Tales From The Europa Synchotron

"Most people think that the hottest place in the solar system is the center of the Sun."

"Most people are wrong."

"Some people think that the hottest place in the solar system is inside one of thousands of metal donuts, scattered across the surfaces of every colonized body."

"Some people are wrong, but closer."

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

That was it. Her introduction was over. No turning back. She glanced down, shuffled her notes, then looked back up.

"Here at the Europa Synchotron, we can generate temperatures orders of magnitude greater than anywhere else in the galaxy. Hotter than Venus, hotter than Sol, hotter even than a fusion reactor.

"Every new particle collider can boast that it is the fastest ever built, and this certainly isn't an exception. 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. Imagine an electron with the potential of a baseball; that should give you a good idea of what we're dealing with.

"Now imagine two infinitesimally small pinpricks of pure energy smashing together, instantly coming to a complete standstill. Think of all that power, all the force, dissipating in an instant. It has to go somewhere. Some of the energy is lost as heat, and that's why, in any collider, temperatures in excess of anywhere else observed can be found. What we're interested in, however, is the other energy; specifically, the particles that are emitted from the collisions.

"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. She tensed, hastily put down her notes and shuffled over to the door. "Who is it?"

"Just me."

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

"Really? How was I supposed to know?"

The woman 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?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, Jen, I'm fine. It's just… so much is riding on the thing actually working, you know? Like, I go up and 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 it's worked, but if it doesn't perform now they're going to think it's all just been a multi-trillion-dollar waste of money, and they'll all turn on me, and-" Her voice trailed off.

Jen put her arm around the scientist. "Look." Lisa raised her head. Through the viewing panel in the side of the corridor, she could just about make out the primary detector, the APOLLO detector. Named for the pioneering steps into space taken two centuries ago, Lisa had been on the council that had decided on it.

"You see that?" continued Jen, "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 deliver a bombshell delicately."

Lisa wiped her nose with her sleeve. "Jen… thank you."

"No problem. That's what we're 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 murmured 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, roughly fifty kilometers away on the other side of the ring, a physicist flipped another switch. A beam of unstable elementary particles called muons entered the synchotron ring. The magnets forced the muons 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."

This was the big moment. Had everything worked? Had the muons collided correctly? Had all of that money been put to good use?

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. 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.

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. The very first test had been even more simple: lead-ion collisions, which could be traced all the way back to CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

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.

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."

"Julian, I swear to God, tell me now, before I pull your lungs up through your throat."

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

"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, in a move that doomed humanity, 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."

"Why do you reckon they have cleared it, though?" asked Tobias quietly, as everyone took their seats while still chatting. "It's incredibly risky, and, more than that, effectively useless."

Lisa thought for a second. "My theory is that they've screwed themselves. They've overspent on the collider, and now they need to grovel to their investors for more money. This is effectively just a publicity stunt, and, since they know it won't harm the apparatus, it's a safe bet while still being impressive enough to make headlines."

"'Fastest particles ever' does have a nice ring to it," Tobias agreed. "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 eleven thousand kilometers of carbon nano-solenoids were activated.

"Beam." The muons entered the synchotron at exactly the same velocity as the first test, and tore around the ring at a blazing 14,562 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 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."

As the energy of the particles grazed the 1024eV mark, an interesting thing happened. Before the eyes of everyone in the room, the graph of momentum against energy 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: "Does this confirm what we discussed earlier?"

"Uh, yeah, pretty much. But why… oh…"


Seventeen thousand light years away, the screaming stopped.


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 check this out further right n-"

Lisa's tone hardened. "I'm the head of the project, and I say shut it down. We'll resume testing tomorrow. For now, I have an appointment." She left the room to stunned silence, Julian hot on her heels.

The lights turned from green to red as the shutdown procedures were initiated. One by one, the scientists trickled from the room, the extraordinary results of the test still on everyone's lips. Theories were flying through the air like bullets: detector faults, new particles, cosmic rays, anything could have been responsible.

Only two of them knew with certainty what had just happened.

And none of them yet knew the horrors they had just unleashed.


Begin transcript: 2078-07-12 14:33:56, Site-29 IT & Infrastructure Office

Note: This is data that has been automatically archived. Details of personnel involved are unable to be supplied. For more information, contact [DATA CORRUPT].

"Oh, shit."

"What?"

"The database is down."

"Yeah, for me too."

"And me."

"I'm trying to reach tech, but the phone lines don't seem to be working."

"That's weird. Hey, can we trace where the crash started?"

"Probably. Erm… yeah, shouldn't be too hard."

(Sounds of typing.)

"Huh, that's weird… it looks like two pages simultaneously registered a bad query."

"Were they dependent?"

"No, no, completely separate. They were both test pages, though." (A faint hiss can be heard in the background.)

"I'll keep digging. Lemme send you the links."

"Gottem. Looks like everything's down as well. Google, YouTube, Twitch, all unresponsive."

"Why are you on Twitch?"

"Oh, uh… just guessing about that one."

"Can you send me the links too?"

"Yeah, sure."

"Can you smell that?"

"Smell what?"

"Oh, nothing."

"What were we talking about?"

"I can't remember."

"Hey, the database is down!"

"That's weird. Do you know why?"

"No, but I can probably trace where the crash came from."

(Sounds of typing.)

"Looks like it's bricked the page list too. I can't reach anything."

"So you can't trace it?"

"No, apparently not."

"Let's ask Leirmann what's going on."

"Yeah, good idea."

End of transcript.