Quantum theory’s uncertainty principle says that since not even empty space can have zero energy, the universe is fizzing with particle-antiparticle pairs that pop in and out of existence. These “virtual” particles are the source of Hawking radiation.
We had fifteen minutes left to live.
From his pockets Dafyd drew a copper ring, which he tearfully slipped around my finger. I watched blankly, feeling nothing, not even dread.
"I see why Early Cyclers worshipped it," he mumbled.
He put on a weak smile.
"Want to steal the cafeteria desserts?"
"No time left."
Shouldn't it have struck by now? We looked at our wristwatches. Twenty minutes had ticked by, but the breeze was still cool to my cheek. We stared at each other, and then hugged and laughed like lunatics.
If you are seventeen or older, do you recall the date 05149F7D? No? It was the day you came this close to going up in a puff of vapour. Now that this is all declassified, I will tell you how.
It happened when I was writing my doctoral dissertation on relativity, the study of energy versus spacetime. Dafyd was a fellow student in my research group: I'd lost no time falling for his air, smile and eyes (awkward, gorgeous and purple, FYI) -- and the most perfect Adam's apple in all of New Mars.
On 11 Pentaber, he leapt into my office shrieking: "Chandrica! I've cracked the Solar Collapse Problem!"
"And I, world peace."
"It's the uncertainty principle!" When Dafyd was oblivious to sarcasm, his eyes turned fuchsia.
"Have you been at quantum physics again? Love, your parents were clear: you don't graduate, we don't marry. Stick to relativity. Probes have just been sent to the Sun to investigate the Collapse Problem. You've heard about Sno7. Leave this to them."
Quantum mechanics was then in its infancy, and much of it was guesswork. There is evidence that the First Cycle knew about it ten billion years ago -- before the Sun had become a red giant, when humans had inhabited the lost planet of Earth, where all life is said to have originated. An early quantum architect was the fellow who discovered relativity the first time around, Albus Weinsteyn. It was he, some say, who also proposed the idea of spaceborne Clone Pods from which the human race could repeatedly emerge in Cycles every billionth year and sidestep inevitable extinctions. In our own Cycle, all progress in computing technology came by manipulating spacetime. In the First Cycle it was likely through "semiconductor chips" and "quantum computing", offspring of quantum theory.
"I've got it!" cried Dafyd. "Our Sun is an ultradense white dwarf star, all carbon and oxygen, brimming with electrons, yes? Electrons crammed so incredibly close, that they must fly around very, very fast, as per the uncertainty principle. That being so, these turbo-charged electrons must exert enormous pressures that keep Sunny Boy from collapsing under his own weight!"
My eyes sprang out. Brilliant logic; typical Dafyd. It was an effort to swallow my pride and fling my arms round him. The uncertainty principle had only been published last week, creating an instant buzz. And Mr Adam's Apple had just applied it -- successfully, it seemed to me -- to a most pressing scientific problem of the day.
Three days later I sounded the death knell.
"Dafyd, wake up! Up, up! I figured something awful."
"Will you turn the lights off, sweetheart? What's going on?"
"Sno7 must be cancelled."
"It probes the Collapse Problem by dialing the Sun's mass up and down" -- even in those days, this could be done without impacting the planetary orbits -- "and we only think this is safe because we are experts just in relativity. I lost sleep over this, and it hit me that if you are right, a white dwarf shrinks in size if you raise its mass. Double the Sun's mass, and it vanishes altogether. So at that point the electron pressure cannot help the Sun resist its own weight -- dying, perhaps, in a horrendous explosion."
Dafyd sat up.
"Previous Cycles have documented mysterious "nova" stars that brighten up and fade out in the sky over a few days."
"You want history, sir? We are about to become it. Should the Sun blow up, New Mars will melt away, not even the Clone Pods spared."
"Chandrica, relax. Sno7 can't be starting operations on the exact same day you figured all this out."
"The Sun's mass is increasing as we speak -- we're tripling it," said the spokesperson for Sno7 Collaboration on the videophone with a touch of impatience. She had not heard of the recently published uncertainty principle, nor was she curious about it. "We've already transmitted to the probes the code for Day 1's mass upgrade."
"But we've got to reverse it right away!"
"Impossible. I can say that with certainty."
You see, things used to be so simple for our ancestors, for most Cycles went to their grave discovering neither quantum mechanics nor relativity. But they did preserve some myths, and one such is known as Stroginger's Gnat of First Cycle. Edvin Stroginger put a gnat in a sealed box, into which he injected micro black holes that darted around before evaporating. Did they suck in the poor gnat? Can't tell until the box is opened. Was the gnat then dead or alive? Both, said Stroginger.
You and I were Stroginger's gnats for the fifteen minutes that it took light from the Sun to reach New Mars, bringing with it consummate annihilation. Until it only brought more of the dim shine that we know and loathe. Turned out, the transmission code had contained a minus sign error, that reduced the Sun's mass by three.
Seventeen years on, I still wake up in a cold sweat every morning. Dafyd, he sleeps like a baby -- perhaps I should have wept when he did.
Tomorrow is 14 Pentaber, and we take the kids out of Dome City to watch the sunrise, an annual tradition. And when out comes that glittering speck of sapphire, I shall mutter under my breath: "Keep it together, Sunny Boy".