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MINDSLIP - A Science Fiction Story by Tony Harmsworth

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THIS EXTRACT IS TAKEN FROM CHAPTER 2

A blinding flash lit up the sky:

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

I covered my own and hastily threw a blanket from the washing-line over the family as I hurried them to the back of the house where the shade provided 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! 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.

‘Can’t be a bomb,’ I said.

‘You sure?’

‘Yes, Cas. If it had been, we’d all be dead by now. No physical blast, just the light.’

‘I’m afraid, Mummy.’ Sandra was in tears as I guided them 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?’

‘Can last a long time, but there should be some fading soon. We need to stay indoors for a while. There could be danger from x-rays and gamma rays. Keep the children in the hall or dining room while I make some calls.’

Caroline shepherded the children into the room, gave Sandra a drawing book and Wilson his Nintendo.

Hello,’ my boss, head of the Royal Observatory, answered my call.

‘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. Go ahead and organise it. I’ll call Jodrell Bank and see if there’s any data 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.’

‘Aaaaw, Daaaad. It could be gone tomorrow.’

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

‘Must I?’ he moaned.

‘Yes, and keep out of the light.’

‘Okaaaay, Daaaad.’

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

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

Outside, I directed the telescope at the source of the light and projected the image onto a sun-viewing card. I’d done it many times before to show the kids sunspots. Unlike the sun and its visible disc, what we saw now was but a single point of incredibly bright light.

I read the tripod coordinates, ‘It is Betelgeuse.’

‘Amazing,’ said Caroline.

She’d also had an interest in astronomy. It grew after we met as students in Cambridge. She was a chemist and I accused her of an interest in magical potions. She called me an astrologer because she knew how the term riled me. After a few months of trading insults, we fell hopelessly in love.

‘We’ve all been waiting for a local supernova. To have actually witnessed it is amazing.’

‘How close?’

‘About 650 light-years. Must say I’m surprised at the initial brightness, but it’s dropped to similar to the sun now. Any serious danger of radiation should pass soon. Better keep the kids in for the rest of the evening to be safe.’

The phone rang.

Dr. Arnold? It’s Joan Lightly.’ The daughter of a friend and colleague. She sounded upset.

'Dad looked at the nova through a smoked glass. It split and we're afraid he's been blinded. Mum's at the hospital with him.'

‘That’s dreadful, Joan. Let’s hope the blindness is temporary.’

He won’t make the RI tomorrow.

‘Doesn’t matter. Tell him not to worry. Let us know what happens.’

I handed the phone to Caroline while I called Justin on my mobile.

‘Tim’s got himself blinded. Looked at it though a smoked glass which split.’

Oh dear. That’s dreadful news.

‘We’ll miss him tomorrow.’

Yes. Listen, I’ve had Jodrell Bank on the blower. It was magnitude -30 after ten minutes so could have been up to twenty times the brightness of the sun initially. Magnitude -18 when I came off the phone.

‘Wow. Incredible. We were in the garden, but took cover pretty quickly.’

Very wise. Unexpected to be so bright at that distance.

‘Yes. By a huge factor. Did they say anything about radiation?’

Broad spectrum, but includes gamma.

‘What? Atmospheric gamma penetration.’

Yes. Worrying to say the least.

‘Glad we dived for cover.’

Aside, I spoke to Cas, ‘No one goes out tonight. Gamma rays getting through.’

Justin and I 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. Can you get a message put out about staying under cover?’

Already being broadcast. 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.’

Next Morning

‘Excuse me,’ I repeated over and again as I weaved my way along the railway 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 to avoid the glare. Bizarre.

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

The morning paper was full of the supernova. My boss, Justin Mayweather, as the Astronomer Royal, was quoted extensively.

It had been incredibly fortunate that the supernova occurred during daylight hours. Betelgeuse is a very popular telescopic object and, if it had occurred after dark, no end of people would have been 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’re forever warning people not to do that to look at the sun and this was even brighter initially.

The 7:49 AM train pulled out of the station and I could answer some of the tweets and texts I’d been inundated with from observatories all over the world. Astronomers were directing radio telescopes towards the supernova, obtaining and recording enormous volumes of data.

Passengers were talking about the phenomenon and spouting nonsense about it. 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 organiser 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. But 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 8:15 GMT. 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. 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 in a couple of hours, Geoff.

‘Aye,’ I said and noted 8.15am in my Filofax just as my G4 connection went down. Simultaneously, Betelgeuse let out an unprecedented second enormous blast of light and radiation.

In that instant, what I would later call “Mindslip” struck the Earth.


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