Tales from the Europa Synchotron
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"Most people believe that the hottest place in the solar system is the center of the Sun. Most people are wrong."

"Some people believe that the hottest place in the solar system is inside one of thousands of metal donuts, scattered across the surfaces of every colonized body. Those people are wrong, too, but closer."

"In actuality, the hottest place in the solar system will be located around forty meters behind me, inside that big black box, in roughly ten minutes."

That was it—no going back now. Lisa glanced down, shuffled her notes, then looked back up. A clean-swept room bathed in pale yellow light. The rattle and hum of a crowd as it slowly drifted into a muted silence. She took the scene in, cleared her throat, and continued.

"Our team here at the Europa Synchotron can generate temperatures orders of magnitude greater than anywhere else in the galaxy. Hotter than Venus, hotter than Sol. Hotter than even a fusion reactor. Every new particle collider boasts to be the fastest yet, and you can add Europa to that list too. It's estimated that the particles we send around it will have even more kinetic energy than the highest-energy particle ever detected from Earth."

"Of course, we're not just doing this for fun. By examining energy patterns and any particles emitted, we aim to study the interactions of high-energy particles with oscillating magnetic fields, as well as investigating the Greisin-Zatsepin-Kuzmin limit, which is the theoretical upper bound for magnitude of energy that cosmic rays can possess."

"Before we fire up the particle beam for the first time, I have some thanks to make. Firstly, to -"

There was a knock on Lisa's door, and the speech and the crowd evaporated as her eyes flew open. She hastily threw down her notes and shuffled over to the door. "Who is it?"

"Just me."

Lisa relaxed slightly, and opened the door. A short-haired man in a black suit stood behind it. "They've been calling you for about twenty minutes now."

"Really? How was I supposed to know?"

The man sighed. "There's an intercom in your room, Liz."

"I turned it off. It was distracting me. I'm trying to practice my speech."

"Are you sure you're still okay to do it?"

"I'm fine, Will, I'm really fine, I am. I just…there's been so much press coverage of this, so much of my career, and your career is riding of this thing actually working, and I'm starting to worry it's going to get me. Like I'm going to snap mid-speech. I go up there, and I say all this shit about progress, and science, and then we flip the switch and nothing happens. What then? I know we've tested it and prototyped it and everything else, but if it doesn't perform now I'll be standing there looking like a fool and the news will start crowing about a billion dollar waste of money and—"

She stopped herself before her train of thought could run away from her completely.

Wilson looked at her. "Lisa, hiding out here hoping that by repeating a speech enough times it will make everything else right won't help you. You need to take a break. Let things go."

Lisa was shuffling her notes in her hands frantically almost without realizing her hands were even moving. Her voice rose higher in her throat as she continued. "Why do they have to open up the collider to the fucking press after we've only run the basic tests? I'll be the one they string up when something goes wrong!"

Wilson, unperturbed, put his arm around Lisa. "Look," he said, gently. Through the viewing panel in the side of the corridor, the two could just about make out the primary detector, the APOLLO detector. "You see that? It's a black box. It's a big, black, opaque box. You can't see inside it. Even if you could, you wouldn't be able to see the leptons moving around."

"What's your point?"

"They won't instantly know whether or not the experiment was a success. If something does go wrong, you can let me handle it. I've been in media relations for years, and you don't survive long in this business if you can't handle a bombshell or two."

"Are you serious? They'll tear you to shreds!"

"Well, that's my job. You handle the science, and leave the rest to me."

Lisa felt her heart rate returning to normal. "Will… thank you."

"No problem. That's what I'm here for. Now, if you're done practicing, follow me, and don't forget your notes."


Lisa rode a wave of adrenaline through the doors into the collider observation room, exuding confidence from every pore; this was her domain now. "Alright, team! Checks?"

A bespectacled man named Tobias glanced up from a clipboard. "All done, and nothing to report, but I know you're going to want me to go through them all anyway for your peace of mind."

"You know me too well. Systems?"

"All online and operating flawlessly."

"Detector?"

"Flawless."

"Synchotron?"

"Flawless."

"Coffee?"

"What?"

"Coffee? Can someone get me a coffee please? I've come straight from the media and I haven't had time to pick anything up. I need to wash the taste of bad science from my mouth."

A technician stood up. "I'll get it. Don't wait up." As he marched through the swing doors, Lisa sat down in her chair and surveyed the twelve monitors scattered across her workstation.

"Okay, lads and lasses, let's make history." She leaned forward and turned on the PA system. "Fire up the synchotron ring."

Before construction had begun, a few of the more geeky scientists had put forward a petition to install several floor-mounted levers, such as those used on antique railway systems back on Earth to change slidings. Their proposal had been denied by the funding board, but Lisa couldn't help but feel a slight sense of anticlimax as Tobias flipped an unmarked black switch and over one hundred thousand kilometers of supercooled graphene nano-solenoids suddenly began resonating simultaneously to generate the strongest magnetic field ever produced on an extraterrestrial body. Something so inherently cool deserved fanfare of some kind.

"Hotter than the center of the sun," Tobias murmured to Lisa. "Nice."

"I mean, it's true of every collider," she whispered back, "but I couldn't think of a better way to start my speech."

Around the ring, in several other stations, an identical procedure was carried out. On the giant display just above the observation window, lights turned from off, to red, to green, until a verdant strip told everyone that a total of five hundred and twelve thousand kilometers of tubing was now active. It was safe to move on to the next stage.

Lisa spoke again into the microphone: "Particle beam." Somewhere, fifty kilometers away on the other side of the ring, a physicist flipped another switch. A beam of muons entered the synchotron ring, where magnets accelerated them around and around the ring upwards of twelve thousand times a second, until finally their brief, relativistic lives came to an end inside the APOLLO detector.

Julian, a software diagnostic engineer and data analyst, called across the silent room, "We're getting the first data now."

A bang echoed through the room, and everyone jumped. All heads turned to face the door, where the hapless technician bearing Lisa's coffee was standing sheepishly. He tiptoed across to where she was sat, and placed it down beside her.

After a short pause, Julian continued, "The readings are aligning with similar previous observations, within the margins of error."

The room breathed a massive sigh of relief. People high-fived, laughed, and hugged each other. It was all an act, of course; outside the doors, inside the press reception chamber, this very visual confirmation that the experiment had succeeded would be being lapped up. Nothing like a party to keep the masses satisfied.


Lisa sipped her coffee while the other occupants of the room chatted excitedly to one another, huddling around their terminals to examine the information. After a few minutes had passed, she leaned forward and spoke into the intercom: "Alright, shut her down. Let's give it a quarter of an hour before we try our next experiment." One by one, the green lights winked out, leaving the collider in its dormant state. This was standard; they didn't want to overuse the detector on its first day of operation.

The data they were collecting had been collected hundreds of times before, by thousands of other scientists, which was why it made such a good first public test. As she surveyed the room, watching everybody mingling and amiably conversing about the not unexpected results, one person caught her eye. Julian was staring intensely at his screen as though struggling to rationalize something he was seeing. She walked over to him. "What's the problem?"

He traced his finger across a distinctive arch in one of several scatter plots. "This is tracking energy levels of collision emissions. Our current theory predicts a normal curve scaled against entrance momentum, but that's not what happens. Look here," and here he jabbed his finger against the screen at a slight gap at the very top of the bell curve. "This shouldn't exist. There's no reason why a particle would suddenly do this. Must be equipment failure."

"Hmm." Lisa stared at the dip. "Could be some kind of spontaneous decay, don't you think? Emission further down the synchotron? Maybe that particular energy lasts a microsecond less long than others-"

"No, no, because there would still be something, some residual energy from a slow-moving muon. This is my point - there's nothing here. From our point of view, this particle has disappeared. It isn't where it ought to be."

"Is there any way the data might have been filtered out?"

"Well," said Julian, "There is one thing. So much data is generated by each collision that we can't get all of it. We make a valiant effort, but ultimately we need to cherry-pick the best nought point nought one per cent of it to show to the baying masses. It could be that… no, never mind."

"What? What?"

"Nothing, really. Forget I said anything."

"Just tell me, I won't laugh."

"Really, it's nothing."

"Julian, I swear to God, tell me now," growled Lisa. Her brain felt ever-so-slightly off, like there was a certain tension pulling it back from something.

By now, the chatter in the room had faded slightly, and people were beginning to glance over at them.

Julian slowly breathed out. "Jesus, alright… the detector wouldn't have picked it up if the particle's momentum was negative."

"Negative? You mean if it was moving backwards?"

Julian sighed. "Yes, if the highest-energy particles suddenly reversed direction but retained their kinetic energy, then hypothetically they might not have been registered, but how would the velocity of a particle suddenly change sign? Lisa, it's equipment failure; we have to stop now."

Lisa was pensive for a moment. Then, she put down her coffee and said, "No, I don't think this is equipment failure. We'll proceed as normal."

She took her seat once more, and clapped to get everybody's attention. "Okay! Now that we've got the boring stuff over, we can move on to pushing the boundaries of science, like it says on the posters.

"We're only going to do one more experiment before the requisite checks, and believe me when I say I was as surprised as you are to get clearance for this. As I'm sure you know, part of the reason this collider was built was to study the highest-energy particles in the universe. We're going to attempt to one-up them, and find the maximum momentum we can give a particle in this collider."

The scientists began to mutter amongst themselves. Lisa held up a hand, and, when the room was once again silent, continued: "I know, it doesn't sound like the sort of experiment you'd usually do with a synchotron - certainly not the second test ever. But my higher-ups have cleared it, and their higher-ups have cleared it, so we're just the trained monkeys pushing buttons on the ground. Anything goes wrong, it's their fault, not ours. So set up for another muon test, but lower the energy slightly so we can build up to it."

"'Fastest particles ever' does have a nice ring to it," Tobias said to Lisa, once she had returned. "What were you and Julian talking about?"

"He got pissy over what he thought was a detector fault. It'll probably turn out to be nothing."

"Hey, go easy on the guy."

Lisa shot Tobias a knowing look, then clapped her hands once more. "Are we ready?"

A murmur passed through the crowd. Interpreting this as a yes, Lisa once again engaged the PA system. "Synchotron." Five hundred and twelve thousand kilometers of carbon nano-solenoids were activated.

"Beam." The muons entered the synchotron at a slightly lower velocity than the first test, and tore around the ring at a blazing 10,690 cycles per second.

The data began arriving. Julian clicked his mouse several times, appeared relieved, and shot Lisa a thumbs-up. Lisa nodded, then leaned forward and said "Start increasing the initial velocity."

The data on the graph climbed higher and higher.

"Uh, Lisa? We're getting some weird scattering patterns." A software technician named Arman was eyeing the incoming data with suspicion. "It's like they're rotating."

"So? Isn't that normal?" someone asked.

"Not here. This isn't standard rotation. In fact, I'd be minded to call this precession more than rotation. Their axis of rotation is shifting."

Another technician spoke up. "We're peaking - it's getting harder and harder to accelerate the buggers."

"Keep going." There was a definite edge of excitement to Lisa's voice, an edge that wasn't lost on the assembled scientists.

As the energy of the particles grazed the 2x1024eV mark, before the eyes of everyone in the room, the graph of momentum against energy rapidly expanded as a second pocket of data emerged at the very highest energy levels, reflected in the negative.

"Whoa!"

"What?" Lisa was on her feet instantly.

Julian looked shocked. "We… what?"

"Julian! Focus!"

"There's a shit-ton of negative data coming in!"

Excited murmurs broke out between the scientists. Lisa raised her voice: "Would this fit in with what we were talking about earlier?"

"It, uh, yeah, pretty much. But why… oh…"

Julian stood up. He turned to the other data analysts. "Could one of you cover for me? I need to check something out."

He looked over at Lisa, and, just for a second, their eyes met. Both instantly knew what the other was thinking.

A sudden change in direction of momentum…

"Okay, gentlemen, I think that's enough for now. Shut her down," said Lisa, in a slightly dreamy high-pitched voice.

"You kidding!?" Tobias exclaimed, "This is weird as fuck! We need to get more data and start analyzing-"

Lisa's tone hardened. "Shut it down. We'll begin continuous testing tomorrow. Good night, everyone." She walked quickly out of the chamber, her eyes steadily refusing to meet with anyone else's, and disappeared.


Lisa's mind raced, and it seemed that there was no sign it would slow down.

This was not atypical for her, and she usually dealt with this problem by repeating to herself that it wouldn't matter in the end then falling asleep. Instead, after going through the motions of coming home, eating dinner, and preparing for the night, Lisa found herself transfixed by the blinking of the clock projected onto the wall. The ticking was the only thing in the world that had any order to it. As her eyes followed the clock's lazy cycles in the moonlight, she told herself that if everything else failed her, her unshakeable faith in the sanctity of reality would not.

And if logic failed her, and reality failed her, what was left for her to hold onto?

Nothing.

The idea of nothing moved through her mind, flowing in between each memory, filling in the cracks, freezing and melting, eroding away the last traces of order. The anchor broke free and fell away.

Lisa blinked, and she felt awake. She felt clear. The fear was still there; stronger than ever, in fact. Logic had failed her. Reality had failed her. But she knew there was a reason. There was always a reason. She would not lose herself before she lost the thread of reasoning, frayed and tangled that it might be.

The circling of the light clock projected on her wall finally began to mesmerize her, and as Lisa felt herself drifting into the waters of unconsciousness, she thought she saw a shadow fly across the light, but she was unable to focus her eyes on it long enough to remember it.


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