cards in front of him.
“Thank you all for coming today.” Banal. He cleared his throat. Rough start. He took a moment to calm himself.
“Here at Scientific Research Alliance labs, we conduct research that seeks to answer the big questions about existence. Why are we here? What is the nature of reality? In pursuing these questions, we take numerous roads of study that seek to enlighten our understanding of the world. One of these roads of study is to analyze the fundamental particles that make up our universe. As it is understood, our current understanding falls apart once we scrutinize the extremely small, and by small I mean billions within my arm span. Manerian physics has conceptual gaps in explaining this elescopic world. Our analysis continues because we have yet to develop a physic for the elescopic. On 1011 PV, our detectors caught one such event. In one system of planets, the makings of this level of reality, a black hole occurred.” The room felt restless. Gwang-ho paused for effect; he felt comfortable now. “This black hole grew rapidly, swallowing up the entire orbital system in which it was produced. No conditions for a black hole were ever caught, and as far as we know it happened spontaneously. The closest thing to an origin we could find was Planet 3, the densest planet in the system and, of course, third furthest from that system’s center, the star, which we understand to be an immense source of energy.
Planet 3 was made up of over seventy-percent water, its poles largely iced over, and with an active core. Overall, it doesn’t show much variety. It lived a very brief life. We have been analyzing it since its formation, and we have seen its genesis to its death. How these were the conditions for a black hole, we do not know, but the system included seven other planets.” Gwang-ho opened the floor for questions and picked a scientist Holm said would throw an easy question.
“How can you not know what made it? You can point us to a seeming origin, but not a cause?”
“Of course. Recall, the elescopic level at which we are studying is still very mysterious to us. The system we analyzed, which included Planet 3, is infinitely smaller than anything we could imagine. The phenomena of black holes is so tiny, and it swallowed up a system so miniscule, that it only goes to show how little we understand about this scale. Now, we can tell the black hole originated from Planet 3 because we can map the dematerialization of the planet first, starting from a land mass.”
Gwang-ho answered a few more easy questions before concluding the press conference. They weren’t finished. As he stepped away from the podium, the crowd began calling out questions. He escaped out the doors and loosened his collar.
Days passed, and the science media could talk of nothing else. Soon, the funders rang. “What do we do now?” Gwang-ho asked Holm in her office. They could only meet in seclusion, away from reporters and colleagues.
“We meet with them.”
“No, I mean, our trail has gone cold. An entire branch of SRA’s object of study no longer exists. What do we have left to study?”
“Do you have anyone close to go to?” Holm joked.
Gwang-ho grimaced. He had been single all his life. “In all seriousness, you see what I’m saying.”
“All this shows us is that we were on the wrong trail.” Holm said, “We have become cognizant of an enormous gap in our understanding of the elescopic world, that is all. We have made a discovery, don’t you understand?”
“But, did we have to go public? We could lose a lot of funding.”
“Having doubts, are we? We might, but what else could we do? Produce false scholarship? It was going to happen sooner or later.”
“Well, I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“About as much as our understanding of Planet 3 a month ago.”
Doctor Holm and Gwang-ho ran the gamut, meeting with investors who expressed grave concerns. None of them had counted on a fundamental shift in conceptualization that cast the timeline infinitely down the line.
“I need you to see my side, here, Holm.”
“Please, I need you on our side. This is a major breakthrough and we are only beginning to understand this scope of the universe.”
“Yes, I think we all can tell you all know nothing so far about this level of reality. I can’t keep pouring money into something without guarantees, you know. This really shook our confidence in the financial wisdom of this whole thing.”
This meeting was like all the others. The investor allowed Holm to plead and explain further, then departed, with a false promise to “think about it.” After the door latched behind him, Holm muttered, “Imbecile.”
Gwang-ho turned to her. “This is not good.”
Holm turned to him. “Of course it’s not good. These ass holes can’t see past their stupid, fat wallets.” She paced. “Sometimes science isn’t profitable.” She stormed out of the meeting room.
The letters came and came. Numerous sources of funding closed off for SRA. Entire buildings were shut down. SRA never quite recovered from the financial blow; its glory days were in the past. In the financial world it was a bust, in the science world a tragedy. Interviewers came to speak with Holm, the one credited with “killing SRA,” yet she saw no one. Gwang-ho returned home and worked in a more modest, but stable, lab. The day came when Holm felt obligated to shut down the facility entirely; she had lost her star scientists and was the last that felt convinced it had a future. It could be the smartest money scheme in the world, yet would plummet if nobody believed so.
Holm took a last survey of the weathered, overgrown grounds. She circled around the facility, over and over. Round, round, round.
“It just stopped.” Merl transferred the data to Urboz’s input.
“What am I looking at?” Urboz asked.
“At the ferveli level, an enormous energy source that we called the Orlun had a dying signal for a long time. Now it’s gone.”
“Well, what now?”