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MINDSLIP - A Science Fiction Story by Tony Harmsworth

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THIS EXTRACT IS TAKEN FROM CHAPTER 2

‘Geoffrey, what on Earth is it?’ cried Caroline as she shielded our children’s eyes from the flash.

I covered my own and hastily threw a blanket from the line over the family as I hurried them to the back of the house where there would be some protection. What could it be? A nuclear strike in the atmosphere – if so our lives would be over in seconds? We were motionless, crouching between the coal bunker and the kitchen wall, waiting for the blast to crush us or heat wave to incinerate us.

‘Daddy, what’s happening?’ screamed Sandra, our eight-year-old.

‘Is it a war?’ a deathly whisper from Wilson, two years Sandra’s senior and inquisitive as hell.

‘Don’t know. Follow me and keep tight to the wall,’ I said and we shuffled towards the kitchen door, keeping out of the brilliant light which washed-out the colours of the garden and neighbouring properties. ‘It’s not a bomb.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yes, Cas. If it had been a bomb we’d all be dead by now. There was no physical blast, only the light.’

‘I’m afraid, mummy,’ said Sandra in tears as I guided them all in through the kitchen extension to the body of the house where we’d be protected by more substantial bricks and mortar.

‘Supernova comes to mind,’ I said.

‘But why’s it still so bright? It’s brighter than the sun. Aren’t supernovas just a flash?’

‘They can last a long time, but if it is one, it should begin to fade soon, but we must stay indoors for a while. There could be danger from gamma rays. Keep the children in the hall or dining room while I make some calls.’

Caroline shepherded the children into the room and sat them down, giving Sandra a drawing book and Wilson his Nintendo.

I took the phone from its cradle and dialled.

‘Hello,’ my boss answered.

‘Justin, did you see it?’

‘Yes, think it is in Orion.’

‘Betelgeuse?’

‘Almost certainly.’

‘I’m going to call a few astronomers and set up a meeting at the Royal Institution for eleven tomorrow. That okay with you?’

‘Yes, Geoff. You go ahead and organise it. I’ll call Jodrell and see if there’s any detail yet.’

I hung up and rang colleagues. Within the hour, I had some of the most senior astronomers in the south of England promising to attend the meeting.

‘You kids stay in here. Cas, come see.’ I tugged on my wife’s hand. ‘We’ll take a look at it.’

‘Can I come?’ shouted Wilson.

‘Not tonight, Wils. You can in the morning.’

‘Oh, dad. Will it still be there tomorrow?’

‘Almost certainly. Might be with us for weeks, but it could be dangerous for children right now. Some fade more rapidly than others, but it will still be bright for some time. Stay with Sands for now.’

‘Must I?’ he moaned.

‘Yes, and keep out of the light.’

‘Okay, dad,’ a long, drawn-out whine of an acceptance.

I grabbed our four-inch refractor from the hall cupboard and mounted it on its tripod. Caroline and I headed to the front door, both pulling on wax jackets and hats for protection.

‘Don’t look at it directly. Keep the light off your face,’ I said as I opened the front door and the unearthly brightness hit us.

Outside I stood the telescope so that it was directed at the source of the light. I positioned a white sun-viewing card and holder at the eyepiece end of the device and the supernova was projected onto it. I’d done this many times to show the kids sunspots, but unlike the sun and its visible disc, this was but a single point of incredibly bright light.

‘It is Betelgeuse,’ I said.

‘Amazing,’ said Caroline, who had an interest in astronomy which burgeoned when we met as students at Cambridge University. She had been studying to be a chemist.

‘Every astronomer and astrophysicist in the world has been waiting for a local supernova. We’re so fortunate to have one so close and to have actually seen it happen.’

‘How close is it?’

‘Betelgeuse is about six hundred and fifty light-years. What we’re seeing began in the mid-fourteenth century. The brightness seems to have dropped to less than the sun now and any danger of radiation should be passed, but we’d better keep the kids in for the rest of the evening to be safe.’

The phone rang and I ran in to answer it.

‘Guildford 228511,’ I said.

‘Is that Dr Geoffrey Arnold?’

‘Yes, how can I help?’

‘It’s Joan Lightly, Tim’s daughter. Something dreadful’s happened.’

‘What is it?’

‘Dad looked at the nova through a smoked sheet. It split and we think he’s been blinded. Mum’s at the hospital with him. She told him not to. She said to let you know dad won’t be at the RI tomorrow.’

‘Damn fool. Sorry, didn’t mean that, Joan. Tell him not to worry about the meeting. Let’s hope the blindness is temporary. I’ll put Caroline on,’ I called her to the phone and dialled Justin on my mobile. It took several attempts before I got through.

‘Tim’s got himself blinded. Looked at it though a smoked sheet which broke.’

‘Oh dear. That’s dreadful news. Listen, I’ve had Jodrell Bank on the blower. They say it was magnitude -30 after ten minutes so could have been up to twenty times the brightness of the sun initially. It was magnitude -18 when I came off the phone.’

‘Wow. Incredible. We were outside and took cover pretty quickly.’

‘Very wise.’

We ran through a list of the astronomers and astrophysicists who had promised to come to the meeting.

‘Can you chair it for me, Geoff? I’ve got the press clamouring for interviews.’

‘No problem. My laptop’s in the office, so I’ll get in early. It’ll be difficult sleeping in this strange daylight, anyway.’

‘Yes. Extremely odd. I was glad when the sun set. The double shadows were most disturbing. When will Orion set tomorrow?’ ‘I guess about eight in the morning roughly.’

Wednesday

As I weaved my way along the platform, Betelgeuse, bright as a hazy sun, was low to the horizon. People were still having to shield their eyes, most wearing dark glasses. Having two suns in the sky meant forever tilting your head in different directions. Bizarre.

The train slid noisily to a halt, I fought my way into the nearest carriage and took one of the few remaining seats. The rush hour trains were often standing-room only.

The morning paper was full of the supernova. My boss, Justin Mayweather, as the Astronomer Royal, was quoted extensively but some of the incidental stories were also interesting.

How incredibly fortunate that the supernova occurred during daylight hours. If it had been after dark Betelgeuse would have had no end of people looking at it through binoculars or small telescopes. They would certainly have been blinded for life. I couldn’t believe how foolish Tim Lightly had been using a smoked glass. We are forever warning others not to do that to look at the sun and this was even brighter.

The 7.49am train pulled out of the station and I began to deal with tweets and texts which had inundated me from observatories all over the world. Radio telescopes were being directed towards the supernova, gaining and recording enormous volumes of data for study. We had been desperate to observe a supernova close-up and six hundred and fifty light-years was really close.

My fellow passengers were talking about the phenomenon and discussing what it might be, but I kept quiet to concentrate on marshalling my thoughts and making notes for the meeting. Without my laptop, I’d had to revert to an ancient Filofax from my university days.

The Waterloo express accelerated through the Surrey countryside en route to the capital. With Betelgeuse and the sun being on opposite sides of the sky, the trees, hedges, buildings and wind turbines were creating outlandish shadows. The nova would set shortly and the scene would return to normal.

My phone rang.

‘Arnold.’

‘Bill here, we’re picking up a growing electromagnetic output hitting the Earth. Thought you’d want to know for the meeting. If it continues to grow, it will cause satellite problems about 8.15GMT. We’re picking up coronal mass ejections too.’

‘Thanks for the heads-up, Bill. Are the CMEs in sympathy with the nova, do you think?’

‘Possibly. I’m leaving for London shortly, but we’ll be monitoring the sun really carefully for a while.’

‘Worrying if it is related.’

‘Yes, quite. See you later, Geoff.’

‘Aye,’ I said and noted 8.15am in my Filofax just as my G4 connection went down.

Mindslip had struck.


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