“I’ve been called.” David Gray, normally one of the first out the door at the end of the day, hadn’t budged from his desk. He looked up slowly. “Ben, I’ve been called.”
Ben leaned against the desk. “When?”
“Tomorrow, first thing.”
“I thought they were supposed to give you time to prepare.”
“They can do whatever they want. And what would I prepare?”
“I’d buy you a drink, but -”
David waved his hand. “You shouldn’t associate with me until… Anyway, I need the time with my family.”
“What are you going to tell them?”
“What else? ‘Goodbye'”.
David stared at the windshield wipers as they slapped the drizzle off the front window of the bus. To the left, to the right, left, right. One way and then the other. One way or the other. This was going to go one way or the other. But it almost always went one way.
The bus pulled over to let a convoy of wide military vehicles pass. David watched the trucks rumble past, some full of armament, others occupied by soldiers who looked even more dejected than David felt.
A soldier in a truck just barely ahead of David’s window slid furtively along his bench toward the open back of the truck, then pitched himself out of the vehicle. He died in a fusillade before he reached the edge of the road.
David had leaned forward to watch the attempted desertion, and when it was over he sank back against the lumpy cushion of the seat.
The bus was almost at the capitol. The Hall of Justice was downtown, a five-block walk from the bus station. David wasn’t under escort. Maybe he could just slip away, never report to the Hall. He could, and in an hour or less he would be lying in the drizzle, just as the soldier was.
The bus pulled to a stop in the bus station. David watched the other passengers gather their belongings and form a line down the center, then shuffle forward and off the bus. The driver looked at him, and David stood. He had no possessions to gather. Either way, he wouldn’t need them. He made his way forward, grabbing alternating seat backs. Left, right, this way, that way. One way or the other.
He stepped off the bus in the dingy station, and thought briefly that if the station was open to the rain it would be cleaner. He pulled the collar of his coat up and forward, and set off toward the Hall.
He had never been to the Hall, but he had visited the capitol enough times to know where it was. He had pointed it out to his children and said the things he was supposed to say. “That’s the Hall of Justice. The people there keep us safe.”
His children had asked if they could go inside the Hall, and he had answered that it wasn’t a place for good people to go unless they worked there, just as David’s father had said when David had asked the same thing.
TO BE CONTINUED…
The astronomy lecture was almost over.
“You’re all in my class, so I’d like to assume that you’re all interested in the subject.”
The professor looked over the nearly hundred forms in the classroom, some slumping in their chairs, some sitting nearly at attention, some ignoring him completely, lost in conversations with their neighbors or friends on social media.
“You.” He pointed at a young woman intently interacting with her smartphone. Her neighbor nudged her, and she snapped to attention.
“What do you know about the recent discovery that the universe might be on the brink of collapse?”
The woman yanked her textbook out of the backpack and fumbled with the pages. “What page was that on?”
“It was on the news recently. It isn’t often that science is reported on the news. I thought it might have caught the attention of students of astronomy.”
The woman shrugged and tried to make an endearing face, but the professor had selected his next target. “You.”
The young man spread his arms. He was spared further embarrassment when a woman in the front row waved her hand enthusiastically.
“The expansion of the universe is accelerating, and a couple of astronomers think it all ties in with dark matter and the universe will collapse in a few tens of billions of years.”
The professor nodded. “Good. And how old is the universe?”
The woman hesitated, and another student blurted out, “Fourteen billion years!”
“Thirteen point eight, and I want to see hands. But, also good. So we’re not even halfway through the expected lifetime of the universe. What’s the big deal?”
Nearly a hundred people fidgeted in their seats, looked at each other, and were silent.
The professor swept his gaze around the room. “Okay. What else expands just before it contracts to almost nothing?”
A voice from the back quavered, “A star?”
“It uses up its hydrogen, expands, then switches to burning helium.”
The voice from the back was stronger. “It burns the helium, and when it runs out of that, it burns lithium, then beryllium, then -”
“Right. It keeps fusing lighter elements into heavier ones. And eventually -”
A hand from the front row shot up. The professor pointed at its person.
“It burns iron, and doesn’t get as much energy from the reaction as it puts into it, and the star contracts, explodes, and becomes a black hole!”
“Or just collapses to a red dwarf, as our sun is expected to do. Now, back to the original question: What does the rapid expansion of the universe suggest?”
The professor was met by blank stare. Undergrads!
“What if dark matter is the hydrogen of the universe?” Please let one of them think!
“Then…” a hand sprung up in the middle of the room. “Then the universe is running out of dark matter, and it will move on to the next, well, equivalent of helium.”
“Good. But what if dark matter is the universe’s equivalent of nickel, the element just before iron?”
All eyes were on the professor. The glow of tiny screens was no longer illuminating faces in the classroom.
“What if the universe is in effect burning the last of its nickel?”
Shuffling and shifting in the audience signaled the discomfort in the room.
“If the lifetime of a star scales to one hour, how much time is spent in burning the nickel?”
A hand wavered up in the back of the room. The professor pointed at its owner.
“Closer to a microsecond, but extra points for you, as if they mean anything now. So think bigger. What if dark matter for the universe is the equivalent of nickel for a star?”
The small lecture hall took on the atmosphere of a mortuary.
“Then really quickly the universe will shrink to a singularity.”
The voice of the hand that posed the observation hesitated.
“And the next big bang will… happen.”
The professor gathered his lecture notes. “I’ll see you next lecture period. Or on the other side.”